The Poppy Stone Algorithm: Evaluation

The Poppy Stone Algorithm had intentions of portraying Asperger’s Syndrome in a way that was accessible to a wider audience; I did this through the use of point of view shots, voiceover and other techniques which allowed the audience to gain purchase on the protagonist’s thoughts.  In order to evaluate my project, I need to refer to my original intentions and observe whether or not they functioned accordingly in my final piece. The main focus of my project was the use of formal and stylistic strategies which included the way in which I framed the piece (through the medium of frontality), the techniques I used (Bokeh and Macro images) and the way in which I allowed the audience to share Ted’s experiences. Overall, I set out to portray a different view of mental illnesses such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome in order to challenge mainstream interpretations; however, I feel that my project has shifted its focus toward the workings of an anti-mainstream indie rom-com.

Interestingly, in the planning stages of my project I set out to produce a romantic-comedy film, looking at films such as When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle. However, I soon realised that if my intentions were to portray a fresh viewpoint of Asperger’s Syndrome I would have to move away from the concept of the romantic-comedy and move closer to the workings of drama as I thought a comic element would not be suitable. Regardless, looking at the finished product it can recognised as a romantic-comedy through certain generic tropes it uses, for example, contrived romantic encounters (the meet-cute), the arguable formulaic pattern of obtaining love then losing it again and finally the couple that will live happily ever after, in true fairytale style. Although, we must regard  romantic-comedies as more than solely a pattern which is usually avoided by the Academy, as “these films reward study because they deal with dramatic conflicts central to human experience[1]”  and this is precisely the aim of my film, albeit from the experience of a person with Asperger’s. What is interesting about using Asperger’s Syndrome as the focus is the ability to take certain attributes such as sensory sensitivity or obsessive behaviour and translate these through filmic strategies such as haptic visuality, organised split-screen framing and repetition throughout narrative and cinematography.

The use of split-screen in The Poppy Stone Algorithm was not something which was outlined in the original intentions; upon piecing together various aspects of Poppy’s bicycle in post-production I realised that the shots didn’t work sequentially, therefore, I decided to use the device of split-screen framing to show all of the images at once. Not only did this allow for clarity of the bicycle’s image, it also worked in cohesion to my original intentions of portraying the world through Asperger’s. It is noted that people with AS see the world full of logical order and structure; visually, the framing of the images presented a rigid frontality which successfully demonstrated my intentions. The use of split-screen also offered a platform for repetition within a small space of time. Thus, rather than using valuable time showing the spectator aspects of the bicycle, I could do it in half the time while presenting more information.

The Poppy Stone Algorithm both benefitted from the short film format, and was disadvantaged by it. Richard Raskins methodically outlines the steps for making a successful short film and my project successfully uses the concept of “character focusàcharacter interaction” in that we know that there is “clarity as to whose story is being told[2]”. Another way in which my film successfully uses the tropes of the short film is through use of particular objects, Raskins states that an “interesting way to heighten our experience of a character’s subjectivity is to evoke those thoughts and feelings through the character’s relation to some physical object (such as a pocket watch or banister) that is charged with meaning for him or her.[3]” In the Poppy Stone Algorithm, I did this for both of the characters, Ted has a Rubik’s Cube and Poppy has her bicycle, however, these are not completely ‘charged with meaning’ respectively. In fact, it seems as though both characters’ objects hold much more meaning for Ted, alone. The Rubik’s Cube and the bicycle present images of logic structure and texture; through these we unlock further narrative within a small aspect of the film: this is “perfectly suited to the short film since so much substance can thereby be carried in a single meaningful moment”[4]. However, due to the lack of time allowance it was difficult to fully establish the meaning behind these objects and if this were a feature film I would have explored these objects further by establishing their meanings throughout the film.

