It’s not often that film criticism snatches a term from its video game counterpart. Cinema as an artform has seniority by decades, and video game criticism has a lot of growing to do in developing appropriate terminology and theory for its subject. Still, today we’re examining a term paraphrased from one used often in games journalism. Cinemanarrative dissonance, coined by Dan Olsen.
The term is an offshoot of ludonarrative dissonance, which describes the friction when a game’s story is not supported by its gameplay. For instance, a game wherein characters are shown to be discovering the fruitless brutality of revenge, developing a distaste for violence, but the mechanics of the game incentivise players to enact satisfying violence by taking out enemies, racking up a high score in doing so. The filmmaking equivalent is cinemanarrative dissonance. Here, the story seems to suggest a very clear attitude or message, which is not backed up by what David Bordwell would call the film’s poetics. This would be the cinematography, editing, what is being focused on, anything that adds up to how the film regards its subject (a.k.a. the story and characters).
An example. Gooby is a 2009 fantasy kids film, wherein a young Will, struggling to settle after a big move and feeling ignored by his parents, discovers that his cuddly teddy bear Gooby has come to life, is now 6 feet tall, and hilariously cumbersome. Will must hide Gooby from his evil substitute teacher, who wants to photograph Gooby and make a fortune exploiting the story. Eventually, after Will runs away and almost dies in an abandoned house, his parents catch on and decide to devote more time to their son, allowing Gooby to be passed on to a new kid in need. This is not great material, but it’s not offensively bad either. This should just be a mediocre kids film, playing on the universal childhood feeling of sometimes not getting enough attention. Instead, Gooby is one of the more traumatising children’s films of the 2000s.
Nothing in the material is particularly frightening, it is entirely in the cinematic approach that Gooby is rendered terrifying. His introduction is a tense and drawn-out scene with swelling music, more like a monster movie than anything else. Gooby himself has sharp teeth and never blinks. His massive size is, on paper, supposed to make him analogous to a parent, protecting Will from bullies and his fears, whilst comedically juxtaposing with Gooby’s childlike neediness.
Instead, his size is just frightening, making him tower above Will in POV shots. He also looks undeniably like a burly man in a costume, undercutting what’s so unbelievable about him that the antagonist NEEDS to photograph him. No goofy voice either, he’s just Scottish. This does not read as a kid being taken on an adventure, it reads as abduction.
The script is telling us one story; of a comforting, protective force, a symbol of childhood support, who acts like a child himself. The film is telling us a different story, of a very scary bear, sometimes filmed like a monster in the dark of strange places, who acts like a child but sounds and looks unnervingly like a middle aged man. This is a fumbling of an otherwise serviceable premise, and an ideal example of cinemanarrative dissonance. Beware.