This study explores the genre of television crime fiction, the philosophy of postmodernism and the influence of the latter on the theme of the fiction which includes its stylistic elements as well. This study, first concentrates on identifying and situating core themes and characteristics of postmodern narrativity within the theme of crime fiction before moving on to critically analysing its significance outside its apparent meaning.
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Besides widening the scope for television crime fiction research, my purpose for this research is also to identify, situate and analyse postmodern concepts and extend its various signs and codes outside the context of crime fiction and to understand how the world around us is manipulated by these images and signs. For instance, before researching on this topic I never grasped the concept of why a soft and soothing music piece is replaced by heavy metal music when a person is being stabbed to death? Or why in CSI, there is always rock or pop music played while a dead body is being ‘elaborately’ examined, punctured with knives and his body organs exhibited like trophies. I now understand that the rock and pop music is played to ‘sex up’ the forensic examination, which could otherwise be a boring sophomoric clinical procedure (Turnbull, 2007, p. 27) and the soothing music is replaced by heavy metal not because someone is being killed and the soothing music would not correspond to the visual, but to signify the unpredictable course of life which may turn into chaos anytime. This has brought a renewed understanding of the genre and its meaning to me.
By applying the method of film analysis, this study wishes to deconstruct the theme of crime fiction shows and to locate its postmodern treatment. In order to do so, the analysis is divided into two parts: one, identifying and situating postmodern elements in the crime fiction text and then analysing its treatment and subsequent textual significance. Second, in order to grasp the stylistic treatment of postmodern elements, the principle of film noir and its strategies is used to understand the cinematic technique of crime fiction and its postmodern implication.
Not to give or take away from the actual and detailed analysis, but just in order to understand the above processes more clearly and to give a preview of what this study entails, I have analysed the opening credit sequence of both the shows, Criminal Minds and CSI to give an introduction to my proposed work.
T.S. Elliot once said that humankind cannot bear too much of reality. A generation later, reality itself is entertainment. it is not just reality, its pseudo reality. “We have been fed so many tall tales by the culture industry that reality keeps falling short of our expectations”. (Umberto Eco). This is one out of the many diverse ways of looking at the postmodern condition or postmodernism, a debate about reality where the existence and perception of reality is itself in dispute. Is reality just an ambiguous melange or convergence of what we have been broadly exposed to through “artificial images, flickering from the TV screen, or joyful liberation from the imposed definitions of reality”? (Lyon 2004 p.2)
What is postmodernism?
The terrain of postmodernism is often described and perceived as the ‘weird’ and elusive. In an episode from the hit TV show the Simpsons, (Fox TV, (episode unknown)) one of the characters described ‘Po Mo’ or postmodern as “weird for the sake of being weird.” Postmodernism is a movement of revaluation of the modernism’s canonised status but at the same time it eludes a specific definition. Modernism though ambivalent like postmodernism, it does justify its concept based on reason. So whether it’s about freedom of expression, experimentation or rejection of traditions, modernism states a reason for its rejection. As a philosophical movement, postmodernism refuses to conform to the structural cultural certainties.
The postmodern attitude embodies the concept of indifference and compartmentalisation. It reasons this attitude as protection from pressure of modernism’s linear structure and narratives of truth and ideology, “better to be indifferent than to burn out in the pressure cooker of modern life”. (Berger 1998, p50) Postmodernism serves as a point of departure for developing a social attitude as a coping mechanism to maintain ‘psychic equilibrium’. Postmodernism played an important role in the development of popular culture and now is a part of the common and contemporary lexicon with most people exploring and employing it as an abstract fashionable tool which doesn’t need any reasoning or explaining “for in its coolly ironic images, its repetitive surfaces and lack of historical depth, we may meet the future.” (Berger 1998, p50)
Crime, Media and Postmodernism
“We live in a world dominated by a multitude of dangers, coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Real or virtual, imagined or experienced, these perceived dangers, and the fear they provoke, are the result of our inability to ground meaning in any category of knowledge or any stable belief system.” (Brain Massumi, cited in Debrix 2001, p150) Postmodernism is concerned with the excess of information and entertainment with excess stress on packaging of the media output. (Jewkes 2004,p 26). Mass media and the collapse of meaning have produced a culture centred on immediate consumption and sensationalised impact but with little depth of analysis. Subjectivity has been rendered pointless. (Debrix, 2001, p.152)
One of the cornerstones of postmodernism is the unwillingness to demarcate the regular from the unusual, ordinary from extra ordinary, and media with its prime objective of recruiting and entertaining audiences bombard them with content that is inundated with fictional and factual images and representations. Presentation and representation of crime has become a staple for media, especially crime dramas, which has rising dominance over TV schedules.
