Subjectivity in The Bear and Oppenheimer

2023-08-27 ☼ cultureblog

Fish”, the sixth episode of The Bears second season, is a flashback to a chaotic family Christmas. It disrupts the usual balance of the show by crowding the dinner table with recognisable stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Bob Odenkirk, John Mulaney, and more. There is no framing device to introduce the analeptic interlude: episode 5 ends with one central protagonist, Carmen, exchanging a kiss with his girlfriend Claire, and episode 7 begins with another, Sydney, working on the design of the restaurant. We subsequently learn, however, that Carmen has told his Claire about this infamous moment in family lore, hinting that what we have observed is the version of events that he remembers. In conversation with Andy Greenwald and Chris Ryan on the Watch podcast, Christopher Storer confirms that Fish” is meant to convey Carmen’s subjective experience of events. The oversized presence of each cameo performer is intended to reflect the weight of their impact on his life. They need to be outsized not only in terms of casting,” Greenwald suggests, but also in terms of the shadow they cast on our lead.” 100%,” Storey confirms. Like this is someone who looms over Jeremy every day.” The subjective quality of the episode is also reflected in the cinematography: more grainy, according to Storey, who went on to say that they would have liked to film the episode in 35mm.

Oppenheimer makes similar use of cinematography to distinguish between objective reality and subjective experience. According to Nolan, the black-and-white scenes (labelled fusion”), which focus primarily on the senate confirmation hearing of Robert Downey’s , are objective; everything in colour (“fission”) is filtered through the perception of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. This provides one possible response to a criticism that has been levelled at Oppenheimer: the fact that the film’s protagonist is an absence. For all his screen time, Oppenheimer himself remains opaque. We learn little about his motivation, and see minimal evidence of the biographical details we learn from other characters. His inscrutability is lampshaded by Edward Teller, who says he was troubled by his inability to understand what Oppenheimer was thinking. If the film is channelled through his perspective, then this absence could be interpreted as a lack of self-regard — we learn little about his interiority as a character because he himself rarely directs his attention inwards.

When watching a movie, our default assumption is that we are watching an objective portrayal of events. We are observing our protagonist in the third person, for one thing (apart from the occasional first-person experiment such as the 1947 adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake), and no one observes their own life as a perpetual out-of-body experience. The fact that Nolan wrote the screenplay of Oppenheimer from a first-person perspective is not reflected in the perspective of the camera.

Films usually provide some sort of tangible nudge if they want to encourage audiences ti question the objective truth of what they are seeing. This might be some form of incongruity, a jarring flash of the fantastical (an alien encounter, for example) against an otherwise realistic texture. Or the revelation, at the end of the film, of the kind of metatextual frame we find in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) or Atonement (2007).1

But there is no such nudge in Oppenheimer and The Bear. Subjectivity is implied, but not overtly expressed within the text of the film. An audience member who has not engaged with any of the peripheral discourse could easily sit through them without realising that they have been watching a bias-tinted version of reality. Fish” even features conversations that Carmen is not present to witness in person, like a private conversation between Ebon Moss-Bachrach’s Richie and his pregnant wife Tiffany, played by Gillian Jacobs. Are supposed to infer that this intimate moment is entirely a product of Carmen’s imagination? 2

The idea that unites the political and scientific halves of Oppenheimer is the conflict between theory and practice. Is a scientific theory more valuable than a practical experiment? Does the theoretical value of communism justify its practical deficits? The ambiguous subjectivity of Oppenheimer and The Bear is an expression of a creative theory that is only partially realised in practice.

  1. And, presumably, any other future films thats involve Saoirse Ronan writing stuff.↩︎

  2. Is this real? is the same question audiences ask themselves when watching Mission: Impossible, except not the same question at all↩︎