Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 5, No. 1, 1991
Edited by Alec McHoul

Unfixing the subject: viewing Bad Timing

David Silverman


Alec McHoul has persuasively argued that there is no principled reason why conversation analysis (CA) cannot be used on fictional texts. 2 As Hammersley and Atkinson have demonstrated, a preference to work with 'naturally occurring data' is just that. 3 No data can ever be said to be more 'natural' than any other - no data are untouched by human hands. So telephone conversations, for instance, are not intrinsically better sources of data than, say, research interviews, official statistics or fictional texts. In principle, it would seem, there are only good and bad methods of analysis - not good and bad data.

McHoul illustrates how we can use methods from CA by taking an extract from Mervyn Peake's novel Mr Pye. 4 I will not reproduce the extract here but merely say that it deals with a short exchange between Mr Pye and a ticket-vendor. Using a paper by Drew, 5 McHoul shows how this exchange involves a negotiation of blame based on a direct challenge rather than the more common invitation to a speaker to do a self -correction. 6

However, McHoul goes beyond this standard CA work on the sequencing of talk. He shows how the negotiation of blame is given a particular force by the descriptive apparatus used by one of the speakers. More specifically, McHoul is concerned with Mr Pye's reference to the ticket-vendor as 'my friend'. Here is what McHoul has to say about the matter:

The challenge ... manages a distinct effectivity by the addition of the tag-positioned address-term 'my friend'. The utterance form [CHALLENGE + FRIENDSHIP] works disjunctively insofar as the membership category 'friends' ... does not routinely carry with it a category-bound activity like challenging ... 'Friends' more routinely carries with it 'support' and reliance on shared presuppositions'. 7

McHoul's analysis of the use of 'friendship' draws on Harvey Sacks account of description. 8 Sacks argues that any number of descriptive labels may adequately describe a person or an activity. Choosing any particular label (or 'membership categorisation device') carries with it many implications. For instance, it implies:

- the sort of activities in which a person so described may engage (e.g., friendship is associated with the activity of 'giving support'; thus 'giving support' may be heard as a 'category-bound activity' linked to such persons as 'friends')

- the kind of role-partners associated with the description (e.g., 'friend/friend' or 'child/parent' both of which constitute 'standardised relational pairs')

- the collection of categories from which other persons may appropriately be named (e.g., 'friendship' or 'family').

Like McHoul, Sacks himself uses a text to illustrate the power of such analysis, drawing upon a children's story which begins: 'the baby cried, the mommy picked it up'. However, there is no reason why the method cannot be used on other kinds of material. For, as McHoul suggests, we do not need to erect boundaries between the categories 'fiction' and 'non-fiction'. How such categories are actually deployed to describe texts then becomes a topic for investigation rather than a tacit resource. 9

Take the following example of a conversation:

1: Husband?

2: no

1: relation?

2: no

1: er boyfriend?

3: ( )

1: look what connection do you have with her?

2: you could say I'm a friend


The first speaker (1) is seeking to elicit 2's description of his relationship with a woman. Each description that he offers implies a particular set of role-partners associated with certain obligations and activities, appropriate to standardised relational pairs (SRPs). For instance, husbands can be expected to have greater obligations than relations. In addition, certain SRPs, like husband-wife or relation-relation can be heard as engaged in stable, routinised activities based on fairly clear-cut obligations. This is less true of other SRPs, such as boyfriend-girlfriend, where the expected obligations are less stable and associated with more 'delicate' activities such as 'wooing:being wooed' which, in a potentially unstable way, constitute the material and sexual status of the relationship. Now note two features of this conversation:

- 1 hesitates ('er') before producing the MCD which can be heard as the most delicate description of 2's relationship

- 2 chooses an MCD ('friendship') which avoids the delicate implications of 'boyfriend' by bracketing any issues of sexual involvement i.e. one can have 'friends' of either sex. Unlike any of the three MCDs offered by 1, all of which imply specific obligations and activities, 'friendship' is much vaguer and ill-defined.

Now consider another conversation:

1: any particular reason why you decided to (0.3) be tested again?


2: um: (0.3) well the the person my partner (.) wanted to be tested

1: okay

2: he had never been tested (.) so I came with him

(51A WH1)

This exchange also involves an appeal to the descriptive apparatus of MCDs, although in this case 1 does not offer a direct invitation to 2 to describe a relationship. Now we can note three features in how the description gets done:

- As in the first extract, a speaker offering a description of someone with whom he is involved, initially elects to use a neutral term to describe him ('the person').

- Speaker 2 ultimately offers a further description ('my partner'). This now carries more implications about the speaker since the use of the pronoun 'my' underlines the appropriateness of a hearing in terms of the SRP. However, compared to the many possible descriptions that 2 might have used to describe his relationship (e.g. 'my boyfriend', 'my lover'), we note that the term he uses carries relatively few implications that might be perceived as 'delicate': it implies a 'steady' relationship but, unlike the other descriptions, fails to specify the nature or kind of sexual involvement.

- Nonetheless, there is a delay in the delivery of the term 'my partner' that 2 uses to describe his relationship (the 0.6 second pause before 2 speaks, followed by a hesitation, a further pause and finally a self-correction (or 'repair') before 2 finally delivers the description 'my partner').

Striking similarities have appeared between the two conversational fragments. In both cases, a speaker hesitates before delivering a description which is relatively more delicate than the ones that precede it. Again, in both cases, a speaker's first preference in a self-description is for a category that is relatively 'neutral' ('person' here, 'friend' in the earlier extract).

As readers may have guessed, the second extract was taken from a tape-recorded, naturally-occurring session of AIDS counselling. The first extract occurs in the film Bad Timing. I believe this underlines McHoul's point about the availability of 'fictional' material for analysis which is more normally applied to 'naturally-occurring' talk.

