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Film Narrative

 

notes

1

What we want to do in these notes is explore film suggestively. This isn’t so much about film studies, with relatively objective comments about concepts and techniques, more an opportunity to enquire into how we react to films in myriad ways. Now usually in the class everybody has a good giggle while watching film clips from various earlier Bond films. Right from the off they seem so determined to entertain us as they follow the demands of narrative and character with such a ruthlessly cliched efficiency that many find them laughable. Their obsession with beautiful women and numerous gadgets are obviously aimed at keeping us from getting bored – as if therein lies the film’s priority: alleviate the possibility of tedium at all costs. Is this not a definition for the entertainment industry at its most facile? If we sense a film has dated badly, it’s often because it aimed itself too squarely at the audience’s expectations. And those expectations will be that of the audience of the day. It’s like the antithesis of Samuel Butler’s claim for great literature when he says “Any man who wishes his work to stand will sacrifice a good deal of immediate audience for the sake of being attractive to a much larger number of people later on.”

So maybe watching a Bond film from the seventies is a little like looking at photos of ourselves from the past, where we can’t believe we were so hooked into the present, in our hair, our clothes, our interior design etc. When students watch the opening to, say, The Spy Who Loved Me, it isn’t only the strenuous storytelling that amuses them, it is also the gee-whiz gadgetry of the period. The latter often feels dated because, in consumer culture analyst and philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s words, “gadgets are just as much like badges which have had their moment of glory…”

Let us propose finally that many Bond films tell stories really quite badly, that they are too loaded with assumption, too intent on selling you a given lifestyle (like that other genre of the present: the advert) to get close to a first principle. Surely a really good storyteller keeps you in the story, even years after the story was first told. Bond films pretend they are offering us a strong story, but they are perhaps giving us a weak story with strong cultural assumptions surrounding it. Let us go back to the term we used a moment ago: the first principle. What we mean by this is an ability to get at the bottom of things. A good story should be able to get to the root of a theme, to explore a subject that doesn’t date like a daily newspaper. This is usually what we mean when we say a story is timeless. Obviously we will all have our own examples of films where the story works as well today as when it was made, or films that at least are more than just contemporaneous.

We might for example compare the car/train chase sequence in The French Connection with the one at the beginning of The Spy Who Loved Me. The first principle in The French Connection might be frustration: it utilises the chase sequence – and there are several in the film – to give us a very strong sense of determined but not always successful effort, and helps us to understand the meaning of frustration for ourselves and others. The chase sequences in a Bond outing usually feel closer to a gimmick, as the scene in The Spy Who Loved Me exemplifies. It isn’t really about one man chasing another: it is about Bond’s super-coolness under immense pressure, and then the gadgetry punch-line of a Union Jack parachute opening just in the nick of time, or, in another, non-chase sequence example, avoiding the deadly laser in Goldfinger. Obviously this trivial dimension isn’t true of all Bond films, and we may wonder what Daniel Craig has brought to the franchise, as coolness gives way to determination. But it’s as if the principle lies not in the thing the film is focusing upon generally in a Bond film, but on the affect that can be extracted from the audience: the fairground fun of the ride. In The French Connection we sense the film wants to concentrate very much on the problem to hand, and that the audience is caught up in this problem, not left ironically at one remove by the constant appeal to audience expectation. If we often admire old Hollywood films, or many of the thematically complex works of the seventies, The French Connection, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Conversation, The Deer Hunter, it might be because we feel they are being true to the subtlety of their subject matter and not true just to an audience’s wants and expectations. It might be valid to say that we long to be entertained, and this might help explain why many of us go and watch the latest Hollywood ‘big thing’. But it’s also true many are disappointed with these big-budget action films and comedies, that by the last section of the film third-act fatigue sets in, and it could be that though they’re hell bent on entertaining, they lack a first principle to really engage us. Let us say this is chiefly the difference then between two apparently mainstream films like The Spy Who Loved Me and The French Connection.