Studies focus on the violence portrayed on TV, both fiction and non- fiction and the level of fear that is perpetuated due to its sheer dominance on TV schedules. There is rising exaggeration of representation of violent accounts of crime by the media and the consequent fear produced amongst audiences. The news coverage of crime overstates its scope. “Although homicides made up less than 1 percent of all arrests, homicides made up more than a quarter of all the crimes reported on the evening news on TV. While homicide coverage was increasing on the network news by 473 percent from 1990 to 1998, arrests for homicide dropped 32.9 percent during the same period”. (Muwakkil, 2001) The media covers events which are “intense, exciting, arousing, or extreme”.
The “CSI effect” and “made to believe” images and statements is transforming the way people expect its functioning in everyday life. The ‘CSI effect’ refers to the popular crime busting television shows, the expectations of the real world from science, especially forensic science which is centrally featured in these shows, raises. Victims and jury members are deemed to have unrealistic expectations and demands from forensic related process of crime scene investigation and DNA testing. Prosecutors are pressurised to produce and present sophisticated and expensive evidence in the court to the tech and science-savvy jurors. However the proponents suggest that this ‘effect’ has helped the justice system in way of “better informed” jurors leading to a more thorough procedure of punishing the guilty. (Heinrick 2006,p.60) No empirical study so far has been able to establish the causal relationship between the CSI effect and the importance of forensic evidence demanded in reality.
Television, Crime Fiction and Postmodernism
Like postmodernism, crime dramas too elude a specific definition. Though it has a distinct format consisting of a certain set of visual and thematic codes like murder, rape, arson, kidnapping, assault which corresponds with prototype characteristics like deviant behaviour, disruption of law and order, investigation, punishment, justice or retribution, its definition is exploratory. However, Raney (2002) defines crime drama, “this standard formula seems to define the genre: A crime is committed causing an injustice that result in the need for some form of retribution or punishment to restore justice. Violence is often the means through which justice and injustice are wrought, but the justice sequence as a whole is what ultimately most important to the story line”. (Raney 2002, p.308)
The stories of Sherlock Holmes are being replaced by the popular and dominant genre of television crime shows like CSI, Criminal Minds and the likes, in which the narrative style and its presentation is given more importance than the story itself .
Echoing these sentiments is Jean Baudrillard who looks at this phenomenon from a different perspective and calls it “hyperreal” modernity or “hyperreality”. He states that “hyperreality sets in when the medium has used its technical capacities to appear more true to life than the objects and/or subjects it purports to represent.” (Debrix, 2001). Traces of this theory can be found in the text of crime dramas as they are composed of elements that “merely sufficiently look realistic to make an audience believe that it must in fact, represent a genuine event”. (Page, 2000, p. 130) Michael Allen in his analytical book, ‘Reading CSI: Crime TV Under the Microscope discusses about the ‘CSI -shot’ which essentially is a sequence of several computer generated images that shows the extent and the impact of violence on the body of the victim. The ‘CSI-shot’ is “visually spectacular” but random nonetheless as there is no visual and apparent structure or point of view through the victim’s body is presented. (Weissmann, Boyle 2007, p. 96) “Digital technology enables each element of the shot to become a signifier in its own right.” (Page, 2000, p. 176)
While rejecting meta narratives/grand narratives, which claims to present the universal truth and reasoning behind the functioning of every tangible as well intangible aspect of life, postmodernism advocates the concept of mini-narratives that moves away from the broad, universal concepts and stories of reality and towards the stories that are only topical but local in character and practice. Postmodernism points out the existence of “contradictions and instabilities that are inherent within any social organisation” (Klages 2007) and that grand narratives try to mask the very tangible “disorder and chaos” from their created “order and rationality”.
A point in case could be the show CSI- Vegas, where the location plays an important character in the narrative. “Cherubic children who kill their kin; a transgendered mask-maker who stages suicides; a casino tsar who dies playing dress-up in diapers- the Las Vegas of CSI is the quintessence of con. In Vegas, simulation is sin”. (Rahilly, 2007, p.122) The victims and crimes committed have distinct Vegas characteristics often operating on the grounds of isolation. The themes may have an universal element to them in order to grasp audience attention and interest but nonetheless the main narrative, the characters, the interaction between them, the sub plots are very local in character, relevant to the setting of Vegas that cannot be duplicated in any other locations.
