I saw myself seeing myself – 2001: A Space Odyssey and the point of view of the missing spectator

I’ve had several discussions with students recently about the meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, in particular the end section of the film. In response to those discussions I’ve written an article on this that might go some way in helping understanding the most famous part of Kubrick’s masterpiece.


In an important series of articles in Cahiers du Cinema  (1969), Jean Pierre Oudart  proposed that Lacan’s notion of the subject suturing the lack opened up by enunciation with an imagined entirety, seemed to describe the circumstances of cinema spectating rather well. Oudart argued that when a shot appears on screen it is greeted with jubilation – invoking the mirror stage of Lacanian psychoanalysis – that is however short lived, for there is no imaginary without the symbolic. The initial experience of plenitude gives way to a sense of absence, an anxiety brought about by the realisation of space beyond the boundary of the frame. The image is no longer innocently there; it is there for someone.1 The question then arises, who is the missing spectator whose point of view this is?

What answers this question and annuls the anxiety are the formal systems of point of view and shot reverse-shot, allowing the spectator to identify the absent one as a character within the fiction. This sutures the rupture in the initial relation of image to spectator, and envelops cinematic discourse within the imaginary.

This essay will look at how the point of view and shot reverse-shot structures articulate narrative space in a 2001:A Space Odyssey, and how the spectator is bound into the chain of discourse when the normal suturing mechanisms are subjected to severe codic disruption. It will examine Branigan’s theories of point of view and subjectivity, as well as Heath’s writings on narrative space and suture and suggest that, to understand how these systems work in 2001, the concept of a content-free discussion of point of view and narrative construction has to be modified. The essay will approach these questions from the perspective of Lacanian psychoanalysis, draw on Lacan’s work on the origin of lack and the constitution of the subject, and examine how these ideas impact on the point of view figure in 2001.

The essay will first summarise Branigan’s work in Point of View in the Cinema (1984), and Heath’s discussion of point of view and suture in Questions of Cinema (1981), then examine Lacan’s theories regarding the construction of the subject and how the scopic drive and the experience of lack play a central role in the narrative structuring of 2001. The essay will argue that the suturing process, due to its reliance on the conventions of point of view and shot reverse-shot, is disrupted, leading to a spectatorial position that mirrors the sense of lack and unreality presented in the diegesis.2  The climax of the film sutures the front and end sections together to reveal the absent one as the point of view from which the narrative is authorised. 2001  then, can be seen as the quest of the subject to overcome lack by recovering the lost object of pre-symbolic union. The essay will propose that the lack of character subjectivity and the defamiliarisation of the point of view and shot reverse-shot conventions leads to one situating the look of the point of view figure in the concept of the ‘absent other’3 .

The category of point of view is one of the most important means of structuring narrative discourse, developing character subjectivity and establishing narrative space. The general mode of the point of view shot shows what is being looked at, and who is doing the looking. The rules of continuity, point of view, shot-reverse shot and editing, were developed to maintain an imaginary coherence, permitting the spectator’s belief in the integrity of the space, the logical sequence of time and the ‘reality’ of the fictive universe. The spectator’s fictive participation thus hinges on a perceived spatial coherence – fragmentary images are given a logical consistency because they are subordinated to a causal sequence of narrative events. Heath refers to this process as the “conversion of seen into scene,”4  in which vision itself is dramatised, staged as a narrated(and therefore meaningful) spectacle before the viewer.

The spectator’s ability to construct this space is based on the series of looks that are primarily negotiated through the shot-reverse shot and point of view structures – the central means by which the look is inscribed into the cinematic fiction. The look of the camera, the look of the spectator, and the intradiegetic look of each character within the film, combine in a complex system which shapes vision and meaning, defining the visible things of cinema. Cinema turns on this series of looks, writes Heath (1981), and the exchange of looks, most commonly seen in conversation situations, is described through the convention of the shot, reverse-shot structure. This implies an alternation of images between the seeing and the seen, the point of view shot anchoring the image in the vision and perspective of one or other characters. The spectator thus identifies with someone who is always off screen, an absent ‘Other’ whose main function is to signify a space to be occupied.

In Point of View in Cinema (1984) Branigan argues for the subjective ingredient in all point of view structures, including author, reader, character and narrator. “Subjectivity is the process of knowing a story – telling it and perceiving it.”5 The thrust of his argument is to locate the spectator as the fundamental organising agency, who through the various levels of narration, makes sense of the fictional world. Organisation is achieved through what he terms ‘levels of narration’. These levels have a hierarchical ordering that work to locate the spectator as the main organising agency of the text.

