Childish Props and Crying Puppets: Fictionalised Feelings in Film

by deerinthexenonarclights

Childish Props and Crying Puppets: Fictionalised Feelings in Film


The term ‘Fiction’ taken literally translates to mean a construction, a falsehood; taken literarily it means a narrative construction, an imagination. Film, unlike all other artistic mediums, consists entirely of fictions; those stories that seek to depict the veritable truth or reality of a situation are segmented into their own distinct category, the documentary (though many would argue that these too are in their own ways constructed). Where novels tend to have clear and present boundaries between the ‘true’ and the imagined film is much more mercurial. This is nowhere more true than in those filmic adaptations of ‘true stories’ such as the Biopic or the Historical Epic; real people and events similacrized for the screen. When their film Fargo was first released the Coen brothers came under some criticism for their use of the common legal preface ‘The following is based on a true story…’ when they had in fact simply scripted the film from inside their own imaginations. When asked whether or not the events depicted ever did actually occur Ethan Coen retorted that the title card was simply another frame in the film and was therefore as ‘true’ as any of the others; when pressed further he stated that “Well… it’s true that it’s a story.” (Coen 1997) Their purportedly phoney use of the preface and the reactions to the furore are on the surface simple examples of that trademark otherworldly wit that the brothers possess, but beneath the humour there seems something more to them. ‘It’s true that it’s a story,’ what exactly does that mean? What does it entail philosophically? Can a story truly be ‘true’, or is there something inherently inaccurate about them? If so, can they not still get at or reveal something true through their falsities?

If we are to believe then that, true or not, all fictions are falsehoods, then with each trip to the cinema and each flick of the channel we are, as a species, lying to ourselves; but if this is the case, then why would we continue to do so? Nietzsche stated, in relation to much earlier forms of fiction, that “It is now the lie that performs the task of making life bearable. Art – ‘in which precisely that lie is sanctified and the will to deception has a good conscience’ (Nietzsche 1969b: 153) – beautifies life by interposing a veil of lies between us and truths about the world that we cannot bear. … It is in this non-metaphysical spirit that he remarks, in a famous unpublished note of 1888, that ‘we possess art lest we perish of the truth.’ (Nietzsche 1968b: 435)” (Berrios 2001, 77) There must then be something within these fictions, these narrative constructions, that we human beings can derive pleasure from: a kind of Kantian beauty perhaps, an escape from the feelings of our own ‘true’ reality or maybe just a kind of cathartic release that is therin unavailable. Regardless of the ‘what?’ – which is by nature subjective to both the piece of art and the person audiencing it, and thus an unattainable standard – the why is always the same; we watch because it provides us with a uniquely available emotional response, a response that we enjoy.

Esteemed aesthetic theorist Kendall Walton specialises in the study of these emotional responses and the many multiplicities therein and he refers to them as “make-believe emotions” (Walton 1990, 11). He uses the term “Make-believe” because, to him, these feelings elicited by the art are not the ‘true’ emotions that we would otherwise know, but are rather something more akin to ‘fictional feelings’. This is due to the fact that art, to Walton, is simply representational and thus cannot be truly reciprocal in the way that we imagine it to be; the characters on screen in a film then are not people to us but props, puppets for the omniscient director to play with in front of us. Thus Walton’s chosen definition of the term fictional is as follows, “[something] true in the appropriate game of make-believe” (Walton 1990, 44). So to Walton then these feelings are simply figments of our imaginations, only as real as a daydream, and therefore they are inferior to those other ‘true’ emotions that we feel throughout our everyday lives. This idea of prioritising certain sects of emotion other others is a point of contention with Walton’s critics but for me it simply raises the question; by what scientific standard can one measure the validity of a feeling?