Film Noir Stylistics and Postmodernism
The “dark downbeat” roots and looks of film noir are buried deep in the many American crime and detective films post World War II. The emergent tension and insecurities prevalent during that phase were reflected on screen which “counterbalanced the optimism of Hollywood’s musicals and comedies” (Dirks, 2009, http://www.filmsite.org/filmnoir.html)
The foundation of the shared relationship of postmodernism and film noir can be traced back to the period of post-colonialisation. The emergence of postmodernism came along the same time as the destruction of colonialisation which was after World War II. The era after colonialisation brought unemployment, despair, insecurity and ambiguity. These themes loaded with “tension and anxieties” were already being discussed in literature, painting and music and were called postmodern as it “reconfigured the tragic vision of those times”. (Natoli, 2002, p. 88) Film Noir became the expression through which these postmodern conditions were presented.
Keeping in mind the above, there are various typical stylistic themes of film noir which we will be examining while analysing the cinematic text of the shows. The following list is an compilation of film noir recurring technique from Paul Schrader’s chapter on “Notes on Film Noir”
Majority of the scenes are lit for night or shot in the night
Always has a story of a city, choreographed with oblique, vertical lines like ribbons through which light cuts through to enter the ‘noir’ state.
“The actors and setting are given equal lighting importance. When an environment is given greater or equal lighting importance than the actors, it is to create an environment of fatality and hopelessness”
Revisiting and reliving the past and anxious about the future
Compositional tension is preferred to physical action.
A complex chronological order is frequently used to reinforce feelings of hopelessness and lost time.
Paul Schrader, 1988, p. 219-221
The opening credits scene of CSI is extremely fast paced and a bit harsh on the eyes, just like the ruthless city life. The editing and the camera work for this scene is accentuated with quick cuts and a furious but nervous pace of the camera The postmodern element of complexity, congestion of a convoluted city life also matches with this cinematic technique. Moreover all the shots and the frames were lit for the night and the few outdoor shots were that of the night only. This technique of preferring darkness over light is a fundamental style technique of film noir which will be the base of my second part of the analysis.
Core Objective of the study:
To study the theme of television crime fiction through postmodern features.
To examine how the postmodern features are worked into the crime fiction theme.
The central aim of this research was to try and locate postmodern elements within the text of television crime fiction whose social impact has been discussed in the literature review. I employed the method of textual analysis to analyse the relationship between the usage of postmodern elements and television crime fiction in conveying meaning.
This study aims at exploring the text of television crime fiction through postmodern features. This will involve a process of deconstructing the text into its various conceptual features of narrative, discourse, visual and aural style and technique and analysing them vis-à-vis postmodern features.
In communications research, the term ‘text’ has a broader implication of including the cultural of any product that is being studied or explored. Textual analysis involves deconstruction of media text and helps in exploring the ways in which a set of codes in the way of language, image and sound are presented and are interrelated. (Deacon, Pickering, Golding and Murdock 1999, p.17)
Film Analysis: Postmodernism in visual arts is considered as a one of the perspective of film noir and vice versa. The stylistics of film noir and counter cinema mirror or at least include postmodern techniques and themes into its stylistic scheme. Analysing the cinematic technique through the stylistic approach of film noir can reveal the underlying meaning of many codes and signs within the show’s text. (Schrader, 2000, p.219) “The use of highlighting through side-lighting of a character’s face when all else is in shadow and the use of contrasting light and dark within one shot, are two lighting effects that signal character ambiguity”. (Hayward 2004, p.9-10).
Sampling: Shows and episodes to be analysed:
CSI : Crime Scene Investigation
Columbia Broadcasting Inc – CBS
2 and 9
8 and 20
Columbia Broadcasting Inc – CBS
1 and 4
1 and 20
One basic justification for selecting all American shows is the sheer popularity of these shows across the world. The reach of these shows is significant that transcends geographical and cultural boundaries. For example, RTL, the biggest commercial broadcaster in Germany has a pan American ‘tuesday lineup’ “It starts with “CSI: Miami,” a spin-off of the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” franchise, and continues with “House,” “Monk” and “Law & Order.”(Karnick,2006) In Asia, especially India, the 3 leading English entertainment channels; AXN, Star World and Zee Cafe has majority of its content exported from America. Hence, the basic rationale of choosing American shows is that, that it could be assumed that the relational dimension of these shows in terms of its audiences is quite wide which gives the study increased relevance.
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Crime Scene Investigation, a procedural drama centred on forensic science and offers a different set of visual and oral codes from Criminal Minds that has psychology as its base. The diverse range of narration and narrative structures will give my study a much broader base for textual analysis and an opportunity to explore postmodern concepts through different processes and probably will lead me to analyse a wider set of principles than anticipated.