In principle, having made out the case for doing so, I could continue this paper by further MCD analysis on dialogue from the film. At this stage, I need to explain why, while not abandoning MCD work, the paper goes off in other directions. Given the range of 'fictions' (both in film and in written texts), I first ought to explain why my gaze fell on Bad Timing (hereafter BT).

Why BT?

I first saw BT in the late 1970s soon after the film was made. At that time, together with Brian Torode, I was writing a collection of papers on language-use that eventually became The Material Word. 10 That collection established a certain critical distance from conversation analysis narrowly concerned with the sequencing of talk - at the time, we overlooked the possibilities of MCD analysis.

This had two implications relevant to the present paper:

- A concern to resist Garfinkel's suggestion that the 'documentary method of investigation' is the only conduit through which social organisation proceeds. 11 This meant a critical distinction between what we called 'interruption' and 'interpretation' which will be discussed shortly.

- As we sought to widen our conceptual apparatus, we read extensively work written in the semiotic, post- structuralist tradition. So our understanding of 'interruption' took on board elements of Barthes' discussion of signifying practice, Derrida's account of 'deconstruction' and Laclau and Mouffe's version of 're-articulation'. 12

The rich seam we now were mining made no distinction, of course, between 'fictions' and 'naturally-occurring' data. So in The Material Word, Torode and I switched, without concern backwards and forwards between our field data from classrooms and clinics and 'literary' texts by Kafka, Robbe-Grillet and Perrault. I also started to read Screen and to take on board the methods of semiotic analysis to be found in its pages.

In particular, the work of Stephen Heath seemed incisive and powerful. Reading his Questions of Cinema suggested to me how an analysis of a film could be conducted by using concepts like 'suture' and 'cut' which seemed almost synonymous with 'interpretation' and 'interruption'. 13 Following post-structuralism's rejection of any non-textual or 'authentic' subjects, Heath offers an account of 'suturing effects' which join the subject in structures of meaning'. 14

As Heath points out, the term 'suture' derives from surgery where it denotes a stitching or tying of the lips of a wound. In cinema, the frame establishes the joining or suturing of constituted subjects (characters) into structures of meaning. 15 These structures will unfold as successive frames establish a smooth narration in which, as in surgery, the trace of the original cuts (the scars) fade into oblivion.

Heath shows how this framing reconstitutes the signifier as a symbol representing a signified. Through narration, the images are laid out in a way which supports the frame against its excess (signifiers which will never be reduced to a signified). Narration suggests laws to hold the movement of the viewer's gaze, to ensure continuity. These laws exemplify the economy of narration which involves both a movement from beginning to end and a constant surveillance, or checking, of the images. 16 Surveillance operates by: 'prescribing a reading as correlation of actions and inscribing a subject as, and for, the coherence of that operation carried through against possible dispersion'. 17

Despite (because of) the attempts at surveillance, a film is not a closed unity, determined in a mechanistic way, but the site of an unfolding and partial containment of a set of contradictions. As Heath notes, it is precisely in the movement of these contradictions that can be grasped the set of determinations (or closures) expressed in the film. This appeared to offer a fruitful version of the role of film (textual) analysis. However, Heath's treatment of what he calls 'the critical role of art' I did not find so persuasive. 18

Heath writes of the emergence of a 'conception of a practice of cinema... in terms... of a production of contradictions against the fictions of stasis which contain and mask structuring work'. 19 As examples of this practice, he cites Brecht and, later, the avant-garde cinema of Michael Snow where, he says, 'the play is never unified in a pattern... the apparatus pulls apart'. 20

This appeal to the conceptions of the avant-garde seems to involve at least two dangers. First, it masks the contradictions that may exist between avant-garde preachings and avant-garde practice. Second, it deflects analysis away from the 'production of contradictions' within popular cinema. As Heath has shown elsewhere we can learn about the gaps in ideological attempts to recuperate the realms of the imaginary and the symbolic through a close analysis of the workings of popular cinema. 21 BT provides an example of a movie made for a general audience which nonetheless highlights issues of narration and articulation present in all story-telling (fictional and non-fictional).

Questions of methodology

In what follows, I gradually move away from the earlier focus on spoken language to a concern with images and, on one occasion, to the relation between sound and image (the songs played on the soundtrack of the film). This reflects the trajectory of my analysis. This began with the spoken dialogue and only later took up the pictures.

My data-base was very crude. Initially, I made notes in a cinema while the film was shown and then later re-transcribed them. To simplify, I ordered these notes around what eventually became 89 numbered 'scenes' - these are the numbers which appear with each extract from the film used here. Later, when I had access to a video-recording, I was able to watch the film more carefully, to freeze frame and to develop a better set of notes, correcting some of my earlier transcriptions.

In principle, with access to the video, I could have transcribed using the conventions of conversation analysis (CA) applied both to talk and to body-posture and gaze. However, because my concerns are not primarily with sequential analysis, my transcription is far looser. My only attempt to present detailed transcripts is the inclusion, where I thought appropriate, of indications of pauses within or between turns (in the usual way, these are noted as seconds or parts of a second).

In the next section, I want to retrace the trajectory of the analysis by returning to the conversations heard in the film. Later, I will reintroduce an analysis of the visual elements. As I hope to show, my concern with the soundtrack alone and with how the film is put together as film reveal a common concern with the practices of interpretation (suture) and interruption (cut).


In our usage, 'interpretation' refers to the practice of treating language as the mere 'appearance' of an extra-linguistic 'reality' presupposed by the interpretation ... in pretending to uphold a non-linguistic and so neutral reality, the interpretation in practice imposes its own language upon that of the language which it interprets. 22

In the following extract from the soundtrack of BT, Dr Alex Linden (a character played by Art Garfunkel - hereafter G) is being interrogated by a policeman (played by Harvey Keitel - K) about the circumstances of a phonecall. The call had been made to Garfunkel by a woman called Milena (played by Theresa Russell - R) who reported that she had taken an overdose:


K: poor silly girl (.) how old is this girl?


