Narrative as the essence of film

(Note to my regular readers: this is the first of many posts written for my film studies class. In some ways it will be different from my norm, but in other ways I hope you’ll find it interested and relevant. This particular post was meant to consider the idea of narrative as the essence of film, using Amélie, Fight Club, and Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction as inspirations.)

The part of Walter Benjamin’s essay that most caught my attention is the following paragraph in section XIII:

By close-ups of the things around us, by focusing on hidden details of familiar objects, by exploring common place milieus under the ingenious guidance of the camera, the film, on the one hand, extends our comprehension of the necessities which rule our lives; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of an immense and unexpected field of action. Our taverns and our metropolitan streets, our offices and furnished rooms, our railroad stations and our factories appeared to have us locked up hopelessly. Then came the film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go traveling. With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended. The enlargement of a snapshot does not simply render more precise what in any case was visible, though unclear: it reveals entirely new structural formations of the subject. So, too, slow motion not only presents familiar qualities of movement but reveals in them entirely unknown ones “which, far from looking like retarded rapid movements, give the effect of singularly gliding, floating, supernatural motions.” Evidently a different nature opens itself to the camera than opens to the naked eye – if only because an unconsciously penetrated space is substituted for a space consciously explored by man. Even if one has a general knowledge of the way people walk, one knows nothing of a person’s posture during the fractional second of a stride. The act of reaching for a lighter or a spoon is familiar routine, yet we hardly know what really goes on between hand and metal, not to mention how this fluctuates with our moods. Here the camera intervenes with the resources of its lowerings and liftings, its interruptions and isolations, it extensions and accelerations, its enlargements and reductions. The camera introduces us to unconscious optics as does psychoanalysis to unconscious impulses.

(Emphasis mine.)

This is what film can do that no other art form can: it can move through and around and right up close to an object or an action, at an unnaturally fast or unnaturally slow pace, in order to show us our world not the way that is looks to us, but the way that it feels. Especially when using Amélie as a model, this can feel like the primary function of film; there is a narrative in Amélie (her love story) but it takes up comparatively little of the screentime. People don’t fall in love with this movie for the plot, but for all the tiny stories it tells throughout. The most delightful sequences are those in which nothing much happens. Consider the opening sequence:

English translation of the narration: On September 3rd 1973, at 6:28pm and 32 seconds, a bluebottle fly capable of 14,670 wing beats a minute landed on Rue St Vincent, Montmartre. At the same moment, on a restaurant terrace nearby, the wind magically made two glasses dance unseen on a tablecloth. Meanwhile, in a 5th-floor flat, 28 Avenue Trudaine, Paris 9, returning from his best friend’s funeral, Eugène Colère erased his name from his address book. At the same moment, a sperm with one X chromosome, belonging to Raphaël Poulain, made a dash for an egg in his wife Amandine. Nine months later, Amélie Poulain was born.

The narration by itself isn’t nearly as compelling as the combination of the narration and the images, so I really do recommend watching the video! And it’s because the words aren’t as interesting as the film that every time I see this, I find myself ready to declare, yes! It is a criminal error to promote narrative as the essence of film!

Watching Fight Club originally confused this feeling. I just didn’t like the movie. I sympathized with the lead’s feeling that the systems driving modern life had made it soulless, but thought blowing up an apartment was going too far, and blowing up a series of credit card companies in order to intentionally collapse the financial system– I just couldn’t see how that could possibly make things better. Luckily, when I dislike a film I like to talk about it and nitpick why it bothered me, and this time I had the good fortune to do so with a friend who liked it a great deal. She pointed out my error: I was getting caught up in the narrative again. I was asking her, “why did he say it this way?” “why did he do it that way?” about so many little details, and she just said, “I don’t know. I don’t really watch it for the surface level stuff.”

And so, from a totally different direction, I am led to the same conclusion: narrative is not the essence of film. I plan to re-watch Fight Club, will full knowledge of the twist ending and of the fact that the narrative is not the point, and I think I might like it better. (I also plan to pick it apart purely on the narrative at some point as well, since that is my usual modus operandi for this blog, but that will be different.)