The portrayal of mental illness in contemporary cinema is often negative or incorrect and “with such a powerful medium [of film], these false depictions have infiltrated the populace and have added stigma to an already misunderstood disease.[5]” Films which present mental illness often are linked with violence for example, Natural Born Killers and American Psycho and those which are not linked with violence such as Silent Things present an extreme view of Autism but this is not always an authentic view. Forrest Gump shows a development in terms of mental illness in film as it does show an extreme example but at the same time the focus of the film is to show Forrest’s brilliance. Aspects of the film also utilises generic conventions of the romantic-comedy, and these arguably create authenticity in terms of narrative and the way in which the audience perceive it. Therefore, The Poppy Stone Algorithm uses ideas previously demonstrated by Forrest Gump and uses these as a means to portray authenticity through comic dialogue, and also the idea of frontality. Both Forrest and Ted locate themselves at a bus stop and are shown through a end-on shot; the difference being that the bus stop in Forrest Gump is to develop the narrative and for Ted it is because of his fascination with buses. However, they both are used to present performance in which both characters are set in their ways and use the space as a point of safety.

One of the central visual systems of The Poppy Stone Algorithm was the use of space. This was primarily depicted through the use of the bus stop, and the way the narrative returned to it frequently. As Poppy gained purchase on Ted’s world and literally the space around him we would venture, with Ted, into Poppy’s territory but soon after we would return to the bus stop: a place of comfort. The bus stop acted as a safe house for Ted and visually encapsulated him and protected him from the outside world of imposing people and unusual textures such as kiwis. My intentions were to present this via a frontal view which would frame Ted and also exhibit a strategy of boxes within boxes; however some of my shots show Ted from a different, perhaps stylistic, angle from both sides of him as well as purely from the front. I think, what this does, is present awareness to the world around him, which is important in terms of sharing Ted’s experience. Even though different to what I initially set out to achieve, it still works in terms of continuing with a pattern of boxes within boxes. Later, this pattern is repeated through the use of split-screen and through the use of the Rubik’s Cube.

My research into Asperger’s Syndrome, through questionnaires and critical readings, revealed to me that both children and adults seek comfort in objects or places which present structure, logic and a particular smoothness of texture. I interviewed a teacher who works with secondary school children with disabilities and she spoke about a student who has high-functioning Asperger’s Syndrome; she noted that he enjoyed playing with Lego because of its structure, smoothness of texture and primary colours and were in fact used a tool to calm the child down when he found moments overwhelming. Great Ormond Street Hospital recognise that children with AS do tend to “excel at more structured activities such as puzzles or Lego[6].” I took the idea of the texture and colour of the Lego and married them with another documented interested of children with AS: puzzles and decided to use a Rubik’s Cube. This prop harbours many aspects of comfort for a person with AS and also offered an interesting way of shooting the use of it; as it is a handheld object it could be used as a way of sharing Ted’s experience through close-up and POV. This, paired with the utilisation of voice-over and on screen text allowed the audience to also gain access to Ted’s world, and this was a system which proved successful.

In terms of the short film form, the opening sequence to my film also worked successfully in its attempt to introduce the character of Ted and the potential dilemma of the narrative. In order to introduce Ted’s character in a condensed manner, I chose to present his individual characteristics sequentially: it begins with a direct quote from Spider-Man which refers to Ted’s love of the superhero, coupled with his costume. Murray-Smith values this as recognition and this “describes the spectator’s construction of character, the perception of a set of textual elements, in film typically cohering around the image of a body, as an individuated and continuous agent.[7]” In regard to this, I have constructed Ted’s character around that of a stereotypical ‘nerd’ through primarily his costume and prop, and the audience recognise this by means of “the referential notion of mimetic hypothesis.” In this case, what the audience use to make sense of this character are constructions which they already recognise, such as the ‘nerd’ which has become popular in contemporary film and television, for example: The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd. The audience uses generic codes and conventions gained from these shows and apply it to what they see in The Poppy Stone Algorithm and create an attachment with Ted.

