‘Last night, locked in…’: Narrative fiction and embedded filmmaking as a response to, and a reflection on the existential impact of domestic confinement during the COVID-19 Lockdowns
Author: Dr Jonathon Crewe
Format: Narrative Film
Duration: 58′ 19″
Published: April 2022
In 2017, the editor of Screenworks, Charlotte Crofts, wrote a blog post speculating on the paucity of narrative fiction films being submitted to the journal. One area she mentioned was the ‘tensions around [narrative films] inclusion in the REF’ (2017). This resonated with me having also experienced resistance to narrative work being accepted as research, something my experimental filmmaking colleagues did not share. Like Crofts, I have considered why this might be, and suggest that narrative fiction as a research methodology can sometimes be dismissed as mass-produced entertainment for public consumption. This may stem from a generalised critical approach to mainstream narration, and its filmic representation, as being subservient to a ‘viewer’s reconstruction of and absorption in a fabula‘ (Tan 2018, p.15, original italics; Bordwell 2008). From this perspective, fiction film narration and aesthetics can be seen as psychologically defined in a way that alternative filmmaking approaches, such as documentary and experimental, are not (Tan 2018). This view of mainstream cinema can be conflated with what David Bordwell refers to as art cinema, which is no less rooted in fictional narrative but ‘is a cinema of psychological effects in search of their cause.’ (2008, p153). A decoupling of mainstream and art cinema could alleviate broader academic concerns of fiction film being used as a research methodology. Furthermore, I see no reason, given the quantity of scholarly outputs dedicated to the critical analysis of popular and entertaining films and filmmakers, why a narrative film cannot be both entertaining and deliver valuable research outputs. Especially if we take an approach that merges ‘critical analysis and interpretation with a degree of theoretical reflection, but…remains close to the contours of…filmmaking practice’ (Bordwell 2011).
It is through an abstraction of familiar filmmaking techniques in story and form that fiction film can deliver original insights and, potentially, meaningful audience impact. This suggests a duality for the narrative filmmaker whereby a ‘double movement occurs, of decontextualisation in which the found elements are rendered strange, and of recontextualisation, in which new families of association and structures of meaning are established’ (Carter 2010, pp.15). Indeed, a key strength of narrative fiction is the ability to take us ‘where we’ve never been, to see what we’ve never seen… [then bring] us back… [to] look again at what we thought we knew’ (Sullivan 2010, p.62).
As such, the ‘tensions’ surrounding fiction films and their inclusion in the REF seem out of line with the UK Research Excellence Framework’s definition of impact beyond academia as ‘an effect on, change or benefit to…an audience, community, constituency, organisation or individuals’ (REF 2018, p.83). Indeed, I would argue that narrative fiction as a research methodology is consistent with other more traditional research methodologies, as well as the more prevalent forms of work submitted to Screenworks, insomuch as they ‘bear intrinsic similarities in their attempts to illuminate aspects of the human condition…and work toward advancing human understanding’ (Leavy 2014, p.3).
How can I use an embedded filmmaking approach to make a narrative fiction film in order to reflect upon and understand my own experience of confinement, and to (re)stabilise my psychological identity by unravelling and reordering the shifting imbalance of time and memory felt under confinement?
The project came out of a personal response to the first Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. Not in the sense that the film deals with the pandemic, rather it reflects on the nature of domestic confinement. Temporally, the lockdowns impact daily life in terms of routine, repetition, perception of time and the absence (or slippage) of temporal markers. Spatially, the home becomes an enforced enclosure where the only outlets for communication are reduced to screens. A space for living becomes the space for existing. As days merge, memories and time slip out of sync, objects and routines that were familiar are rendered strange. The home, decontextualised in spacetime, is caught in a continual psychological puzzle, developing new and altered meanings and significance. If we take Locke’s (1998) reasoning that identity is made of personal memory, and that confinement renders familiar temporal and spatial markers of memory strange, then finding one’s route out of the psychological maze and stabilising one’s own existential identity comes through an ordering, or re-ordering, of past, present and future memories.