Analysis and Discussion
The feature of postmodernist noir is that the darkness builds up from fabricating the reality and the audience play along with its “ups and downs, ins and outs, twists and turns, angles and curves” (Natoli, 2002, p. 89) instead of directly reaching darkening reality. The fear and anxiety of postmodern film noir is fragmented and dependent on the character of the story and the way that character perceives reality. In other words the fears and dreads are not universal or absolute, they dont make any claim on us, except in the matter of our “ability to grasp what is real as all the reality has turned black, noir” (Natoli, 2002, p. 62)
Postmodern television is perceived as the “always already said” (Jim Collins, cited in Page 2000, p. 67) Criminal Minds uses the most fundamental type of inter-textuality; quotations. It inserts famous quotes into its text in the form of opening and closing statement of the episode. The closing statement “Monsters are real and ghosts are real too. They live inside us and sometimes they win.” Stephen King: Criminal Minds, 4:20 serves as a “memorable expression…words used are thought of as alone embodying a significant idea or a concept…” (Page, 2000, p. 63) idea that of a theme which was re (presented). So the scene embodies a visual image of a schizophrenic man called Adam Jackson whose alter persona, Amanda has killed 4 people and have also completely taken over his mind, thus the person Adam is now locked away.
Indulgence of the micro narrative with meta-narrative:
In tandem with the concept of grand and mini- narrative explored in the literature review, the analysis presents an opportunity to further explore this fundamental postmodern characteristic with greater depth and substantiation. In the case of both the shows, especially CSI, as discussed in the literature review, location theme is displayed with the name of the show in CSI which emphasises the importance of the city’s story in the narrative. For CSI, the story is situated in Las Vegas a city that signifies the “American Dream of instant fortune, immediate gratification, wonderful living- and its inverse- failure, tragedy and death.” (Allen 2007, p.8) These ‘meta-narratives’ of Las Vegas are indulged with mini or micro narrative of an individual or vice versa. To elucidate, Mona the victim in Slaves of Las Vegas (CSI, 2:8) has her unique story of being an S&M dominatrix and getting killed while on the job. Her ‘mini’ story can be indulged with the bigger story or the meta narrative of tragedy and death that the city embodies.
In the case of Criminal Minds, all their stories are set in different cities and it is interesting that crimes committed, and the characters shown are distinct to their city. For example, it was easier to break into Adam who grew up in a very small town and showed his vulnerabilities completely, while Richard grew up in Seattle, a big city which exposed him to being street smart and taught him how to conceal his deceit. Hence, their mirco narratives are merged with the over powering narrative of the city and life in generally.
Multiple Narratives and Realities
A significant post modern noir style of this episode is that it switches back and forth from the serious track of the murder investigation to the parody, romantic and fantasy tracks. As earlier mentioned, “audience play along with its “ups and downs, ins and outs, twists and turns, angles and curves,” (Natoli, 2002, p. 89) the involvement of the viewer is toyed with as there is a shift of plots which are diametrically opposite to each other. The spectator may find his/her imagination being displaced by various codes and signifiers being represented simultaneously.
Non-linearity of narration is followed in Slaves of Las Vegas (CSI 2:8) with two narratives. There are two plots running simultaneously in this episode, a celebrated characteristic of CSI that gives the overall narrative and narration two sets of complications, climaxes and resolutions. Due to the fairly rapid scene changes with the help of sophisticated editing devices such as fades or cuts to inform the spectator of changes in storyline the spectator often has to constantly dredge the memory as to where the last left the other story in order to make sense of what was seen. It is a postmodern narrative technique to include multiple and realties within the same text to give a ludic quality to the narration. (Natoli, 2002, p. 89) Hence the concept of narrative and its film form are both subject to constant redefinition, deconstruction and re-analysis”. (Nelmes, 2003, p. 87-88)
Darkness over Light
Consistent with film noir style, all the crimes across all episodes are committed or either discovered in the night. The entire scene has a neon tinge with bright white high contrast lighting producing shadows resembling a night when the only source of light is the moon. The crimes occurring in the night exemplifies the emotion of fear and anxiety. Taking this a step further, Slaves of Las Vegas, (CSI, 2:8) starts with a night shot of the city, (a usual practice with CSI) an aerial shot overlooking the landscape of high rise and skyscrapers with the whole city is brightly lit.
