This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complet texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

Excerpts from: The Subjectivization of Experience in American Film
Mental Identities: When Being Replaces Doing

Click here for best printing of text

....One might say that Hollywood movies let us indulge in the luxury of seeing everyone the way we see ourselves–as insides viewed from the inside–while Leigh's films force us to see characters the way others see us (and the way we see others)–as outsides viewed from the outside. It is the difference between judging from intentions (the way we normally see ourselves) and judging from actions (the way we customarily see others). For ourselves, our ideals, motives, and emotions are us; for others, what we are can be completely unrelated to or in contradiction to our own understanding of ourselves. Our behavior and expressions can admit of interpretations other than our own. (The real threat of Leigh's work, if we can accept it, is always against our own complacent belief in the infallibility of our knowledge of ourselves.)

Is it any surprise that most viewers prefer the Hollywood vision? Its equation of identity with consciousness not only simplifies life and art but reinforces our fantasy of self-knowledge. Hollywood characters are their own views of themselves. There really is only the character's own view of himself; no other view is reasonable. The self is one thing through and through in Hollywood movies.

From classic Hollywood melodramas like Citizen Kane, Now, Voyager, Casablanca, and Psycho, to more recent works like Mr. Holland's Opus, Forrest Gump, My Best Friend's Wedding, Face/Off, Titanic, and The Truman Show, mainstream American film is fundamentally a depiction of inner worlds. It focuses on states of vision, feeling, and thought. The importance of social interactions is played down and that of imaginative reactions played up–which is why moments of looking, being looked at, thinking, and feeling are the most important events in these works. For both their viewers and their characters, these films are about seeing and feeling things–participating in states of insight and emotion–not about socially, verbally, or physically interacting in a practical way with someone else....

The whole stylistic enterprise of these films is devoted to providing windows into characters' souls. Musical orchestrations and expressionistic lighting cue us into characters' emotions; close-ups let us look deep into their eyes and savor the expressions on their faces; blocking and framing techniques and editing rhythms and juxtapositions let viewers vicariously participate in characters' emotional and intellectual states; most of the dialogue gives vent to opinions, beliefs, fears, doubts, hopes, plans. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that every effect is directed toward the end of making consciousness visible and audible–to keeping both the viewer and other characters focused on internal states. When characters meet, mind meets mind. Your emotions meet mine; your intentions are pitted against mine: your ideas, goals, and plans are compared with mine.

These films implicitly suggest that life is less a matter of behavior than of feeling; less about expressions than intentions. The presentation of inner states is not only more important than, but usually takes the place of practical interaction. If a character tells us how he is feeling or thinking (by saying it in a line of dialogue) or if the style of the film shows it (with a close-up, lighting effect, or musical orchestration), the character usually need not do anything at all to express it in the world. "Interaction" is almost entirely imaginative. In all of the important or memorable scenes in Alfred Hitchcock's work (the most extreme example of this idealizing tendency in mainstream film), the characters might as well be brains in vats communicating through mental telepathy. But Hitchcock is only the most obvious example. In shot after shot in virtually every mainstream movie, what is presented are states of feeling and thinking. Identity is mental. We are our internal states. Experience is equivalent to states of subjectivity. The most intense, important, and meaningful moments in life consist of thoughts and feelings (which need not be spoken or otherwise expressed). Life is visionary–in both the optical and the imaginative senses of the term....

The subjectivization of experience in mainstream films is one of the reasons why viewers are so easily able to identify with the characters in these films, becoming the victims in Schindler's List, the unsung heroes in Saving Private Ryan, the romantic lovers in Titanic, the nebbish with a heart of gold in Manhattan, the tough guy in Terminator, or the hipper-than-hip swingers in Boogie Nights. The outer lives of the characters in these films do not remotely resemble those of the viewers, but the inner states are the same. As long as what we are is equivalent to our basic thoughts and feelings, there is no difference between us and the characters played by Kate Winslett or Arnold Schwarzenegger. The viewer can frictionlessly slip inside the character's skin. The character is always comprehensible in terms of the viewer's own ways of thinking and feeling. Their motives are our motives. Their ideas are our ideas. Their generic thoughts and emotions give us versions of our own understandings of ourselves.

The imaginative transformation simplifies experience (not to mention making it intelligible in foreign markets–you don't need subtitles or familiarity with cultural customs to understand emotions). While practical performance involves complexities of timing, tone, timbre, and the mastery of local expressive conventions, emotional states are more or less universal. We all have the same glands. The nonspecificity of idealist presentation contributes to the genericness of its effects. When an experience is made equivalent to its imaginative and emotional value, its uniqueness is diminished, its outlines simplified, its complexity attenuated. In being taken up into the mind, reality is softened. Differences between figures that would be gray and fuzzy in expression become black-and-white when translated into ideas and feelings. Even the most imperceptive viewer notices how in Hollywood movies characters are simpler and their conflicts more clear-cut than outside the movies.

