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Mother Night: You Must Be Careful What You Pretend to Be

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I suppose the moral here is: You must be careful what you pretend to be… because in the end you are what you pretend to be. - Howard W Campbell, Jr

There are many interesting facets of the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel about the fictional Howard W. Campbell, Jr, a self-described American spy who functioned as a Nazi propagandist during World War II; I’m going to focus on one particular series of scenes during the third act of the film.

The Departed: Introducing Costello and Life in the Shadows

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Scorsese’s The Departed netted the venerable director his second “Best Director” Academy Award and only his first “Best Picture” Academy Award in his entire 20+ year career, despite being a remake of another film.

Many film critics and scholars have examined the film’s themes and visuals, but I would like to concentrate on a single character’s introduction and early visualization on the screen: Nicholson’s Frank Costello.

Layers, the Inner Film, and Reality

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Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. - Macbeth, Shakespeare

We’ve become accustomed to viewing film, whether consciously or subconsciously, as a separate world with its own intrinsic epistemology. It represents a false world constructed within our own world – much like a play or other piece of narrative fiction.

Certain films exhibit a layering of realities – a “film within a film”, or “mise en abyme” – which can be used as a powerful narrative tool or as a metaphor for some larger concept. By interweaving stories within stories, a more complex tale can emerge which can be more intricate than the stories would be if told separately.

Narrative Exposition in Film

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Narrative exposition, or simply exposition, is the insertion of important background information within a story; for example, information about the setting, characters’ back-stories, prior plot events, historical context, etc. (from Wikipedia)

Within the confines of the skeleton of a film work (the script), there are many ways to impart information which would not otherwise be assumed by the viewer or implied by the filmmaker. I posit that the way in which expository information is imparted to a viewer via the medium of film is as important if not more important than the information which is being imparted.

As with any other aspect of film as an art form and medium, there isn’t a single “correct” way of doing anything. There isn’t one particular correct framing which needs to be used for a shot, not only a single focal length lens or camera brand which would have to be used to get the only valid shot possible – and in much the same vein, there are many different more-or-less-equally-correct methods of imparting that information. I’d like to explore the mechanisms and caveats of each of them.