Joshua Gizelt (swashbuckler332) wrote,
Joshua Gizelt

  • Mood:
  • Music:

Invasion from another discussion...

dotificus' post on pacing lead me to an interesting tangent; I ended up making a point I feel very strongly about, which is that cinema is not really a narrative form despite the fact that most films do use narrative. I found this an interesting topic, so I figured I'd repost it here to see what other people think about this particular distinction.

I commented that pace was everything to a film (which is certainly true; a second of film can be an eternity if it's not in the right place), and that while there were other aspects of the medium that effect pace, such as direction, performance, editing and score, I did say that a screenplay's pace ought to be very tight beforehand (if possible). She had asked, "Aren't films narrative by nature too?" to which I responded, "Absolutely not."
To clarify:

Cinema is not, as is often argued, about storytelling. Storytelling is an aspect of cinema, but if one really gets into the nuts and bolts of what makes a movie work, it is not the narrative aspect.

Look at the most common adjectives used to descibe a film somebody enjoyed: "exciting" "scary" "beautiful" "funny" etc. Think about what those sentiments are implying; broad strokes and archetypal discourse. It's not that a movie can't be though-provoking, it's that what makes a movie work for a viewer from one moment to the next is experiential. Watching a movie is a more passive experience than reading a novel, but the trade-off occurs with the immediacy of the experience which can only occur in the visual/aural realm.

To read is an intellectual process as well as an emotional one; as you read the book you put together images of what the characters look like, what they sound like, what they smell like, what the textures of their clothes are... these are all aspects of the story that the reader is creating in their heads as they read the text and interpret it. A film, however, works differently because the way that everything looks and sounds is being presented to them already. Without having to create it themselves, the viewer then accepts the photorealistic animated images and the accompanying sounds as sensory input (total aside: this is one of the reasons I prefer the 'scope aspect ratio above all others), and so watching the film is becomes something much more visceral.

Cinema relies on narrative, to be sure, but always as a pretext for what really matters in a movie. This can vary from production to production depending on the individuals, industrial elements and technical realities of filmmaking, but while a story is certainly important to the shape of a film, it is less of a defining characteristic for a film than other elements. You can point to any number of movies that you know aren't really all that good but you like them. You can't do that with books; either it inspires you to work with it to create something, or it fails and you don't like it. The kaleidescope of art forms that go into the creation of cinema often separates these elements out, allowing you to enjoy certain aspects of a film even if others aren't as satisfying. While this can happen with novels, the more participatory nature of their discourse means that there is a much more unified internal reaction.

I refer you once again to Alfred Hitchcock's concept of a MacGuffin; a MacGuffin is the thing that drives the story, but it is completely incidental to the appeal of the film. The classic example is from Hitchcock's North by Northwest. The story revolves around some microfilm and intelligence gathered by Leo G. Carroll's federal organization about the operations of James Mason. But the film is about how striking Cary Grant looks in flannel suits, and how gorgeous Eva Marie Saint is on the big screen, and how much heat can be generated between the two without showing anything, in how threatening a cropduster can get, in how menacing Martin Landau can be, in how breathtaking an image Mount Rushmore is from up close.

...and if you've never seen North by Northwest,
the Warner Brothers DVD of it looks and sounds outstanding.
Rent it now!!!

In fact, these elements are so effective that most people don't even notice the fact that Carroll's plan fails completely and the 'good guys' never find out what the ultimate evil plan was. What is important is that Grant and Saint have sex on a train.


So what one finds is that it is a perfect example of a film that works in spite of its primary narrative arc. This is not an unusual case. Although cinema as a general rule tends to be very conservative when it comes to narrative (although there are on occasion films that do really play with that concept; David Fincher's 'The Game, Alain Robbe-Grillet's l'Homme qui ment and Trans-Europe Express, Chris Nolan's Memento, anything by David Lynch) it is often not the element of the film that makes it work or not.

An easy way to demonstrate this is to point at the Harry Potter films. More specifically, the latter two, which were much greater abridgements of their respective stories, but which did a better job of conveying the world they take place in than the more narratively oriented first two films did. And the third and fourth were the much better films because of it.

Go to the chapter "The Bridge of Khazad-Dum" from The Fellowship of the Ring and compare what happens on the page with what happens in the movie. Anybody who has seen that film will admit that the sequence on the staircase is one of its most exciting moments. This scene doesn't appear in the book. It was something that was worked out because of a bit of realism the effects people added to the staircase (the crack). From there, an entire sequence was created that fits snugly between two moments that are very accurately adapted from the book that doesn't come from the book but is wholly appropriate to the situation. That is the type of adaptation that makes a successful film, not a slavish adherence to the storyline.

I'm not saying that a bad story can't ruin a movie. I can point out a myriad of examples where that is indeed the case. However, I have to say that throughout my studies I have ultimately come to the conclusion that it isn't as important to whether or not a film works as many other elements, often including ones that most people may not notice. The lighting, the costumes, the score, the cutting... they aren't the aspects that most people are looking at when they watch the film, but they are more often than not the ones that are more active in a persons assessment of a film than the ones they are conciously looking at (usually story, performances and overall niftiness).
(I attempted to use examples that I figured as many people would have seen as possible)
Tags: alfred hitchcock, cinema, filmmaking, harry potter

  • Post a new comment


    Comments allowed for friends only

    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    Your IP address will be recorded