Most American viewers are so accustomed to this idealization of experience that they fail to see how it skews their understanding of life. If something is everywhere, it is invisible. Leigh shows what it looks like for a film to proceed differently. His work rejects ideal relations to experience–for both characters and viewers. It de-idealizes every aspect of experience and expression. Hollywood's universe of insides is replaced by a world of outsides. Needless to say, it's not that Leigh's characters don't have consciousnesses; but that their consciousnesses must always be translated into practical forms of social interaction. Leigh's characters' insides are never directly visible–neither through their words, their actions, nor the visual and acoustic styles of the works they are in. The viewer does not have access to the character's consciousness. He is held in the realm of expression and behavior–not empathizing with feelings and thoughts deep within a character, not identifying with the character, dropping into the character and "becoming" him or her, but–as in documentary film–standing outside of it, off to one side of it, scrutinizing opaque, impenetrable surfaces. Leigh holds us on the surface, and more than that, implicitly tells us that surfaces are all that matter.


American acting plays down surface expressions and plays up indications of "deep" thoughts and feelings. In the most extreme illustrations of this kind of acting–as in Hitchcock's work with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant or Capra's with Gary Cooper–surface expression is diminished almost to the vanishing point while cinematic style picks up the expressive burden. Acting becomes a kind of pantomime: The actor stands still with a neutral expression on his face while musical orchestrations, lighting effects, plot events, scripted remarks, or intercut close-ups of looks, glances, and stares suggest thoughts or feelings surging just beneath the surface. Even much more complex and nuanced forms of American acting, like the performances of Brando, Dean, and Clift, are significantly still built up from the inside out. All Method acting is based on the belief that what is in the depths is more important than what is on the surface. Feeling is primary; expression secondary. American acting is almost always based on depths rather than surface expressions precisely because it has internalized the set of understandings I have described: namely, that there is a realm of subjectivity that anchors and is ultimately more important than the relatively "superficial" details of social or verbal expression.

The acting in Leigh's work reverses these priorities. It puts a premium on surfaces (nuances of voice tones, facial expressions, gestures, body language), more or less letting the depths take care of themselves. It is more about outsides than insides, less about states of thought and feeling than about the enactment of those states. Selfhood is not (as in the Method) something hidden deep within us, anchored in secret dreams and unspoken desires, but is a term that refers to the overall effect of the intricate network of expressions we employ. Leigh would undoubtedly agree with Oscar Wilde's witticism that it is only superficial people who do not judge by surfaces. That is also why Leigh is not interested in discussing a character's internal states–his motivation, thoughts, emotions–with the actor during rehearsal. The issue is not what the character would think or feel in a certain situation, but what he would say or do. Manners are morals. Even the casual viewer picks up on the difference when he notices the importance of generalized stylistic effects in American film (lighting, editing, and sound effects that suggest subjective states) and their relative unimportance in Leigh's work.

The difference between an idealized and an unidealized presentation of experience is what an American viewer registers as the "rawness" of Leigh's characters or the "roughness" of their interactions. Leigh's characters feel lumpy, their expressions muddy, and their interactions bumpy in comparison with those in Hollywood films because it is almost impossible for practical social expressions and interactions to achieve the purity and clarity of abstract statements of subjectivity and stylistic indications of consciousness. Characters in idealist films can "speak" their thoughts and feelings (in both the verbal and stylistic senses of the term) more clearly and powerfully than Leigh's can, because their "speech" is freed from the compromises, fallibility, and imperfection of speech as it is encountered outside of the movies. In Psycho Hitchcock can lay in a little spooky-dooky music on the sound track, throw a spot on an actor's face, or use expressionistic camera angles to create states of feeling that have an unworldly purity, clarity, and intensity. In Citizen Kane Welles can use short lenses, outsized sets, and shadows to express the title character's megalomania and loneliness with a directness and purity that the compromised, mediated personal expressions in Leigh's work never attain. The smoothness and completeness of idealist presentation is replaced in Leigh's work by the halting, rough particularity and imperfection of actual physical and verbal expression....

Just as the characters in a mainstream film commune visionarily with each other and their surroundings (effortlessly taking in meanings simply by glancing at someone or something), so the viewers of mainstream films take in the characters and their situations in a visionary way. That is to say, idealist film not only sinks a mine shaft into the character's heart, it makes the viewer a mind reader. The conflation of visionary forms of seeing is, in fact, the central narrative project of Hollywood film, which not only allows characters to relate to each other in terms of states of thought and feeling but encourages the viewer to relate to the characters in the same way. The viewer relates to the on-screen experience in the same idealized, visionary way the characters do, expanding imaginatively within the character and situation–"identifying" with the character, "becoming" him or her, feeling what the character feels. The viewer leaves his real identity behind and sympathetically lives though a group of figures for a period of time. He effortlessly shares those figures' states of thought and feeling–seeing what they see, knowing what they know. He frictionlessly inhabits other consciousnesses. (The conflation is facilitated by the use of subjectivity editing conventions and mood-music orchestrations.) In the final scene of Casablanca, Bergman and Bogart read each other's minds, imaginatively expanding and visionarily merging, and the viewer switches into the same resonantly empathetic, imaginatively expansive appreciation of them....

–Excerpted from the "Stylistic Introduction" to Ray Carney's The Films of Mike Leigh: Embracing the World (London and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's writing. To obtain the complete text of this piece as well as the complet texts of many pieces that are not included on the web site, click here.

Top of Page

Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.