Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Chronology, Causality . . . Confusion: When Avant-Garde Goes Classic

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

Chronology, Causality . . . Confusion: When Avant-Garde Goes Classic

Article excerpt

STILL TODAY, THE DOMINANT VIEW of contemporary mainstream film is that such films adhere to the conventions of classical Hollywood style. This style, as so influentially described by David Bordwell, Janet Stalger, and Kristin Thompson in their Classical Hollywood Cinema, is mainly characterized by a clear and comprehensible narrative flow and a complete disguise of the film's artifice.1 Linearity and causality are, arguably, the main traits of classical Hollywood narrative. However, when we look at today's landscape of popular film, the large number of nonlinear plots employed is more than astonishing. It seems that in 1994, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction marked the beginning of this kind of discontinuous and fragmented narrative as a new appeal in mainstream film. Once the way was paved, many other films followed. Guy Ritchie's Snatch (2000), for instance, though mostly linear, features some scenes with an unusual use of time (such as time sped up and cause and effect presented in reverse). Syriana (2005), which was directed by Stephen Gaghan, has so many subplots that it is extremely difficult for the audience to put it all together at the end of the film. Steven Soderbergh seems particularly fond of time shifts as well, as we can see in The Limey (1999) and his mainstream breakthrough Out of Sight, which was released in 1998 and starred major Hollywood actors George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. Spike Lee's Inside Man (2006) deliberately plays with conventional narrative and even makes fun of it, thus misleading the audience right from the beginning. Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Marc Forster's Sfojy (2006) epitomize heavy fragmentation and discontinuity caused by parts of or even the whole story taking place inside a character's head. In The Fountain (2006), director Darren Aronofsky crosscuts three interlocking time periods in which the two main actors inhabit all three different times and embody three different parts of the same person. Todd Haynes's I'm Not There (2007) illustrates that discontinuity on a plot level works perfectly even in a biographical movie. Perhaps the most extreme form of an untraditional structuring of narrative, namely, relating the story backward, was done in Christopher Nolan's Memento (2001) and Gaspar Noé's Irreversible (2002). Of course, many more films with a discontinuous plot could be listed.

Because of this apparent development in recent years, this article seeks to analyze what happens when time is not treated as a fixed entity but is (mis)used as an important tool in film narrative. It explores how filmmakers alter the story itself or influence the response of the viewers when they tell the plot in a seemingly arbitrary order. Furthermore, the central question posed here is why discontinuous narrative emerged in mainstream film as late as it did even though these narrative techniques as such are not a novelty. Modern novels as well as avant-garde films throughout the twentieth century employed unconventional plot structures rather successfully, yet in mainstream film, Hollywood narrative remained quite dominant-until recently. The following discussion of narratology in film, the concept of montage as the governing principle of film, and the long tradition of unconventional editing in avantgarde film helps us approach this matter.

The Concept of Time in Narrative

First of all, we must consider how narratology deals with the aspect ottime and how this aspect is translated onto the screen in film theory. The crucial binary opposition in the discussion of the concept ottime in narrative is temporality versus logic? that is, a chronological order versus a causative chain. In "Introduction of the Structural Analysis of Narratives," Roland Barthes points out that exactly this confusion between consecution (that which comes after) and consequence (that which is caused by) is the "mainspring of narrative" (94). This potential atemporal logic behind the temporality of narrative forms the core problem of narrative syntax, which divided theorists until recently. …

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