As a writer experiencing this, I looked to narrative as an approach to recontextualise time and space. I searched for clues and meanings in the everyday, piecing together markers of memory to create a structure from which I could objectively view life in confinement, find an escape from the psychological maze, and to (re-)stabilise my existential identity. As an academic, I was fascinated by this process and how a parallel fiction could be used to reflect upon and respond to the lived experience of home confinement. As the story developed, the similarities with the ‘detective’ protagonist in film- and neo-noir became more apparent. Their familiar genre conventions and narrative strategies gave me a framework by which to anchor my protagonist’s journey and provide an insight into the human mind whereby ‘A way of seeing the world becomes a feature of the world: film noir makes the defamiliarization of life the fabric of life itself’ (Sanders 2006, p.96, original italics). Film noir’s idiosyncratic cinematic mood and tone often present the world of the film as a projection of the protagonist’s ‘sense’ of reality. At the very least, it conveys a psychological truth or an understanding of how the world often seems (Holt 2006). As Panek (2006) puts it when discussing the fundamentals of the psychological puzzle film: ‘[these] narratives offer a narration that acts as a disruptive force, blocking the protagonist’s clear comprehension of events…The deceptive narration is a manifestation of an aspect of the protagonist’s mind’ (p.86). As a result, ‘the orientation of events in the plot to diegetic reality is not immediately clear, thus creating doubt…as to how reliable, knowledgeable, self-conscious, and communicative the narration is’ (p.65). This sense of disorientation could easily be seen as a fictionalised mirror to our sense of self during the confinement of lockdown. We may not be able to orientate ourselves when the familiar is rendered strange all around us, but by seeking parallels in fiction we may find, from a more distanced position, insights, reflected back, which allow us to recontextualise the strangeness of the everyday and re-order temporal and spatial markers which form the cornerstone of our memories and existential identity.
Film- and neo-noir are recognisable and familiar genres, most often seen as a compilation of specific cinematic and narrative techniques. Stylistically, noir employs ‘constant opposition of light and shadow…, oblique camera angles…, disruptive compositional balance of frames and scenes…, characters…placed in awkward and unconventional positions’ (Conard 2006a p.1). Unconventional narrative patterns are often underpinned using nonchronological story events, flashbacks and other techniques to fragment perception of time, as well as ‘a pervasive uncertainty about the reliability of what is being shown or told and the processes of memory, underscored by an existential fear of meaninglessness’ (Spicer 2007, p.57, Conard 2006b). Steven Sanders (2006) summarises the themes of noir as ‘despair, paranoia, and nihilism; an atmosphere of claustrophobic entrapment; a nightmarish sense of loneliness and alienation’ (p.92).
These synergies of style and narrative techniques produce in noir a pre-occupation with themes of time, memory and identity. Memento (2000) is one such example from the neo-noir canon that exemplifies this and was a central inspiration to the project. ‘Last night, locked in…’ takes cues from Nolan’s film and applies them to the ‘detective’ protagonist in confinement. My own practice predominantly investigates the ability of narrative fiction to help understand the world and discover insights into the human condition. Isolated and under confinement I became embedded as a participatory agent in the creation and performance of a fictionalised version of my own philosophical and psychological enquiry. The production itself became the enquiry and, although not me per se, the temporal discontinuity and existential crisis of the protagonist’s challenges and meditations acted as a mirror to my own. Narrativisation, using familiar noir conventions, allowed me to decontextualise the strangeness of time and space under confinement, to discover insights to its causes through the parallel investigation of the fictional protagonist, and to recontextualise these new meanings and signifiers to (re-)stabilise my own identity.
Initially the project came out of a desire to re-orientate myself using my skillset and experience as a practice-researcher. Although predominantly a writer and director, the circumstances led me to embrace the idea of Knudsen’s (2016) concept of the total filmmaker, taking on screenwriting, directing, editing, photography and acting in the film, using only the equipment available; a Canon Powershot G12, a Neewer on-camera microphone, a wonky tripod, two desk lamps, a reflector board and my MacBook Pro. The intention was to merge Bordwell’s aforementioned concept of art film as ‘a cinema of psychological effects in search of their cause’ (2008, p153), and his approach to film analysis that ‘remains close to the contours of…filmmaking’ (2011), whereby the artefact and the production process are both part of the psychological enquiry. During the writing and directing, this approach allowed me to discern some initial insights. However, a challenge arose when I took on unfamiliar roles, namely acting and editing, which required analysis and interpretation of the screenplay and director’s vision. It could be argued that in art cinema the author is part of the film’s structure and the focal point for what the film is trying to communicate (Bordwell, 2008). So, as I began analysing character as an actor, and narrative structure and imagery as editor, I realised that the embedded filmmaking approach meant I was essentially conducting an enquiry into myself. This finding allowed me to compartmentalise the roles and construct a 360-degree approach to analysis, including a reflective evaluation of the final artefact. As such, the embedded filmmaking production process itself created new methods with which to approach the enquiry.