K: just a question

G: twenty-four twenty-five

K: a nice age


K: she had difficulty speaking?


G: she seemed normal (.) it sounded like a joke

K: but it wasn't though

G: how do you know?

K: if someone rings you and says they're going to kill themselves now that isn't normal (1.0) at least for normal people (.) would you agree?

We could initially approach this extract by purely sequential concerns. First, note how G's failure after two seconds to provide an answer to K's first question is made accountable by K ('just a question'). Once K has formulated the character of his utterance, G completes the 'adjacency-pair' by offering a recognisable answer. Now, through the 'chaining-rule', the floor is returned to the questioner. However, K's next utterance ('a nice age') lacks the speech delivery characteristic of a question. So, although the 3.0 silence after the utterance is completed offers G a slot to take a turn at talk, G is only obliged to speak when K asks a further question ('she had difficulty speaking?').

It is MCD analysis, however, which will be more relevant for our present concerns. Notice how both K and G trade off members' knowledge of category-bound activities, for instance in the play between them about what constitutes 'a joke' or being 'normal' in the context of a telephone conversation. More particularly, note how K offers descriptions with highly specific implications which link stage of life categories to personality characteristics ('poor silly girl', 'a nice age'). G, on the other hand, initially resists offering any description by his failure to answer K's first question. He then fails to take up the slot available after K's description 'a nice age'. Throughout, he confines himself to descriptions which carry minimal implications (giving a possible age and describing his caller as 'normal') and, thereby, minimise both his local knowledge of the person being described and anything unusual about the circumstances of the call.

Although G is not describing himself, he is implicated in these descriptions through the mechanism of standardised relational pairs. For instance, if he had assented to K's description 'poor silly girl', this would have opened up the possibility of a description of himself as involved with and perhaps exploiting 'poor silly girls'.

There are also category-bound activities present in the policeman's descriptions. K's questions depict a situation ('silly girl', someone who 'says they're going to kill themselves', 'not normal') in which the preferred response is to take immediate action. The long period of time that seems to have elapsed between Russell's phonecall and G's calling for an ambulance thus constitutes the 'bad timing' which K tries to recuperate.

As we have just seen, we can describe this exchange in terms of MCD analysis. However, the concept of 'interpretation' offers another, albeit related, line of attack. Throughout, K's utterances seek to constitute a non-linguistic reality beneath the appearances of G's answers. So 24, 25 becomes 'a nice age' and making certain kinds of telephone calls is not 'normal'. As in the documentary method of interpretation, this reality is both pre-supposed and reconfirmed by K's reading of 'the facts'. Like the viewer of the film, K's role is to interrogate the narrative in a doomed attempt to overcome 'gaps' and 'distortions' in the accounts offered. 23

This role is set up early in the film, when we see Garfunkel buying Russell a popular puzzle game in a bookshop (12). The game involves relating colour cards to numbers. Although we are not told, it seems that it is a form of 'personality' test. So G stands by, ready to interpret the colours that R has selected. But Garfunkel is also professionally interested in personality. The film, after all, is set in Vienna. And we learn that he is Dr. Alex Linden, a psychiatrist.

Mechanistic readings of psycho-analytic practice use it to reduce every act or word to a pre-defined metalanguage. Such readings are popularised in everyday discussion of 'Freudian slips' and in the quizzes which enable the subject to 'meet himself as he really is'. Through these means, the unconscious is put into place. It becomes a way of fixing subjects; not a play of signifiers but an appeal to a reductionist essence.

Garfunkel seems to be at home with such reductionist interpretations. So we see him in a seminar where he offers an entirely reductionist reading of a kiss. When the seminar finishes, Russell enters. Beneath a picture of Freud, Garfunkel fondles her. Then he is shown lecturing to students. In a bland, glib manner, he informs them that 'secrecy' and 'spying' are basic to human personality. Despite what we learn later, he denies that he himself is also a spy. He prefers to call himself an 'observer'.

Such an 'observer' claims to be apart from practice - a non- subject viewing subjects. He observes the 'unconscious', categorising and relating others' actions and words. Yet he himself remains unconscious of the interpellation of subjects within a discourse of 'truth' which provides for his own practice. 24


the practice of interruption seeks not to impose a language of its own but to enter critically into existing linguistic configurations and to re-open the closed structures into which they have ossified. 25

As Heath points out, the economy of narration involves a constant surveillance which prescribes a reading and inscribes a subject against possible dispersion. 26 Using the language of The Material Word, this surveillance represents the practice of interpretation.

In BT, Garfunkel's descriptions of 'personality' and the policeman's interrogations display the work of surveillance or interpretation. In such work, the dream world of static symbols or ideals is more satisfying than the uncertain material world of signifying practice. In BT, this is seen at its clearest in the dialogue between Garfunkel and Russell. Early on, we see the two of them in bed together (13). He is reading a passage in a novel to her. We are, thereby, reminded of the play of texts which write a narrative. But the provision of such fictions is also a way of inscribing a subject. The fiction seeks to fix a subject by an appeal to dreams. The fiction offers a mythical 'outside' which deflects attention from the work of inscription 'inside' the text. As such, the appeal to another text is reductionist. 27

But the figure of Garfunkel inhabits such a fictional, dream world. Dreaming about fictional, idealised realities, his ideal is that life should imitate art. At his first meeting with Russell, he rejects her advances:


G: Why spoil the mystery? If we don't meet there's always the chance it could have been perfect.