Point of view, then, governs the capacity of the spectator to form hypotheses regarding the intelligibility of any particular narrative level and thence, narration in general. Branigan sees point of view, and from that the production of subjectivity, as the most significant aspect of narrative structure.  He states that – “There is a strange, almost circular relation here because a character in the story appears to be telling the story; that is narration and narrative are all bound up together in character subjectivity so that each appear to guarantee the others’ existence – and truth. Put another way, the text uses a series of spaces to represent character in order to represent through character those same spaces.”6

It is well known that the lack of a central character in 2001, indeed, the lack of any human point of identification whatsoever, led many critics to voice serious doubts about the film. Kubrick was accused of being deliberately ambiguous to hide the fact that the film was merely an excuse for special effects, that it had no story line, and no characters for the audience to identify with. Many criticisms were targeted at the portrayal of mankind as simply a bland, emotionless clay in the hands of a God-like alien force, feeling that the film lacked any humanity.

It might be argued that in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film the computer HAL 9000, is presented as the only feeling, thinking being in the film – “I can feel it, I can feel my mind going”. This is continually emphasised by means of point of view and shot reverse-shot editing. While the voice is, to a some degree, responsible for this focalisation, the continual point of view cutting and emphasis placed on the image of HAL’s glowing eye, denote a visual system traditionally used to describe character. This foregrounding of HAL as a narrative actant7 emphasises the importance of the point of view figure to classical cinema, demonstrating the way it constructs character out of the point of view and shot-reverse shot convention, and from the character constructs a narrator who appears to authorise the sequence of shots from within the textual system. HAL is portrayed as a supra-biological step for consciousness and intelligence that ultimately, is doomed to failure in much the same way as our subjective investment in his character is frustrated by his ‘death’. We are led into a regime of belief on both textual and contextual grounds through our understanding of the systems of classical cinema that, in the end, turns out to be misplaced.

How then is the narrative constructed when it has seemingly no defined or consistent character or point of view to construct it through and where the narrative appears to be constructed independent of the characters within the film? To locate the true structuring principle behind 2001 this essay will look beyond the constraints of Branigan’s work on point of view and approach it’s analysis from a less ‘content-free’ perspective. The fictional world of 2001 impacts directly onto the formal elements of the film, and these must be taken into account in any discussion of the analysis of its narrative. Stephen Heath’s work on suture provides the framework by which this analysis can move forward.

For Heath, suture specifies narrative’s concern with the constitution of the subject through division and lack. That is, the experience of lack and drive towards unity that characterise narrative, exactly figure the experience of the subject in language. Suture is an element in all discourse; for discourse to be intelligible suturing must occur. In film, discursive structures, especially point of view and shot reverse-shot, must be contained by suturing if they are to be coherent. Also, suturing must be continual, as each discursive structure opens up a gap or absence.

By taking the somewhat formalist arguments of Branigan regarding point of view and narrative, and re-reading them in psychoanalytic terms – especially Lacan’s – Heath presents a more coherent model of how the subject constructs, and is constructed by narrative. This model provides a clearer insight into the workings of point of view and suture in 2001, even though at first, its application appears somewhat problematic.

In 2001  these processes of textual and subjective construction seem to be disrupted, as the point of view and shot reverse-shot system are radically altered by the invasion of the diegesis upon the cinematic apparatus. This open and un-sutured structure of signification leads to an ambiguity of space and subjectivity. The identity of the point of view is not revealed to the spectator in the normal shot reverse-shot format, the absent one remains absent, lack is opened up and not sutured. This asks the question that if the normal process of suturing is disrupted, how is the narrative discourse made coherent, and where does this place the spectator? To answer this question this essay will first look at the fundamental psychoanalytic component of point of view – and hence of suture – that of the scopic drive.

The privileging of the role of point of view in narrative construction consequently puts the scopic drive at the forefront of this inquiry. The scopic drive – along with what Lacan termed the invocatory drive, the desire to hear – is heavily dependent on lack, not only in that it supports a hopeless search for the lost object, but also that it must maintain a necessary distance from it’s object.

