Most of us are accomplished watchers of TV and film, so we intuitively understand some of the concepts lurking in dense film-theory tomes. You won’t need them for Internet Film School, The A.V. Club’s column about film and television. In each installment, we explore a basic element of visual composition and analyze examples to understand how the formal properties of film and television manipulate viewers.
Narration in film and television is what evolutionary theorists would call an atavism–the reappearance of a once necessary trait long past its usefulness. When Homer roamed the Greek world reciting the Iliad, a narrator was necessary. When Shakespeare broke the fourth wall and told his audience how to feel about a betrayal, narration served a purpose. When Warner Bros. forced Harrison Ford to tell us “Rachel was special,” however, it died a horrible death:
Which isn’t to say it disappeared, or hasn’t been used effectively, for example, by Rob Thomas on Veronica Mars, or cleverly in an episode of Homicide from 1995 directed by Alan Taylor, who went on to direct episodes of Deadwood, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones and some movie about a Norse god. Point being, narration is film’s vestigial tail, so much so that it’s easiest to point out its flaws by using a phrase typically heard only in writing seminars: “Show, don’t tell.”
Narration is all about “telling,” so marrying it to a visual medium in which “showing” isn’t a preference, but a requirement, feels forced. It’s the imposition of a spoken narrative onto facts—in this case visual facts, consisting of what the audience can actually see—and so it shouldn’t be surprising that the most successful use of it occurs in narratives that involve detectives, again, like Veronica Mars or Homicide. Detectives are always up in the world’s grill, imposing inconvenient narratives upon criminals who have wronged it.
Films and serials that center on detectives aren’t about telling a story, they’re about hearing bits and pieces of a story and recreating what actually happened. They’re fractured narratives being put back together in real-time, and because audiences aren’t as experienced at doing so as the characters on screen, a little hand-holding is required—hence, the prevalence of narrating detectives.
Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective understands this relationship so well it’s willing to be open, framing the “natural” narrative of an investigation within a narrative about the narrative of the investigation. That it does so without ever seeming oppressively “meta” is a credit to Pizzolatto and series director Cary Fukunaga, because without the enthusiastic performances of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the series could easily have drifted into an eight-hour recapitulation of Ford’s drugged Blade Runner voice-over.
There will never need to be 18 “director’s cuts” of True Detective, however, because Pizzolatto and Fukunaga know that detectives are, conventionally, open to sharing their limited understanding of the narrative of the crime with the audience. Detectives may not know everything, but they don’t withhold anything they know—just consider the moment in every episode of Sherlock or Elementary in which Holmes recreates the crime for the benefit of his audience of rubes. Moreover, detectives are supposed to be tellers of truth—the refrain on Homicide being that they “speak for the dead”—not complete and utter liars.
In a scene in “The Secret Fate of All Life,” the fifth episode of True Detective, Fukunaga cut from a medium close-up of Harrelson’s Detective Hart describing “something high velocity” tearing into the grass around them to the shot above, which depicts what actually happened. There’s no tree being “blown apart” between him and McConaughey’s Detective Cohle; they’re just running in a field. The narration is telling one story to the detectives to whom Hart and Cohle are speaking, but the visuals are telling another.
There’s no dispute as to which story is true, either, no question as to what the glowing object in the half-opened briefcase is. Hart and Cohle are lying, but they’re doing so in a way that engenders the trust of the audience. The audience is “in on” the story, they know the “secret” that the detectives interrogating Hart and Cohle never will. How did the audience get “in”?
Don’t listen to Cohle. He’s a liar. He knows that the audience was drawn in not just by the narrative frame, but because of Fukunaga’s shot selection of it. He piles on these medium close-ups of Hart and Cohle being questioned about the events of that particular day, and medium close-ups provide the audience with a kind of socially acceptable intimacy.
A close-up of a face is an intensely intimate shot, an invasion of personal space. Just imagine how close you would have to be to Cohle to acquire the following unwanted perspective:
But a medium close-up respects the personal space of its subjects, while still retaining some of the close-up’s intimacy. By the time the scene above aired, about 12 minutes into the episode, members of the audience have spent approximately two hours in predominantly medium close-up conversations with Hart and Cohle, building the kind of trust required to make them believe their eyes over the detectives’ lies.
And these were some spectacular lies, as Fukunaga’s use of an extreme long shot hammers home. The audience can see everything in the diegetic world, and there’s nary a sign of “heavy shit.” The ferns and whatnot are undetonated, no bark has taken flight, and the shit is neither fucking nor storming. But the audience can only see the magnitude of Hart and Cohle’s lies in conjunction with the scale of Fukunaga’s shot.
These aren’t little white lies this pair is selling the glorified beat cops interrogating them—they’re the kind of lies only a true detective could get away with telling.