But Russell openly rejects domination by this idealised dream world. She physically bars his way with her leg. While Garfunkel is immersed in ideal signified concepts ('romance', 'perfection'), Russell reintroduces the material reality of the signifier. 28 Yet Garfunkel persists in his reductionist readings. In his practice, signs are always to be read in terms of fictional ideals. The film opens in an art gallery in which Garfunkel is gazing at a Klimt painting of a man enveloping a woman:


R: (looking at the painting) They're happy.

G: That's because they don't know each other well enough yet.

R: C'mon you don't really believe that do you?

For Garfunkel, the painting, like his previous conversation with Russell, must be reduced to an expression of pre-defined forms or dreams. For him, as for the Marxism of the Second International, a pre-defined movement of history reduces discursive practice to empty mouthings. Surveillance must hold dreams and the unconscious firmly in its grasp. Its look is never open. It does not want to discover but to fix; not learn but reduce. Inevitably it is jealous about alternative readings. Its look desires to possess all it surveys.

Jealousy and the desire for possession are exemplified throughout Garfunkel's dealings with Russell. His look is always directed at signs of unfaithfulness. For the confirmation of unfaithfulness is deeply satisfying, fixing Russell's practices within stereotyped motives and allowing a stereotyped response. So when Garfunkel sees Russell kissing another man in a scene in a cafe, we see him scanning every detail. Like the elderly woman who is also observing the scene, we then see him expressing disapproval. The ambiguity that seems present in the kiss - only a casual display of affection - perhaps is not satisfactory. He must go beyond and outside the kiss in order to fix both kiss and subject:


G: (looking at the man Russell has just kissed) Asshole

R: I suppose he has one

Notice how Russell undermines the force of Garfunkel's expletive by implying that it can also be heard as a physiological description. The fact that R's comment can be heard as a 'joke', implies that this play on words serves to re-open a closed structure without attempting to impose a language of its own.

Throughout BT, Garfunkel encounters resistance to his attempts at coercive interpretation. Russell's playful responses to Garfunkel's descriptions contest his attempts to fix or suture her within a structure of meaning. But interpretation cannot accept a world of play. Trying to fix Russell's marital status, he is perplexed by her failure to offer a definitive answer in terms of some MCD:


G: Milena either you're married or divorced (.) you can't be in between (0.5) to be in between is to be no place at all (0.5) I don't get it

Failing to receive any answers that he would regard as satisfactory, Garfunkel takes to spying outside her flat. Early one morning. he sees her returning home and wants her to confirm that she has been sleeping with someone else. She spots him sitting in his car and the exchange proceeds as follows:


1. Russell: Fuck off

2. Garfunkel: You're drunk

3. R: Disappear

4. G: I want to explain Milena

5. R: Tell it to your students

6. G: It's just that I can't stand to think of you with anyone else

7. R: Please I'm tired I had too much (2.0) I need sleep just go

8. G: It's fucking daylight (.) Milena I love you

9. R: Do you want me to tell you I slept with someone is that what you want (.) and fucked? Would you believe that? Is that what you want to believe? What do you want to know? The truth? (2.0) no you don't (.) call it a lie (3.5) What do you want us to do? To go up and make love to go up and fuck? You want us to do that? You want me to do that? What is it you want? (2.0) Okay (.) I love you (.) I don't love you what do you want me to say? What do you want me to do because of that? Kill myself? (1.0) Would you be sure then? Huh? Would you?

10. G: I want you to be mine

11. R: I don't want anything to be mine

12. R: Want me to give you a great big present Alex? Yes, I did it. You made me do it.

13. (G slaps R)

Each of Garfunkel's interventions involve reductionist interpretations of Russell's actions. She is held to be 'drunk' and, in any event, to be held accountable for being out on the streets at dawn ('it's fucking daylight'). These interpretations each constitute a fixed subject (or slave) defined by reference to another's (a master's) fantasies. Following Russell's long string of questions at 9, then, Garfunkel correctly expresses the desire that is implicit in his gaze: 'I want you to be mine'.

Russell's response is initially to avoid dialogue (1, 3, 5 and 7). However, when pressed by Garfunkel, she interrupts his discourse, revealing that he has already constituted her as a subject. She enters the voice of I to mimic his treatment of her in terms of what he 'wants'. She is not prepared to offer a fixed account of her own dispositions ('I love you. I don't love you'). Nor does she want to fix another subject ('I don't want anything to be mine'). Only within Garfunkel's speech is she reduced to a fixed subject. But, as she says, to accept this speech would be to kill herself or to reduce herself to a symbol (at 9, the unfaithful women). Unwilling to recognise the possible irony at 12 (telling him what he wants to hear versus what actually happened), Garfunkel gratefully accepts the proffered symbol and, coming to life within a renewed symbolic order, expresses his mastery of that order by slapping her.


In one sense, 'gaps' and 'contradictions' are the very stuff of popular cinema. Without them, the film would be over as soon as it started. The pleasure of the viewer depends upon the knowledge that all will not be revealed at the start but in due course. Gradually, pleasurably, as in a strip-tease, the plot unfolds and, slowly, things fall into place.

BT appears to offer itself to us very much in this form of a puzzle slowly dissolved. The film opens with shots of a couple (Garfunkel and Russell) on an outing. Immediately, puzzles are created as subsequent scenes, moving around in narrative time, show Russell unconscious in an ambulance, leaving another man (Denholm Elliott) and removing her wedding ring and then on her own, drunk in a bedroom. Why does she drink? To which man does she belong? How did she get hurt? What is the history of her relationship to the two men?

Within a few seconds, the narrative poses such questions for the viewer and, through a series of flash-backs, works on and through the puzzles it has created. In the popular cinema, such puzzles are created and resolved by reference to what Heath calls the 'novelistic'. Questions and answers are derived from 'within the limits of existing social representations' and in the context of 'fictions of the individual'. 29 A rich assortment of puzzles can thereby be generated.