I do still somewhat resist the idea that narrative is not central to film, but this comes from a different aspect. How can you make several hours of footage interesting if you don’t have some connection through the piece allowing the readers to make sense of it? Isn’t art all about the story of humanity? I am coming to realize, though, that narrative is not the same as storytelling. I knew this already– paintings and sculpture and music all tell us stories without adhering to a narrative structure– but I am still only partially able to acknowledge that film is also exempt from this requirement. My love for Amélie makes it clear again: just think of the character introductions, the lists of little likes and dislikes, so individual and so easy to identify with, and so disconnected from what one would call a plot.

No, narrative may be a common feature of films, but the essence of film is its ability to show us our world without literalism, but with truth.


3 Responses to Narrative as the essence of film

  1. As I rewatched Amelie this weekend, the film is quite fresh in my mind, making this a rather timely entry. This watching, I noticed more of the non-story-advancing bits of the film – the opening sequence being one of the most heavily condensed section of this in the film. I think these elements of non-plot work particularly well in Amelie – because it makes such a point of emphasizing the intersections of coincidences. The bluebottle coincides with the other events in the introduction, but doesn’t really influence them, in much the same way the film draws parallels between Amelie and Nino’s childhoods. None of this has much relevance in terms of advancing the narrative, but they make the narrative-advancement more enjoyable. For instance, the Bredoteau/Bretodeau character’s rotisserie chickens make the ending more touching, where it shows him giving the oysters to his grandchild.

    Another film by Jeunet (also starring Audrey Tautou), A Very Long Engagement, focuses much more on the plot. While it does have the breaks in narrative focus like Amelie, the breaks emphasize character development rather than bluebottles and dancing wineglasses. The film is far less whimsical than Amelie, and the comic relief either contributes to the characterizations of the main characters or to the plot.

    I haven’t seen Fight Club, but I’ve read the book. The narrative is not really the focus of the novel – things are outside chronology, and a lot of the time the narrator (and, as it’s told from his perspective, the audience) doesn’t really know what’s going on. I have difficulty imagining that in film – it would have to break many film conventions to stay true to the book, making it, I imagine, a rather unusual film. It would be difficult to evaluate purely on a narrative basis, because Palahniuk doesn’t really aim for narrative consistency. As you demonstrated, evaluating a story like Fight Club by traditional, narrative means risks losing some of the meaning within the piece (and granted, the narrative makes me go “um, what?” far more than I believe a movie ought to). And I feel that the weaknesses of the narrative are, perhaps, problems. It can reduce interest in the conclusion of the novel/film – if the book hadn’t been short, quick reading (by my standards – YMMV), I probably would never have finished it.

    The point of this long, rambling comment was, I think, to say that narrative doesn’t have to be central to the creation of a film (and one can make a pretty good film without centralizing narrative), but complete lack of narrative can jeopardize the amount of interest the audience has in the piece.

  2. eloriane says:

    Hey, niema! Good to see you again!

    I found myself nodding along with your comment. I don’t think narrative is unimportant, and honestly most of the time when I go to the movies what I’m really looking for is a strong narrative; I just had never before considered whether or not the narrative is the most important part, and I was surprised to find myself thinking that, no, the thing that’s really important to film is the way that the camera shows us things that are impossible, but feel true.

    For example, the moment when Amelie finds the little tin box– when we see her reach in and take it out, the camera is behind the box a fair way, and we can see the box itself relatively clearly. That’s not what it looked like to Amelie, and it’s not even what it would look like if we could put a camera in the hole (the light would be different), but it is the way the moment felt, and that’s what film is good at. Filmmakers put cameras in all kinds of impossible places, and light things in impossible ways, and generally show us the world in a way that is not at all the way it looks in real life, but exactly the way it feels in real life.

    I think that’s really what I wanted to talk about here– how that aspect of filmmaking is really cool and really essential to the craft. My head has been in a really meta place lately, I guess.

  3. [T]he thing that’s really important to film is the way that the camera shows us things that are impossible, but feel true.

    Totally. It’s one of the things I love most about pretty much all visual art, film included. When I took photography a couple years ago, the professor said that the human eye can only see things that occur in 1/30th of a second or slower, so the camera is capable of capturing things that humans would never see otherwise. The thing that makes film different from other forms of visual art is that these impossible moments are compiled, edited together to form a series of images that we couldn’t see, emotional responses we wouldn’t feel otherwise without this process.

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