Lacan (1978) argues that the child is born into lack, what he terms the manque a etre – the want to be; the ensuing life of the subject consists of a series of attempts to overcome this lack, an undertaking that is doomed to failure. Though the configuration and experience of lack may alter, the basic reality is constant. Throughout its life the subject will attempt to recapture the imagined entirety that it felt was present in it’s union with the mother. It is a search for that which will overcome the lack, the missing component Lacan terms l’objet petit a , and whose most obvious object is the breast. This stands as a representation of what is ultimately unrepresentable, in that the object that could overcome the lack is nonexistent – is always absent.

In 2001  this representation is achieved by the appearance of the monolith, the ‘mother’ of the star child and indeed of the whole human race – the strive to touch it and know it becomes the mythical struggle – the struggle for the reunification with the mother and the final overcoming of lack. What makes 2001  unusual is that this representation is solid – it exists; it is the object of desire. The appearance of the monolith drives the narrative process, posing the central enigma and activating the hermeneutic code. It can also be seen as a Lacanian mirror, in that it marks the separation of the hominids – infant humans – from the mother-Earth. The fact that the monolith initiates the narrative, as a catapulting of the human race into history – into language – further enhances this connection.

The monolith in fact becomes a focus for the questions,‘what is being looked at’ and ‘who is doing the looking’?; the questions that the point of view shot poses for the spectator, and which reverberate through all the sections of the film. Here the point of view figure operates in perfect unison with the hermeneutic code. The look of the Other, entering from outside the frame is represented in the form of the monolith – an extra-terrestrial scrutiny. 2001  then turns the point of view code – the camera as narrator – into an element of the diegesis. The external vision which seems to be shaping the destinies of the characters, and which is represented by the monolith, is not, for the spectator, satisfactorily integrated into the normal textual system. The code whereby the absent Other is integrated into the narrative space – the mechanism of suture – is distorted in order to emphasise this dislocated look, a transcendental vision that cannot be contained by the normal structuring systems of narrative and diegetic space.

                  2001  can then be described in terms of the alignment of two different aspects of the act of looking – the look of the hero – the human race -who attempts to know the world by seeing the world, and the look of the Other, the omnipresent scrutiny of the all seeing alien God. This interplay shapes the narrative patterns of 2001, the main sections all tend towards moments of vision, knowledge or insight, activated through the catalyst of the absent Other; Moonwatcher suddenly sees the pile of bones in front of him differently, and through a leap of imagination and intellect, visualises a use for an old bone as the first tool/weapon;  Dr. Floyd discovers the buried monolith and realises that it is the first evidence of extra-terrestrial life; HAL achieves sentience, ironically through the onset of psychosis, due to his knowledge of the true goal of the Jupiter Mission – a knowledge that had to remain hidden; Dave Bowman looks at himself in the process of transcendence, finally emerging, floating above planet Earth, as the star-child, his knowledge of himself, and of the universe, equivalent to that of a God.

The relationship between scopophilia and epistemophilia finds an ideal description in psychoanalysis, and sums up their positioning in the narrative structuring of 2001 – the desire for knowledge as a transformed expression of the scopic drive. The use of point of view in 2001  highlights this convergence of scopic and epistemic, and does so through the repeated motif of the eye.

Kubrick attaches enormous importance to the ocular image; of Moonwatcher, Hal, and Dave, who plunges through the Star Gate, the image of the eye is highlighted as the site of the convergence of these two drives – as vision is the vehicle for the exploration and mastery of the world, and the lens through which the self is perceived and recognised. In the final scene of 2001  these merge as the subject realises the ultimate and original goal of the scopic and epistemic drives, and trains his gaze on himself in a series of bravura point of view shots where he looks at himself becoming himself transcended.

The astronaut becomes identified with the camera, both present and absent from the scene. Dave casts his view out of the pod towards a version of himself perhaps twenty years older. He sees himself looking at himself. The camera assumes a position identical to that of the character looking. As the object of the look returns the glance, the camera , following the shot reverse-shot convention, assumes his point of view. The agent of the original look however has disappeared, lost in the space/time between the two shots. The position from where we were looking is shown to be empty – we are not where we think we are. The paradox Lacan associates with the division of the self in the scopic order, and which is expressed in the phrase “I saw myself seeing myself”, is realised by the astronaut who sees himself occupying two positions simultaneously. In 2001  the subject is discovered to be the object of the quest. The scopic impulse returns to its point of origin, finding its ultimate object and terminal point in the self. Here, the overarching theme of 2001  destabilises the diegetic construction, to make what is a classic shot succession, become strange and unsettling. The suturing mechanism is interrupted, making the assumption of the production of a subjective camera, and hence of a discreet spectatorial position, open to question.

