The Film Experience Ch. 6 Summary Review

FORM IN ACTION: Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (John Hughes, 1986) opens with the main character sick in bed.
After watching the clip from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, consider the questions below.
1. How is the viewer positioned by Ferris’s direct address to the camera? How might the device work differently in a film of a different genre?
2. How does the use of onscreen text establish Ferris’s character?
VIEWING CUE: Shutter Island
In Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010), U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) investigates the disappearance of a woman within the walls of a secluded mental hospital. Once there, however, the film twists and complicates the question of who is the agent of this narrative.
After watching the clip from Shutter Island, consider the questions below.
1. In this disturbing sequence from Shutter Island, there are three different “time zones.” Describe them. How and why might the ordering of these events intentionally confuse the temporal relation between them?
2. Can this sequence be described as a narrative dream sequence? If so, what visual clues indicate it as such? Or, on the other hand, are there indications that it is a flashback or flashforward? Might the answer be somewhere in between?

VIEWING CUE: The Royal Tenenbaums
Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) tells the tale of an oddly dysfunctional family of former child prodigies parented by an estranged mother and father.
After watching this clip from The Royal Tenenbaums, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. For this opening sequence, how would you describe the different layers of its narration, including the tone of the narrative voiceover and the insertion of a visual text as "Prologue"?
2. How does the narration interact with the characters and events—the house, the divorce of the father and mother, the children—that are introduced? What expectations does it establish for the kind of story that will follow? Does it imply a tragedy or a comedy? Or something else?

FILM IN FOCUS: Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now(1979) reframes its perspective on the Vietnam War as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, largely restricted to the point of view of U.S. soldier Captain Willard.
After watching the clip from Apocalypse Now, consider the questions below. Then submit your response.
1. Analyze these opening images from Apocalypse Now: a jungle wall exploding into flames, helicopters moving across the image, an inverted close-up of Captain Willard who determines the narrative perspective. How does this sequence establish an important narrative perspective?
2. How does sound—the overlapping sound of helicopters and the room fan, the song "The End" by the Doors—contribute to this narrative perspective?


Plot and Narrative in Apocalypse Now

            Narrator: Apocalypse Now is a quest and mystery narrative in which Captain Willard, played by Martin Sheen must find and kill the rebellious Colonel Kurtz, played by Marlon Brando. What is especially complex about this narrative is how Willard's different motivations move his quest forward. On the one hand, his assignment is to exterminate with extreme prejudice a military officer like himself, who was once a decorated hero, but now practices extreme
            savagery and brutality. On the other hand, Willard's pursuit leads to him learning more about himself and the Vietnam war. And that discovery may not be a happy or easy one. The plot of Apocalypse Now primarily follows a seemingly linear and progressive path. As Willard advances up the river and deeper into the jungle, he is moving closer to his goal of finding Kurtz. But at the same time, Willard's path is a
            regressive one; it takes him back in time to a more primitive and violent world. The obstacles and events Willard and his crew encounter grow more and more surreal as they travel upstream.
            Narrator: In one sequence, they join forces with Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore in a helicopter attack of a village, powerfully set to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries." And even as the battle continues on the beach, we see soldiers surfing in the midst of the attack. The bizarre spectacles continue. Soldiers riot
            during a USO Playboy/Playmate show. And a bridge that is blown up every night and is futilely rebuilt every day. These unpredictable and improbable incidents not only indicate a world gone awry, they challenge and derail the traditional cause-and-effect logic of a narrative quest.
            Narrator:  The mostly first-person voiceover narration in Apocalypse Now focuses primarily on what Willard sees and how he feels, strengthening the idea that Willard's exterior quest for Kurtz doubles as an interior quest into himself. The opening sequence makes this overlap brilliantly clear. Images of war and destruction merge with images of Willard's face and his hallucinations. And it is ambiguous as to
            whether the sounds and images of whirling blades are coming from the helicopter, or from the ceiling fan in Willard's hotel room.
            Narrator:  At the end of the film, Willard enters Kurtz's chamber and attacks him with a machete. This killing is juxtaposed with a ritual sacrifice of a water buffalo by the villagers. Later, as Willard sails away after completing his mission, the village is blown apart by air strikes. Just as the film begins with Willard's collapse, notably set to the Doors'
            song, "The End," Willard's termination of Kurtz results not in discovery, but in Apocalypse.
            Narrator:  The film's narrative discovers, like Kurtz—and perhaps like Willard—that the progressive path of war and conquest is actually a vicious cycle of violence and destruction where the beginning and the end are the same.