From a research standpoint, as opposed to more traditional ‘objective’ methodologies, narrative fiction seeks to understand the human condition by replicating experiences and sharing perspectives (Coplan 2011). Jens Eder (2010) suggests that fictional characters are tied to the real world, diverging ‘from reality in order to appear as dramatic condensations or idealized amplifications’ (p.18). Characters become both symbols and symptoms of the ‘socio-cultural framework of [their] production and reception’ (p.29). To re-enforce the reflective relationship between filmmaker, character, context and audience, I looked to narrative as a method to establish empathy and perspective-taking, whereby ’empathy integrates cognitive and affective processes, creating a complex and dynamic psychological experience that draws on different capacities we have for connecting and responding to the world,’ and perspective-taking uses ‘the imagination to undergo a shift from one’s own cognitive perspective to the cognitive perspective of the target individual’ (Coplan 2004, pp.143-144). Using narrative shifts in spatio-temporality, the film decontextualises character to provide a platform, via empathy and perspective-taking, for a shared (protagonist and viewer) recontextualisation of real-world events, a re-ordering of memory, and reflection on and (re)stabilisation of existential identity. Essentially this approach conforms to Amy Coplan’s definition of experiential understanding, which ‘provides an observer with knowledge of another person’s thoughts, feelings, and behavior—knowledge that may…subsequently figure into the explanations, predictions, and even the actions of the observer’ (Coplan 2011, p.17).
This project puts forward an argument for the potential of filmic storytelling to be used as an in-situ device to help reflect upon, understand and respond to moments of existential crises – to recontextualise, and stabilise, a sense of reality. The project also indicates a link between genre, in particular film, neo-noir, and its capacity through narrative and cinematic techniques to become vehicles for philosophical and psychological enquiry. Their production becomes the enquiry itself. Further to this is the argument that narrative film, even if entertaining, should not be resisted as a research methodology that can provide valuable outcomes and insights that may have otherwise been overlooked. For example, one might argue that ‘Last night, locked in…’ provides insights to the human condition under confinement as well as a contribution to the (de)construction of the psychological puzzle film.
Another outcome of the project was a further research question: Could this process of embedded in-situ narrative filmmaking be developed into an alternative pedagogical approach to teaching fiction filmmaking? The experience suggests there are viable and valuable alternatives to the dominant ideology of fiction film education with the conventional one person, one role system. The embedded filmmaker approach and its emergent 360-degree method of analysis could provide students with opportunities to explore genre, cinematic and narrative techniques from a broader perspective, potentially gaining a greater understanding of the film production process and the relevance of storytelling, structure and narrative techniques.
At the time of writing, the film was an Official Selection at the L.A. Neo-Noir Film Festival, as well as winning Best Supporting Actor at the World Film Carnival in Singapore. It is currently on general release and available with CC subtitles.
In terms of film education, I will use this filmmaking approach in upcoming modules, analysing and evaluating its impact on teaching and learning, and will report the findings via symposia and conferences. The long-term aim is to develop an alternative teaching model that can be adapted across a range of practice-based programmes in further and higher education.
In line with REF, it provides a template for the viewer to re-evaluate their own experience of confinement and to create their own stories and narratives in response. As such, I intend to develop this model as a technique for filmmakers to learn more about their approach to storytelling using the production as a reflective enquiry – in and of itself – into their own filmmaking.
Bordwell, D. (2008) Poetics of Cinema. USA: Routledge
Bordwell, D. (2011) ‘Never the Twain Shall Meet: Why can’t cinephiles and academics just get along?’ Filmcomment [online]. Available from https://www.filmcomment.com/article/never-the-twain-shall-meet (Accessed: 13/1/2022)
Carter, P. (2010) Interest: The Ethics of Invention. In: Barrett, E., & Bolt, B., eds, Practice as research: approaches to creative arts enquiry. London: I.B. Tauris. Available at http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=676435.
Conard, M.T., ed, (2006a) The Philosophy of Film Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press
Conard, M.T. (2006b) Nietzsche and the Meaning and Definition of Noir. In: Conard, M.T., ed, The Philosophy of Film Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press
Conard, M.T., ed, (2007) The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press
Coplan, A. (2004) ‘Empathic Engagement with Narrative Fictions’. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. 62 (2), pp.141-152
Coplan, A. (2011) Understanding Empathy: Its Features and Effects. In: Coplan, A. and Goldie, P., eds, Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. USA: Oxford University Press.
Crofts, C. (2017) ‘Can Fiction Film Be Research’ Screenworks [online]. Available from https://screenworks.org.uk/can-fiction-film-be-research. (Accessed: 9/8/2021)
Eder, J. (2010) ‘Understanding Characters’. Projections. The Journal for Movies and Mind. 4 (1), pp.16-40.
Holt, J. (2006) A Darker Shade: Realism in Neo-Noir. In: Conard, M.T., ed, The Philosophy of Film Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press.
Knudsen, E. (2016) ‘The Total Filmmaker: thinking of screenwriting, directing and editing as one role’. New Writing, 13 (1), pp.109-129.
Leavy, P. (2014) Method Meets Art, Second Edition: Arts-Based Research Practice. New York: Guilford Publications.
Locke, J. (1998) An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. USA: Oxford University Press.