In this film, for instance, is there a link between unfaithfulness (two men), deceit (removal of wedding ring), moral decline (drunkenness) and injury (being carried unconscious in an ambulance)? These 'novelistic' forms of connection immediately suggest themselves. In the dreams of everyday and 'fictional' narratives, we seem already to have encountered such women. Like the reader of tabloid newspapers, we lick our lips knowing that all will slowly, deliciously be revealed: the juicy details, the moral ending.

The resolution of the puzzle provides for two central characters of doubtful moral stature (the scarlet woman and the jealous man) As in all good moral tales, we demand that they get their due. And, indeed, Russell suffers violence and near death, while we learn in the closing shots that Garfunkel is destined to lose the woman he desired to possess. In the final scene standing on a bridge, he peers down into the water below, apparently pondering his fate, learning his moral lesson as we have learned ours.

BT is replete with symbols. The first shot of a Klimt painting seems to prepare the spectator for a story of a passionate, enveloping relationship turning on the themes of possessiveness and possession. Then we discover that the film is set in Vienna, the city of Sigmund Freud and of Harry Lime (from The Third Man). Both symbolise what is hidden or unconscious: Freud explores the unconscious and the crooks and spies in The Third Man work underground, in the city sewers. However, BT is not prepared to allow the spectator merely to note the presence of these symbolic fields. It wants to work these fields for all they are worth. As if the Viennese setting were not enough in itself, we learn that Garfunkel is himself a psychiatrist and a part-time spy, hired by American Intelligence to report on Russell and her Czech husband.

The density and unity of symbols in BT seem to take up more and more of the visual field. As passive spectators, we only need a limited use of symbols to establish the space which the narrative will occupy. But instead of allowing the narrative to wash over us, the symbolic field threatens to take over from it. BT is over-determined by symbols. BT is thus 'about' the possibilities and limits of symbolic readings of texts. It establishes a set of symbols which then rotate and multiply to an impossible extent. One is reminded of the nausea and seasickness that Joseph K. experiences when he is close to the over-determined symbolic field of the Court. 30

But BT is also 'about' the possibilities of a reading which refuses any escape into a signified but instead enters into a play of signifiers. When, for instance, in only the third scene of the film, Russell removes her wedding ring, she sheds her last connection with symbolic objects. After that disavowal of the symbolic, she is connected only with images that refuse any simple link with a symbolic field. In many scenes, she is seen wearing a range of jewellery, often in the form of a brooch. But the brooches carry images that are not immediately retrievable in the closure of the symbolic. We see on them a woman's hand, a brightly-coloured parrot and then a woman's face. But, like the painting in her flat, the face is open and offers no clues about motivation or personality.

BT thus reveals the possibility of a practice which is not obsessed with interpretation. Unlike Garfunkel, whose gaze is always turned toward symbols and metaphors (the Klimt painting, the symbolic and erotic paintings and statues in his room), Russell displays a practice involved in signifiers without any immediate signified. At the art gallery shown in the opening scene, where Garfunkel is immersed in his Klimt scene of the man enveloping a woman, she is looking at another less retrievable painting. Her gaze can offer no resource to the narrative: her preferred painting plays no further part in the unwinding of the narration. Like the spectator who is not immersed in the narration's relentless progress towards retrieving a set of signifieds, Russell's gaze is mobile and active. 'What about this?' she says, 'Look where we are' (54).

Nowhere does this suggest any pure discourse of truth apart from signifiers. But while Garfunkel, like the spectator, is professionally concerned with articulating dreams into a finite sequence, generating closures and silences, BT also shows how symbols can rotate within an inflationary symbolic economy which disarticulates expected sequences and interrupts closures.

We will examine this disarticulation by means of Heath's analysis of the 'look' and of 'suture'.


Classically, cinema turns on a series of 'looks' which join, cross through and relay one another. Thus: l) the camera looks (a metaphor assumed by this cinema)... at someone, something...; 2) the spectator looks... at - or on - the film; 3) each of the characters in the film looks... at other characters, things. 31

We can start to understand the 'inflationary' character of BT by examining the central role that the 'look' plays in it. The most powerful image in the film is of Russell's unconscious body as seen from the point of view of Garfunkel, at first sprawled out and then as rearranged by him preparatory to rape. So Garfunkel looks at the body and we look at Garfunkel's look. This look wants to scan, define and close. For Garfunkel, the look defines a desirable object made accessible through being rendered passive or unconscious. This desire is a desire for mastery and mastery is attained by fixing a subject as an object in a system of equivalences which leaves no surplus. 32

For the viewer too, desire is satisfied by this fixing. As voyeurs, we can derive pleasure from the symbol of a subject-become-object and hence directly accessible to our fantasies. In the same way, as passive viewers, we are satisfied by a text rendered submissive via a symbolic order, as signifiers are fixed to a signified.

For this viewer, the scene offers the expected resolution of the puzzles established by the narrative's posing of an enigma. Within what Barthes terms the 'hermeneutic code', a site of tension and fantasy is established between reality and appearance. 33 Consequently, the spectator cannot avert his gaze lest he miss clues until the final revelation. Finally, for Garfunkel the rape is the culmination of his attempt to fix Russell within a symbolic structure. While conscious, Russell continually resists and subverts Garfunkel's interpretive work. When unconscious, through an overdose, she offers a perfect target for the unfettered expression of his fantasies.

Like the passive viewer, Garfunkel is interpellated as a symbolic subject, a subject at home with symbols. Even as he arranges Russell's unconscious body, he stops to puzzle over the images present in the paintings and photos in her apartment, searching for a symbolic order which will still more firmly fix the subject of his desire (as an object of his gaze). Every time Garfunkel is with Russell, he turns to images as if to restock his fantasies. The gaze at the painting in the art gallery is matched by his stare at a painting of a unicorn when, some time later, he is in bed with Russell. Shortly afterwards, his eyes turn towards photos of her with Elliot. In the very next scene, he is on a bus still looking at photographs of her when she walks by.