 

Next, we cut to a close-up of Ted uttering mathematical equations which work in relation to the Rubik’s Cube. This, again, informs us of another aspect of Ted’s character and helps us understand his personality more. Adam (2009) works in a similar way in its portrayal of a protagonist with Asperger’s Syndrome, although, its atmosphere works in a different way. In both, the spectator is shown a compilation of the protagonist’s personality traits: Spider-Man, Rubik’s Cube, Maths, Astronomy and Macaroni Cheese. These work through the idea of recognition, we recognise these objects and can easily interpret them into being characteristics of the protagonist. However, both films work in different ways in terms of the way in which they establish atmosphere and mood. Both films use a soundtrack to depict the type of mood, the opening of Adam is at the funeral of his father and we can expect to hear sorrowful music, while at the beginning of The Poppy Stone Algorithm we hear uplifting music, which recurs as a motif of Ted’s happiness. This is interesting in terms of the portrayal of mental illness; Adam opens with an unhappy tone and the spectator presumes that this film will show the negative sides of the disorder (and of course the rest of the film proves this to be false). Whereas, my film opens with heartening music in order to present immediately that this film will only show a positive side of Asperger’s Syndrome and the character of Ted.

 

I have spoken of the successes of my piece; however, there were a few instances where I feel improvement could have been made. These include, sound strategies, the use of the flashback and development of haptic visuality. To begin with, my sound strategy should have been developed further in terms of the spectator’s alignment with Ted; it should have reflected the way Ted heard the world around him, and would have worked well with the use of voiceover, on-screen text and point of view shots. In the finished project, the sound is a factor which seemingly lets the rest of the film down and this is because of the ambitious locations I chose, which were mostly outside (with wind complaints and traffic) and also in a loud and uncontrollable area of the coffee house. However, despite the seemingly faulty sound, it could be read as a meaningful augmentation to present the overwhelming nature of these locations for Ted.

My original intentions documented that my project would have a strong focus on the use of haptic visuality which Marks defines as “containing some of the following formal and textual qualities: grainy, unclear images; sensuous imagery that evokes memory of the sense (i.e. water, nature); the depiction of characters in acute states of sensory activity (smelling, sniffing, tasting, etc.); close-to-the-body camera positions and panning across the surface of objects”[8]. In some ways, the sense of haptic visuality was both lost and retained: I have used ‘close-to-the-body camera positions’ whereby Ted is solving the Rubik’s Cube and this allows the audience to access, or experience the characters motion through sense. This is also felt through close-ups of the Rubik’s Cube- the spectator remembers what this feels like as they view the image onscreen. However, my primary focus which related to Ted’s Asperger’s was his aversion to kiwis; I feel that this image was lost as I intertwined it with a flashback which was poorly positioned within the narrative. If this was a feature film, I would have developed the sense of haptic visuality further by standing by my original intentions of focusing on interesting textures such as corduroy trousers, kiwis and the smoothness of the Rubik’s Cube.

The short film form arguably offers little room for sufficient exploration of a character through flashback, and in some ways it can. Unfortunately, The Poppy Stone Algorithm’s use of flashback needed to fit far too much information into it than it could afford to do. The flashback appears once, and is designed to inform the spectator of a number of things such as: Ted’s aversion to kiwi fruit; a traumatic experience of losing his mother, the overwhelming nature of busy places , the moment Ted finds the Rubik’s Cube and it was intended to suggest a link between the market and Poppy. Other films which successfully use the flashback include The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Pulp Fiction (1994) and both offer stylistically different ways of using them. A flashback may represent interference in a linear sequence, although the nature of a flashback works to present another linear sequence within it. Therefore, the flashback may be criticised as a detached scene whilst being crucial to the overall plot. Upon reflection, I can see that I should have planned the flashback scene more carefully in order to produce a condensed narrative which was also full of clarity for the spectator. Instead, many of my ideas were confused and the flashback acted as a clear disturbance to the previous narrative. However, similar to sound, we could interpret this as an intentional augmentation of the Asperger’s world: this may have been how Ted remembered his traumatic experience and thus the audience must work hard in order to decipher it. This in mind, my original intentions were to present Asperger’s Syndrome in a way that was accessible to a wider audience and to challenge mainstream representations which seemingly segregate the ‘inflicted’ from the atypical. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind tells its story mostly through flashbacks and this is an example how flashbacks need to be a certain length in order to supply the correct amount of information; if Eternal Sunshine was stripped of a few narrative strands and then condensed into ten minutes it would be a very difficult film to understand. However, The Poppy Stone Algorithm would have benefitted from the use of more than one flashback throughout the ten minutes in the same way that Eternal Sunshine presents its narrative.