The point of view code here, works to increase the sense of spatial and temporal aberration, portrayed in the fictional world of the narrative. The shot succession that usually establishes the point of view figure undergoes a radical transformation. However, the text retains a classic homogeneity of form and diegesis, as the disruption of the point of view structure, although extreme, works to express the alien nature of the astronauts situation. In Thierry Kuntzel’s words – “The excess is a natural excess; the signifier is never uselessly squandered; its dispersion always mimics a diegetic dispersion.”8

This final scene leaves the film open to many interpretations. The Star-Child represents, in the portrayal of a transcendent state, and the complete absence of speech, a movement beyond the symbolic, beyond language, to a state as yet un-theorised. However, the image of the cosmic fetus also suggests a return to a pre-symbolic unity, as the Odyssey, the quest for l’objet petit a , reaches a euphoric conclusion. While the nature of the text defies any concrete rationale of its meaning, this essay would suggest that the latter interpretation most closely mirrors the spectators positioning within the text. We are returned to a space that we recognise as home, and the camera, as if to emphasise this return to conventional space, performs a 180 degree pan from the image of the Earth to the close-up of the star-child hovering above it; the  convention of the shot reverse-shot is reinstated – performed as a camera movement. For the spectator, the absent one is revealed, no longer missing.

In conclusion, 2001  hinges ultimately on the allegorising of lack – of the loss of unity between the quest for knowledge and the retention of humanity. It achieves this through the disruption of the cinematic conventions whereby subjectivity and character identification are achieved – the apparatus of point of view and suture.

The question that Raymond Bellour asks in reference to the system of the classical film, “How does the end reply to the beginning?”9  provides the framework by which the image is promoted, and the narrative structured. The absence of language is the key – both sections portraying ape/man at a juncture on an evolutionary road: the apes in a pre-verbal existence, in Lacanian terms, a stage that is pre-symbolic; while the astronaut is at a moment of exit from language, a shedding of the skin of linguistic dependency, a symbolic transcendence. This demoting of the spoken word, promotes the camera as the formative narrative agent. The point of view figure, while being virtually nonexistent as a means of character development and subjectivity, is highlighted through the severe codic disruption that it undergoes.

From a structural perspective, all this seems to position 2001  well outside the mainstream of Hollywood cinema, yet the fact that Bellour’s paradigm works equally well in this film, shows just why 2001  persistently maintains it’s interpretive ambiguity. The normal suturing processes and point of view codes of classical cinema, that constantly construct and reconstruct space to maintain the internal coherence of the fictional world, are severely distorted in 2001, and could easily lead to it being interpreted as an avant-garde text. Yet by moving away from a purely ‘content-free’ discussion of the narrative, and towards an analysis that combines the formal and contextual elements of the film, this essay has shown how – as in classical cinema – these elements position the spectator in such a way as to elucidate the thematic content of the film.

That content is an Odyssey centred around the terms of lack. The apes exist in a state of pre-symbolic union with the mother Earth. The discovery of the bone/weapon/tool marks the split or division from the idealised union with the mother-Earth, mirroring the split of child from mother and the emergence of lack, a split which catapults man into language, into a digital wilderness. The middle sections highlight this division and lack through the psychological development of the character of HAL, and the de-humanised portrayal of an automaton-like human race. The final section then returns man to a euphoric state that is a transcendent consciousness, reborn as the star-child, into a state of cosmic homogeneity that marks a return of the lost object – a negation of lack.

In this final scene it might seem as if the suturing mechanism that binds the subject-spectator into the chain of discourse becomes ‘unstitched’. The off-screen space that is normally made coherent by the shot reverse-shot system, is ruptured by the impossibility of the subject’s positioning within the text; as De Lauretis states, “We see the image we do not see the gaze; one can look at her looking but one cannot look at oneself looking”.10   The system of looks that bind the viewer into relations of meaning and desire, could be seen as somewhat problematic, when the point of view and shot reverse-shot system that enables them is so dislocated. However, the homogeneity of formal and thematic elements highlights the completely alien nature of the fictional world, and successfully sutures the spectator into the complex signifying system. Dave Bowman not only looks at himself looking at himself, but that look is returned to us as spectators, as we are positioned as the subject of our own look. Here the suture finally occurs, as the front and end sections of the film are joined, the disequilibrium resolved as the Star Child is revealed as the absent one, now visible, and the space once again made ‘real’.

