Narrative in Film
It is undeniably the case that cinema is a temporal medium but it happens to be an assumption that it is a narrative one. That most films made are narratively-oriented means that it would be wrong-headed to insist that cinema is not a narrative form, but it's nevertheless useful to work with the facts to allow us a limit on our prejudices. In other words when people insist that cinema's purpose is to tell good story, then this narrows the range and leaves out numerous films whatever their qualities that do not have as their fundamental principle narrative effectiveness. Some of the acknowledged masterpieces of cinema, Hitchcock's Vertigo, Godard's Pierrot le Fou, Tarkovsky's Mirror, Antonioni's Red Desert, Coppola's Apocalypse Now, Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad and Fellini's 8 /12; are not great because of the stories they tell but the way they tell them. Godard famously said a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order, and Aristotle more than two thousand years ago differentiated the story from the plot. The story would be that a man kills his wife, the plot would be the ordering of events that makes sense of that action. The wife married an older man she didn't love but who her family thought would be a good match. He was from a wealthy background and had a reliable job. He loved her and she married him, even though she was in love with another man her own age who had not yet made a career for himself. The young man returns to the town five years later, comfortable and self-made, and she realises they are still in love. They start meeting regularly, and one day the husband finds them holding hands and kissing, and murders his wife. Here we have a plot more than just the bare bones of story. E.M. Forster in Aspects of the Novel puts it quite well. "Narrative of events, with the emphasis on causality." He illustrated the difference thus: "The king died and then the queen died is a story. The king died, and then queen died of grief is a plot."
Most films have plots, but not all and some of the best, including those we have invoked, tell them in ways that are not concerned with bringing out suspense, but delineating character, situation and the film's formal properties. Some hardly even do that. Andy Warhol made films like Sleep and Empire, with the former film watching a man sleep, and the latter the Empire State Building over eight hours. But most films do have a story, and then it becomes a question of how to tell it; whether you want to emphasise the dramatically consequential, the suspensefully achronological or the problematically temporal. For argument's sake, let us propose that the drama rests in cause and effect: you generate a strongly linked series of effects in consecutive time. Rear Window, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and The Deer Hunter are all fine examples of this approach. In Rear Window, James Stewart is stuck with a leg in a caste and observes what he believes is a murder across the way, and solves it with the help of his girlfriend. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Jack Nicholson's RP McMurphy is incarcerated in a mental facility and we follow a series of events that will lead to his death. In The Deer Hunter, after a lengthy wedding a group of friends go off to fight in Vietnam, with different results. Robert De Niro comes back a complicated war hero, John Savage a paraplegic, and Christopher Walken doesn't come back at all, lost to drugs and Russian Roulette in Saigon. Can De Niro save him from himself as he journeys back to the city to bring his friend home as they play again Russian Roulette?
These are all examples of dramatic narrative as the films are plotted, certainly, but remain temporally coherent. They have a beginning, a middle and an end in that order. Part of the dramatic force rests in that order, in moving from one scene to the next through strong causal links. Other films play more on suspense than on drama, using flashback to get us to question the nature of events rather than following them causally. Film noir is a genre especially given to using flashback as it asks us to wonder why a man would be sitting dying in an office (Double Indemnity), why a man comes in to report his own murder (DOA) or why a man's past catches up with him in the idyllic present (Out of the Past). As Roger Ebert says, "Most crime movies begin in the present and move forward, but film noir coils back into the past. The noir hero is doomed before the story begins by fate, rotten luck, or his own flawed character." (rogerebert.com)
But while playing with time in film is a noir mainstay, it can also be used to generate different modes of suspense, different approaches to enquiry. We can think here of Citizen Kane, Memento and Bad Timing. In Citizen Kane the film opens with the dying Kane breathing his last word Rosebud. The film then shows us a newsreel explaining Charles Foster Kane's great achievements, and then follows a reporter who tries to find out what the word meant as he interviews various people who knew him. The film offers their different perspectives in flashback before concluding on the sled that gives us a hint of what Rosebud meant to the dying Kane. Memento follows Leonard Shelby as he tries to piece his life together. A difficult task since his memory gives way after five minutes. How will he be able to find out who attacked him and killed his wife, we wonder, as the film works in reverse time to try and figure events out, speaking to various people who might be able to help in his search. The film offers chronological sequences in black and white, and flashbacks in colour as we try to understand like Leonard what has happened to him. In Bad Timing, Alex and Milena embark on an affair but Roeg fractures the time structure so that we start with both the beginning of the relationship and the end, as the film then works out why this couple's formation happened to be bad timing, We see them living together in Vienna, holidaying in Morocco, and Milena leaving her husband in Prague, all achronologically presented to capture the chaos of a situation that neither party understands. The film also incorporates an investigation by a cop, but he remains a bystander to events he can never really comprehend. Though the three films function quite differently, they all make time out of joint, complicating the question of cause and effect.
