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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

historical concepts examining

changes in norms and conventions of narration


how social context shapes the form and
function of artworks

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.

Part Three: Descriptive poetics

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

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 (post-revolutionary
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

Knowledge

Classical
Art cinema
Historicalmaterialist
Parametric
Godard

omniscient
restricted
omniscient

Self-csness Communicativeness
moderate
high
high
low
high
very high

omniscient
mixed

high
very high

low
mixed

Narrator

Author

invisible
foregrounded
foregrounded/
didactic
foregrounded
overt

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:

Causality is the prime unifying principle

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

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

Art cinema narration

Single protagonist

Single and multiple protagonists

Driven by desire

Goal bereft

Built on conflict

Boundary situation stories

Linear chain of cause and effect

Episodic and elliptical

Clear and complete motivation

Ambiguous or unclear motivation

Omniscient narration

Restricted narration

Strong sense of closure

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

Knowled g e

Self-csness

Classic a l
Art cin e m a

omniscient
restricted

moderate
high

Communicativenes s
high
low

Narrator

Aut h o r

invisible
foregrounded

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.