Point of view then, and the suturing mechanism that it supports, reveal us ultimately to be the object of our own look – our own search and desire. The collision of the scopic and epistemic drives finally find their nodal point of condensation in this look. The Odyssey becomes a search for knowledge of the world, and through that ultimately of oneself. It is also a search for that euphoric state of union represented in the image of the monolith. The spectator becomes part of the Other, part of the absent space, the unidentified point of view that was previously so elusive, now no longer missing. It underlines the constant suturing process of division and lack that is the basis of narrative cinema, and that, in the birth of the Star Child and the transcendence of the self, are resolved into a state of cosmic unity.





1. LAPSLEY. R and WESTLAKE. M; Film Theory: an Introduction. 1988, Manchester University Press. p87


2. On it’s release, 2001 was heralded as the last word in ‘realistic’ depictions of space and space travel. This ontological reading of the fictional world of 2001 places a heavy emphasis on the image – naturally enough since there is less than forty minutes of dialogue in the whole film, and what there is, presents little narrative illumination. However, the absence of language is the key to what this essay describes as the ‘unreality’ of the diegesis. Lacan’s rereading of Saussure suggests that the world of words creates the world of things. The demotion of the speech act in 2001 denies this linguistic basis. The spectator is subjectively excluded from the fictional world, having no ontological relation to the image –  the distant past and the uncertain future – and no character with whom to identify. The abandonment of generic codes heightens this. Dave Bowman reacts in a completely automaton like manner to the murder of his fellow astronaut, Frank Poole. The character shows no emotion whatsoever – no anger, grief or sadness. He does not speak. Without the realm of language whereby the spectator can ‘create the world of things’, the production of verisimilitude is limited. Coupled with scenes that are outside normal experience – space travel, pre-history – the diegesis presents an un-natural, un-real world to the spectator.


3. For Lacan, the concept of the Other is the unconscious site of speech, discourse, signification and desire. Eagleton (1983) states; “…The Other is that which, like language, is always anterior to us and will always escape us, that which brought us into being in the first place”. This can be related to the absent other of the theorists of suture. In 2001, the spectator is never clearly aware of whose point of view is being stated. The idea of the point of view being located in the concept of the Other, mirrors the enunciative source that is always present as an invisible discursive agency in every cinematic construction. In 2001, this omnipotent, invisible agent becomes part of the diegesis – the alien civilisation whose hand controls and shapes the destinies of the human race.


4. HEATH. S; Questions of Cinema. 1981 Macmillan Press Ltd. p37


5. BRANIGAN. E; Point of View in Cinema. 1984 Mouton Publishers. p1


6. Op.cit. p177


7. Greimas (1971 – ‘Narrative Grammar – Units and Levels’. Modern Language Notes, number 86.) developed a paradigmatic structure of characters – he called them Actants – that were classified not by who they are but by what they do – similar to Propp in some ways. This matrix of six actants were then coupled into binary oppositions:-

Subject/Object  –   Helper/Opponent  –  Donor/Receiver

They participate in three main semantic axes which are – Communication, Desire or Quest, and Ordeal or Struggle.

2001 could be an interesting test of this model due to its lack of a central human character. HAL is presented as the only truly defined character, and as such, works as an important counterpoint, or perhaps binary opposition, to the de-humanised portrayal of the human characters.



8. KUNTZEL. T; ‘The Film Work 2’. Camera Obscura, number 5, 1980. p49


9. BELLOUR. R; ‘Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion’. Camera Obscura, number 3/4, 1979.


10. De LAURETIS. T; Alice Doesn’t. 1984 Macmillan Press Ltd. p142































BAXTER. J; Science Fiction in the Cinema.  1970 A.S. Barnes.


BRANIGAN. E;  Point of View in Cinema. 1984 Mouton Publishers.


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CARROLL. N; Mystifying Movies. 1988 Columbia University Press.


De LAURETIS. T; Alice Doesn’t. 1984 Macmillan Press Ltd.


FREUD. S; Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. 1962 Chatto and Windus.


HEATH. S; Questions of Cinema.. 1981 Macmillan Press Ltd.


