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The Story


“No Antonioni film is its story”, Murray Pomerance says in Michelangelo Red, Antonioni Blue, and it is an idea worth keeping in mind when there are so many script gurus and manuals insisting on the story’s importance for film. Robert McKee in Story writes “the art of story is the dominant cultural force in the world, and the art of film is the dominant medium of this grand enterprise”.  “As I repeat often, all drama is conflict: without conflict you have no action; without action you have no character; without character you have no story; and without story you have no screenplay”. Syd Field in Screenplay generally concurs. Talking of the script, he says, “you’ve only got about ten pages to grab the attention of your reader or your audience; that’s why so many films open with an attention-grabbing sequence like the opening of JawsThe Shawshank Redemption, The Hours, Raiders of the Lost Ark…Once you establish this scene or sequence, usually called the inciting incident, you can set up the rest of your story”. John Yorke in a Guardian article on film storytelling insists that the story needs antagonisms: “So something happens to a central character that throws them off the beaten track and forces them into a world they’ve never seen. A beanstalk grows; a patient collapses, a murder is committed. All of these actions have consequences; which in turn provoke obstacles that are commonly dubbed forces of antagonism – the sum total of all the obstacles that obstruct a character in the pursuit of their desires”.

This is all very well for many films, but useless for some others, and our purpose is to explore the idea of story not as a given but as a dimension of film. Instead of seeing film as an art form, or craft, that tells stories, though it very often does, it is more useful for our purposes to propose four approaches to the question of narrative. If we break the notion of ‘storytelling’ into the categorical, the ‘peripital’, the tentative and the a-narrational, then we can escape some of the assumptions that lie in moviemaking as narrative form.

The categorical is easily the most popular approach to telling stories, and this is where the film sets up a problem it can unequivocally dramatise or solve, and dramatises and solves in a way consistent with our perceptual faculties – in a way consistent with the chronological drive of the story. When we see Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone slowly losing his soul in The Godfather, Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) losing his health in Midnight Cowboy, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) finding his niece in The Searchers, the three men on a boat (Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss) getting the shark in Jaws, the titular character taking out the baddie in Shane, the film plays fair with the viewer: what we see is what we get, and though there will be development, this is not quite the same as surprise. In The Godfather Michael insists he is not like his gangster family to Kay (Diane Keaton), but by the end of the film he will be so like his family that Kay will be lied to for the purposes of the family’s continuation as a gangster empire. Ethan Edwards doesn’t kill his niece who had been captured by the Indians, and Rizzo’s friend, Joe Buck (Jon Voight), doesn’t become the New York success he hopes to become when he arrives in the city. Most of these films are significant works, but they are all, for our purposes, categorical. Each film has a clear narrative through-line that leaves us following the story but not especially second guessing it. Obviously there will be tension in the situations, and in the unravelling of the tale, but even in the second Godfather film, despite the narrative flashbacks as the film works between two time frames (Don Corleone in the past; Michael in the present), we don’t expect the film to surprise us in our perception of events.

In ‘peripital’ storytelling we are told that we were wrong to trust our perceptions. The term we’ve adopted here, ‘peripital,’ comes from Aristotle’s use of peripity, and as the philospher says, it is  “the change from one state of things within the play to its opposite of the kind described, and that too in the way we are saying, in the probable or necessary sequence of events; as it is for instance in Oedipus: here the opposite of things is produced by the Messenger, who, coming to gladden Oedipus and to remove his fears as to his mother, reveals the secret of his birth”. Many films do not have such a reversal: what we see is what we get, and we wait for time to play out contingently. The categorical as we’re defining it is a little like a football game where the outcome is unknown until the game is played; where the peripital is an outcome that was already known (the game has been fixed), but that we have not been privy to the behind-the-scenes scheming. In Lars von Trier’s fascinating provocation Manderlay, it turns out that Danny Glover’s black slave has been in league with the plantation owner to keep the status quo, believing that if it isn’t kept the situation of the slaves will be much worse: they might gain their freedom, but they will go hungry and fight amongst themselves.  This is peripety, as we assume one thing and then later realize the opposite. We think it is simply a case of the white man oppressing the black, but see that the black man can be equally involved in the oppression.