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A movie that illustrates a first narrative principle very well is the Japanese film by Akira (Seven Samurai) Kurosawa, Dersu Uzala. Dersu Uzala is the trapper of the title, a man whose purpose in life is to survive, and so the film follows how a man might get by in the wilderness, and how he can help others survive likewise. The suspenseful sequences in the film come not from fighting a super villain, or trying to save the world, as we often see in Bond films where the main purpose seems to reside not in the story but in the gadgets, the beautiful babes and the all too cool locations, but from fighting the elements. In one great scene the trapper saves his Russian friends from misery and possible death by quickly throwing together a make-shift hut as a storm whips up. The drive of the film comes from the word survival, just as the drive in that exemplary case of Hollywood suspense, The French Connection, may well come from the word frustration.  We want to see how the trapper and the Russians will survive in nature and battle the elements.

 

There were quite a lot of man against nature films in the early to mid seventies (when Dersu Uzala was made), including Man in the Wilderness, starring Richard Harris, and Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford, and a fine little Australian film called The Long Weekend . To help explain the appeal of such films, there is an interesting comment by the filmmaker John Boorman while he was making The Emerald Forest, where he talks about how we are all so reliant on others, and that very few people in the world can claim the sort of autonomy that the central character here shows. This gives the film an almost philosophical question that underpins its story of a character overcoming obstacles. If we compare the trapper with, say, James Bond, we see the difference between self-reliance and self-assumption. Bond relies on many people, whether that is Moneypenny, M or Q, to accomplish much of anything. And of course he does so to benefit some abstract notion of the Free World. It could be argued that if anybody is defending the Free World it is Dersu Uzala, who lives in the wild and wants to protect the very planet just by utilising its resources for his own immediate necessity and then moving on. He wants no more accoutrements than the necessary. So as we watch a man going about his day to day life so at odds with our own, we may find ourselves asking questions about the complications of our lives, and how reliant we are on others.

A film like Kurosawa’s may also remind us that films don’t need to compete with big-budget action films to be full of tension and suspense. The immediate problems of nature can be enough. This is hardly to dismiss big-budget movies, but if the Bond films finally seem much more important because of the way they represent a period (isn’t Bond a product of first-world affluence and the jet-set culture of the sixties?) than in their ability to tell a story, then that may lie in the budget going into relatively irrelevant details and not first and foremost towards developing the story. In the scene where we see Dersu and the Russian soldiers building a shelter, the scene is long but the action essential. In many a Bond films the shots are brief and quickly give us new information, yet often this information is narratively superfluous, or gratuitous, however entertaining. Think of the scene early on in The Spy Who Loved Me where the villain’s personal secretary is fed to a shark to the sounds of Bach’s Air, while his office is surrounded by Renaissance art works. Two boffins he has employed witness the death aware that it is should be seen as a cautionary tale: that the work they have done for Curt Jurgens’ villain must not be leaked. Here it is less about pushing the story along than keeping the audience easily entertained. The shark death is clearly a play on Jaws – a huge success a couple of years before and another cultural marker. One might not feel bored watching this scene, as some students feel in the clip from Dersu Uzala, but is this less because of the essentials of the sequence than the entertaining nature of it, and that the viewer is neatly and comfortably ensconced in the scene no matter the ostensible awfulness of the events depicted? Look at the constant reaction shots to the two boffins, the cruel look on Jurgens’ face.

