The narrative arc of Dreams from My Father is far less linear in its plot.
At bottom, it is a conventional autobiography, telling how a boy born in Hawaii to an American mother and a Kenyan father, wound up going to law school. Unlike McCain, who grew up knowing about the triumphant careers of his father and grandfather, Obama never really knew his father. His parents divorced when he was two, and he saw his father only once, when he was ten. His mother, and then his grandparents, were his family. McCain steers by a fixed star, and is shamed when he goes off course.
Obama is scanning the heavens for some stable pole that will give him a sense of who he is. In Chicago, he is confronted with the poverty and fragmentation of the black community. Some failures and moderate successes in community organizing give his young life a degree of purpose. He learns from Harold Washington and various preachers, surrogate father figures, that there are larger forces working to tear apart the fragile unity citizens might achieve.
The chief danger is losing hope. If a part of me continued to feel that this Sunday communion sometimes simplified our condition, that it could sometimes disguise or suppress the very real conflicts among us and would fulfill its promise only through action, I also felt for the first time how that spirit carried within it, nascent, incomplete, the possibility of moving beyond our narrow dreams.
He finds he has many brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles. As he explores, he learns more about his father and, eventually, his grandfather. McCain gives encapsulated judgments of his father and grandfather, Obama keeps offering partial portraits, images slipping in and out of focus. His father was a noble man, much respected till his death; no, he fell into drunken lassitude; no, even in his decline he was generous and loyal to his friends. Like McCain, Obama finds himself, but not through living up to an external code of conduct. By an act of sympathetic imagination, Obama grasps how he continues to live, in his own register, the problems and promise embodied in a man who had abandoned him two decades earlier.
McCain lives in a world of clear-cut demands, called the Code, and so any problem comes from failing to meet the obligations of duty. How should a man like him, with his heritage, find a way to live with dignity? The differences in the overall narrative progression get embodied in differences at the level of texture, or narration—the concrete way each story is told, moment by moment.
Consider the opening of Faith of My Fathers:. They would never see each other again. My grandfather loved his children. And my father admired my grandfather above all others.
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My mother, to whom my father was devoted, had once asked him if he loved his father more than he loved her. A few months after my twenty-first birthday, a stranger called to give me the news. I was living in New York at the time, on Ninety-fourth between Second and First, part of that unnamed, shifting border between East Harlem and the rest of Manhattan. It was an uninviting block, treeless and barren, lined with soot-colored walk-ups that cast heavy shadows for most of the day. A card-carrying narratologist could squeeze a whole article out of these two openings, but just notice how well designed each is.
Both grab the reader: McCain via Salter tells his tale in brief paragraphs and unvarnished prose, as laconic as the talk of the seamen he admires. Instead we get suggestions of grime and bleakness. As in many novels, the milieu comes to life through action: By metonymy, the adjacent gas station reminds the narrator of the almost hallucinatory Doberman trotting through the night. And instead of telling us that drunkards left their beer bottles littering the streets, this paragraph suggests this sorry milieu obliquely by having the patrol dog clenching one in its jaws.
It might be tempting to say that McCain is deliberately avoiding literary grace notes, as befits a man identified with Straight Talk, while Obama is writing in a self-consciously novelistic way, like the elitist he is. Both are writing in literary ways, but using different techniques of narration. I think he can still be saved. Regina smiled and shook her head as we watched Marcus stride out the door. This sort of prose is movie-adaptation ready: You can see the scene.
I struck part of the airplane, breaking my left arm, my right arm in three places, and my right knee, and I was briefly knocked unconscious by the force of the ejection. Witnesses said my chute had barely opened before I plunged into the shallow water of Truc Bach Lake. I landed in the middle of the lake, in the middle of the city, in the middle of the day.
An escape attempt would have been challenging. Things happen quickly here. The scene is over in seven sentences—no description of what unconsciousness felt like, no sense of imminent death. Point of view switches with equal speed. The tone then switches to understated reflection, using the flat language of the stoic man of war: The last sentence of the first paragraph renders three McCain actions—radioing, reaching, and pulling—in swift succession.
Injuries pile up in triple-formation: The third trio is casual but memorably repetitive: In a novel, mentioning a ship called Proteus would foreshadow the changes that young John will undergo. The scenic method strives to make each moment palpable through energetic description, while the panoramic one inclines toward summary and generalization. Along this fairly rough continuum, Dreams from My Father lies closer to the scenic pole and Faith of My Fathers is closer to the panoramic one. Both autobiographies deploy the rhetoric of fiction, and both are unavoidably artificial.
Characters in a narrative are usually identified by their roles and their traits of personality.
Indiana Jones is a professor and adventurer, an intellectual cowboy. He is courageous, knowledgeable in his field, risk-loving, a bit insolent, somewhat impetuous, and so on. For more on character construction, see my third essay in Poetics of Cinema. Given very few cues we can fill in a character, so it becomes important that people who would become characters in their own stories send out the right signals.
Rewriting real life is hard. All want to show integrity, resolve, prudence, a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, and so on.
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But each candidate has also become identified with more individual traits. Imagine our candidates as people in a high school. Which one is the social studies teacher who can always be led off the lesson plan with a strategically innocent question? Which one is the earnest first-year teacher, convinced that he can reform secondary education by reaching miscreants?