In films like Chinatown, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense, Memento, Body Heat, Shutter Island, The Game, Vertigo, The Wizard of Oz and Psycho, we are equally in error when making certain perceptual assumptions. The film doesn’t only reveal what we can’t know, but also reveals what we might possibly have guessed. When our hero eventually kills Jack Palance’s character at the end of Shane, or Michael Corleone becomes increasingly corrupted by his role in the family, or Razzo Rizzo dies, these moments rely on contingent circumstances: contingent in the sense that we have no prior knowledge that makes us realize that Rizzo will die, Shane (Alan Ladd) will win and Michael will become the antithesis of what he claimed he was at the beginning of the film. Time reveals these changes.

In peripital cinema, however, it is perspective more than time that reveals. Scottie (James Stewart) discovers he has been played by his old friend Gavin in Vertigo: that he was hired to follow Madeleine not because he was a great former cop, but that he was a psychologically crippled one. Gavin can arrange for the death of his wife through utilizing Scottie’s acrophobia. In Chinatown, J. J. Gittes (Jack Nicholson)  realizes he was on the wrong trail when Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) announces that she is both her father’s daughter, and also was her father’s lover. In The Game, Michael Douglas’s character finds out that his brother had arranged a series of events for the purposes of giving him a great birthday. In each instance an event was preconceived and the viewer finds out retrospectively. In Jaws, The Searchers and Midnight Cowboy, though, nobody can know before the event that the shark will be killed, the niece rescued and that Ratso will die. They are events within the categorical time of the film; in the peripetal, the event is back story or off-screen. If we sometimes feel duped in such an instance, it is because we might have read clues that hinted at the various motivations behind the characters’ actions. Maybe in Vertigo Gavin or ‘Madeleine’ looked suspicious; maybe that moment when in Chinatown Mulwray looks fraught, after Gittes walks off feeling that she is playing him, should have led us to wonder more about exactly what she was hiding; perhaps we should have known that Willis’s character in The Sixth Sense is a dead man.


While some might find such reversals a sign of manipulation on the part of the filmmaker to the detriment of the viewer, that it goes back to Greek tragedy and finds itself in one of the finest films of the seventies (Chinatown), and in the work of one of the most significant contemporary filmmakers (Lars von Trier), indicates it is a narrative form of merit. Equally, it might be said (The Sixth Sense, Fight Club?), it can seem like the narrative equivalent of suspect goods, sold out of the back of a van.

Yet our purpose here isn’t to defend or attack, but to taxonomise, and while there are those who reckon sudden reversals indicate manipulation, some might insist that directors who make films that fit loosely into our third category, the tentative, could appear lazy. It is as if the director who insists on twists and surprises is working hard but not playing fair; while the tentative filmmaker barely seems to be playing at all if we think of another sporting analogy. Doesn’t the filmmaker who allows almost nothing to happen seem closer to the footballer on the pitch playing for time? If we might have the example of the game that has been fixed, what might that game actually have looked like when played: a game with both teams trying to get the necessary result with the least effort? This is unfair to the type of cinema Abbas Kiarostami, Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky, Luis Bunuel, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Michael Haneke make, but it can seem an understandable initial response for the uninitiated.