The only objective markers that can be academically traced are those physiological ones and they are, as Walton himself admits, as ever presently evoked by film as by life; when we watch a horror movie our bodies tense up, we sweat, scream and sometimes we may even pass out or projectile vomit (though these are thankfully outlier cases, despite what the constant news reports surrounding some high profile films may suggest). So our bodies therefore believe the emotions to be true, though this should not be taken as evidence against Walton’s claim because our bodies are, in their own way, little more than puppets to our minds. Those physiological signs of feeling must be seen in a kind of Chicken-Egg ambiguity because our brains contain an awesome capacity for psychosomatics, we can purposefully, if subconsciously, set our bodies to act and feel in any number of ways: it is therefore just as likely that we feel scared because we are sweating than it is that we are sweating because we feel scared and as soon as we feel one it begins a feedback loop that then begets the other. Our bodies then cannot truly be trusted as a barometer of emotion and this is a commonly held belief by many aesthetic theorists: “Typically philosophical postmodernism is critical of the idea that the truth is attainable, if by that it is meant that it is possible to determine and so come to know how things really are, in and of themselves, by using our natural faculties.” (Novitz 2001, 161)

Funnily enough it is within this commonly held criticism of Walton’s work that one can find further proof of his points. Though the physiological symptoms of emotion are not conclusively for or against his theories of ‘make-believe’, those psychological elements dictating them are. The way in which we turn those signs –sweating, tenseness, shock – into emotion through simple interpretation and assumption – I am sweating, therefore I am scared –  despite knowing full well that they aren’t literally true – in that there is no real threat to trigger that survival instinct – is in a way a microcosmic take on Walton’s theories, one that takes place in a purely self-reflexive manner with our body acting as the primary prop. So there is certainly some theoretical merit to his point, however, when taken in this way it is barely his theory at all; it rather becomes a bastardized rendition of Representation Theory, or semiotics.

Semiotic theory states that everything we see is a symbol, that it is not a thing but a representation of that thing and in a roundabout way film – especially its ‘true’ stories – are perhaps the best representation of this that we have; in that what we see on a screen is not what it is, but rather just a representation of that thing – actors represent people, sets represent places, etc. “Since one cannot have unmediated access to things themselves, to brute facts, language is not constrained by an extra-linguistic world; rather ‘the play of signs’ creatively constructs what we mistakenly believe to be a world of brute reality.’ Thus we find in the work of Derrida a well-known attack on both the ‘metaphysics of presence’ and the ‘myth of logocentrism’: on the ideas, that is, that reality itself, real objects, real meanings can be directly present to us, and on the idea that these presences constrain the way in which people use language.’ (Novitz 2001, 165) Under this idea the entirety of the world is, as Walton would say, ‘make-believe’ in that everything around us is little more than a prop used to portray some assigned meaning and so to semanticists such as Derrida this idea of a prioritising system – of one set of emotions being ‘truer’ than another – would seem absurd.

The writings of these and other theoreticians worked to enact a paradigm shift into, what is now known as, the Post-Modern Era, a central tenet of which is the fact that there is no objective truth to be found in reality; therefore it is impossible for an artwork to reflect such a truth, regardless of medium or method. This does not however mean that there is simply no truth to be found in the world or the works within it no, instead they mean to say that we are left only with the subjective truths. Subjective truth is a notion almost impossible to define by its very nature, specifically the lack of common examples; I cannot point you, the reader, to any correct definition of the term because each definition is only correct in so much as your chosen perspective will allow it to be. What this means in terms of analysing film art is that while no one truth can be posited from any one piece that fact doesn’t disqualify it from providing an infinite number of potential truths from which the viewers subconscious surfaces those they are willing and able to see; each as valid as the other, including that of the artist himself. ‘When the artist has a representational intent, which is our current concern, this intention is fulfilled when it is possible for a properly sensitive, properly informed, spectator to see in the surface that the artist has marked the object that he intends to represent. Likewise the artist’s representational intentions are unfulfilled when it is impossible for an appropriate spectator to see that object in the picture.’ (Wollheim 2003, 12) For example, if you were to see in a painting the representation of an emotion through metaphor, than this wouldn’t be any less true then if you were to see the same emotion expressed through muscles on a fellow browsers face.