LACAN. J; Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. 1978 Norton Press.


LAPSLEY. R and WESTLAKE. M; Film Theory: An Introduction. 1988 Manchster University Press.


METZ. C; Psychoanalysis and Cinema: The Imaginary Signifier. 1975 Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd.


SOBCHAK. V; The Address of the Eye. 1992 Princeton University Press.


STAM. R; New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics. 1992 Routledge.


WALKER. A; Stanley Kubrick Directs. 1971 Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich.


YOUNGBLOOD. G; Expanded Cinema. 1970 E.P. Dutton, New York.









BELLOUR. R; ‘Psychosis, Neurosis, Perversion’. Camera Obscura, number 3/4, 1979.


MULVEY. L; ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. Screen , 16, number 3, Autumn 1975.


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STRICK. P; ‘Review of 2001: A Space Odyssey’. Sight and Sound, 37, 1968,

number 3.


ZOLLOF. M; ‘Review of 2001: A Space Odyssey’. Film Culture, 1970.  number 48,





Everyone Loves Chris (well almost)

When I started script reading for studios like Universal and Columbia Tri-Star (that shows you just how long ago that was!) Christopher Vogler had not long written his famous story memo to the executives at Disney. True to the time, I often bemoaned the lack of structure in the screenplays I read, shaking my head at the writer who didn’t tie down his Meeting the Mentor with sufficient voracity. That was  a long time ago now but The Hero’s Journey seems to be as popular as ever with aspiring writers, and many studio executives.

The Hollywood love affair with Vogler and mythic structure is based upon the need to mitigate risk. Structural applications imply  a method, a system for ensuring the quality of a script and hence, that the film works – that it will appeal to the widest audience.

If stories can be analysed structurally then we will have a quantitative method for creating screenplays as opposed to a qualitative system based upon objectivity and judgment.

We will have a scientific method that by implication has repeatability.

If there is a system, a series of elements that if followed will result in a great script and translate into guaranteed box office success, then every studio executive will take it.

The concept that mythic structures are at the heart of all great storytelling is very appealing to an industry where, for as long as films have been in theatres, high concept, big budget films have inexplicably flopped.

Why is it that supposedly sure fire hits fail to find an audience and hence make a profit? The answer, unfortunately is complex and cannot be boiled down to a simple methodology. Films are confluences of creative, societal, economic and cultural elements that all have to come together to create the hit movie. The problem is that all these elements exist in a state of flux, in a hugely dynamic system – the entertainment industry. Films in general have a long production time – going from concept right through to screen. During that time social, economic and cultural changes all impact on the possible resonance a film has with an audience.

Now this might seem like an ideal scenario for a storytelling system that posits  the eternal nature of all human storytelling. The issue once again though comes back to how an audience relates to what happens on the screen, how they give themselves over to the story.

The problem with all structural arguments is that an audience primarily relates to any story through its central character, not through its narrative structure. This is also a two way street. Just as the audience will access the story through their relationship with the protagonist, the writer then can reach back through the character to touch the audience. This relationship is crucial to the success of any story and this has to be the primary factor in constructing a story.

Mythic concepts subvert the primacy of character to simply an actant within a predetermined paradigm, and therefore subverts the most powerful tool for engaging an audience – that of the protagonist. Structure is important but must be viewed as an overall movement, not as a predetermined series of actions. It is character that creates actions and plot movement not structure.

Structuralist proponents of mythologies such as Vladimir Prop opened up the idea of mythic structure to the world of film in the late 1960’s when his 1928 book The Morphology of the Folktale was revived by critical theorists.

These ideas and have more recently been taken up by a number of different writers using mythic structure as a formula for creating successful screenplays. The concept is that mythic structure is the power behind all great films, from Star Wars to Casablanca. But what is it that makes Star Wars or Casablanca or Brief Encounter  such great films. Is it the application of mythic structure or is it the power of great characters, of oppositions creating conflict and change? I would argue that it is the latter.

The defense of mythic structuring often contends that not all films will use every step and that some elements of the structure will be in a different order. If elements can be missed out or changed round then what happens to the structure? Paradigmatic flexibility to me seems something of an oxymoron.

The point of all this is not to dismiss the idea of mythic structure and the importance these narrative theories have for writers. Vogler’s excellent book The Writers Journey gives us an explanation and guide to the process of these structural applications. Mythical structures do work in helping writers think about the movement of stories. My point is that the structural aspects of character are equally, if not more important.

