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Since the turn of the century a mode of narrative storytelling has been appearing in increasing numbers at local art house cinemas and even large cineplexes. It has been called both hyperlink cinema and mosaic film. Call it what you will, films of this type are being made in ever increasing numbers. For the sake of clarity, I will use the term, “mosaic film.” Mosaic films are films which involve multiple interwoven plots, multiple characters (none of whom could really be called a protagonist), and most interestingly, a fairly complex temporal structure. Films like Steven Gaghan’s Syriana, Steven Soderburgh’s Traffic, Gaspar Noe’s Irreversable, and Don Roos’ Happy Endings are frequently cited as examples of this mode of storytelling.

Also cited are the films Amores Peroes, 21 Grams, and Babel, all directed by Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and written by screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. In thinking about mosaic films, it strikes me that the temporality in the films of Innaritu and Arriaga functions differently than the temporality in not only traditional Hollywood films, but it functions differently from films that are considered mosaic films, as well. The temporal complexity isn’t in place to hide a mystery, like in puzzle films, nor is it in place to illuminate contemporaneous stories. One thing to bear in mind while thinking about these films is that the stories that are told are relatively simple stories. 21 Grams, for example, is essentially a melodramatic revenge story.

This raises several interrelated questions that one should be able to address in a research paper. First, how does temporality operate in these films?  Second, does the temporal discontinuity effect how viewers understand the narrative, and if so how? Finally, how does the audience’s knowledge of the authors work shape their comprehension of the temporality found in the texts?

In my research paper I will attempt to argue that there is, in fact, a logical temporal structure that is shared by all three films. I believe that this temporal structure, while not necessarily foreign to film, is unusual to see in modern films but by no means a new development in the way that people tell stories. I also assert that this temporal structure is designed to make syuzhet secondary to the emotional tension found in the narrative, and that this emotional tension is actually heightened as a result of the confusing structure. Finally, I think that audience interaction with the text is influenced by previous knowledge of the work of Innaritu and Arriaga, and that once one has a grasp on the temporal discontinuity one is more inclined to read the emotional arc of the films and cease to read them as temporal puzzles that need to be pieced together for complete comprehension of the narrative.

The library offers a wealth of resources to utilize. Much has been written about temporality in narrative, including in some of the materials we have used for class. In addition to those materials I will use literary theory collections, additional narrative theory books, and books on modern film to try and uncover how the temporality in the films I have mentioned operates, and to see how it fits into narrative traditions in film and literature. I also plan on scouring film periodicals for scholarly work done on the films mentioned. I also plan on looking at scholarship written on similar films to see what kinds of similarities and differences exist between Innaritu/Arriaga’s films and other films that engage in temporal discontinuity.

PARTIAL BIBLIOGRAPHY

Booker, M. Keith. Postmodern Hollywood : What’s New in Film and Why It Makes Us Feel So Strange. New York: Praeger, 2007.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It : Story and Style in Modern Movies. New York: University of California P, 2006.

Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998.

Doane, Mary Anne. The Emergence of Cinematic Time : Modernity, Contingency, the Archive. New York: Harvard UP, 2002.

Ermarth, Elizabeth Deeds. Sequel to History : Postmodernism and the Crisis of Representational Time. New York: Princeton UP, 1991.

Grodal, Torben. Moving Pictures : A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings and Cognition. New York: Oxford UP, 1999.

Heise, Ursula K. Chronoschisms : Time, Narrative, and Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Herman, David, ed. Narratologies : New Perspectives on Narrative Analysis. New York: Ohio State UP, 1999.

Richardson, Brian, ed. Narrative Dynamics. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State UP, 2002.

Hello all—

Here is the link to the project Nick Bestor and I undertook to reimagine Pushing Daisies. I hope everyone likes it.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tPhKiqjAXhY

This weeks readings about reliable versus unreliable narrators and the idea of the ‘cinematic narrator’ have gotten me thinking about the films of David Lynch, especially his later films Lost Highway, Mullholland Dr. (which we will be watching in a few weeks), and INLAND EMPIRE.They seem pertinent to this discussion about reliable vs. unreliable narrators because they all seem to throw the idea of narrative reliability out the window. None of the above mentioned films make a ton of narrative sense, and the idea of a “cinematic narrator” becomes problematic as well because, I would argue, that Lynch himself becomes a cinematic narrator of sorts. There is such a wealth of interesting material in Lynch’s later work and also a wealth of material that seems to run counter to much of the critical readings of this past week that it definitely raises an interesting question about how narration does work in these films, especially when it comes to the reliability of the narrative. These questions of narrative reliability also bring up interesting points to consider about exactly what we can conceive of as reliable in the films, if we can’t trust that there will be ANY kind of narrative coherence or reliability what can we trust? This might best be considered as two related but distinct questions, but does this complete unreliability leave us with nothing but a film full of signifiers with no signified? In other words, are we left with scenes that have no meaning beyond their existence, and if so what does this mean for traditional narrative storytelling?

