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Narration and the Fiction Film

Narration and the Fiction Film

Three approaches to the problem of narrative

as representation: considering the storys world or diegesis; its portrayal of reality or its broader meanings. as structure: ways of combining parts to make a whole; segmentation and grammar or language of film, e.g. the grande syntagmatique. as process: the activity of selecting, arranging, and rendering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver (xi).

Bordwells preference for a cognitivist and Constructivist approach to film research.

From formalism to cognitivism

Russian Formalism (1920s) and Prague School (Jan Mukorovsky) Key concepts: syuzhet, fabula, motivation, retardation, parallelism. Defining the specificity of aesthetic function while recognizing the importance of social convention in what a culture defines as a work of art. Refusing to put arbitrary boundaries between theory, history, and criticism.

From formalism to cognitivism

For a historical poetics of film

poetic concepts relating


to the artworks structure to the perceivers relation to the work to broader functions of the artwork changes in norms and conventions of narration how social context shapes the form and function of artworks

historical concepts examining


Narration and the Fiction Film


Part One. Critique of mimetic and diegetic theories of narration. Part Two: Theoretical Poetics

Syuzhet and style Film viewing as a dynamic perceptual-cognitive process. How films factors of space and time are organized as narration. Classical narration (Hollywood, 1917-1960) Art-cinema narration (postwar European) Historical-materialist narration (Soviet film of the 1920s) Parametric narration (limited cases of postwar European film) plus the example of Godard as a hybrid or mixed mode stylist

Part Three: Descriptive poetics


The process of narrative comprehension

Protocols of story comprehension, or schemata, through which spectators are cued by the film to construct a story based on an inferential process.

prototype schemata: identifying actants, actions, locales, etc., according to a posited norm. template schemata: a master narrative scheme that embodies expectations concerning how events should be classified and how parts should be related to the progress of the whole. procedural schemata: dynamic protocols through which spectators seek to fill in information absent from the template. A search for appropriate motivations and relations of causality, time and space.

Fabula, Syuzhet, and Style

Narration is the process whereby the films syuzhet and style interact in the course of cueing and channeling the spectators construction of the fabula (53).

The fabula (story) embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and spatial field.

A mental construct or pattern that spectators create through a process of assumption and inference based on prototype, template, and procedural schemata.

The syuzhet or plot is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula by the film. Style names a films systematic use of cinematic devices. Excess or the third meaning: those elements which may stand out perceptually because they do not fit either narrative or stylistic patterns.

Modes and Norms

Intrinsic norms define a pattern of coherence set by the system of individual films themselves. Extrinsic norms refer to patterns of coherence relevant to large groups of films. Codification of extrinsic norms over time may lead to the inauguration of a narrational mode: a historically distinct set of norms of narrational construction and comprehension.

Historical modes of narration


Classical narration (Hollywood cinema, 1916 to present). Dialectical-materialist narration (postrevolutionary Soviet films of the 1920s). Parametric narration characteristic of the formal experimentation of filmmakers like Alain Resnais and Robert Bresson.

A single structure determines the compositional logic from local texture to overall form.

Art cinema (approx. 1957-1969).

Modes of narration
Mode Classical Art cinema Historicalmaterialist Parametric Godard

Knowledge omniscient restricted omniscient omniscient mixed

Self-csness Communicativeness moderate high high low high very high high very high low mixed

Narrator invisible foregrounded foregrounded/ didactic foregrounded overt

Author effaced present present present present

Knowledgeability: the extent to which the narration lays claim to a range and depth of fabula information. Self-consciousness: the degree to which the narration acknowledges its address to the spectator. Communicativeness: the extent to which the narration withholds or communicates fabula information.

Classical syuzhet pattern


Character-centered causality Reliance upon the canonic story:

undisturbed stage-disturbance-conflict-resolution of conflict Double causal structure: two plot lines (romance and action) each with goals, obstacles, and climax

Causality is the prime unifying principle

Plot pattern organized by segments The closure-effect

Classical style

Style is motivated compositionally as a function of syuzhet patterning: film technique is a vehicle for the syuzhets transmission of fabula information. Strives for the utmost denotative clarity. Highly coded ; i.e.., uses a limited number of technical devices and these devices operate according to strict parameters.

