Academic journal article CineAction

Narration and Focalisation in Wings of Desire

Academic journal article CineAction

Narration and Focalisation in Wings of Desire

Article excerpt

Edward Branigan's book Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992) illustrates in its very title a major development that has taken place in the study of narrative film over the last two decades: a move away from a text-based structural analysis towards a cognitive analysis of the comprehension of narratives. Cognitive film narratologists do not focus exclusively on films in themselves but on the spectator's comprehension of films.

David Bordwell initiated a cognitive analysis of filmic comprehension in his book Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). Bordwell argues that the logical form of a narrative film is initially incomplete, but is enriched, or completed, by the spectator's activity of inference generation. In order to complete a narrative film's logical form, the spectator must possess "narrative competence", a mental schema (that is, implicit, intuitive knowledge) that guides each spectator's comprehension of narrative films. The film's plot consists of a series of "cues" (such as gaps in the narrative events, monocular movement parallax, etc.) that trigger and constrain the spectator's activity of inference generation. This activity enables the spectator to gradually build up a mental representation of the film's story world.

Branigan's book significantly enriches and advances Bordwell's theory. Branigan has developed a sophisticated model of the film spectator's narrative competence, but especially of filmic narration, which determines the way narrative information is conveyed to the spectator. One of the key features of Branigan's theory is his account of the way spectators infer levels and agents of narration in order to process and comprehend narrative information. He persuasively argues that different agents operate on different levels of narration. In the following pages I shall focus on Branigan's theory of the narrator, character, and focaliser, three different agents who convey different types of narrative information to the spectator. (I shall also refer to two other agents: the implied author, who conveys non-fictional information to the spectator, such as the names of the actors, technicians, and the studio; and to the invisible observer.) My main aim is to apply Branigan's cognitive theory of filmic narration to a fil m that makes explicit and then playfully renders ambiguous the boundaries between narrative agents and levels of narration--namely, Wim Wenders's Wings of Desire (1987). I shall also consider other examples in passing, particularly Knick Knack (John Lasseter, 1989) and Psycho (Hitchcock, 1960).

Edward Branigan on Narrative Agents

To study narrative is to find out what is happening in a film. To study narration is to find out how spectators acquire knowledge about what is happening in a film's narrative. Filmic narration therefore mediates between the narrative and the spectator; it governs how spectators acquire knowledge about a film's narrative. Narration determines the flow of narrative information, and one of the aims of a theory of filmic narration is to describe how information is distributed by particular modes of narration. The narrative agent is an essential component of narration through which narrative information is filtered. For Branigan, a theory of agents requires a tripartite distinction between narrators, characters, and focalisers. A character is an agent whom spectators comprehend as existing on the level of the narrative--that is, an agent who experiences narrative events directly and who acts or is acted upon in the narrative world. A character whose experiences of the narrative world are then conveyed to the spec tator (by the narrator) becomes a focaliser. Narrators, on the contrary, do not exist in the narrative; they exist outside it on the level of narration. This means that they have the ability to influence the shape and direction of the narrative.

One of the most important contributions Branigan makes to the study of filmic narration is his rigorous definition of focalisation in film:

Focalization (reflection) involves a character neither speaking (narrating, reporting, communicating) nor acting (focusing, focused by), but rather actually experiencing something through seeing or hearing it. …

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