Godfrey Cheshire is a great admirer of Kiarostami’s work, but he also acknowledges that “the films seem unusually careless – free – on the question of audience”. He also adds, however, that “perhaps this apparent lack of concern conceals a deeper sense of anxiety and responsibility on the same issue.” The superficial excitement of the game gets replaced by an enquiry into the nature of things. Whether it happens to be the ending of Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry which refuses to divulge whether the central character has taken his own life or not after looking for people to bury him when he dies, Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which allows his three leading characters to get to the zone but for the meaning of the zone to remain a mystery, or Antonioni retreating from exploring the murder in Blow-Up, all three filmmakers might be accused not only of refusing to play the game in their slow-take approach where ‘nothing happens’, but also in not  playing fair by setting up the possibility of a revelation that they then withhold. But the ambiguous film’s purpose is not to conceal from the viewer initially to reveal at the conclusion, as we expect from the peripital, but to conceal all the better to reveal different perspectives in the viewer who happens to be watching the film. Kiarostami, Tarkovsky, Antonioni and Bunuel aren’t at all creating guessing games that they then refuse to answer, but instead, for want of a better term, ‘questioning games’, games with no easy solution.

In A Taste of Cherry one of the questions Kiarostami asks is what is it to be suicidal; Stalker wonders what it means to believe, and Blow-Up muses over the nature of curiosity. They want to open up a question greater than its ready narrative answering, and to create the space for the viewer to answer the question provisionally for themselves.  In Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie the film is so tentative that the story cannot quite develop as wealthy characters never get to have the meal they promise themselves due to various interruptions. The film plays with our expectations as we seem to be in one reality only to find ourselves awoken out of it as we realize it has been dreamt by one of the characters, and then again, when we succumb to the reality of the story and we find we are in another character’s dream.

We can see this tentative, enquiring and elusive approach clearly in Kiarostami’s work. Though the director says (in Filmmaker magazine) “it’s obvious that humans are the same wherever they are”, he also seeks individualized response. As interviewer Zachary Wigon says:  “You mention the audience, and whether or not they’ll pick up on certain things. I’ve seen you remark that films often convey too much information, like pornography, and you’d like films to contain less information. You want the audience to work more to understand what’s going on. Can you speak about the film withholding so as to give the audience space to engage?” Kiarostami answers:  “producers and directors of cinema have decided that the seats in the theaters have been made to transform people’s minds to lazy minds. As soon as they enter a theater they must become moron consumers who must be fed information. Those same people, when they leave the theater, when they look behind the curtains they are curious about their neighbors, they can guess if their neighbors are siblings or a couple, how old they are, what their occupation is. They are curious about each other and they can understand each other without being fed information.” In life we have more freedom than in most films, then, because we can apply our curiosity instead of having meaning and knowledge imposed upon us. At the beginning of A Taste of Cherry, we may wonder what it is exactly that the central character is doing as he drives around the outskirts of Tehran: is he curb-crawling, looking for labour, looking for a friend? Very few people are likely to guess that he is looking for someone to bury him after he dies, and in these spaces Kiarostami creates different possible meanings. Sure, in A Taste of Cherry we will find out as the film progresses what he is looking for, but there is an inquiring tension here that makes us actively curious rather than passively receptive.

In The Wind Will Carry Us, this active curiosity is taken to new limits. As Cheshire says in NewYorkPress  “Not only is the story’s basic premise left hazy and unresolved throughout, but 11 important characters–including the ditchdigger, the dying woman and Bezhad’s companions–are never seen. Kiarostami makes reference to them or lets us hear their voices, but otherwise keeps them hidden”. Where we noted great films like Psycho and The Wizard of Oz are fine reversal films, we might add their reversals are based on the withholding of screen presence. In Psycho we find out the mother is actually Norman Bates, throwing his voice around, and in The Wizard of Oz, the deep, booming voice of the wizard belongs to an unassuming illusionist. These are figures the fine sound theorist Michel Chion calls acousmetres. “We can describe as acousmetres many of the mysterious and talkative characters hidden behind curtains, in rooms or hideouts, which the sound film has given us: the master criminal of Lang’s Testament of Dr Mabuse, the mother in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and the fake Wizard of Oz in the MGM film of that name…” (AudioVision) One can see Kiarostami’s tentative ambition in giving us eleven of them where Lang and Hitchcock give us only one. At one moment in The Wind Will Carry Us, an archaeologist throws a bone up to the central character which he catches, and later on he is rushed to hospital after an accident that traps him in the hole, yet he remains an essentially off-screen presence as Kiarostami allows us to speculate over what he might look like.