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In 1960 two important films were released in the same year. One is now amongst the best known films ever made, Psycho, and the other, one of the most respected, L’Avventura. The latter, after being booed on its Cannes premiere, quickly went on to become one of the ten best films ever made, according to a Sight and Sound poll that came out a couple of years after its release. What do the films have in common? They both remove what would seem to be their central characters in the early stages of the film. From very different positions they both suggest that we do not need a hero, a protagonist, to follow a movie. The question we might then ask is what does a film need if not always a key character? In Hitchcock’s case it always lay in a cinematic tension, in creating a strong story that would drive the viewer from scene to scene. After Marion Crane is killed, the problem shifts. Instead of fretting over Marion’s attempts to flee with the money; we’re following Norman Bates in getting rid of Marion’s body. This is Hitchcock’s genius for placing us in the story more than in the character. When for example Marion Crane gets ready to steal the money in her hotel room, the camera anticipates her actions rather than follows them, as though we are aware, however, subconsciously, that we must follow the camera more than the character. Hitchcock masterfully places us not so much in the world of character as in the problems the story creates, and so it makes sense that we then will move onto Norman Bates and his set of problems as he has to clean up the mess. In a discussion with the French filmmaker and critic Francois Truffaut in Hitchcock, the latter said there were some filmmakers who were great character directors and others who were great story directors. Hitchcock was a great story director.

But what about Antonioni, whom one critic said filled his films with dead time (with empty screen time), that doesn’t allow a story to develop, and nevertheless in L’Avventura allows his central character to disappear altogether? Is he neither one nor the other?Let us say there are also great filmmakers of atmosphere, of which Antonioni is one and, in a rather different way, David Lynch another. But if Antonioni is a great director of space, as he shows emptied Southern Italian towns, or a strangely futuristic London (Blow Up), or a post-Industrial Italy (Red Desert), Lynch is much more oneiric (dream-like). In Lost Highway, Lynch also loses his central character, allowing him to morph into someone else altogether. Now if we are too concerned with plot and character we might feel the film has failed, but if we think in terms of the film’s atmosphere, and the way it creates some of the uncanniness and strangeness of dreams, it works extremely well, just as Antonioni can create a strange sense of spatial alienation in his work realistically, so Lynch does so oneirically. We shouldn’t first and foremost try to make narrative sense of Lost Highway, we should try to enter its world, try and suspend a different type of disbelief than we’re used to suspending. There are many films that we of course follow, but occasionally there are films we go with. The critic Pauline Kael may have said, of films by Antonioni, Alain Resnais and others in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, that people accept “their slugged consciousness” lazily, and maybe Lynch’s films often appeal to modern viewers in much the same way. But here we’re not suggesting that viewers leave their critical faculties at the door, simply that they accept certain films access different critical faculties. So instead of devoting our time and energy in films like Lost Highway and Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. to working out the story, and wondering about the characters’ psychologies, we maybe need to think more about our own dream states and feelings, about strange atmospheres and moments in our lives that don’t quite make sense. If we accept that Lynch’s films destroy our narrative preconceptions, destroy our ideas about storytelling, then we should ask ourselves why that might be the case.

Now many filmmakers work with the notion of dreams, but they do so narratively. It was a bit of a trend in the early eighties to do so: Brainstorm, Dreamscape, The Dead Zone as examples. But they were films, finally, on the side of narrative rather than atmosphere. Lynch’s films are best understood as films not about dreams, but as if we’re inside one. They allow us to watch a film with some of the obscure shades of feeling familiar from restless sleep. After all when we sleep we tell stories in our dreams but because they’re told within the dream, we don’t expect them to make logical sense, but we do expect them to be meaningful in some, vaguely ungraspable manner. It might be fair to offer the same hesitancy towards Lynch’s work as he searches out atmosphere to the detriment of story and character and stretches the possibilities in the viewing experience without completely eschewing the narrative dimension.

 

Generally we have chosen clips to talk about narrative, style etc. that allows for the exceptions rather than the rule to be fore-grounded. As viewers we usually have ready access to films of the rule, but the exceptions are harder to come by. The exceptions also help us to pinpoint more readily the generally accepted rules, because they work against our expectations. So when we use terms like nothing happens, or the characterization isn’t very strong, or I couldn’t really follow the plot, it is often because we are so used to the sort of rules and regulations Aristotle set up a couple of thousand years ago when he talked about unity of action, consistency of character, and goodness of person.

