Film Epistemology II

Film as a self-contained universe, part II.

This continues the analysis from my previous article on epistemology in film. It makes more sense in the context of the first part.

Known unknowns and unknown unknowns

We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. - Donald Rumsfeld

I’m not a big fan of Donald Rumsfeld, but his attempt to weasel out of a bad PR situation by echoing the sentiments of Nassim Taleb’s “Fooled by Randomness” does have a silver lining of real value in epistemological evaluation – as well as in the analysis of the effects of intentionally incomplete epistemology on film viewing.

There are certain things that are going to fall outside the realm of narrative exposition – our “unknown unknowns”. These can manifest as plot twists, or may simply contain areas of knowledge which are tangential, to a certain degree, to our principal characters or plot.

The “known unknowns” are the principal fodder for epistemic expansion. For example, in the context of Nolan’s The Dark Knight, we are treated to a series of false-lead backstories for the Joker, but we’re always aware that we have no idea where he comes from, or anything outside of the explicitly available information in the film epistemology.

The oddest quadrant of the known/unknown delineation is the “unknown known”. In the system of information that we don’t know that we know, there are plenty of subtle hints and pieces of subliminal information which we ingest during the course of viewing the first acts of a film before the potential payoff in the last act. We may not be conscious that we know these things until they are brought to our attention, and the information moves to become a “known known”.

Epistemology as part of a larger canon

As part of a response to the first part of this analysis, a friend pointed me to an examination of how we view canon (cite). There are a number of different aspects to the relationship between epistemology and canon.

A television series presents an interesting situation; it poses the question of how to deal with a single work, generally under the care of multiple auteurs, in the form of multiple directors over the course of a single season/series. In traditional multiple episode television works, the story arc writers function as primary auteurs, using a “bible” to attempt to keep epistemic consistency across works. Deviances can (and have been) introduced when interpreted by individual episode directors.

With multi-medium canon, spanning graphic novels, television, film, et al, the potential problems maintaining a single definitive canon multiply. It’s difficult enough to maintain canon between films or television episodes in the same medium, but, as each storytelling medium has its own caveats and rules, there are differences in the way that information is conveyed – not to mention that the presence of multiple auteurs (specific to each medium) would provide a potentially corrupting influence on the epistemology specific to the canon.

An example of this could be seen to be the interactions between large canon works, such as some of the DC comics universe works (i.e. Batman, Superman) and the television and film adaptations of those same works.

Altering canon – and the burden of appeasing fandom

The auteurs involved in the adaptations will sometimes drastically alter canon – Smallville and Singer’s Superman Returns in the case of the Superman franchise, Gotham and Burton’s Batman as examples in the case of the Batman franchise. Some of these works override / ignore existing canon, while some of them provide prequel and sequel material; for the moment, the question I’d like to pose is “what does a prequel or sequel owe canonical epistemology?”

There are a few things which I believe should be taken into account when trying to determine the answer to that question.

  • Intent. What is the intention of the prequel/sequel? Putting aside the general overriding motive of monetary gain, motivations can generally be split between a primary financial motivation to profit off of the material or an intention to either “re-imagine” the canon (assuming that the auteur can produce a superior outcome) or augment the canon. A primarily financial motive will most likely result in the canonical epistemology being set aside for the sake of increasing or pleasing the target demographic.
  • Integrity. It seems as thought the vast majority of epistemic extension and exploration is done without much consideration for the impact on both the integrity and the closure of the film’s epistemology. Considerate works which are considering attaching themselves to existing epistemology of a larger canon should be considering these factors before altering the epistemology. Any addition to canonical epistemology changes both the perception of prior works and potentially their emotional impact in retrospect.

Fandom have devoted time and/or money to a “franchise”, presumably because they identify or sympathize with something espoused in the larger canon. Because of this largely emotional attachment to the larger body of work, fandom can place a great emphasis on preserving the present state of canon and keeping the epistemology intact – or perhaps as close to the state in which they originally found it when they became attached to the canonical works. This temporal attachment goes toward explaining why, for example, fans of Doctor Who generally tend to view the incarnation of the Doctor which was their first introduction to the series as the subjectively “best” incarnation of that character.

There is another possibility inherent in the relationship between fandom and epistemology, which is that the viewer will (almost obsessively) attempt to seek out any epistemic closure or extension which is offered to them. I posit that it is the result of a deep emotional attachment to the characters and situations present in the canon which cause the viewer to attempt to create the most vivid knowledge-set of the canon and attempt to achieve epistemic closure.

Expectations ; the burden of context

The context in which we view the epistemic system of a film, or the subjective epistemology, is almost as important as the objective epistemology given by the subject film.

The emotional and subjective knowledge baggage we bring into a film don’t necessarily have to have been introduced by other works in a canon. They could have come from other films in the same genre, adaptations of written works with similar subject material, earlier attempts at adapting the source material from the film, or even subjective life experiences of the viewer.

Reboot – uncorrupting the epistemology?

Over time, epistemology of a canon can become corrupted, self-contradictory, or suffer an overall loss in quality. One of the accepted methods for uncorrupting the epistemology of a larger work has been the reboot, another is retroactive continuity, or “retconning”, which has been used extensively in graphic novel and comic works as well as television and film (cite). There are a number of different successful methodologies which have been used for epistemic resets through reboots:

  • Complete epistemic do-over. This involves a disregarding of the entire literal epistemology, perhaps keeping some of the more commonly regarded portions of the canon, most likely to appease the target demographic’s past connection with prior incarnations. Examples of this would include the multiple Batman series reboots (Burton, Nolan), as well as the recent Spiderman reboots.
  • Time Travel Adjustment. This is when a series simply invents a time-travel type retcon or reset in order to change basic principals of the epistemology. This differs from complete epistemic reconfigurations because the original continuity and epistemology is respected and then explained away or altered through the use of a time-travel narrative device. Popular examples of this include Abrams' Star Trek reboot, and the Terminator: Genisys film. Zemeckis’s Back to the Future franchise worked almost entirely by turning this concept into a plot device – a concept mirrored by the recent 12 Monkeys television series, but ironically not from its source material, the Gilliam Twelve Monkeys film.
  • Hand Wave. Quite possibly the laziest form of epistemic reset. It generally involves simply ignoring certain aspects of previous epistemology in the canon or offering a glib explanation – usually prior films within a designated series. A general example of this would be the Highlander sequels, although it has also been part of a fairly well known Doctor Who trope for the majority of the run of the show.
  • Revisionist Adjustment. Adjusting portions of an already established epistemology for the purpose of correcting perceived mistakes or inadequacies. An example of this would be the introduction of Darth Vader as Luke Skywalker’s father in Empire Strikes Back after it was explained through explicit narrative exposition in A New Hope that Vader had murdered Luke’s father; it was retconned during Return of the Jedi through a particularly clumsy dialogue-based hand wave. (This is only one of many, many examples of retroactive continuity in the Star Wars universe.)