Less ambitiously, but still impressively, in Ten Kiarostami initially shows an argument between a young boy and his mother as they drive in the car. For a few minutes the camera holds on the boy’s face and his mother is heard offscreen haranguing her son, before the camera then cuts to the mother, and we see a beautiful young woman in sunglasses. Are we surprised by this image, maybe expecting someone more homely? If the film had cut between the two Kiarostami would have removed that sub-conscious sense of what we take the person to look like, because we would have immediately been shown her appearance. But Kiarostami’s approach allows each viewer to speculate (however consciously or not) what she might look like. As Robert Bresson once proposed, in Notes on the Cinematographer, a sound calls to mind an image; an image doesn’t call to mind a sound. Indeed Bresson’s prison escape film A Man Escaped is brilliant not least because of the way it conjures up inferences through sound based on the visual limitations placed on the central character as he is stuck in his prison cell. Numerous characters become variations on the acousmetre, and even objects can have this function as we might wonder what exactly we are hearing.

Obviously not all filmmakers offer ambiguity and speculation in the same way. Kiarostami might add when he talks about the audience being capable of  inference in their own lives “why should it be different in cinema?”, but this would be very different from the sort of speculative possibilities Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Tarkovsky, Michael Haneke and Hou Hsiao-Hsien offer, and any useful analysis of ambiguous narration would see how different filmmakers use it. Antonioni for example might agree with Kiarostami when he says that the origins for a film start “from [his] observations of real life. This sort of observation becomes a kind of spiritual nourishment, food for thought”, but he also says that he is “convinced that if you want to express your own poetic world you have to transcend reality”. (The Architecture of Vision) If Kiarostami’s mise-en-scene is resolutely realist, Antonioni’s found realities possess a dimension of the other-worldly. BlowUp’s London is so emptied out it possesses a dimension of a post-neutron bomb landscape, the house on the rock face in Zabriskie Point is an architectural folly as futuristic possibility, the water tower at the beginning of The Eclipse seems a harbinger of nuclear annihilation. When Serge Daney and Serge Toubiana asked Antonioni in Cahiers du cinema why he hadn’t made a science fiction film, it might not appear quite as clumsy a question as it would first look. Antonioni seemed to be searching out a dimension of the perceptually futuristic, and any narrative development was absorbed by this perceptual problem. If Antonioni’s stories remain half-attended to despite potential for their development (a woman goes missing in L’avventura, a murder is committed in BlowUp, a man takes on the identity of a gun-runner in The Passenger) it is because the perceptual is of more interest than the narrational. Even when he films Gaudi’s architecture in The Passenger, he does so with a sense of the character small in the frame. When Gilles Deleuze in Cinema 1: The Movement Image talks of the frame having an analogue, he insists it should be one based on information systems rather than linguistic models. Antonioni’s narrative information always seems secondary to the information system: the assembling of visual info that cannot be reduced to the story components, but seems to drift into an unusual visual realm, and hence perhaps the sci-fi dimension.

Tarkovsky’s work unequivocally possessed the sci-fi element, since he made two films that are part of the genre, Solaris and Stalker, adaptations of science fiction novels no matter the films’ unorthodox method. But if Antonioni sought an ambiguity of meaning often through the spatial impositions, Tarkovsky often sought a cinema where the ambiguous would manifest itself in the subject not so much being dwarfed and impinged upon by the object, but where the subjective thought can impinge on the object of one’s attention. In Solaris, the planet the central character Kris and others are orbiting has an ability to create people out of memory, and thus Kris’s late wife who committed suicide is conjured back into being. In Stalker, the zone fulfils one’s deepest desires, but it is also a reflection of human weaknesses: one character became incredibly rich and then not long afterwards committed suicide. The scientist and the writer who go to the zone with the stalker get scared as they approach the zone, aware that it is not some external object, but interconnected with their own thoughts and feelings. Tarkovsky’s ambiguity in these instances comes from playing the subjective off the objective, from suggesting a world of the future that can dissolve the boundaries between matter and memory.