In this sense a filmmaker like Eric (My Night at Maud’s, Claire’s Knee) Rohmer seems to want to break many rules, though he himself would claim to be quite conservative. In terms of style his self-estimation is correct – he favours medium shots, standard rather than wide-angle or telephoto lenses, and editing that leaves us both spatially and temporally in an unambiguous position. The standard lens is often said to resemble the human eye, and unlike other French directors of his generation, Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Resnais, he doesn’t create spatial confusion with irrational cuts that break the coherence of space, as Godard does in A Bout de Souffle, or cut in such a way that we are not sure where we are in time, as with Resnais in Last Year at Marienbad. As he says, what interests him is that cinema is the one art form “where the reality of the thing filmed is of the greatest importance.” In other words film records reality, many of the other arts do not: the filmmakers should respect the reality that it can capture. Hence the conservatism.

But in terms of story and character his films are innovative and adventurous. Let us take his central character in La Collectionneuse: he’s a man who simply wishes to wile away his summer doing nothing. He wants to get up early so he’ll avoid the temptations of nearby St Tropez, where almost certainly something would happen. But of course any attempt at doing nothing causes something to happen anyway, even if it is mainly in the character’s head. As Rohmer says, he isn’t so much interested in what his characters do, but what they are thinking about when they are doing (or not doing) something. Rohmer’s approach is in some ways existentialist, and loosely in the tradition of Camus, Sartre and others in sharing the idea that an identity isn’t given but that we shape it for ourselves. Existence precedes essence as Sartre would say. Rohmer would nevertheless be suspicious of existential claims for his work, not least because his characters are not always in control of their destiny. In The Green Ray, there is the unusual titular sunset at the end of the film that passes almost for a miracle, as nature proves central to Rohmer’s work. Rohmer once said that though his films were not conventionally religious, nevertheless there was no more theological filmmaker than he.

But perhaps he’s a combination of the psychology of existentialism with the phenomenology – the perceiving aspect – of Impressionism.  If Rohmer is visually conservative, it lies maybe in his respect for a certain visual airiness: that he wants his films to resemble the simple beauty of nature and landscape so central to the Impressionists. By combining the lightness of impressionism with the ‘weight’ of existential decision making – so often Rohmer’s characters prepare to make a choice, or make an extreme one they try to abide by, as in Le Beau Marriage, A Summer’s Tale and A Winter’s Tale – his films become ‘exceptional’, yet with clear precedents. It is just that the precedents aren’t always to be found in cinema, but instead in the other art forms.

This is something we should always think about when wondering if a film works or not. Do we sometimes believe it just doesn’t work because it refuses to fit into the conventions we have come to expect? Maybe we need to look for some of the film’s influences elsewhere. By so often combining philosophical enquiry and ethical decision-making with a painterly fondness for filming the seasons, Rohmer allows himself to be unique cinematically but not entirely unprecedented within other traditions. His early films called themselves ‘moral tales’: as if foregrounding the influence of philosophy in La Collectionneuse, My Night at Maud’s and Claire’s Knee. Late in his career he made what were called his four season films: A Tale for Springtime, A Winter’s Tale, A Summer’s Tale, and An Autumn Tale, suggesting the influence of art and especially of course Impressionism. What we’re proposing with Rohmer’s work is that he frees film up by being exceptional – proving that rules are not set but open to alteration. What we can also say though about filmmakers like Rohmer is that they don’t just make a film out of nowhere, but in an enquiring sense that isn’t limited to clear cinematic boundaries, but much broader aesthetic, psychological and philosophical ones. In fact, ironically, we might surmise that finally films with the weakest narrative, or the most peripheral concerns, are often those with apparently the most exciting stories. Yet take the gimmicks out of the Bond films, for example, and remove the special effects from films like Independence Day and Armageddon, and what have we got left?

 

©Tony Mckibbin