Arbitrarily speaking Walton is a ‘Post-Modern Theorist’ however his theory of the ‘make-believe’ stands in contrast to this too. That the emotions felt while watching a film would be seen as lesser than those felt outside is an idea contrary to the zeitgeist and yet there are pieces of both these theories deeply embedded in Walton’s own ‘make-believe’. “In places [Nietzsche] argued that perception itself is a metaphoric process, setting the stage for more recent discussions of the metaphoric structure of the arts. He argued that drawing the line demarcating the literal and the metaphorical is not itself a simple task, because common parlance is very heavily populated (so to speak) with dead metaphors, that is, metaphors that are no longer recognized for their novel insight-generating admixtures of terms. Non-philosophical instances are plentiful and unproblematic: we quite naturally now speak of a clock’s face and hands” (Hagberg 2001, 289). Walton is similairly capitulating in the centre between those who hold concrete views of reality and those who are willing to deconstruct it entire and this indistinction dilutes his message, despite the understandable difficulty of the task.  “Only by forgetting that primitive world of metaphors,”  as Nietzsche writes, “only by the congelation and coagulation of an original mass of similes and precepts pouring fourth as a fiery liquid out of the primal faculty of human fancy … does [man] live with some repose, safety and consequence” (Nietzsche 1911, 18) and to my mind Walton’s theory of the ‘make-believe’ lacks such repose as consequence.

Walton later furthers his thesis by stating that “Imagining aims at the fictional as belief aims at the true. What is true is to be believed; what is fictional is to be imagined.” (Walton 1990, 77); his aesthetic philosophy is seemingly then a very internalised one, he places the majority of the responsibility on the audiences mind rather than on the screen; to him it is us that create the emotions and not the director; how then do films continue to elicit such cohesive responses (as, for the most part a successful horror movie will scare the majority of its audience, a successful comedy humour most of its, etc.)? If in fact there is any kind of causality to be found in these commonly held reactions then the connection made must be between the content and the characterised response, to assume anything else is to deny the simplest solution. In writing’s Walton does not entirely dismiss the content of the representation as meaningless, he does in fact dedicate some time to describing the differing natures of possible props, he doesn’t however end them the credence that they truly deserve. There is a difference between watching a film and watching people pass by on the street or some other such activity and this again brings us back to that term ‘fiction’. Films as a construction consist of specifically chosen moments that are created in a purposeful manner; therefore when you feel something while watching a film it is not simply because of a fiction that you have personally imagined but because the film itself has successfully evoked that emotion from you using one of many different cinematic techniques. In this way we are just as much the director’s toy, a puppet on his strings, as any of those other props.

What Walton seems to be saying, at heart, is that because films cannot ever really tell a ‘true’ story then we can also never really feel ‘true’ emotions for them, but this simply isn’t true. Certainly we do empathise best with ourselves and thus we care most about us and what happens to us than we do a character but this is simply the definition of a sliding scale and not, as Walton purports, a segregated one: “Representational content is experiential, but it is not the product of illusion,” (Wollheim 2003, 9). The truth is that, as Wollheim puts it, “We can see things in objects that were neither intended to be, nor are believed by us to be representations. … A painting represents whatever can be correctly seen in it.” (Wollheim 2003, 6) Therefore, if a film makes us feel something then regardless of whether or not the feeling came from a solidly ‘true’ source it was a ‘true’ feeling. So while Directors cannot yet jerk our strings about as strongly as the external gales and geists of actual life there is a pull there nevertheless, and to make believe anything else is folly.


Berrios, R & Ridley, A 2001, ‘Nietzsche’, in B Gaut and D McIver Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, London, pp 75-86

Walton, Kendall L. “Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts”. Harvard University Press, 1990

Novitz, D 2001, ‘Postmodernism: Barthes and Derrida’, in B Gaut & D McIver Lopes (eds), The Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, London, pp. 155-65

Wollheim, R 2003, ‘In defence of seeing-in,’ in H Hecht, R Schwartz & M Atherton (eds), Looking into Pictures: an interdisciplinary approach to pictorial space, MIT press, London, pp 1-15.

Hagberg, GL 2001, ‘Metaphor’, in B Gaut and D McIver Lopes (eds), The Routledge companion to Aesthetics, Routledge, London, pp 285-95.

Nietsche, F 1911, On Truth and Falsity in their Ultramoral Sense, in The Complete Nietzsche, London, Allen and Unwin