(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.
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.