Vertical and oblique lines in a frame suggest sharpness and massiveness as well as lonely and vulnerable as it stands tall and not flat which merges with the surrounding. Similar point of reference can be used for the opening shot of Extreme Aggressor (Criminal Minds, 1:1) A moving aerial shot of Seattle, Washington DC (as suggested by a screen text) shows the vertical of the city. The shot keeps moving and cutting to different locations till it reaches within an office and finally at a single desk with a girl seated. An aerial shot or a high angle shot is not only employed to cover large area but if used for a character, it is signifies vulnerability and insignificance. Hence, it can be understood that with every change in location and subsequent depth, we were being brought closer to the vulnerable subject; the victim. Rain is used to signal chaos and the feeling of things being out of our control. Postmodernism enjoys and glorifies such emotions in its text where the reality is ambiguous with everything has turned ‘noir, black’.
Nostalgia (Holding on to the past)
Another way of looking at this cinematic inter-textuality is with the reading of postmodern film noir characteristic of holding on to the past, being cynical about the present and perceiving future as ambiguous. (Natoli, 2002, p. 63)
There is an intertext reference made in Conflicted (Criminal Minds 4:20) to one of the past episodes for the purpose of nostalgia. Reid is reminded of his torturer who was a schizophrenic too and feels obligated to save Adam from his evil alter persona. The spectator is reminded of that particular episode by a quick random intercut to a shot from that episode where Reid is shown thrown to the ground gasping for air. The snapshot plays with the memory of the spectator and also at the same time leaves a small room for ambiguity as the snapshot is not directly related to the present ‘complication’. The purpose of nostalgia is propped by the cinematic styling of the shot which is recycled in black and white in an attempt to signify what has passed but is still ubiquitous.
Composition, Time Frame and Setting
The entire room at the therapist office is dimly lit and the identity of the perpetrator is constantly blacked out by a shadow as she is speaking. This suggests that the environment is given equal importance or weight than the characters and such an environment is meant to create a fatalistic and hopeless mood.
Following a complex chronological order is a typical postmodern characteristic. ‘Conflicted’ starts backwards which is cinematically achieved through black and white interludes of events occurred in the past or not shown as when taking place like when the team is theorizing and ascertaining the way murders might have taken place.
Scenes involving the lab and the forensic procedures are consistent with the series trademark of a tinted blue hue with neon like glare. The composition of the frame is tight, a shallow depth of field and a compressed perspective with only a specific subject area; i.e. the corpse and the character examining are fore grounded. All this is consistent with the film noir style of storytelling discussed in the literature review which refers to the tension and complexity in the plot by using cinematography that makes the scene control the actor rather than other way around. (Schrader, 1988, p. 219)
The manipulation of time, whether slight or complex is often used to reinforce a postmodern noir principle: the how is always more important than the what. (Schrader, 1998, p. 221)
“Winding up someplace where there is a bit of light” (Natoli, 2002)
Even though all the shows follow a non-linear narrative in their different capacities, they all present a resolution at the end of the episode providing closure, sometimes there is no complete closure. Following the principle of film noir of wandering away in the darkness of the unknown, getting lost, these shows too follow a path that takes the viewers through different ways and versions of storytelling, exposing them to varied information and knowledge (Lyotard, 1984) before settling for a conventional resolved end, a place with a “bit of light”.
This study started with an aim to explore and identify postmodern elements in the text of television crime fiction. After exploring different elements that constitutes postmodernism in the literature review and then analysing them by watching four crime fiction episodes, two of Crime Scene Investigation and two of Criminal Minds -with the focus on not only identifying and situating them in the text, but to actively sought to understand their interpretation outside the text of the shows and then build critical responses on them. From the analysis, several findings are identified which may have future research and theorising potential regarding television crime fiction and postmodernism and also film noir in regards to the changing structure of television.
One of the purposes highlighted in the introduction was to take this research a step ahead from the just identification and situation of postmodern elements and interpret them in the appropriate context so the actual meaning is conveyed and understood. As mentioned in the methodology, this study was more like a discovery or unearthing of certain considered variables than an attempt to prove something. It will be more suitable to say the aim of discovering postmodern elements in the text of television crime fiction was met. Moreover, it was found that some of postmodern features may have become the ‘sine qua non’ of television crime fiction.
Majority of the texts make use postmodern features as a cinematic technique superficially only to hook the audiences by selling it as a departure from the rest of effluvia circulating the genre. It becomes media’s responsibility to entertain and audience gratification is the only impact worth striving for. (Jewkes 2004, p. 26)
However, this study perhaps is one of the very few studies that have dealt with the organisation and presentation and interpretation of postmodern elements within television crime fiction. Having analysed solely the text of the shows, which proved to be extremely constructive and educational, it has also led the way to further research with a potential of developing on them. Also, the findings of this research can be used as a spring board for the purpose of future audience research parallel to their participation and reception of postmodern principles in this genre which would take this study to a whole new level of interpretation and significance.
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