Panek, E. (2006). ‘The Poet and the Detective: Defining the Psychological Puzzle Film’. Film Criticism, 31 (1/2), pp.62-88.
Research Excellence Framework (2018) Draft guidance on submissions. United Kingdom: ref.ac.uk. Available from https://www.ref.ac.uk/media/1016/draft-guidance-on-submissions-ref-2018_1.pdf
Sanders, M.S. (2006) Film Noir and the Meaning of Life. In: Conard, M.T., ed, The Philosophy of Film Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press.
Smith, B. (2007) John Locke, Personal Identity, and Memento. In: Conard, M.T., ed, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press.
Spicer, A. (2007) Problems of Memory and Identity in Neo-Noir’s Existentialist Antihero. In: Conard, M.T., ed, The Philosophy of Neo-Noir. USA: University of Kentucky Press.
Sullivan, G. (2009) Making Space: The purpose and place of practice-led research. In: Smith, H., and Dean, R.T., eds, Practice-led research, research-led practice in the creative arts. U.K. Edinburgh University Press.
Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000, USA)
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows:
Review 1: Accept submission subject to minor revisions of written statement
This submission offers a detailed account of the process behind using narrative fiction to respond to and reflect on the impact of confinement during Covid-19 lockdowns.
The author offers an insight into the development and implementation of narrative fiction as a research method and makes a convincing case for its potential use to generate findings.
The scholarship used is relevant and provides a thorough contextualisation for this approach. The sources cited are diverse, ranging from philosophy to film and research methodologies.
The structure of the statement is clear and comprehensive and overall, it flows well.
The outcomes and sections could be expanded to include more details on how the film and the process of making it will be disseminated with the filmmaking community and other groups that might be interested in using a similar approach. Also, it would be useful to mention if there are any plans to reach a broader audience and the steps taken to increase accessibility (i.e. subtitles or captions for deaf or hard of hearing people and audio descriptions for visually impaired people).
I would suggest a more critical discussion of the perceptions about narrative film as entertainment and acknowledging the many nuances surrounding different film types and genre.
Finally, I believe the statement would benefit from a bit more self-reflexivity and discussion of the challenges of having multiple roles: as filmmaker, protagonist and researcher. In particular, how did these roles emerge at various times throughout the project and what did each experience add to the process? What kind of findings were generated from the making of the film and if there were any challenges in understanding or analysing the data obtained in this way?
Review 2: Invite resubmission with major revisions of practical work and/or written statement.
The themes of unreliable memory and uncertain identity are a rich basis for film noir and this short feature taps into these tropes but fails to deliver the style or impact. Some of the issues here are intricately tied to the unusual production limitations which the filmmaker writes that he wished to explore. Lock-down, and its attendant stresses of time and identity, severely limited the filmmaker’s ability to make narrative films, but in necessity, he writes, he turned to making a film to re-stabilize his own sense of sense through his practice, which offers potentially rich material. Stuck at home with some filmmaking equipment and a fellow actor, he made do, but the severe limitations of a small flat in England with no crew are not transcended here.
Turning to film noir, as he argues, makes sense because of its explorations of time and unreliable narrators, but the genre relies heavily on a stylized mise-en-scene and cinematography. Here the filmmaker shoots in small, bare rooms. He chooses black and white for much of the film but rather than stark contrast and deep shadows there is flat, low-contrast lighting revealing too much. Narrative can offer a significant pleasure but the film also falters in this area. The film is dialogue-heavy, with an ongoing conversation with an unidentified person via a phone-call. Much of this lacks subtext and there is little dramatic urgency. There is an interesting relationship with a woman and this offers potential drama, but she seems unconvinced by her role and there is too little for her to do. The plot does slip between past and present, offering tantalizing glimpses of another reality, but we are not sufficiently emotionally engaged by the male actor. His story is too obscure and his predicament too unclear for us to care.
The scholarly statement is of interest, but there are three research questions and it would have been more beneficial to speak to one only and in more depth. To a certain extent the filmmaker does explore how narrative film can ‘unravel and reorder the shifting imbalance of time and memory’ felt during lock-down. He then posits the question if his embedded film approach would allow him to reflect on and understand his experience of confinement, and engage the audience in a similar process of reflection and (re)stabilisation of identity. He answers in the positive for himself, but the second half of this question is not possible to answer here. Finally, he asks the pertinent question if this model of filmmaking could be used as a learning or coping mechanism for filmmakers and audience, and developed as a pedagogical model. This does seem to offer a good model for locked-down filmmakers, but only for audiences if the resulting work speaks to them. It could offer a teaching model. But if one of the key roles of narrative film is, as he writes, to create identification and empathy, then this is perhaps too difficult to do under such limited circumstances.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response.