Most criticism of Campbell’s monomyth – the Hero’s Journey – centres on the highly generalized and universal claims it makes about narrative structures and the act of creating plot through fixed points. It has been roundly criticized for the lack of originality and the abundance of clichés in many popular fictions.

However, structural devices such as those proposed by Christopher Vogler and Syd Field do provide a valuable starting point for creating a strong framework for plot construction. What is vital is that character, and the narrative aspects associated with that, offer a way of avoiding the problems that over adherence to monomyth structure creates.

This is one of the problems associated with using mythic structure to design the movement of the story. Mythic structure assumes a certain level of fixed character, something that is not consistent with the concept of character arc and change. Mythic structure uses actions as the basis of story construction. It does this because motifs, persons and objects can change from story to story, so the only constant, the framework in which to pour the variable elements, is based on plot actions.

This inevitably means that structure is not based on character design and change but on predetermined action points. Instead of treating a character as a person with a capacity for action and change, mythic structure treats him or her as simply an effect of structure. One common problem among writers is the assumption that dramatic structure is somehow a predetermined framework in which to pour the premise. What is narrative structure after all? It is the movement of story across a temporal frame of reference.  Story is created by character and played out across a time period. Structure is the assemblage of the plot across time in such a way as to tell the story in the most dramatic and coherent way.

Structure therefore, is in some ways, singular and specific to that story. That might not be what many writers and studio executives want to hear as it goes against the concept of formula based storytelling.

A key problem here is that characters are not seen as a structural element in story design. All too often, narrative structures are put in place and characters created to fit these structures.

The power of a story exists in its relationship with its audience –whether that be in a cinema, a theatre or in a novel. Stories are always about people – about characters. The complexity and dynamics of the relationship between the protagonist and antagonist determines the dramatic core of fictional narratives.

The more powerful that relationship, the more powerful the story. Character design and choices decide action and plot, that then impacts on the character itself changing them and moving them on in their journey.

However, the movement is not circular – it is a spiral. This is a dialectical change. We do not return to the same point when an action or plot point occur, as the event will change the character – perhaps imperceptibly – but will change nevertheless. The character has changed and they then impact on the story in a slightly different way. The circular motion of character and plot interaction actually becomes a spiral. Two dimensional character arc becomes the three dimensional character spiral.

It is this character/plot dynamic that is at the heart of all storytelling.

Mythic structures can work, but it has to be understood that these theories came out of the critical study of folktales and not narrative in general. Their acceptance and attempted generalization by the critical theorists of the 1960’s have their origin in the wider structuralist movement so prevalent at the time. We can see the popularity of mythic structure as another element of the structuralist zeitgeist that gave rise to the application of linguistics to film theory and the work of theorists like Christian Metz and the Grand Syntagmatique.

In the era of Post Late Capitalism, these structuralist concepts seem too rigid and reductionist. Stories are about people and we relate to, and engage with, these stories on a human level.

When we leave the darkness of the movie theatre we remember that human drama. What lives with us are those great scenes – Rocky going the distance, Luke firing on the Death Star, Alec giving that last sad look to Laura as his train leaves the station. One thing we probably don’t remember is the excellent use of the Approach to the Innermost Cave!

Symposium No.4 Summary

What a busy week it was. The screening of PressPausePlay was well attended and had some interesting discussion at the end. Similarly, Crushing Snails was a challenge to conventional thinking and raised some interesting points about how to fund films in the future. I’ve Got This Idea For A Film was perhaps the most popular event of the week, with an incredible turnout coming to see how to make a movie in 72 hours. The discussion with Charlotte Hunt about the representation led to some good debate, more so than the actual debating session on the Wednesday, which was poorly attended. Thursday was John Bradburn’s ‘Death of Reality’ lecture, which raised some important questions about the volume of images that exist online and what we are to make of them all. The Creative England networking event in the evening was well attended in Birmingham, with many students getting experience of schmoozing for the first time. Friday saw the launch of Grand Independent and a screening of A Saharan Diary. Overall it was felt that the Symposium was a great success for those who attended, but that the majority of students weren’t getting the best out of the opportunity as they didn’t go to all of the events.

Symposium No. 4 ‘New Model Cinema’

Welcome to our fourth Film Technology Symposium. This year we are looking at new models of cinema and the ways in which our industry is changing. This is our biggest symposium yet – stretching out to encompass events that engage directly with businesses and industry. Please get involved and support these events!


