Representing Interiority in Film and TV

The notion of ‘internal conversation’ can be contentious in some quarters within the academy. However, outside it, I’ve found that anyone I’ve spoken to about my research instantly knows what I mean when I say ‘internal conversation’ or ‘inner monologue’. I’d suggest that the notion of internal conversation, as something we listen in to needs to be recognised as something distinctly different from those ghostly recesses of subjectivity we look into. Or in other words ‘internal conversation’ does not equate to introspection.

It’s this older understanding of introspection which underlies representations of interiority in terms of mindscapes or psychic landscapes. We enter a ‘door’ into someones mind and action takes place within it. In some cases, this is actionwithin the mind as the individual concerned proceeds to occupy their usual position within the world:

In other cases, the ‘entered’ individual is rendered passive in the world, as with the dreamscapes of Inception, existing in the mind of a sleeping individual and radically unbound by the metaphysics of everyday life:

(Thanks Marta Wasik for these examples)

These are examples of ‘interiority’ of the form I find philosophically problematic and sociologically uninteresting. So why do I find ‘internal conversation’ interesting? Because I’m convinced by Margaret Archer’s argument that we need to invoke something like it in order to gain purchase upon why people do the specific things they do:

without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all (Archer 2007: 133)

On this view interiority becomes important to narratives because it’s these processes of deliberation (often internal but sometimes ‘spilling out’ into external conversation) which condition the choices made by characters in the story. People are forced to make decisions, choose between competing paths or deliberate about moral dilemmas. These are crucial aspects of stories (and lives) such that theircomplete absence from film and tv would be jarring, at least without a televisual idiom that compensates for this somehow. But this is an outcome of internal conversation (an answer to the question: “what should I do?”) which doesn’t exhaust the process itself.

One of my favourite examples of the process without the outcome can be seen in the beautiful ending to Six Feet Under (which I’ve just discovered that I’m finally able to watch without crying) in which Claire leaves her family, moving away to build a new life and, as I interpret the scene, sifts through her memories as she comes to terms with the significance of her radically changing life: “what did this mean to me? what did these people mean to me? am I making the right decision? can I really live so far from them?”. As the scene progresses, she projects forward into the future, imagining the person she will become and the persons her significant others will become, as well as how their biographical entanglement will unfold over their lifetimes. I love this scene because it captures the essence of those moments when everything is open, when ’I’ am standing on firm ground looking towards a future ‘you’ yet to be formed, without reducing it to pure subjectivity. These ‘openings’ exist in the social world, because we do, which is precisely why the ‘I’ never has the sustained freedom it might fleetingly feel it possesses. Institutions, structures, relationships and routines are all recalcitrant. But there’s something deeply human about the feeling involved in radical action to change our lives, in spite of the likelihood that even were it all to go to ‘plan’, it will bring with it all manner of unintended consequences.

But that’s an example of internal conversation in a monological mode. As anyone who watches the show will know, Six Feet Under also shows internal conversations conducted in a dialogical mode. We talk, silently and internally, to others. We talk to ghosts. We talk to people we care about who are absent. We imagine what they say. We take imaginative comfort in disclosing things to them. We exist, as Charles Taylor puts it, as part of “webs of interlocution” and sometimes we converse with introjections of our interlocutors rather than the interlocutors themselves:

There are other examples of this which could easily be appropriated by the notion of ‘exploring the subconscious’. As in Frasier:

But given that the model I’m deploying here is first and foremost sociological, invoking interiority as a crucial moment of social explanation, I’d suggest it’s a much more interesting approach to take in analysing how interiority is displayed in TV and Cinema.

If anyone else has examples (preferably youtube videos!) I’d love to know about them. Please tweet me (@mark_carrigan) or write in the comments box below.


Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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2 replies »

  1. I love this piece, it’s fascinating. I am using it to discuss issues around adaptation, particularly the idea of work being ‘unfilmable’ due to interiority.

    Anyway. An example I love, if I am understanding correctly, is in Joel and Ethan Coen’s ‘No Country For Old Men’ where Tommy Lee Jones’ character visits an older, patriarchal character and they talk about life and death in such a beautiful, not quite direct, poetic and incredibly illuminating way, particularly as as way of understanding the present psychological and emotional state of Jones’ sheriff, even though he barely says anything in the entire exchange.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yz8SPnRNvoc

    Thanks for this piece,

    Neil

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