Aaron Smith’s Response Journal


The Double Fabula in Twist Movies

I’ll start with a video. In this awareness test, see if you can guess how many passes the team in white makes.

Now this video may or may not have fooled you, but it does illustrate a few of the main points from David Bordwell and Erlend Lavik.

In “Narrative Structure in The Sixth Sense,” Lavik describes a double sjuzhet scheme that effectively follows a straightforward fabula, and then, after a twist, reveals a beneath the surface fabula running parallel to it. He writes:

“Once we become aware of [the hidden fabula], everything in the sjuzhet takes on new meaning. We are instantly compelled to return to the outset of the story and…follow the correct fabula this time, the one that was invisible to us at first, even though it was present all along.” (56)

Because we are so focused on the team in white’s passing, we miss something that we could have noticed if we were told to pay attention to it. The same holds true for narratives in twist movies like The Sixth Sense-the clues are there, we just aren’t looking for them.

Of course, requiring audiences to reconstruct the fabula and their understanding of a story is incredibly risky. It is a startling and often frustrating narrative device (especially the “it was all a dream” technique). And after all the cognitive energy that goes into viewing a film, I can see why flipping all assumptions, inferences and hypotheses on their head might be thought of as manipulative and contrived.

But the beauty of The Sixth Sense is that it forces the viewer to think about where they went wrong in constructing an incorrect fabula. At the same time, Lavik argues, the film’s artificiality becomes transparent, illuminating the constructedness of the sjuzhet. So there’s a self-conciousness present in both the viewer and the film.

On second viewing, the audience may discover misleading cues that lead them astray or they may seek logical errors in the new fabula. But either way, they are effectively contemplating their own cognitive processes involved in viewing a film while simultaneously observing how the film cues and constrains those processes.

Thus, double fabula films do more than call attention to narrational processes; they also reveal an important truth in life. How many times do we attribute someone’s unpleasantness to their personality rather than a possible situation? And how many times do we make judgments about a person based on their appearance? ┬áDouble fabula films show us how we use schemata to incorrectly fill gaps and make false assumptions. When done successfully, they demonstrate our refusal to consider alternative scenarios and force us to more closely examine information that is there, it’s just not consistent with our cognitive short cuts. It’s that old cliche: when you see just what’s on the surface, you might miss the moonwalking bear.

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