Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Poet and the Detective: Defining the Psychological Puzzle Film

Academic journal article Film Criticism

The Poet and the Detective: Defining the Psychological Puzzle Film

Article excerpt

When faced with a task as daunting as explaining how viewers make sense of narrative film, one would do well to narrow the field a bit, to group films together in order to make the project a bit more manageable. The task then becomes finding the appropriate criteria for making distinctions between one group of films and another. The most persistent and widely used classification systems in cinema, both inside and outside the academy, are genre and author. (1) In the rhetoric of critics, advertisers, and moviegoers alike, genre and author labels provide a short-hand for the experience of watching a film. While genre theory concentrates on formal elements (either iconographic or syntagmatic) and auteur theory derives its categories from these elements as well as the production history, a narratological perspective takes the selection and arrangement of story material to be the defining characteristic of a class of film. How a story is told is more important than what the story is about.

In his 1985 book, Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell sets forth a poetics of narration. Appropriating the theories and language of Russian Formalists, Bordwell identifies variability in the selection and arrangement of story material across cinema history. Certain historical periods in this history have yielded films that possess similar narrative principles. The texts produced during these eras have textual elements and structures that prompt certain sense-making activities on the part of the viewer. Bordwell provides examples of these "modes of narration" in this book, outlining the narration in classical Hollywood cinema, art cinema, Soviet cinema, and Modernist cinema (Bordwell 1985).

In describing these modes of narration, Bordwell uses a taxonomy originated by Meir Sternberg to delineate specific attributes a narration may have. Sternberg suggests three categories: knowledge, self-consciousness, and communicativeness. The range and depth of the narration are components of how knowledgeable the narration is, the range indicating the degree to which we are restricted to a character's level of knowledge and the depth indicating how subjective or objective that knowledge is (i.e. whether or not we are aware of the character's thoughts, dreams, or hallucinations). Reliability of the narration is an aspect of its communicativeness. As Bordwell writes about all of these aspects while analyzing various modes of narration, giving just as much attention to how restricted the narration is as he does to the level of self-consciousness the narration possess, I think it more useful to consider the range, depth, self-consciousness, communicativeness, and reliability of the narration as five separate but related facets of narration.

For various cultural and economic reasons, Classical Hollywood narration (2) has come to dominate filmmaking in the United States. High levels of self-conscious narration in the first few scenes, giving way to less self-consciousness as the film progresses, characterize this mode of narration. Classical narration is typically omniscient and exhibits a low level of communicativeness, suppressing information and occasionally flaunting this suppression. As a classical film progresses, the narration's level of omniscience declines while it becomes more communicative. The range of knowledge provided by the narration is in a constant state of flux. In one scene, the audience may be restricted to the protagonist's level of knowledge of diegetic events, while in the next scene, they may be informed of something of which the protagonist could not have been aware. Through this rapid fluctuation in the range of knowledge of the narration, the film produces a sense of dramatic irony. Moments of increased depth of narration, such as a dream sequence, are clearly marked as such. Occasionally, these moments are not explicitly marked as subjective; however, subsequent scenes make it clear that the audience should revise their hypothesis as to how deep the narration was in the preceding scene. …

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