In his looking, Garfunkel mirrors the look of the viewer or spectator who himself will be looking for symbols to fix the object of his desire. Like the spectator, Garfunkel turns his gaze towards what is enclosed within a frame. The 'series of looks' described by Heath is completed by the look of the camera which provides such a frame and thereby fixes what can be viewed. The fantasies which constitute subjects are products of specific practices and apparatuses (in this case of camera and frame); they do not spring from nature. Once again, like the spectator, Garfunkel does not receive his images in a direct, unmediated way. They are viewed within frames or, in other cases, through a kind of lens, as when Garfunkel observes Russell through glass.

A view through glass, like a view through a frame, is invariably associated with an attempt to fix a subject. 34 Thus, after their car breaks down in Morocco and they are given a lift by two Arabs in a truck, Garfunkel peers through a glass partition, puzzling about Russell's ambiguous relationship with the men on each side of her in the front of the truck. A little while later, back at home, he observes Russell talking to a man outside the window of a cafe in which he is sitting. In both cases, the glass frames silent images which, like the ambiguous photographs of Russell, function for Garfunkel as clues to be decoded by data drawn from the conscious mind (official records, files) and from the unconscious - the fantasies present in the Klimt painting already mentioned and in the erotic statue which we see in Garfunkel's bedroom.

Garfunkel's look shares with that of the spectator a particular version of desire and sexuality associated with mastery and closure. Such desire wants to risk nothing by fixing another subject without setting itself into question. So Garfunkel is only really happy when locating Russell in a satisfactory symbolic order. In the rape scene, this happens through his arrangement and penetration of her inert body in line with a fantasy. The link between the desire for mastery and passive looking or voyeurism (in this case, Garfunkel's watch over Russell's body) is made clearer in the activities of the policeman who investigates the rape. In early scenes, we him see him puzzling over clues. Like Garfunkel, his sexuality is associated with imagining a world fixed according to a fantasy. For instance, as he enters Russell's bedroom, the policeman licks his lips at the sexual fantasy that he imagines.

Both Garfunkel and the policeman display a form of sexuality which relies on fixing the object of desire. Garfunkel is aroused when he is able to reduce Russell to a symbol (a 'slut', an expression of a Klimt painting). The policeman is excited when he reduces the appearances of Russell's room to a stereotyped picture of a sexual encounter.

The fixing of meaning of discourses via an appeal to symbols exemplifies the practice of interpretation. Alternatively, interruption can set up a playful relation between discourses. We saw this earlier, when Russell plays with readings of Garfunkel's MCD 'asshole'. On other occasions, Russell passively enacts the imaginary subject that Garfunkel proposes. Her passivity, however, serves not as a confirmation but as a contestation of Garfunkel's closures. Throughout, Russell shows that she is merely playing a part dictated from outside. Consequently, she shows no sign that she has mistaken this imaginary subject for reality. Without internalisation, the subject is only a dummy. In the first of these two scenes, we see her rooms cleaned and tidy - quite unlike their normal state. Garfunkel enters and is greeted by:


R: I'm being nice to you

Garfunkel is delighted by this reconstituted 'tidy' subject that fits his fantasies. However, his advances are rejected by Russell. When reduced to a fiction, she experiences no desire:

R: Not now (.) I just don't want to.

Appearing to realise the emptiness of his mastery, Garfunkel says he has to leave and Russell asks:

R: What if we'd made love? Why are you lying to yourself all the time? You've got to understand who I am.

Garfunkel's look/the narrative's look always lies because it seeks mastery by its practices of prescription and inscription. It only wants to inscribe subjects as coherent unities; it is never prepared to 'understand' the multiplicity and play of signifiers ('who I am'). For Garfunkel, however, the only perceived problem is Russell's wilfullness and perversity. For him, she is still a unitary subject - a selfish person

G: You do everything when you want to,

Faced with this coercive interpretation, Russell reverts to her earlier strategy of role-playing. Standing on the stairs, she flaunts herself:

R: You want me? Here it is Alex. Fuck me right here and now.

Once more, Garfunkel is turned on by the offer of the subject of his desire. But she clearly does not enjoy the sexual act that follows. She returns to her rooms crying and starts throwing objects around, disturbing the tidiness of the room/subject which Garfunkel had desired.

A final site of these challenges to interpretation occurs via Russell's playful version of Garfunkel's fantasies. This time Russell offers him symbols of romance: candles are lit all over his flat - and of male sex objects - she is dressed like a tart in an orange wig. This juxtaposition of sweetheart and whore destroys their individual symbolic power. Russell has gone over the top: she wears a bra over her sweater. She offers herself to him through a display of his symbols and a use of his language (the language of possession):


R: You can lock me up. I'll always be yours, We are celebrating the death of the lady you don't want and the birth of the lady you do want.

Russell interrupts Garfunkel's discourse by revealing the language of mastery that it involves. By setting his symbols in contradictory play, she shows the way in which they construct fictional, imaginary subjects. Faced with this interruption, Garfunkel cannot cope. He storms out of her flat. Russell, however, continues to interrupt his language of mastery:

R: Don't go, Fuck me. That's what you want isn't it?

Locked into a relentless need to narrate, Garfunkel, however, can only treat images as clues as part of the narrative's constant surveillance. Instead of looking around or playing, he will only seek certainties. The kind of looking which Russell proposes can never be freed from discourse or presuppositionless (Husserl's mistaken dream). Garfunkel and the policeman engage in reductionism not because they engage in fantasies (what are 'truths'?) but because they employ fantasies to secure closures or suturing effects.

