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In response to: “Film Form and Narrative” from the book “Introduction to Film Studies” by Alan Rowe and Paul Wells
A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class
The core of cinema is telling stories. I always believe there is a story behind every work of art. There is a story in painting, music, sculpture, theater, and other forms of art. Each one has its own language. Each one has a different approach to telling a story. In the case of cinema, there is the narrative film that most people are accustomed to. Yet, there are poetic films and experimental films and they have their own means and modalities of storytelling. In the case of the latter, there is no narrative thread to follow. Instead, experimental films alternatively explore non-narrative forms of storytelling, clearly going beyond traditional cinematic conventions.
This reading entitled “Film Form and Narrative” from the book “Introduction to Film Studies” by Alan Rowe and Paul Wells offered essential information for the deeper understanding of modern cinema. It also provided some historical bits, alongside the definitions of terms widely used in film language (conventions, establishing shot, two-shot, close-up, 180-degree rule, mainstream, jump-cut, dystopia, low-key image, film noir, postmodern, etc.) and information about the formative tradition and how the classical Hollywood cinema developed. It effectively provided case studies to better understand film language through film analysis. It dedicated its last few pages to alternative narratives, as seen in a handful of film classics in Hollywood and world cinema.
The reading started with a thorough analysis of the blockbuster flick “Spider-Man” by Sam Raimi. Analyzing this so-called event movie showed how it was grounded on almost purely action and physical events, while combining traditional approaches to the “classical narrative,” corresponding with the “cinema of attractions,” and finding influence on comic strips to advance its narrative. It successfully capitalized on the tried-and-tested formula with faithful characterization still coming through within the action and spectacle. Rowe and Wells effectively articulated how this urban adventure about a flawed hero who is both empathic and sympathetic applies the three-act structure and how reading the film “rests on a number of social, cultural, and aesthetic perceptions of the content by the viewer,” alongside its conforming to cinematic conventions. This process of reading the film is said to be different from the reading of early films made a hundred years ago. They compared the language of the films of the Lumiere Brothers and Georges Melies being the visual equivalent of children’s picture books. Yet, despite their seemingly simplistic reading because they are said to be less “busy,” they expressed how it is crucial for the contemporary viewer to recognize that what has become known as the “Primitive Mode of Representation” in films made within the first two decades of cinema encourages us to read these as the first faltering steps to the irresistible final product of the modern Hollywood movie. It is worth pointing out though, this is a little different from my initial perspective of cinema’s history and development.
After addressing fictional narrative with the earliest ones called “tableaux” films, they explained how Melies’ films, which drew strongly on theatrical tradition, showed how film’s shift to a cinematic narrative and formal structure happened fairly swiftly that by the mid-1910’s, most cinematic ventures were already considered fiction films. Like many film scholars, they also expressed how most accounts mentioned D.W. Griffith’s pioneering role in inventing the language of film, despite some disputes. With Griffith’s 1915 silent film classic “The Birth of a Nation,” the films of the late silent period started resembling modern films more than “primitive” cinema. Of course, I agree with how crucial economic investment and technological innovation played vital roles in further developing film language, always in pursuit of becoming the seventh art.
In discussing the 1925 film “The General” by Buster Keaton, Rowe and Wells explained the “Institutional Mode of Representation” (IMR) saying, “Despite being a silent film it has a complex narrative structure: it tells a story set in a concrete historical setting, and lasts for nearly an hour and a half. It is also strongly based on identification with character. We get to know the world of the film through the experience of a single player. In this sense the mainstream film is drawing on the conventions of the nineteenth-century novel which is focused on the psychological experience of one or two ‘rounded’ characters.” They described the film as a “self-contained text,” making it possible to understand the story even without prior knowledge of the American Civil War, which is in contrast with Melies’ tableaux films like “Ali Baba,” which wouldn’t make sense without prior knowledge of its narrative source.