Some of this material might be covered in a few weeks when we watch Mullholland Dr. but if not this is certainly an interesting topic to consider exploring.

So, after a weekend of agonizing over final research paper topics I hit on something that I found particularly interesting, especially in light of watching Memento and reading about temporality in films. It got me thinking about films where the temporality is more complex than simpleflashbacks or moving back in time from one characters point-of-view (I know this is a loaded term, but for lack of a better turn of phrase it will have to suffice). I was thinking especially about the films of director Allejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga. It seems to me that the temporal complexity in these films opperates differently than the other films we have watched. They aren’t puzzles like Memento, nor do they utilize flashbacks or multiple contemporaneous stories. They jump back and forth in time with little regard for when or why they make these temporal leaps. So, if their temporal structure isn’t operating like any of the other films we have watched or discussed, how does their temporal structure work?

The temporal complexity in films like 21 Grams and Babel were topics of controversy upon their release, so I think that how their temporal structure (or lack thereof) opporates would be a particularly interesting topic to explore.

I have been really enjoying JJ Murphy’s book thus far, however there was one thing that he said that I disagree with, and I’m not sure we are going to have the opportunity to cover it in class, so I thought I would bring it up here. When he discusses Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs Murphy says that the temporal shifts in the film are basically flashbacks. I’m not so sure that we can simply throw a term at the way that a film like Reservoir Dogs operates. I guess I have always thought that flashbacks were really looking back at the past from the point of view of a single character. I think that Tarantino’s tactic is a little more complicated because his look back at the past is just as objective as any other part of the film. When the film flashes back to show Mr. White’s back story we’re not seeing the flashback from his point of view (neither figurative, nor literal). It is just the objective replaying of Mr. White’s past. It isn’t really important that the flashbacks fall where the do, either. Mr. White’s flashback and Mr. Blonde’s could easily be switched in the film and the film would still make sense, and not have its quality diminished.

I am curious what Murphy would make of the films written by Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel). Those films don’t have a particular flashback structure, nor are they puzzle films. In a way they work like Elephant but are less deliberate with it’s choices of when to flashback. At that point do they even count as flashbacks? If not, do we need to come up with a new vocabulary for how these films opporate beyond saying that they are temporally complex? 

David Herman said something that I found rather provocative in the article that we read for this week. At several different points in the article he essentially makes the claim that stories shape the systems we have set in place for understanding emotion, if I’m understanding him correctly, which I think I am. His exact phrasing is, “Stories do not just emanate from cultural understandings of emotion but also constitute a primary instrument for adjusting those systems of emotion terms and concepts to lived experience.” (255-256) Towards the end of his essay he says, “…we cannot even have a notion of the felt quality of experience without narrative. ” (256)

I find these claims fascinating. To a certain degree this is a case of the chicken and the egg, what is a result of what, are emotions a reaction to stories, or conversely are stories told in an effort to replicate emotion. This concept is something that has been on my mind since early this summer when I watched the series premier of the AMC show Mad Men. The main character of the show, Don Draper, is sitting at a restaurant with a potential client for his ad agency. The client says that she has always wanted to fall in love. Draper casts the notion of love aside saying something to the effect of, “Love is a creation of people like me (ad men) to sell products.” This was a particularly arresting statement, especially because I had never really thought of my emotions as being social constructs. I actually hadn’t thought of my life experiences and emotions as anything other than organic.

However, being forced to confront the possiblity that my emotions are actually social constructs that have arisen as the result of stories told to me by parents or other forces in my life has made me confront exactly where emotions might be coming from, especially in an age of mass media. The truth is that emotions are packaged for consumption by mass media, and I use the word “packaged” deliberately because emotions are sold to us in the form of films, songs, and other forms of media. I don’t think that the matter is as simple as emotions are being utilized to sell products, I think it is more that we are being sold products by being told how to feel and what certain emotions (like love) are supposed to feel like.

