Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Video Clip Analysis: The Mentalist
Our assignment for this week was to take two different analytical approaches to a video clip of our choice. The array of analytical approaches included Marxist, feminist, psychological, deconstructionst, racial, rhetorical, postcolonial, etc. The possibilities being almost endless for this assignment, I settled on analyzing something I saw quite recently: a scene from last week's episode of The Mentalist. The clip is here (sorry if there's a commercial at the beginning).
For those of you unfamiliar with the show, the blonde man is the title character, Patrick Jane (Simon Baker), a civilian consultant who works with the fictional California Bureau of Investigation. The woman in this clip is Agent Teresa Lisbon (Robin Tunney), the CBI team leader; the other guy's role is pretty self-explanatory.
Let's start with a race-oriented analysis. The main characters in this scene, as in most TV shows, are white; their race is pretty much never commented on. (One of the other series-regular characters is Korean, a fact that has been portrayed as relevant to his life a few times over the course of the show.) The third character initially speaks in Spanish-accented English, but then switches to unaccented English partway through the scene. (In this case I think language serves as the only clear racial marker for the character, since his physical appearance seems racially ambiguous.) The character uses a non-native accent to reinforce his low-status facade; once it is clear that he has power relative to the other characters, he drops the accent. This is actually a somewhat layered situation, in that it is a choice of the character, the Fixer, to play on stereotypes in his portrayal of a harmless, blend-into-the-background janitor. However, this being fiction, the choice of the character is ultimately the choice of the creators; I don't know whether the language change was written into the script or was a contribution of the actor, but nevertheless it was a deliberate choice. By switching to the same speech register as the main characters, the Fixer demonstrated that he believed his accented speech had caused them to underestimate him. If non-native-accented speech did not serve to reduce perceived threat, the character would not have bothered to assume it as part of his disguise.
A slightly less convoluted interpretation is that the language shift simply served as an additional signal to the audience that the Fixer was totally different than he appeared. He was not simply a janitor who had been paid to snoop at the office, for example. In other words, it could have been used as a practical short-hand in a busy scene to make sure that the audience could understand what was going on. But even so, the underlying implications about status, power, and language remain pretty much the same.
For my second analytical approach I'll take a feminist perspective. I was actually pleasantly surprised by a couple things in this scene. In the bad old days of TV, it would've always been the woman who was physically menaced by the bad guy, while the male hero watched anxiously and/or attempted to save her. In this scene, however, it is the male lead who is placed in direct physical jeopardy. The Fixer threatens Jane in order to disarm Lisbon, whose gun made her a specific physical threat. The interactions in the scene are primarily defined by the characters' roles: i.e. cop, civilian, and criminal, rather than by the characters' genders. This continues throughout the rest of the clip, as Jane hesitates to chase the dangerous guy after he leaves, and Lisbon is the one to run up to the car after the crash. From a feminist perspective this seems very refreshing: it's not that the characters' genders are ignored or suppressed, just that they are somewhat irrelevant compared to the other dynamics at play in this particular scenario.
There are other aspects to consider with regard to gender portrayals, such as Lisbon's hairstyle and choice of clothing, but relative to other TV shows The Mentalist seems pretty egalitarian. For example, Lisbon generally wears practical shoes rather than heels, and Jane's coiffure is at least as impressive as that of the female regulars.
The second part of this assignment is to describe how students could apply our two analytical approaches to other related films, tv shows, etc. Here's my idea:
Each student should watch at least ten different previews for procedural/legal/mystery TV shows. These could all be for one show, or for multiple different shows; they could be from past and/or current shows. Students should make note of the race, gender, and apparent role (e.g. police officer, attorney, suspect, victim) of each character that appears in the previews. Are there any patterns within or across shows? If the shows are from different time periods, are there any noticable changes across time? Is it possible to draw any conclusions about the portrayal of race or gender in these shows from such short samples? Students should examine features such as clothing, use of language, lighting, music, body language, etc. to discuss how characters are portrayed. This is also an opportunity to discuss how TV previews are created: what choices are involved in putting together a preview, and what do these choices say about the creator, the audience, etc.? This assignment could be done individually or in groups, either during class or as a take-home assignment.