Thursday 16th February @ 7.30pm

Mitchell Arts Centre, Stoke

Our Symposium opens with the groundbreaking partnership between local food producers and first year Film Technology students on a project to promote the region ahead of the 2012 Olympics. Over twenty short films have been made in a mix of documentary styles to highlight the quality of locally sourced food and where it is from. A chance to see their talents on the big screen!


Friday 17th February @ 2.30pm

F14 Ruxton Lecture Theatre, Stafford

Mat Appleton is the Head of Client Services at Envy Post and he sees a lot of CVs. He’s going to come and talk to students about what makes a good CV stand out from the rest. This is an essential opportunity to hear from a decision maker himself! Mat is a great speaker and direct with his responses – come with questions and you’ll get straight answers.


Monday 20th February @ 12 midday

Red Lecture Theatre, Stafford

The digital revolution of the last decade has unleashed creativity and talent in an unprecedented way, with unlimited opportunities. But does democratized culture mean better art or is true talent instead drowned out? This is the question addressed by PressPausePlay, a documentary film containing interviews with some of the world’s most influential creators of the digital era. The screening will be followed by a discussion of the themes.


Tuesday 21st February @ 10am

TV Studio, Stafford

James explores ‘transmedia’, ‘eventizing’ and ‘gamification’ in an attempt to see whether there are new ways we can engage with audiences and fund films. ‘Crushing Snails’ is still a work in progress but looks towards making movies differently in the digital age. If you are interested in experimentation in filmmaking processes – this is your lecture.


Tuesday 21st February @ 12 midday

TV Studio, Stafford

A chance to see the documentary where staff and students from Film Technology travelled to Australia to make a feature film in 72 hours. Described as ‘a journey in filmmaking, a DIY call to action and an intimate portrait of a director’, this documentary explores the price of getting our visions up on the big screen. The film will be followed by a discussion.


Tuesday 21st February @ 2.00pm

TV Studio, Stafford

A chance to see what the students have been making! If you want to screen something for the crowd, please come at 1.45pm to load it up. First come are the first served. We’ll watch them in the order you arrive!


Tuesday 21st February @ 3.00pm

TV Studio, Stafford

During the debates in last year’s Symposium a discussion developed over the portrayal of women within the media. The debate inspired one student to explore the issue further, and brought her into conflict with the Student Union over the sale of ‘lads mags’ in the student shop. The discussion gets picked up again here. This session goes to the core of our responsibilities as filmmakers and power of the media to change our perception of one another.


Tuesday 21st February @ 4.00pm

TV Studio, Stafford

The British Youth Film Academy offers students the greatest opportunity ever – a chance to take a serious crew role upon a feature film production. In a world where the breaks are difficult to find, this is a route to be seriously considered by every student. Here’s a chance to see their production of Shakespeare’s ‘Caesar’.


Wednesday 22nd February @ 3.00pm

Red Lecture Theatre

Last year’s debates were awesome. This year we hope to build on the lively discussion with a new series of questions that tackle our thoughts on technology, industry and ourselves. Andy, James and John are there to keep the conversation clean and on-topic (unless they disagree with one another, obviously).


Thursday 23rd February @ 11am

F14, Ruxton Technology Centre

John shares his research into the death of reality. This is going to be a gem and needs no greater introduction. John never disappoints.


Thursday 23rd February @ 1.00pm

F5, Stafford

You’ve got 140 characters to communicate on Twitter. Here you have 15 seconds of video. In this practical session we’ll be making 10 second movies and seeing what you come up with. This is a real challenge of your creativity.


Thursday 23rd February @ 6.30pm

Sence, The Arcadian, Birmingham

The UK Film Council’s replacement is offering the first networking event in Birmingham in quite a while and you are invited. It’s going to be a great opportunity to make contacts and connect with industry. You need to register first at:


A SAHARAN DIARY followed by a Q&A

Friday 24th February @ 7.30pm

Mitchell Arts Centre, Stoke

We close the Symposium back at Stoke Your Fires festival with a screening of James’ documentary about the Sahara. Filmed on consumer cameras over five years and three journeys, it offers a unique insight into life in Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia before the Arab Spring brought the region to international attention. The film challenges our perception of documentaries, with few traits of modern documentary making being used. The film will be followed by a Q&A with James.