From Dream Sequence to Hallucination, What the Hell is Subjectivity, Anyway?
Subjectivity is a tricky concept to grasp, but once you've got it, you can make mental objects visible in your movies.
If you're thinking about making a film with surrealist elements like Trainspotting or Take Shelter, it might be time for a new entry into your filmmaker lexicon: subjectivity. While one may argue that the term itself is subjective in nature, we'd have to argue that that's kind of the point.
Subjectivity, as the term is used in film theory, is to create the experience of thinking like one of your characters. It is your job as a filmmaker to figure out how to render that human experience with a camera lens; whether it's through clever camera tricks, VFX, editing, lighting, or sound, there are myriad ways you can bring the audience into your character's mind. To put it in even simpler terms, you are looking to film something that is a mental representation of an event (rather than a physical one). The question then becomes: What are the most opportune moments in your story to convey the inner life of your character?
Luckily, the wonderful essayists at CineFix have provided us with a must-watch video explaining just that. More than just a list of movies that innovatively employ subjectivity, this video essay has some great insight into how to do it yourself.
We'll refrain from mentioning the movies Cinefix chose to illustrate these moments (you should see them for yourself). Here's a handy breakdown of the 10 points of subjective entry.
10. Altered state of awareness
Something has happened to your character to make him view the world abnormally. Now, this can be many different things—he could be going through some sort of physical impairment, some traumatic moment that has reduced his senses to mush, or, on the flip side, she could have heightened senses as the result of coming into contact with a stimulant. Even more than capturing the reality of the event, what's important here is to capture the essence and emotion of these altered states—the feelings, senses, and visceral nature of a moment.
If your character is seeing something that simply doesn't exist in the real worId, as a filmmaker, you can still lead the audience to believe that isn't the case. Ultimately, you want your audience to be asking the same questions as your character—is that person really there, or am I crazy? CineFix refers to this as "posing subjectivity as reality," and it comes up again and again in their video.
Cinematic memories can twist, turn, fold back on themselves, omit, enhance, and distort, much like those of the human mind.
8. Mental illness
When you have a protagonist who's struggling with mental illness, you don't want to settle for simply showing how they look; rather, you want to show how it feels to be them. How do you visually represent a mental disease? The answer is clearly rooted in the symptoms. Once you've decided how to let these symptoms live on screen, you're well on your way to developing your character's subjectivity.
Many characters, at some point in their story, are drunk or on drugs. Now, do you want the audience to feel like they are watching a caricature of intoxication, or do you want them to feel as if they are intoxicated, too? It's easy to recreate the visuals of inebriation; most of us have been there, so the audience will be quick to understand. For example, you can employ dissolves, fades, or superpositions to simulate a bad case of the spins. You can increase contrast and color to evoke psychedelics. How about crazy quick cut editing and fast zooms to show that your character's on cocaine? Again, it's all in the symptoms.
If your character has a great imagination, it can quite literally blend into the world around them such that the world visually reflects the stories they believe in their mind. In the words of Cinefix, "the stories [characters] tell seep into their realities until they're living in them." In film, these stories can be beautiful or terrifying examples of unrelenting imagination. They are explorations into the fissure between what we believe, what we say, and what the world objectively is. As writer or director, your choices allow you to play around with how fiction can alter truth—and vice versa.
Taking imagination a step further, some directors present characters who envision a world so fully realized that they physically dwell inside of it. Often, this fantasy world takes the shape of their innermost hidden desires. Again, this is a strategy where subjectivity masquerades as objectivity. You can leave both your audience and your characters guessing what is and what is not real.
4. Dream sequence
Ah, yes, now we come to the dream sequence, perhaps the most popular example of subjectivity in film and TV. For a filmmaker, dream sequences may be the most fun to execute because there are very little limitations as to how visually surreal you can get; dreams are governed by dream logic, in which time and space are subtly fractured in ways that are difficult to pinpoint. Because dreams seem and feel real, your dream sequence should be misleading in same way.
Nightmares should make your characters collapse into the terror their minds have created.
The flip side of the dream is the nightmare. Essentially, you want to play with the same rules—these sequences are scarier the more the lines between dreaming and waking are blurred. Just as in real nightmares, the most terrifying things are the ones that seem real. Nightmares should make your characters collapse into the terror their minds have created.
2. The premonition
This is a flash-forward in the story that occurs for the audience as well as the character. The best premonition sequences come as a blurring between all the previous plot points, leaving the audience questioning whether what the character is seeing is real or if he’s just going insane. In premonitions, everything should be left inconclusive.
Far more than a simple flashback, cinematic memories can twist, turn, fold back on themselves, omit, enhance, and distort, much like those of the human mind. These sequences should show things not just as how they looked at the time, but how the characters felt as they were living through them. As a director, writer, or editor, you can conceal these memories seamlessly within the chronological frames of your story so that they feel woven into the present, as they are in the minds of your characters at the moment. More than that, an effective memory sequence should invite the audience to reminisce about memories of their own that relate to the character’s plight.