What we often find in great filmmakers of the tentative is that the ambiguous isn’t always simply a question of narrative; it incorporates elements of space and problematic perception as well. Not only is this the case in Antonioni, it is a central element to some of Haneke’s films, and also Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s. The now famous closing shot in Hidden needs to be scanned for relevant information, first of all, before we can even begin to guess at what it might mean. We notice that the central character’s son is talking to the son of the central character’s now late adopted brother, and we might wonder whether this is a moment of conciliation amongst the younger generation absent from the older one, or that they were involved in a campaign of terror against the central character. Haneke may want us to speculate on what has happened, but first of all we have to see the brothers in the very frame, and Haneke shows them in long-shot with numerous other characters in the shot also. In Hou-Hsiao-Hsien’s films again there is ambiguity in the very shot, with scenes in Goodbye, South Goodbye, ambiguous as much for the way the director frames the characters (sometimes one facing another as Hou shoots from behind one of them so that we cannot see the expression on either character’s face), as for the ambiguous motives of the characters themselves.

However, directors like Haneke and Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Kiarostami, are still generally directors of narrative cinema, but occasionally narrative-oriented filmmakers become part of the a-narrational. Kiarostami’s Five, for example, has a strong element of the film installation, with five episodes including one where a piece of driftwood bobs about in the sea; another where people walk along a beach. No story develops, and Kiarostami in a documentary on its making reckons he wouldn’t be too bothered if people took a nap during the film, perhaps in respect to a remark he made in a Sight and Sound interview with Nassia Hamid years earlier. “If you come out of the cinema and forget what you have just seen, you would have been better off with two hours of sleep instead. That at least would provide you with some energy. Most films these days drain one’s energy.” (Sight and Sound , Feb. 1997) Kiarostami is talking of films that don’t create much space for ambiguity, films that are entertainments, diversions, but maybe the opposite end of mainstream assertion is a-narrational freedom: even sleep can be part of an individualizing response, and the film almost creates the space for its possibility. Maybe Kiarostami’s approach to Five is like a variation of Dai Vaughan’s comments on Andy Warhol’s eight hour, a thoroughly a-narrational and concentrated look at the Empire State building, Empire. In For Documentary Vaughan suggested it “needs not to be seen but only to have been done”. Our active presence is irrelevant.

One of the problems for many when watching films that lack narrative is that film is a durational medium, unlike painting. Film is both space and time, and is it not understandable that one gets angry if there is the imposition of time without the possibility of story? If someone were to insist that every painting had to be looked at for a given period, would some of the same frustrations and irritations come into play? Yet one of the very purposes of the a-narrational is to explore time without insisting it be clothed in narrative event. Much so-called experimental cinema is interested in this question, and whether it is Michael Snow’s Wavelength, James Benning’s Nightfall, Jonas Mekas’s Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR, or Warhol’s Sleep, Chelsea Girls or My Hustler, one often finds the films seeking out a combination of formal rigour and narrative forestalling.  Snow’s Wavelength slowly zooms in over 42 minutes, the camera never changing position, inexorably moving in on a picture on the wall above a yellow chair. Benning’s Nightfall follows the fading of the light one evening in a US forest, while Lithuania and the Collapse of the USSR focuses on Mekas sitting on the couch watching the events unfolding on the TV. Mekas concentrates the camera more on his own inactivity than the Lithuanian situation as an historical moment, with the Lithuanian born, American based Mekas touching upon issues of distance and passivity in the face of historical change. In Sleep, Warhol films a sleeping body over six hours. In Bill Viola’s I Do Not Know What It Is I am Like much of the film is spent observing birds, animals and fish. Often when critics or the filmmakers themselves talk of the films, they discuss the intricate technical or formal details involved. When P Adams Sitney mentions Sleep in Visionary Film he says: “half a dozen shots are seen over six hours. In order to attain that elongation, [Warhol] used both loop printing of whole hundred foot takes (2 ¾) and, in the end, the freezing of a still image over the sleeper’s head.” In Viola’s film we witness the form at work: often we can see Viola’s camera reflected in the eye of a bird.