FILM IN FOCUS: Mildred Pierce and Daughters of the Dust
Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945) opens with a framing narrative—a man is shot in a deserted beach house and the protagonist (Joan Crawford) behaves suspiciously. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991) tells the story of a family about to migrate from their Sea Island home to the mainland, but this story is part of a much greater narrative of African diasporic cultural survival.
After watching the clip from Mildred Pierce, consider the question below. Then submit your response.
1. Film noir often separates plot order from story order. How do the opening minutes of Mildred Pierce engage us by withholding key information?
2. How does the film’s opening layer mythic and individual narratives? How does the nonlinear form work differently than the nonlinear form of film noir?

Chapter Summary

Movies thrive on narrative, the art and craft of constructing a story with a particular plot and point of view. Narrative film depicts characters pursuing goals and confronting obstacles to those goals. In general, narrative follows a three-part structure, consisting of a beginning, a middle, and an ending – an opening state is disrupted in the middle of the narrative, and that disruption leads to a reestablishment of order in the ending.
Storytelling has always been a central part of societies and cultures. Stories spring from both personal and communal memories and reconstruct the events, actions, and emotions of the past through the eyes of the present.

A Short History of Narrative Film

Early films appealed to audiences because they often referred to familiar stories, though they tended to merely present simple moving images. Therefore, as film form developed, filmmakers generally remained loyal to common themes, creating adaptations of well-known novels and stories. This trend of familiarity changed in the beginning of the twentieth century, when, in order to capitalize on the growing culture of leisure time, moviemakers developed more complex stories that could attract larger audiences and keep them in their seats for longer periods.
Two important industrial events stand out as catalysts in the development of narrative cinematography: the introduction of film scripts to prepare movie narratives and the advancement of narrative dialogue through sound. As the length of films increased, film scripts and screenwriters were needed. Scripts, or screenplays, are the written narrative from which films are made.
Silent films did have a limited amount of dialogue in the form of intertitles, but without the sound of voices and effects, they lacked dimension and character development. The introduction of synchronized sound film in 1927 allowed film narratives to craft more intricate and detailed characters whose dialogue added more in-depth psychological and social dimensions. The continuing evolution of the relationship between sound and narrative helped to solidify and fine-tune the fundamental shape of classical Hollywood narrative in the 1930s and 1940s. During this period, the structure of this increasingly dominant narrative form became firmly established according to three basic features: 1) A focus on one or two central characters; 2) A linear plot driven by the central characters; and 3) Action developed according to a realistic cause-and-effect logic.
World War II disrupted the classical Hollywood narrative, and in its aftermath, various art cinemas emerged in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s. This new form of cinema questioned many of the cultural perspectives and values that existed before the war. A number of new wave cinemas subverted traditional narrative and aesthetic forms and turned away from “neat” objective realism and toward more subjective, “messy” storytelling techniques.
Contemporary film narratives represent a diverse set of practices, but three are particularly significant: narrative reflexivity, or calling attention to the narrative techniques employed by the filmmaker in the plot; creating movies based on amusement park rides and the thrills associated with them; and incorporating effects from video games and digital technologies.