The parametric mode

Influence of postwar European avant-garde music, the nouveau roman, and structuralism.

Values transgression and the need for each artwork to construct a unique system. A single structure determines the compositional logic from local texture to overall form. Textual components form an order that coheres according to intrinsic principles. Textual form treated as a spatial phenomenon. Phenomenal form of the text tends to be seen as a permutational distribution of an invisible set.

Parametric style

Stylistic system creates patterns distinct from the demands of the syuzhet system. Representational meaning is subordinated to the profiling of a sheer perceptual order. Only a few parameters are highlighted and varied across the film. A strong inner unity: a prominent intrinsic norm with patterned reiterations.

The ascetic and sparse options

Tendency to work with additive forms.

Art cinema narration


Goal bereft protagonists: characters observe rather than acting as causal agents. Elliptical and/or episodic linking of events. Plots based on boundary situations leading to existential crises and transformations in the main characters. An expressive realism shapes space: dreams, memories, fantasies motivate ambiguous and subjective narratives. Restricted narration. High degree of stylistic self-consciousness.

Classical narration Single protagonist Driven by desire Built on conict Linear chain of cause and effect Clear and complete motivation Omniscient narration Strong sense of closure

Art cinema narration Single and multiple protagonists Goal bereft Boundary situation stories Episodic and elliptical Ambiguous or unclear motivation Restricted narration Open endings

Expressive verisimilitude in art cinema

A subjective or expressive verisimilitude attuned to exhibiting character.

The emphasis on interior or psychological realities.

Plots defined by boundary-situation stories:

the causal situation leads up to an episode where the art film protagonist faces a crisis of existential significance.

Expressive verisimilitude in art cinema

Narrational characteristics of the art film protagonist.


Lacks clearly defined traits and goals. Causal motivation is withdrawn or unknown, emphasizing insignificant actions and intervals. The classical protagonist struggles; the art film protagonist drifts passively, tracing out an itinerary of social situations. Concerned less with action than reaction, art cinema presents psychological effects in search of their causes. Characters retard the forward movement of the plot by recounting stories, fantasies, and dreams. Often leads to temporal disjunctions, such as flashbacks.

Expressive verisimilitude in art cinema

Narrational characteristics of the art film protagonist, contd.

Conventions of expressive realism shape spatial representation:

optical point of view shots, flash frames of a glimpsed or recalled event, discontinuous editing patterns associated with interior or psychological time, modulations of light, color, and sound, are motivated by character psychology.

The art film restrains the narrational point-of-view to a single protagonist or may split it between several protagonists.

Enhances expressivity of subjectivity, but also makes narration unreliable.

Overt narrational commentary

Art films tend to highly self-conscious narration.

The viewer looks for moments in which the narration may interrupt the progress of the plot and call attention to itself through stylistic flourishes.

The implied narrator is no longer invisible but calls attention to itself.

The implied narrator is no longer invisible but calls attention to itself.


Scenes may end in medias res. Gaps are created that are not explicable by character psychology. The plot is retarded through withholding information or providing too much. Connotative and symbolic associations replace logic of cause and effect. Exposition is delayed and widely distributed across the film. Disjunctions in temporal order such as flashbacks and forwards.

Has the effect of flaunting both the narrations range of knowledge and its relative incommunicativeness (telling a little while withholding a lot).

In sum, the construction of the narration becomes the object of spectator hypotheses: how is the story being told? why tell the story in this way? (210).

Overt narrational commentary


Mo d e Classic a l Art cin e m a Knowled g e omniscient restricted Self-csness moderate high Communicativenes s high low Narrator invisible foregrounded Aut h o r effaced present

Knowledgeability: the extent to which the narration lays claim to a range and depth of fabula information. Self-consciousness: the degree to which the narration acknowledges its address to the spectator. Communicativeness: the extent to which the narration withholds or communicates fabula information.