However, we shouldn’t exaggerate the formal procedure to the detriment of event altogether. As Stephen Dwoskin says of Wavelength, “it is not as simple as that [a continuous zoom through a room]; rather it is a spatial movement, a flowing movement through a visual space. Four incidents occur in the film at intervals: a bookcase is moved into the room; two girls listen to the radio (which plays the Beatles’ ‘Strawberry Fields’), a man comes in and falls to the floor; a girl enters and telephones someone that the man is dead”. (Film Is) In Mekas’s film there are clearly important events taking place as he watches the TV, but they are contained within an idee fixe, within a formal pattern that makes any engagement with event likely to be secondary to the formal demand. This is true also in Mekas’s Scenes from the Life of Andy Warhol, where the documentative dimension is deliberately undermined by the form itself. The ‘Velvet Underground’ gig Mekas records is edited as if the process is more important than the documented, with the film’s abrupt cutting, flicker effects and distorted sound, making the film as archive irrelevant next to its purpose as film. When in Wavelength the soundtrack starts to offer a sharp piercing sound, it is the very noise penetrating our ears that will take precedence over any event on the screen.

To understand this difference from narratively motivated cinema,  we can think of the sound in Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, where the audio is affectively disturbing, but will still leave the viewer horrified by onscreen event, including the now-famous fire extinguisher sequence. Describing Irreversible film’s sound design, IMDB notes that “The first 30 minutes of the film has a background noise with a frequency of 28Hz (low frequency, almost inaudible), similar to the noise produced by an earthquake. In humans, it causes nausea, sickness and vertigo. It was the main cause of people walking out of the theaters during the first part of the film in places like Cannes and San Sebastian. In fact, it was added with the purpose of getting this reaction.” But here the sound design augments narrative, no matter the reverse plot structure as the nauseating soundtrack is matched by nauseating representational images (the rape, the fire extinguisher scene). Gaspar Noe’s work contains experimentation, but it would be an exaggeration to say that it foregrounds it. Usually a-narrational films very much point up technical, formal choices to the deliberate detriment of narrative and even representational ones.

Maybe these are categories too loose and inadequate, but they allow us to see cinema in relation to narrative not as a series of given forms, but as a continuum with the categorical at one end and the a-narrational at the other. After all, even American Beauty can incorporate within it a scene that could have been a piece of experimental cinema (the plastic bag scene) no matter the voice-over and music imposing clear meaning upon it. In Kiarostami’s CloseUp there is a moment when a canister rolls down a street and the camera looks on that could also suggest the a-narrational, while in Tarkovsky’s Stalker there are sequences where the camera decouples from the story to follow objects under the water. Thus the a-narrational aspect might not cover the whole film, but no more than a moment within a film that ostensibly belongs to another category altogether. Indeed, the idea of the object coming into its own (as it does in these moments from American Beauty and CloseUp) was put forward quite strongly by realist film writer Siegfried Kracauer “Stage imagery inevitably centres on the actor, whereas film is free to dwell on parts of his appearance and detail the objects about him.” (Theory of Film.) Perhaps, in conclusion, one way of thinking of a film’s escape from the story, in antithesis to writers like McKee, Field and Yorke, is to think of Kracauer’s interest in the object, and Deluze’s remark about information systems. If we see film chiefly as about objects within a visual system, then narrative can be a means by which to arrange this visual field, but far from the only one.


©Tony McKibbin