With the addition of sound in 1927, the authors highlighted how the message coming from the film became relatively complete through it. It is worth noting how they also mentioned the likes of sensorama and smellies. Moving on to modern cinema, they presented how the film narrative requires careful weaving. In reading a film, it is important to know the cinematic codes, including the mise-en-scene, setting, props, costume, performance and movement, lighting, camera and camera movement, editing, and sound. These components that make up the film all work together when the filmmaker mounts the story and when the viewers “read” the narrative. It is quite interesting to learn about the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky and his “fabula,” which is defined as “the basic succession of events arranged in a chronological order.” Here it was said that “a film summary, appearing alongside a review in a magazine, comprises the fabula.” And while it is a form of narrative in itself, it remains different from the film experience of watching the story unveil on screen. I actually agree when they said that knowing this raw summary of the film can get in the way of one’s understanding of the film the first time the spectator watches it. Personally, I prefer not to read any film summary before watching a new film. Another term presented in the reading is the plot or “syuzhet,” which describes the narration to give the events a logic and establish the causal relationship between the events, more than just merely filling in the details of time and space from the story. Once again, I agree that the film narrative can be viewed as a number of cause-and-effect links, particularly in the case of the classical narrative tradition. The authors also noted how the aspects of a narrative should be film-specific, bringing up those initially discussed in cinematic codes, including mise-en-scene, editing, and sound. In analyzing the narrative film, the spectator should be “both plot-literate” (has an understanding of the conventions of plotting derived from the nineteenth-century novel) and “film-literate” (has an understanding of the codes of cinema) to try to make sense of a narrative film. Spectators watching a film try to fit their experiences into formulae or templates they have a grasp on, and the closer a film fits their existing templates, the easier for them to understand and even appreciate what they are watching. Indeed, understanding the narrative requires the viewer to make sense of what is being presented on screen.
It is my first time to encounter the terms described in Tzvetan Todorov’s Narrative Theory: the “stable equilibrium,” which is seen at the start of a narrative, and the “state of disequilibrium,” which is seen as a disruption of the stability by some kind of force coming from conflicts. Pertaining to how different films of varying genres work, the stable equilibrium should be recreated “through action directed against the disruption,” which ideally leads to the story’s resolution. It is worth noting though, that “the consequence of the said reaction is to change the world of the narrative and/or the characters so that the final state of equilibrium is not the same as the initial state.”
The last part of the reading drew its attention to “alternative narratives” and how alternative texts are utilized in what many would describe as counter cinema, art cinema, and/or avant-garde works. The insights here (including explanations on narrative transitivity vs. narrative intransitivity, identification vs. estrangement, transparency vs. foregrounding, simple vs. multiple diegesis, and closure vs. aperture) described cinema as a postmodern phenomenon where disruptions to conventions allow filmmakers to play more on film form through different approaches of manipulation. Indeed, both the contemporary film form and the concept of the narrative are both subject to “constant redefinition, deconstruction, and re-analysis” – and it is always exciting to find pictures moving forward to challenge the norms, including the mentioned films “Sliding Doors,” “Groundhog Day,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Rashomon,” and “Memento,” all making their own marks in world cinema by successfully defying or subverting the conventions of narrative storytelling, and at some point, building their own film sub-cultures and cult followings. While the reading specifically noted European counter cinema, it is quite clear that alternative narratives eventually turned out very much alive in other film industries around the world as well. This diversity between the modern spectacle and counter cinema should be celebrated. However, reality bites, they say – the political economy of film imposes a very capitalist take on how contemporary cinema thrives with event movies and how much potential it has in suppressing or even killing other non-spectacle forms, in one way or another. Now, looking on the brighter side, I think, the digital revolution and the power of the world wide web as a platform for film distribution of this time and age help counter cinema survive and even find a special place in the hearts of its willing audience.
Alan, Rowe and Wells, Paul. “Film Form and Narrative.” Introduction to Film Studies, 3rd ed., Routledge, New York, 2003, pp. 54–89.