Precious Bodily Fluids

Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell


“In the art cinema, for instance, shifts between ‘objective’ action and ‘subjective’ moments are often not signaled by the narration. This creates a suppressed gap which we retrospectively try to fill, as when we supply the missing ‘frames’ around the flashbacks of The Spider’s Stratagem. These suppressed gaps leap into prominence against the background of the classical narrative mode, which provides explicit signals for the transitions between objectivity and subjectivity. Jancsó’s use of the long take in The Confrontation is an instance of stylistic prominence, since it deviates sharply from normal decoupage practice.”

“In early cinema, filmmakers drew upon the narrational conventions of dominant forms of storytelling. Similarly, the norms of the international ‘art cinema’ objectify template schemata (e.g., alternatives to the canonic story format) which educated audiences had already constructed for comprehending early modernist literature and theater. In other cases, the filmic norm may be formulated before very many viewers have appropriate schemata ready to hand. This occurs in avant-garde movements, which often teach viewers how to construe the movement’s films.”

“I think it evident, for instance, that most college courses in film seek to promote the mode of the art cinema at the expense of classical narrative film, and this involves demonstrating new viewing activities which the student is expected to master. If the chapters that follow had no other consequence, I would be happy if they could spur viewers, critics, and teachers to consider how their activities operate within tacit, conventional frameworks that are social and historical.”

“The narrational modes I will examine in the next four chapters are these: classical narrative cinema (exemplified by Hollywood); the international art cinema; historical-materialist cinema (exemplified by Soviet montage films of the 1920s and some 1960s European work); and what I shall call ‘parametric’ cinema. Each constitutes a distinct and coherent set of conventions of syuzhet construction and film style, and these conventions are actually used in creating and understanding fictional films. This is not to say that the conventions are immutable–indeed, one of my subsidiary concerns will be to show that most modes have changed across time.”

“Very generally, we can say that classical narration tends to be omniscient, highly communicative, and only moderately self-conscious. that is, the narration knows more than all the characters, conceals relatively little (chiefly ‘what will happen next’), and seldom acknowledges its own address to the audience. But we must qualify this characterization in two respects. First, generic factors often create variations upon these precepts. A detective film will be quite restricted in its range of knowledge and highly suppressive in concealing causal information. A melodrama like In This Our Life can be slightly more self-conscious that The Big Sleep, especially in its use of acting and music. A musical will contain codified moments of self-consciousness (e.g., when characters sing directly out at the viewer). Second, the temporal progression of the syuzhet makes narrational properties fluctuate across the film, and these fluctuations too are codified. Typically, the opening and closing of the film are the most self-conscious, omniscient, and communicative passages. The credit sequence and the first few shots usually bear traces of an overt narration. Once the action has started, however, the narration becomes more covert, letting the characters and their interaction take over the transmission of information.”

“Whereas Miklós Jancsó’s long takes create spatial patterns that refuse omnipresence and thus drastically restrict the spectator’s knowledge of story information, classical omnipresence makes the cognitive schema we call ‘the camera’ into an ideal invisible observer, freed from the contingencies of space and time but discreetly confining itself to codified patterns for the sake of story intelligibility.”

“1. On the whole, classical narration treats film technique as a vehicle for the syuzhet’s transmission of fabula information.”

“2. In classical narration, style typically encourages the spectator to construct a coherent, consistent time and space for the fabula action.”

“3. Classical style consists of a strictly limited number of particular technical devices organized into a stable paradigm and ranked probabilistically according to syuzhet demands.”

Art film somewhere “from Rio Bravo on the one hand and Mothlight on the other.”

“For the classical cinema, rooted in the popular novel, short story, and well-made drama of the late nineteenth century, ‘reality’ is assumed to be a tacit coherence among events, a consistency and clarity of individual identity… But art-cinema narration, taking its cue from literary modernism, questions such a definition of the real: the world’s laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeterminate… Of course the realism of the art cinema is no more ‘real’ than that of the classical film; it is simply a different canon of realistic motivation, a new vraisemblance, justifying particular compositional options and effects” (206).

“gapping” the syuzhet and the fabula, loosening up cause & effect, chance/contingency (“the locus classicus is the unexpected rainstorm and the chattering priests in Bicycle Thieves), wandering, episodic narratives, “the narration asks us to unify the fabula by appeal to the plausible improbabilities of ‘real life'” (e.g., endings of Nights of Cabiria Blow-Up), characters act inconsistently, characters question their purposes (206ff)

“If the classical film resembles a short story by Poe, the art cinema is closer to Chekhov” (207).

