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Cinema Narrative



Let us look at the term narrative from the point of view of story, character and atmosphere, and also differentiate plot from story, and story from theme. Though scriptwriting manuals insist that the story is the thing, even that master of storytelling, Alfred Hitchcock, thought there were story directors and character directors, believing he of course fell into the former category. When critic Andrew Sarris questioned Martin Scorsese’s grasp of narrative in the director’s seventies work, would he not have been better recalling Hitchcock’s differentiation and seeing a director preoccupied with character? And then, we might ask, what about atmosphere? Critic Stanley Kauffmann in Before My Eyes reckoned Terrence Malick couldn’t hold Days of Heaven in his head; that Malick didn’t grasp the essentials of character and story. But was this because Malick was more of an atmospheric director, that mood meant more than story and character? As the philosopher and critic Stanley Cavell in The World Viewed believed: “I assume that anyone who has taken an interest in [Days of Heaven] wishes to understand what its extremities of beauty are in the service of…”  Obviously not all critics.

What we are proposing here is that we need to explore the film in all its subtlety rather than impose upon it all our prejudices. The critic and painter Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson’s comment in Negative Space comes to mind: the idea of thinking about a film in a way commensurate with the way the filmmaker’s mind is. The more tools we have for appreciating the director’s intentions, the fairer we will be to the work to hand. Thinking of story, character and theme can help us here.

In a scene from Shane, director George Stevens sets up a strong story-driven narrative where a mysterious but friendly stranger comes onto the family’s ranch, and shortly afterwards, while the stranger is still there, local baddies arrive who want to take over the land. Obviously when Shane proves quick on the draw, as he hears a sharp noise, this illustrates an element of his character; but are we more concerned with his past actions or his future actions? To show especial interest in his past actions would suggest a greater interest in character; his future actions indicative of story. The mysteriousness of the stranger is slightly less important than what the mystery man is capable of.  That we know Shane is a hotshot gun-slinger leaves us wondering when he will use his gun skills. This is a mainstay of the Western genre: the reluctant hero who eventually needs to do what a man has to do, and what he has to do is lend himself well to a strong story. Shane was made in 1953, and some critics have proposed that it wasn’t until five years later when Paul Newman appeared in The Left-Handed Gun that the western became psychological, more character driven: in Time Out, critic Tom Milne referred to the leading character as Billy the mixed-up-Kid. Many a modern western became modern partly through its move from the preoccupations of the story to the preoccupation with character. Westerns like McCabe and Mrs Miller and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid enquire into the nature of the characters over the propulsion of the story. Where the great theorist Andre Bazin believed, in What is Cinema? Vol II, that the western was the most moral of genres, that may have been because it was also the most story driven, and the black and white characterisation gave way to shades of grey and the birth of the character western over the morally driven story western: the classic western is story driven; the modern western more character based. This doesn’t mean there were no character strong westerns before 1958, after all Red River from 1948 and The Searchers from 1956 are surprisingly meditative films about one man’s bloody-minded behaviour.

So if Shane is a marvellous example of the classic western, the classic narrative and the well-told story, then what about a great character film? If Scorsese was seen by critics and filmmakers in the seventies as the artist of his generation, was it not due to his fascination with character over story that was partly responsible for his high standing? Many of Scorsese’s characters are ‘mixed up kids’, and none more so than Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. As Bickle offers his thoughts in voice-over, as Scorsese offers numerous shots of Bickle alone, each shot isn’t a unit of storytelling; more a unit of psychological investigation. As Bickle consistently misjudges social situations, so the viewer muses over less what he does than why he does it. Even the extreme actions near the end of the film leave us bewildered chiefly because of the complexity of the character Scorsese has offered to us. While some critics have seen parallels with The Searchers – young woman ‘held’ by bad characters whom Bickle wants to save her from – the urban setting, the number of perverse characters Bickle comes into contact with, and the attention to peripheral detail, indicates Scorsese is interested in more than the story to which it is indebted.