This has really made me wonder what the consequences of Herman’s assertions are, especially in light of recent technological innovations that have made media (and by extention narratives and sales) an even more fully integrated aespect of our lives.

While reading JJ Murphy’s book this week I tried to think back on all of the screenwriting manuals I have had to read over the course of my life. I was able to come up with six, excluding Murphy’s. I might as well have read only one because as I thought back on it they were all really pushing one core concept: you have to have an story that is engaging, and these are the steps to ensure that it will be engaging. It is so frustrating for me when I write because story is rarely the most interesting part of a film, it is the characters and their interactions that are always paramount to me. As a result these are the films that tend to attract me. I recently re-watched Steven Soderburgh’s breakout film, sex, lies and videotape and one of the striking things about that film, especially when viewed in the context of the readings on character and dialog (and independent film), is how easily you can sum up the story: an old college friend moves into town and as a result complicates all sorts of relationships. That’s it. But that isn’t what makes sex, lies, and videotape a wonderful film. What makes it a wonderful film are the character’s Soderburgh populates his storyworld with and the ways in which they interact with one another. I think it is telling that a film like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford can sum up its story IN THE TITLE(!), and yet the film is still engaging on so many other levels.

To a certain extent, screenwriting manuals are just doing their job. Their job is to tell you how to sell a screenplay, and their formula (presumably) works. Screenwriters generally don’t direct the films they write, so it is difficult for them to follow through on a screenplay that is “execution dependent” to quote Murphy. Still, though, for screenplays to privilege story above all else means the relegation of engaging characters or dialogue to the screen.

As I understand it, the authors of these screenwriting manuals were inspired to write many of these manuals because they saw films as moving away from telling stories, and so they came up with ‘principles’ upon which a person could construct a halfway decent story. The problem is that the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction. The film market is saturated with films that fit into the neat, little three-act structure, but are populated with characters you couldn’t care less about, and these characters are given dialogue that inspires (!) you to jam a freshly sharpened pencil in your ear. Hopefully more books like Mr. Murphy’s will be assigned in screenwriting classes and we might see big studios tossing out films that look, sound, and feel more like independent films.

I feel like I should come clean about one thing before I begin this post: I love Stranger Than Paradise and I think that Jim Jarmusch is one of the great directors living today. One of the things that I love most about Stranger Than Paradise is how Jarmusch recognized a serious impediment to making a traditional film (a lack of money) and used that impediment to his advantage by adhering to a very strict set of creative restrictions (self contained scenes, consisting of a single shot from a stationary camera), thus making the film seem rather experimental, especially considering the norms of American filmmaking at the time, which seemed to be stuck in this somewhat awkward period between the end of the New Hollywood and the bombast of the Bruckheimer/Simpson films that were to come in a few years.

One of the simple strokes of genius of Jarmusch and Stranger Than Paradise is how much back story is told through mise-en-scene. We touched on this briefly in class, but I think it is an aspect of the film that is worth revisiting because so much is said about Willie, Eva, and Eddie simply by things like the furniture in the apartment, the brand of cigarettes they smoke, the clothes they wear, etc. The reason the mise-en-scene is important and able to give off so much information has to do with the long takes that Jarmusch was “forced” to use. The pace of the film is such that the audience is able to take in all of these details and infer, perhaps not consciously but infer none the less, about the lives and back story of the characters. Jarmusch’s style of storytelling in general, but in this film especially, doesn’t pay much mind to the back story of characters. He seems to prefer to simply allow them to exist on-screen and allow the audience to infer what they are like when the audience isn’t directly interacting with the characters.

I use the word ‘interacting’ deliberately because Stranger Than Paradise really forces the audience to interact with the characters on-screen. The audience is forced to create this back story using the mise-en-scene as their guide. The audience is forced to infer what happens to the characters when Jarmusch cuts to black after every scene. In a way, Jarmusch provides the audience with such a limited narrative they are forced to create a ‘narrative’ for themselves. In writing about it, I think that is where the film’s majesty comes from, in forcing the audience to do so much work you create a relationship with the characters that really are at the film’s core. You cannot be a passive viewer, or if you are you miss out on the subtleties of one of the pillars of independent film.

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