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Narratology and film story

Narratologists have repeatedly claimed that (verbal) narration is quite possible without spatial determination of events, because it suffices to single out the carriers of an action (the actant figures), or the action itself. However, in films, space is mostly seen, even when it has no bearing on the story. it is important to establish this important difference in the technique of description, but film often uses techniques equivalent to description (tracking shots, pans...) that gradually reveal the appearance of an object. Still, film always and constantly has one particular feature which could be called the force of showing, in the same sense that viewer in a theatre can see the actors and the set, with additional amplifying elements of (cinematic) media mediation. For that reason, film cannot avoid precise definition and clear individualization in the presentation of characters and objects. Of course, film can avoid showing the characters and events, but even then film still has its showing force, rhetorical effects unavailable to literature: the viewer expects a scene to be discernible, so that lack of description in literature cannot be compared with the weight of an insufficiently informative scene.
As Pudovkin said, one of major differences between theatre and film is that theatrical actors (together with the public) share the same space subjected to the laws of the physics. Film director creates film space from a piece of film tape, which when edited constructs a specific film space that can be structured from shoots made in different reality spaces. In extreme examples, such as was Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space, there was no construction of new film space — the viewer could easily notice how individual shots of one scene were shot on different locations and at different times of day, and experienced this alteration of incoherent spatial-temporal signals as a mistake, as breaking of the laws of film expression.
The history of film offers many acclaimed works that were not predominantly organized as sequences of events, for example Daisies, where heroines (often literally) jumped from one place to another, disregarding laws of the physics, or Breathless in which the hero spoke directly into the camera, while the sequence of events was intermitted with the so-called saccadic editing. Organization of space and time in this film significantly differed from the organization (or futile attempts at organization) in Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Film characters and objects move in space, are immersed in time; even in the case of abstract film we can usually speak of some experience of space, while time is one of its most frequent subjects. Pudovkin said that film time, constructed of pieces of film tape, was conditioned only by the speed of perception and controlled by the number and duration of separate elements chosen for film presentation of action. Therefore, editing, as in the creation of film space, often serves as the basic tool for creation of particularly filmic temporal features. However, films such as Hitchcock’s Rope clearly show that film can relate to time in many other different ways. Theory of film (Peterlić, Bordwell...) often stresses, among other traits of film time, its machine defined, unchangeable duration. For the viewer, category of duration is inseparable from particularities of his/hers psyche and cognitive structures he/she uses to confront film medium, while its subjective experience of time, in most cases, cannot be entirely explained by the category of projection time. In narrative structures, for example, the quickness of alteration of events and a specific choice of forms of film recording can strongly impact the viewer’s experience of time.
The sequence of events presented in a narrative text (suzhet) can follow the logic of cause and consequence, however all other combinations are also possible — in Citizen Kane, at the beginning of the story (i.e. projection time) the hero dies, and different witnesses reconstruct his life. Cristopher Nolan’s Memento is an excellent example of discursive freedom in the sequence of events, in the sense of the well known differentiation of suzhet and fabula. Due to his damaged long term memory, the hero would not be able to follow any kind of story, still, he is constantly searching for a logical sequence of events, and a coherent characterisation and motivation of the characters around him. Main narrative line of the film constantly turns back — scenes are arranged contrary to the temporal logic, while in the second parallel narrative sequence the events develop in the opposite direction: the opposite sequence of events (presented in colour) interchanges with monochromatic scenes of the hero’s telephone conversation, in which the action moves in normal direction, towards the future.