Yet they do so without quite achieving the deliberate indeterminacy of Last Year at Marienbad, Pierrot le fou and Kings of the Road. Whether the film is offered with a myriad of flashbacks (like Last Year at Marienbad), or none at all (Kings of the Road), the films thematise a problem that calls into question time at its base. In Kings of the Road, director Wim Wenders would say that he wanted to create images: maybe they would become a story maybe they wouldn't. The German title was In the Course of Time as Wenders filmed for two months along the East/West German border. It is the nature of film time that interest Wenders as he shows a burgeoning friendship developing between Bruno Winter who goes around Germany fixing cinema equipment, and the depressed Robert whom he meets after the latter's half-hearted suicide attempt, driving his car into the river. The film is about many things (Germany's geographical split, friendship between men, the difficulty of communication between people who hold their own countenance, the problem with a previous generation seen as Nazi perpetrators and so on). But its story is secondary to its thematic enquiry and the images it finds to discuss them.
In Pierrot le fou, Godard's film is also a road movie, if of a haphazard sort, and also a crime thriller, though its plot doesn't easily hang together. Here we have Ferdinand and Marianne leaving Paris together: he is escaping from his bourgeois life and she is escaping partly because she finds a body in her apartment. The film focuses mainly on the couple enjoying life in the south of France while also half-attending to a plot while at every opportunity playing up a colour scheme that is both present in numerous Godard films of the period, while also echoing many works by artists that have painted the region.
This leaves us with Last Year at Marienbad, perhaps one of the most perplexing films ever made. While films like Sleep and Empire minimise editing and maximise the boredom potential in the viewer, Last Year at Marienbad insists on the maximum complexity and ambiguity as we try to figure out what happened between a couple of who may or may not have had a relationship in Marienbad the previous year. While in Bad Timing we can say categorically that Milena and Alex had an affair in Vienna, even if the complicated narrative structure makes us work very hard on the cause and effect, Last Year at Marienbad dissolves characterisation and narration into a rhythmic exercise in filmic time. Here we see various events that never quite cohere into a point of view we can trust, as he insists they met last year and she insists they did not. If it is so important a film it isn't only that it is a maddening work that refuses ready interpretation, but also that it understand the point we started with. That film is a temporal medium but not always a narrative one. Alain Resnais' film tells a story but in so ungraspable a way that we have to accept its style over its content: its rhythm over its story. As its writer Alain Robbe-Grillet once said,"it is not because something is important that it is repeated, but by being repeated it becomes important." (Paris Review)
Looking at our three categories, the dramatically consequential, the suspensefully achronological and the temporally problematic, we see that the first causes us no problem with time as it follows a series of events based on strong cause and effect. The second causes us problems but we slowly work out exactly what is going on, however initially confusing. The third insists that time remains a problem, whether it is because nothing seems to be happening as no strong story develops (as in Kings of the Road and Pierrot le fou), or that time is so scrambled that we cannot piece the events together. In each category we have great films, and some films in the second can hint at the ambiguity of the third (as in Bad Timing). But what we have shown first of all is that cinema can be a narrative medium, but it is always a temporal one.
© Tony McKibbin