This helps us to move towards a reworking of our understanding of interruptive practice and of forms of desire. 'Interruption' is now revealed as an intervention which seeks to juxtapose or revolve fantasies (discourses) to prevent the forms of closure established by attempts at discursive mastery. The desire of interruption is for productivity and play; the desire of interpretation is for closure and silence. Moreover, as Hegel showed, a discourse of mastery is bound to fail in its object. 35 For, by constituting others as slaves, the recognition they give can count for nothing. And this perhaps explains something of the relentless movement of narration within the conventional film or text or the desire for ever new pornographic objects. Denied recognition by the very practices that were supposed to achieve it, interpretation can only thrust forward once again in its (self-defeating) task of imposing its fantasies.


A concentration on dialogue may seem to imply that BT is concerned only with verbal interruption. Through an analysis of 'cutting' (from one scene to another), we will conclude by establishing the nature and practice of visual interruptions in BT. Now, of course, the cut from one scene to another is part of the basic machinery of narrative cinema, As Heath points out, the major enemy of such a cinema is 'boredom', By switching the site of the spectator's gaze through cutting away, interest can be maintained, So the cut - to a sub-plot, or an earlier, later or simultaneous time in the chronology of the narrative - is basic to narrative cinema.

There are elements of this kind of cutting in BT - particularly in the moves backwards and forwards in narrative time which, although complicated, are no more intricate than in many conventional films. The cuts which distinguish BT, however, serve to pull apart the fictions and symbols which ordinarily are used to make narrative and subjects cohere. This drive for coherence depends,in part, upon a certain essentialist treatment of the people we view.

In the narrative cinema, people are cast as imaginary subjects, grounded in familiar fictions. As they flicker before us on the screen, their only substance is derived from such fictions. In BT, this suturing effect is contested and the wound unstitched, by the repeated cutting between different versions of the body: the mythical body invested by fictions and the material body subject to cuts and suturing effects. Five times the film cuts away from the dreams of the subject to the material practices in which bodies are inscribed as subjects. Each time involves a cut from the smooth unfolding of the narrative to a shot of Russell's body in hospital being treated for her overdose, as follows:

1. In the second scene of the film, we move away from the fictions of the Klimt painting to a shot of Russell in an ambulance. She is unconscious. Yet her fixing as a clinical object is unsettled by the low-cut gown in which she is dressed. The play between clinical/sexual object is unsettling and will be repeated rather than overcome.

2. Some scenes later, we see Garfunkel signing a statement for the policeman (27). The practice of surveillance is stressed by the policeman's query about his subsequent movements. The film now cuts to a view of Garfunkel peering into a river, imagining making love to Russell (28). Through surveillance and the recourse to the imaginary, the narrative coheres. But this scene itself disappears and we cut to the operating theatre where we see Russell being given a tracheotomy. We witness the bloody cuts and the attempts at suture concealed beneath the fictions of coherent narration.

3. Shortly afterwards, we cut from the bedroom scene where Garfunkel is questioning Russell about her marriage (35), back once more to the hospital where she is being given an electric shock to revive her (36). Garfunkel's interrogation is juxtaposed to another violent practice and is relocated in a material, bodily reality away from dreams of the imaginary. As in cut 1, however, the two realities are shown to intersect: during the administration of the shock, Russell's breasts appear out of her gown. Her body is not to be fixed as a property of either the clinical or Garfunkel's sexual gaze. Both gazes are interrupted and a disturbing rotation or revolution of discourses takes place.

4.& 5. On two further occasions (42-43 and 58-59), the film cuts from bedroom scenes to views of injections and catheters in the operating theatre. These unsettling shifts of the camera's gaze destroy the stability and coherence that narrative cinema demands and through juxtaposition of scenes, reminds us of the discursive constitution of the body.

The lack of stability of the narrative gaze is emphasised in the penultimate scene of BT where Garfunkel gazes at Russell's empty apartment and sees it first tidy, then untidy (87 & 88). The practices which ordinarily generate stability have failed to do their proper work. So, finally, we see Garfunkel in New York, catching sight of Russell getting out of a taxi (89). The camera closes up on her body and reveals a tracheotomy scar on her neck, For BT, both cut and suture are visible. And, for once, this is not an empty display of directorial cunning (the emptiness of the avant-garde) but a learning experience - an invitation to dialogue rather than closure.

Fittingly, given these troubles, the film ends with a blues sung over the credits. As Heath points out, in this way sound is 'contained... as the safe space of the narrative voice' (120-1). Sound focuses, underlines and links images for the sake of a smooth narration: it is central to the work of suturing. Only the possible irony present in the words of the song ('It's the same old story...') gives the slightest hint of the suturing in progress - the narration of 'the same old story'. But the ironicisation and hence distancing is far less than, say, in Altman's The Long Goodbye which follows a brutal killing by an ending in which the murderer skips up the road dancing to a recording of 'Hooray for Hollywood' played on the soundtrack. 36

Viewed in this way, Bad Timing pays tribute to the 'good timing' of the narrative as, in Heath's words on the nature of film,it successfully rewinds 'a tangle of memories... as the order of the continuous time of the film' (127). And yet the interest of this film is that these very suturing effects, which fix the subject as part of the narrative, are themselves put in issue. Like any film or text, Bad Timing never entirely incorporates every excess or contradiction. Images, for instance, are introduced, like Russell's striking jewellery, which are never taken up in the narrative and so constitute an untapped surplus in its economy. 37 Unlike many other films which operate within the conventions of popular cinema, however, BT interrupts and disrupts this economy. Unlike 'monetarist' cinema, which is concerned with fixing and limiting the production of surplus signifiers, the work of this film is specifically 'inflationary', encouraging productivities which can only endanger a sound currency. 38


Ultimately however the struggle is not between one person and another but rather between ways of speaking and writing. 39

The way I have used the behaviour of the fictional characters, Alex and Milena, may imply to the casual reader that I have been concerned with a 'struggle ... between one person and another'. This, then, might look like an essay in gender politics in which it is demonstrated, once again, how a man exploits a woman. 40

Why, however, should we define Milena in terms of her gender? Surely, this would be to fall prey to the same essentialist, interpretive project which we have described above. Instead of trying to fix Milena as one kind of subject or another, the point has been to analyse verbal and visual processes of fixing (suture) and unfixing (cut). This has meant that we have gone beyond 'ways of speaking and writing' to ways of looking and cinematic forms of representing looking. In doing so, it may be argued that my use of concepts has become uneconomic. Somewhat foolhardily, I have tried to merge MCD analysis - deriving from CA - with accounts of suture - deriving from semiotic discussions of film.

