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Cinematic Writing–Further Notes on a Previous Post

August 26, 2012

A few days ago, I wrote a brief analysis of a short passage from Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree. Specifically, how McCarthy uses language to effectively stop time for the reader and how he uses that temporal slowdown to guide the reader holistically through a character’s turn of mind. I’d like to return to that passage, if I may.

It’s hard to be certain as to whether the words in any of those final lines are Suttree’s.  But I tend to believe they are not.  Not directly.  Rather, they appear largely to be a depiction of Suttree’s dissolute awareness of the natural life surrounding him given form by the author himself.  Or, put another way, the character’s state of mind is conveyed through images outside of his direct observation.  The images are for us, the readers, to guide us, so that we can recreate for ourselves Suttree’s ‘mazy Sunday’.

     We can find a parallel example of this sort of spliced and indirect imagery in Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout.  The film details the travails of a young upper class teenage girl and her younger brother who are lost in the Australian outback, and the aborigine boy who guides them back to civilization.  Throughout the movie, Roeg frequently cuts away to scenes and images that lie outside the direct narrative. 

In one scene, the aborigine boy kills and butchers a kangaroo for the three of them to eat.  Unused to hunger and thirst to the degree they are experiencing it, the girl and her brother look on non-judgmentally as he hacks it apart. It’s a messy and savage affair. Interspersed throughout are quick cutaway shots of a modern butcher shop, with men slicing clean red cuts of meat away from anonymous bone.

     Those quick shots of the modern butcher shop aren’t direct depictions of things the boy and girl have seen.  They are there for us, the viewers.  Not as some heavy-handed emphasis on theme, but as a window into a change of awareness happening within the minds of the two upper class kids.  What may have formerly disgusted them, they are now grateful for.  Our own disgust is ameliorated somewhat by the realization brought home by the side-by-side images of the butcher shop and aborigine hacking at the kangaroo:  that men have butchered for eons, that we have only sanitized and distanced the act.  That we are able to be disgusted because in civilized society we can afford to be.

The point is that there are a lot of moments in fiction where a character is experiencing something psychologically profound, but which cannot be articulated succinctly. The next time you encounter such a situation, take the opportunity to convey that state of mind through outside images as in these two examples rather than lapse into summary exposition or interior monologues.


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One Comment
  1. Excellent commentary as always.

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