And which one is Miss Popularity, cruel queen of the cliques, bluffing her way through assignments? Indeed, they can strive quite consciously to do that. As your actions mount up, a portrait snaps into focus that is hard to eradicate. Sarah Palin, introduced as a hard-edged fighter in the mold of Hillary Clinton, has been the most obvious instance of gradual revelation.
Palin now stands as a provincial politician adept at small-scale patronage whose ignorance of policy, world affairs, and science is abysmal and invincible. This has not kept some people from admiring her, of course. Palin betrays no change in personality over the course of the campaign, and neither does Biden. McCain has been rendered as changing too, but not in a good way.
One prominent large-scale narrative has portrayed him as losing some of his independence of thought —tacking to the right on cultural matters, losing the argument about his running mate. Roberts has become the captain himself—a man crumpled with vexation, the cranky officer he would have rebelled against at Annapolis. I suspect that some day a McCain biographer will construct a narrative that shows him to have become a tragic figure. The emotions can be of all kinds—pity, sympathy, indignation, joy, and down the line.
But are there emotions characteristic of narrative in general? The theorist Meir Sternberg 3 has suggested that a narrative as such, regardless of other emotions it can conjure up, depends on three emotional states. Simplifying a bit, we can say that stories create curiosity about past events, suspense about future events, and surprise by means of unexpected events.
Whatever other emotions a narrative evokes, we need to feel at least one of these three states. Most narratives invoke all of these, but some genres rely on more than others. Action-driven narratives rely heavily on suspense: Will the protagonist reach her goals, or even just survive?
The Dark Knight , with all its ticking clocks and hairbreadth escapes, is driven chiefly by suspense. For more on suspense, you can visit this entry. Henry and Roald Dahl and the early films of M. Night Shyamalan, have endings that depend to an unusual degree on surprise. Everything is about what comes next. What will happen next?
What could throw the juggernaut off course? The very image of suspense. McCain, by contrast, is running a campaign driven by curiosity and surprise. Many of his talking points dwell on the past. Who is Barack Obama, really? The pick of Sarah Palin is the most obvious instance, but several others have followed: There may be more surprises to come, as gloomy Democrats fear which only increases their feeling of suspense. At this point, the act of winning would be the ultimate McCain surprise. So the campaigns may teach us something of interest about narratives: In Film Art , we suggest that there are other principles of organization.
Using categorical form, you can survey different types of things, like baseball cards or political systems, without telling a story. You can use a rhetorical format, making an argument for a position you believe in by adducing reasons. What we call associational form can link various images, sounds, and actions through analogy, contrast, or metaphorical connection; one example would be the film Koyaanisqatsi.
And very often these principles can combine in a single book, film, or tv program. Instead, the campaign created a series of anecdotal narratives. In turn, these narratives were linked by associations, not by the causal connections typical of narrative.
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Most broadly, Obama framed these narratives and linkages within a set of policy statements, so that the narratives provided illustrative examples of a rhetorical argument. A teacher in a school for at-risk kids must take a second job and still find time for her training, while deciding whether to buy a gallon or half-gallon of milk. A loyal Ford assembly-line worker is dropped to half-time; unlike his father and grandfather, he cannot expect a full pension. So far, so categorical. Take the story of teacher Juliana Sanchez. Cut to Obama saying that teachers can do only so much: Just as Juliana is taking care of her children, Obama recalls his mother taking care of him, as a single parent.
Over family photographs he tells of his mother rousing him from bed to go through his lessons before she went to work. Link to Obama giving a speech in which he declares that every child needs a world-class education. While the local connections are driven by associations like these, the overall shape of the half-hour is—no surprise—rhetorical.
Obama is adducing reasons to vote for him. His case is that Americans are facing problems to which he has solutions. He could have presented the solutions as a list, in the form of bullet points or charts. Instead, he makes the problems concrete by illustrating how they affect ordinary people, including his own family, and then presents his solution by talking to an audience.
This use of rhetorical form contrasts with the one we discuss in Film Art Chapter 10 , when we analyze The River He chose, as his campaign has largely chosen, not to rehearse the mistakes and misdeeds of the past with which many Democrats were involved as well but to put the emphasis on current conditions and hope for the future. Thanks to this blend of different types of formal organization, even the abstractions of policy draw upon the powers of storytelling. Maybe this campaign really is all about narratives. If so, maybe narratology can illuminate public discourse in useful ways.
Stephen Heath New York: Hill and Wang, So Washington must be high school, money, and ugly people? Obama and Palin seem to disprove the last condition. Johns Hopkins University Press, , one of the finest studies of narrative theory I know. How bad will the damage be? One of my favorite new stills. You have to love a slasher film where the killer who uses a Gurkha knife. My little sister bought me one of these as a souvenir from Nepal and the sucker looks mean. Discuss this with others in the Movie Lounge Forum. My stream My TV My friends. You are at the newest post. Click here to check if anything new just came in.
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Cat o' Nine Tails The hands round the woman's neck are a bit of an artistic liberty here, since one of the distinguishing things about Cat o' Nine Tails is the almost dismbodied nature of the killer, with an avoidance of black glove shots and suchlike I also got 5 Dolls for an August Moon strapline: It's basically this one, but in the locandina format. Looks interesting, though maybe not as Euro-focused as some might like. Countdown to Nov 4. Comments 0 Comments on this Entry: John McCain staff member and co-author Mark Salter There was a mismatch between the way he was behaving and the narrative the press had bought into.
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