Perhaps, however, these two traditions are not so far apart as we might believe. We already know that semiotics insists that our focus must not be on the authentic character of subjects but on how subjects are constituted within discourses. However, this argument is implicit in Sacks' account of MCDs. More recently, it has been made explicit in Schegloff's (forthcoming) discussion of how we may appeal to context as an explanation. Fully in line with Stephen Heath, Schegloff argues that analysts' characterisations of persons in terms of features such as gender, ethnicity and class are only legitimate if such features can be shown in participants' own orientations.

I began with McHoul's demolition of the unthought polarity between 'fictional' and 'naturally-occurring' data. 41 Building on his contribution, this paper has sought to encourage rethinking of our attachment to polarities between 'schools' of analysis.


1. I would like to acknowledge the helpful comments of Tom O'Regan (Murdoch University) and Anssi Perakyla (Glaxo Research Fellow, Goldsmiths College).

2. Alec McHoul, "An Initial Investigation of the Usability of Fictional Conversation for Doing Conversation Analysis", Semiotica, v.67, n.1/2 (1987) pp.83-104.

3. Martin Hammersley & Paul Atkinson, Ethnography: Principles in Practice (London: Tavistock, 1983).

4. Mervyn Peake, Mr Pye (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972).

5. Paul Drew, "Accusations", Sociology, v.12 (1978) pp.1-22.

6. Emmanuel Schegloff, Gail Jefferson & Harvey Sacks, "The Preference for Self-correction in the Organisation of Repair in Conversation", Language, v.53 (1977) pp.361-382.

7. McHoul, pp.98-9.

8. Harvey Sacks, "On the Analysability of Stories by Children" in J. Gumperz & D. Hymes eds., Directions in Sociolinguistics (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972), pp.216-232.

9. Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967).

10. David Silverman & Brian Torode, The Material Word (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980).

11. Garfinkel, Studies.

12. Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text (London: Fontana, 1977); Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1977); Ernesto Laclau & Chantal Mouffe, (1985) Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (London: Verso Books, 1985).

13. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (London: Macmillan, 1981).

14. Heath, Questions, p.106.

15. Heath, Questions, p.13

16. See also: John Vagg, The Productivities of Realist and Modernist Texts (Unpublished PhD thesis: University of London, 1981).

17. Vagg, Productivities.

18. Heath, Questions, p.7.

19. Heath, Questions.

20. Heath, Questions, p.128.

21. In Heath's sense, the 'imaginary' refers to the specific function of the subject in the symbolic realm. Ideological practice involves fixing a relation between the symbolic and the imaginary. See Heath, Questions, pp.105-6.

22. Silverman & Torode, Material Word, p.8.

23. There are parallels here with modernist texts like the Robbe-Grillet novel analysed in Silverman & Torode (Material Word, ch.8). The scenes of interrogation there also show the practices of surveillance at work.

24. As Anssi Perakyla has pointed out to me, there is an alternative version of psychoanalytic practice in which the patient's fixed patterns of interpretation are made visible and become the subject of a dialogue.

25. Silverman & Torode, Material Word, p.6.

26. Heath, Questions.

27. There are parallels here with Robbe-Grillet's Projet pour un révolution … New York where the interruptions of Laura are challenged by readings from her brother's library, well-stacked with pulp novels. See Silverman & Torode, Material Word, ch.8.

28. Although Russell's gesture might suggest the symbol of an 'easy' woman, the film as a whole revels the contestation of this, or any other, symbolic reading.

29. Heath, Questions, p.125.

30. See Silverman & Torode, Material Word, ch.4.

31. Heath, Questions, p.119.

32. This parallels Laclau & Mouffe's account of practices of closure in political discourse. See Hegemony....

33. Roland Barthes, S/Z (London: Cape, 1975).

34. Arthur Penn's enigmatically named Night Moves (moves in the dark/the elliptical moves of the knight in chess) makes a great play with views through glass (a glass-bottomed boat, a scene viewed through a car window).

35. Alexander Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, ed. A Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1969).

36. Altman's films are distinguished by the way in which image subverts sound. See, for instance, the bland play overheard on the radio by the lovers in Thieves Like Us and Geraldine Chaplin's trite broadcast commentary from a car junkyard in Nashville. Altman's films also use overlapping dialogue to good effect. In all cases, sound is not allowed to become a mere substitute for the image.

37. Vagg discusses the role of unused surpluses in Stendhal's Le Rouge et le Noir. See Vagg, Productivities.

38. This use of 'economic' terms follows Goux's suggestive paper. See Jean-Joseph Goux, "Marx et l'inscription du travail" in Tel Quel, Theorie d'Ensemble (Paris: Seuil, 1968), pp.188-211.

39. Silverman & Torode, Material Word, p.6.

40. Pursuing this line further, it might be argued that the (male) director of Bad Timing is exploiting women by the vivid depiction of rape in the film.

41. McHoul, 'Initial Investigation'.

New: 22 December, 1995 | Now: 18 March, 2015