Genette, an extremely influential narratologist, pointed out that earlier theory of narration did not make a clear distinction between ’who was watching’ — ’which of the characters’ perspective directs the narrative perspective’ — and ’who was talking’ — ’who was the narrator’. Genette used the term focalisation, often used in film theory of narration (for example by Branigan). First type of narration is non-focalised narrative text (classical narrative text) — with the so-called omniscient narrator (Fielding’s novels). Gerald Prince criticized the use of the term ’omniscient’ quoting examples from Balzac’s and Hugo’s narrative texts where the ’omniscient’ narrator was openly saying that he did not know everything. Prince talked about ’unlimited narrative perspective’. In case of film, the situation is somewhat more complex because non-verbal narration misses the intellectual and affective aspect of characters and events, which literary narrator easily verbalizes (expresses). Nevertheless, film characters are constructs resulting from interaction of visual and sound aspects of film medium — the way they look, what they do, what and how they talk, how they are addressed by other characters, etc. — in a great number of films we can see very specific suggestions (unimaginable before the invention of film), even displays of feelings, thinking and moods. In this sense, narrator’s choice is, in principle, unlimited — for example, in the case of Adam, a piano player in An American in Paris, we observe his thoughts and fears in an evidently ’unreal’ and strongly focalised concert scene in which he plays the piano and the accompanying instruments, conducts, and demands for an encore, while with equal sparkle and imaginativeness (and even more stylisation) we are presented with the inner life of the hero in the moments when he thinks his love has left him forever. In Tanhofer’s film H-8... tragic events are first presented through the (outer) perspective of film journals and police-journalistic reports, very similar to the film journal from the opening sequence of Citizen Kane. Then appears the omniscient narrator presenting the events through different spaces, following the characters through experiences and situations that will shape their character, moods and views more clearly.
Second type of narration is characterized by internal focalization (through a character). It can be fixed, as in James’ novel Ambassadors, and Lady on the Lake by Robert Montgomery, which were mostly presented with point-of-view shots. We can add that during most of Fight Club focalization is fixed, although instead of subjective shots, the film is pervaded by author shots; our information about the events are largely influenced by hero’s consciousness, so we see his imaginary friend Tyler because he sees him. Only when the hero (focus of focalization) has realized that Tyler does not exist, the viewer can be really certain of what he could only have guessed: most part of the film is exposed as completely fake, distorted (unreliably narrated) film reality.
Another form of focalization possible is shifting internal focalization (in this sense Genette specified the novel Mme Bovary). In Claude Chabrol’s Unfaithful Wife, the center of focalization was the husband while he was suspecting his wife of being unfaithful. However, once he has killed the lover, the focus shifts to his wife, who started suspecting that he had found out about the affair and has committed a crime. Furthermore, focalization turned into an important dramaturgical tool, an essential element of the film structure, because husband and wife were presented as equal, active characters, worthy of focalization, point of view and shots that show the object of characters gaze and the character in question in the same shot. Her action was finding the lover, his reaction was his violent act; she was then faced with a choice — whether she wanted to punish or to reward her husband for what he did. Shift of focalization both motivates and rhetorically intensifies the newly formed bond between the married couple.
Finally, internal focalization can be complex, with manifold evocation of events. Often quoted example is that of Kurosawa’s Rashomon, where particular stories were recounted through the precise viewpoint of the hero or heroin speaking at that precise moment. In Citizen Kane, it also seemed that the title hero differed from one story to another, from one narrator to another. One of the examples of multiple internal focalization is Malick’s Thin Red Line in which ’poetic’, ’lyric’ and narrative sequences are motivated by feelings of different characters, but it is often difficult to assign the origin of such motivation to a particular character.
The third type of narration is called narration with external focalization, which can be found in Hemingway’s short stories The Killers and Hills Like White Elephants, in which narration excludes key information about thoughts and mood of the characters, what they know and what they feel. Of course, film as opposed to literature, constantly shows something, but we can still talk about film stories in which we see characters of whom we know nothing, or almost nothing — for example in Italian westerns (Sergio Leone and others) heroes are often reduced to functions (good, evil...). In Buster Keaton’s comedies and Bresson’s films, heroes often seem cold and undiscernable, while events often seem as if shown from the perspective in which inner life of characters is unavailable. In the last scene of Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, focalization appears to be predominantly external, despite point-of-view shots (normally an important element of internal focalization): from Mathew’s point-of-view shot we do not learn that he was absorbed by the alien monster.

Nikica Gilić

The difference between description and narration
Focalization and point of view in fiction film

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