“The habit of con finding the syuzhet to the boundary situation and then revealing prior events to use through recounting or enactment became a dominant convention of the art film, seen in RashomonIkiru, …and most of Rohmer’s films. Bergman, with his strong affinities with Kammerspiel, provides perhaps the most obvious examples” (208).

“…optical point-of-view shots, flash frames of a glimpsed or recalled event, editing patterns, modulations of light and color and sound–all are often motivated by character psychology. In RepulsionBelle de JourJuliet of the Spirits, and many other films, the surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character’s mind. Similarly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipulation of time. The flashback is the most obvious instance (Hiroshima mon amourWild StrawberriesA Man and a Woman)” (209).

protagonist “bereft” of goals, limitation of character knowledge, overt narrational commentary, foregrounding of self-conscious points (indecipherable images, lingering on a scene when its action is completed, etc.), the pensive/unresolved ending, disjunctions/manipulations of temporal order, odd camera angles

“Syuzhet and style constantly remind us of an invisible intermediary that structures what we see” (211).

“In the art cinema…, the overt self-consciousness of the narration is often paralleled by an extratextual emphasis on the filmmaker as source. Within the art cinema’s mode of production and reception, the concept of the author has a formal function it did not possess in the Hollywood studio system” (211).

“The art cinema has made a place for satiric narration (e.g., Buñuel’s) and for pastiche (e.g., the many homages to Hitchcock). The author-as narrator can be explicit…or the narrator can simply be the presences that accompanies the story action with a discreet but insistent obbligato of visual and sonic commentary” (211).

“The art film rests upon a cinephilia as intense as Hollywood’s: full understanding of one film requires a knowledge of and a fascination with other films. At its limit, this tendency is seen in those numerous art films about filmmaking: 8 1/2, Day for Night, Everything for Sale, Beware of a Holy Whore, Identification of a Woman, The Clowns, and many more” (211).

“In short, a realist aesthetic and an expressionist aesthetic are hard to merge. The art cinema seeks to solve the problem in a sophisticated way: through ambiguity” (212).

“What is significant is that art-cinema narration announces its debt to the arts of the early twentieth century by making ambiguity, either of tale or telling, central” (212).

“The syuzhet of classical narration tends to move toward absolute certainty, but the art film, like early modernist fiction, holds a relativistic notion of truth” (212).

“The art film is nonclassical in that it creates permanent narrational gaps and calls attention to processes of fabula construction. But these very deviations are placed within new extrinsic norms, restated as realism or authorial commentary” (212).

“And it is true that at its most banal, art-cinema narration promises complexity and profundity only to settle our attention on stereotyped figures: ‘reality,’ neurotic characters, the author as puppeteer. But in many of these films, the narration sustains a complex play within the conventions of the mode” (212).

“As a mode of narration, the art cinema forms a paradigm” (228).

“Art-cinema narration has become a coherent mode partly by defining itself as a deviation from a classical narrative… Historically, …the art cinema has its roots in an opposition to Hollywood nurtured within various national film industries of the silent era and sustained by concepts borrowed from modernism in theater and literature” (228,9).

“Not until after World War II, however, did the art cinema emerge as a fully achieved narrational alternative. Hollywood’s dominance of exhibition, both at home and abroad, began to wane” (230).

“The post-war ‘art house,’ a film theater in a city or campus town, was a symptom of the new audience: college-educated, middle-class cinéphiles looking for films consonant with contemporary ideas of modernism in art and literature. Parallel audiences emerged in European intellectual centers. In light of these developments, Italian neorealism may be considered a transitional phenomenon” (230).

“The fullest flower of the art-cinema paradigm occurred at the moment that the combination of novelty and nationalism became the marketing device it has been ever since: the French New Wave, New Polish Cinema, New Hungarian Cinema, New German Cinema, New Australian Cinema…” (231).

“Because the film was to be understood as a ‘personal statement’ by the filmmaker, the art cinema effectively reinforced the old opposition between Hollywood (industry, collective creation, entertainment) and Europe (freedom from commerce, the creative genius, art)” (231).

“The wheel turned almost full circle: classical Hollywood influenced the art film (often negatively); the art film influenced the ‘New Hollywood’ of the late 1960s and the 1970s. Everything from freeze frames and slow motion to conventions of gapping and ambiguity has been exploited by filmmakers like Donen…, Lester…, Hopper…, Coppola…” (232).

“Once there is no longer a fabula to interpret, once we have no stable point of departure for constructing character or causality, ambiguity becomes so pervasive as to be of no consequence. Art-cinema narration self-consciously points to its own interventions, but the aim is still to tell a discernible story in a certain way” (233).

This entry was published on August 23, 2014 at 4:45 pm. It’s filed under Book Summaries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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