As well as the use of flashback, the introduction of stylistic strategies such as Bokeh and Macro photography would have profited from further development over the course of more time. The reasoning for the utilisation of macro was to comply with my intention of presenting the haptic senses in order to align with Ted’s feelings and experience what life is like as a person with Asperger’s Syndrome; similarly as was Bokeh. Bokeh was also used as a way to align with popular, contemporary romantic-indie films which employ Bokeh and shallow focus as a way of creating authenticity, as the human eye has a shallow depth of focus and thus this aesthetic in the cinema gives a more natural, authentic impression. Additionally, I wanted to use Bokeh as an indication of Ted’s emotions at various points in the film. However, due to the sporadic and underdeveloped nature of the Bokeh use, the meaning was seemingly lost and this stylistic function would have profited from a larger time frame.

In terms of performance, through feedback it was evident that spectators assumed that Ted had some form of disability and that this was shown through both his performance and costume. Similarly, the depiction of Ted was clarified by contrast with Poppy’s character. However, if I were to improve or change this I would direct each scene through improvised acting such as with Blue Valentine (2010) where the events would be scripted loosely. The reason for doing this may take away the romantic-comedy element, but it would offer more room for authenticity.

Overall, The Poppy Stone Algorithm was a film with aspects that were destined to need further development due to the ambitious nature of the project. My formal and stylistic strategies would have all benefitted from further exposure and progression. Regardless of this, moments of the film worked successfully in their approach to present an authentic reality of Asperger’s Syndrome. These were exhibited through the use of POV shots, onscreen text, voiceover, frontality and the use of split-screen filmmaking. These factors allowed for an effective alignment between spectator and character, particularly in the opening sequence of the film. I believe that The Poppy Stone Algorithm has fulfilled its intentions: it has challenged mainstream interpretations of mental illness through its indie nature and romantic-comedy elements; a certain authenticity as shown through its light hearted nature; and has finally, demonstrated a connection between audience and character through the use of haptic visuality via the Rubik’s Cube.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography:

 

  • Donato Totaro,(June 2002) ‘Deleuzian Film Analysis: The Skin of the Film’, Off Screen
  • Grindon, L. (2011). The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies. John Wiley & Sons, Limited.
  • Kondo, N. (2008). Mental illness in film. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 31(3), 250-252.
  • Raskins, R. (2002). The art of the short fiction film: a shot by shot study of nine modern classics. McFarland & Company Incorporated Pub.
  • Smith, M. (1994). Altered states: character and emotional response in the cinema. Cinema journal, 33(4), p. 40.
  • http://www.gosh.nhs.uk/medical-conditions/search-for-medical-conditions/aspergers-syndrome/aspergers-syndrome-information/

 

Filmography

  • Cianfrance, Derek. (2010). Blue Valentine. USA. Optimum Releasing.
  • Ephron, Nora. (1993). Sleepless in Seattle. Tristar Pictures.
  • Gondry, Michael. (2004). Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. USA. Focus Features.
  • Mayer, Max. (2009). Adam. USA. Fox Searchlight Pictures.
  • Reiner, Rob. (1989). When Harry Met Sally…Columbia Pictures.
  • Tarantino, Quentin. (1994). Pulp Fiction. USA. Miramax Films.
  • Zemickis, Robert. (1994). Forrest Gump. USA. Paramount Pictures.

 

 

 


[1] Grindon, L. (2011). The Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies. John Wiley & Sons, Limited.

[2] Raskins, R. (2002). The art of the short fiction film: a shot by shot study of nine modern classics. McFarland & Company Incorporated Pub.

[3] Ibid p. 6.

[4] Ibid

[5] Kondo, N. (2008). Mental illness in film. Psychiatric rehabilitation journal, 31(3), 250-252.

[7] Smith, M. (1994). Altered states: character and emotional response in the cinema. Cinema journal, 33(4), p. 40.

[8] Donato Totaro,(June 2002) ‘Deleuzian Film Analysis: The Skin of the Film’, Off Screen

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