The Elements of Narrative Film

While narrative is universal, it is also infinitely variable. Narrative is the art and craft of constructing a story through a particular plot and point of view. The main features of a narrative film are story, plot, character, diegetic and nondiegetic elements, time, space, and narrative perspectives.
Story is the subject matter or raw material of a narrative – the actions and events, usually perceived in terms of a beginning, middle, and end. The plot orders the events and actions of the story according to particular temporal and spatial patterns with certain actions, individuals, and events of the story included and others omitted.
Characters are the central or minor figures that focus or motivate the events of the story. They are commonly identified and understood as a product of their appearance, gestures and actions, dialogue, and the comments of other characters. Film characters typically possess a combination of ordinary and extraordinary features, drawing from both reality and fantasy.
Classical narrative traditions tend to construct character behavior, emotions, and thoughts as consistent and coherent. Character coherence is the product of different psychological, historical, or other expectations that see people, and thus fictional characters, as fundamentally consistent and unique. A divided character subverts one or more expectations of character coherence. While inconsistent characters may sometimes be the result of poor characterization, a film may intentionally create an inconsistent or contradictory character as a way of challenging our sympathies and understanding.
Character depth refers to the layers of personal mystery and emotional and intellectual traits that comprise the “singular character” as a unique individual. Character grouping refers to the social arrangements of characters in relation to each other. Social hierarchies of class, gender, race, age, and geography, among other determinants, also come into play in the arrangements of film characters. Traditional narratives usually feature one or two protagonists, characters we identify as the positive forces in a film, and one or two prominent antagonists, characters who oppose the protagonists as negative forces.
Character types are conventional characters (e.g., hard-boiled detectives) who share distinguishing features with other, similar characters and are prominent within particular narrative traditions such as fairy tales, genre films, and comic books. A single trait or multiple traits may define character types. Figurative types are characters who are so exaggerated or reduced that they no longer seem realistic and instead seem more like abstractions. A figurative character can appear as an archetype—a reflection of a spiritual or abstract state or process, such as evil or oppression. However, when a film reduces an otherwise realistic character to a set of static traits that identify him or her in terms of a social, physical, or cultural category, that character becomes a stereotype.
Characters usually change over the course of a realist film and thus require us to evaluate and revise our understanding of them as they develop. The process through which characters move from one mental, physical, or social state to another in a particular film is called character development.
Most narratives involve two kinds of materials: those related to the story and those not related to the story. The entire world that a story describes or that the viewer infers is called its diegesis, which indicates the characters, places, and events shown in the story or implied by it. Nondiegetic elements include material used to tell the story that do not relate to its world, such as background music and credits.
A narrative can be organized according to a variety of temporal patterns. Most commonly, plots follow a linear chronology in which the selected events and actions proceed one after another through a forward movement in time typically motivated by a central character’s goals and desires.
Plot order describes how events and actions are arranged in relation to each other to create a chronology. While most films present plot in linear chronology, many films present narratives out of chronological order through flashbacks or, less commonly, flashforwards.
Hollywood films often follow the deadline structure, which creates dramatic tension by accelerating the plot toward a central event or action that must be accomplished by a certain moment, hour, day, or year. The deadline structure points to another common temporal pattern in film narrative: the doubled or parallel plot line, which refers to the implied simultaneity of, or connection between, two different plot lines, usually with their intersection at one or more points.
How often an event, person, or action is depicted by a plot can function to determine the meaning or value of those events within a narrative. Narrative duration refers to the length of time an event or action is presented in a plot, whereas narrative frequency describes how often those plot elements are repeated.
Narrative location refers to the indoor, outdoor, natural, and artificial spaces that not only serve as backgrounds for stories, but also take on cultural and social significance as characters explore these spaces, contrast them, conquer them, inhabit them, leave them, build on them, and transform them. Narrative space may be developed in four ways: as historical location, ideological location, psychological location, or symbolic space.
Plots are organized by the perspectives that inform them. The organizing perspective through which plots are constructed is referred to as narration. Narration carries and creates attitudes, values, and aims that are central to understanding any movie. A first-person narration refers to a story told through the point of view of a character in the film. Often used to introduce a first-person narration (though it has other uses), a narrative frame describes a context or character positioned outside of the story to bracket the film’s narrative in a way that helps define its terms and meaning.
The majority of films use a third-person narration, which takes a more detached vantage point, describing events more objectively from outside of the story. This form of narration can be categorized into five main types: omniscient narration, where the plot is presented from all angles; restricted narration, where one or two major characters are the focus; reflexive narration, in which the movie calls attention to the narrative point of view in order to subvert its narrative authority; unreliable narration, which raises questions about the truth of the narrative; and multiple narrations, where several perspectives are used to tell a story.

Making Sense of Film Narrative

Film narratives are significant for two reasons: 1) they describe the different temporal experiences of individuals and 2) they reflect and reveal the shapes and patterns of larger social histories (of nations, communities, and cultures). The significance of film narrative never functions independently of historical, cultural, and industrial issues.
Film narratives shape memory by describing individual temporal experiences. In other words, they commonly portray the changes in a day, a year, or the life of a character or community. Narratives order the various dimensions of time—past, present, and future events—in ways that are similar to models of history used by nations or other communities and consequently shape our understanding of history.
There are two prominent types of narrative traditions. A classical film narrative usually centers on one main character (or characters) who moves the plot along with a cause-and-effect logic. The plot is typically linear and employs an omniscient or restricted narration that suggests some degree of realism. Two important variations on the classical narrative tradition are the classical European narrative and the postclassical narrative, a global body of films that began to appear in the decades after World War II and that strained but maintained the classical formula for coherent characters and plots. On the other hand, the alternative film narrative often deviates from or challenges linear narratives, undermines the centrality of a main character, and questions the objective realism of classical narration.
Some study/review questions:
Describe the three basic principles of classical Hollywood narrative form.
2. How did the European art cinemas that emerged after World War II challenge Hollywood cinema?
3. What is the difference between story and plot? Provide an example that shows how these two elements can interact.
4. What does character development refer to and what four schemes does it follow?
5. Within a classical Hollywood narrative, what does a deadline structure refer to? Please give an example.