Obviously, though, many would also say that Taxi Driver is an atmospheric film. The smeared neon shots at the beginning of the movie, Bernard Herrmann’s woozy jazz score and Scorsese’s frequent re-framings build a certain mood. Yet compared to David Lynch’s work, Scorsese’s films still feel like realist movies, concerned with immediate problems over abstract behaviour. After all, imagine if Travis Bickle had morphed into another character altogether. This is exactly what happens to Lynch’s leading character in Lost Highway. Lynch’s film is surely a clear example of a mood piece if we think of the way the film shifts tone from the first section to the second. In the first, Bill Pullman is the jealous, suspicious husband; in the second Balthazar Getty is a lover having an affair. The first is a slow burn examination of paranoia; the second an exploration of excitement as Getty frets over his lover’s husband – a dangerous gangster. Where Hitchcock famously killed off his leading character in the first section of Psycho, Lynch offers a variation if it here, but where Hitchcock showed he was so much of a story director that he could go beyond identification of character, and still keep an interest in narrative, Lynch removes his leading character, we shall propose, to go beyond both character and story for intensity of atmosphere. Lynch is very interested in narrative speed and sonic diffusion, as though if you allow the narrative to fly, and the sound to reverberate indeterminately, what you ‘lose’ in story you gain in atmosphere.

Robert Altman is another director who claims he cares little for storytelling. While accepting the necessity of narrative, he says “what I am really talking about is taking the linear references out of film and having something happen that works on the individuals in the audience so that the information they get from the film suddenly invades all the information they have accumulated in their lifetime…” Yet this is quite ironic, considering how much influence Short Cuts has had on contemporary narrative, where critics have used terms like fractal filmmaking, network narratives and hyper-link cinema to explain recent cinema’s fascination with multi-strand storytelling in Paul Haggis’s Crash, Babel, Magnolia and numerous other films.

In a number of instances this multi-character dimension has been central to the fascination in recent years not with the story, especially, but the plot. From Aristotle to film theorist David Bordwell, analysts have differentiated story from plot in various ways. Bordwell and Thompson in Film Art, for example, reckon story is the sum total of events including backstory and the inferences we are expected to make, while plot is “the film’s actual presentation of certain events in the narrative.”  In noting the difference we can see how important plot has become in many contemporary films. In films like Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros and 21 Grams the city focused upon becomes a place for plot accumulation, for keeping bits of information from the audience to create maximum viewer mystery as the director gives us the story as if it is a jigsaw. There might be nothing deliberately hidden as in many a film noir, but it is as though the director is teasing us with the revelation of story through plot manipulation.

Such an approach to the city narrative is similar to the complex plotting to be found in The Usual Suspects and Nine Queens, and the metaphysical thrillers where we find ourselves inside a character’s perspective like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Matrix and Memento, as well as The Sixth Sense and Fight Club. Here the filmmaker makes plot do much of the story work for him. In Nine Queens, for example, imagine if the closing piece of information had been revealed to us at the beginning, as the characters were plotting another’s downfall? The film is chronological, but key narrative information that could have been given to us at the beginning of the film, is kept to the very end as a plot twist.

But do strong plots often lead to weak themes? Remember we earlier invoked the difference between story and theme, and perhaps if too much effort goes into creating an anticipatory viewer determined not to get caught out by the plot’s twists and turns, they aren’t put in a position to observe the film’s thematic development. When the fine novelist Milan Kundera talks of the difference between story and theme in The Art of the Novel, he reckons “whenever a novel abandons its themes and settles for just telling the story it goes flat.” Ditto cinema? If a film too busily tries to manipulate the viewer it risks losing its thematic coherence. When for example a film uses a clever twist in its last act, does it lose something intrinsic in the process? Do the twists and turns in Eternal Sunshine stymie an exploration of a character’s  mental confusion; does the ending of Fight Club throw away its exploration of the notion of charisma for the clever idea of saying the central character possesses a split personality? By the same token there are sometimes films in which apparently nothing happens and yet by the end of them we feel deeply satisfied. If viewers have found such films as Brokeback Mountain and There Will Be Blood mature works, is it partly because they explore their subjects without relying on narrative tricksiness, without what Adam Mars-Jones astutely called anti-clock wise twists, where the narrative rug is pulled out from under us? This is of course an endlessly debatable point, and one that we can return to later in the course as well as touching upon it ourselves this week.

What we’ve briefly explored here is the focus on story in Shane, the importance of character in Taxi Driver, the significance of atmosphere in Lost Highway, and the questioning of narrative linearity in Short Cuts. We have also mentioned the difference between the story and the plot, and the story and the theme. Hopefully we can now explore these ideas in more detail over the next hour couple of hours.


©Tony McKibbin