Tuesday, May 4, 2010

In Defense of Narrative

Throughout the semester, but particularly in recent weeks during our discussions of Gilles Deleuze's Cinema 1 (1983) and Cinema 2 (1985), Peter Frampton's Filmosophy (2006) and more generally the opposition between traditional film studies (in which technical analyses relate disparate elements back to narrative causality) and modern film studies (in which the medium's more affective visual and aural properties are considered), we've tended to speak very dismissively of narrative analysis. Our conversation last week turned to film textbooks such as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film As Art: An Introduction (first edition 1979), an introductory text that offers its close and exhaustive analysis of mainstream Hollywood cinema as a dominant paradigm against which to compare other works produced within and without that system like a cardinal point for film students to get their bearings from, rather than a rigid, proscriptive set of questions to be put to every movie. But to dismiss this type of analysis out of hand is to make the same error that practitioners of that school of film studies commit in assuming the causal relationship between some shot A and the following shot B while ignoring an affective, non-narrative analysis. Simply put: we should not forgo narrative analysis simply because its scholars tend to forgo affective analyses.

Indeed, much of the cinema that Deleuze espouses in Cinema 2, particularly Italian neo-realisn and the French New Wave, is by no means non-narrative. Rather, films of those periods marked fairly radical breaks with the dominant modes of filmic storytelling at the time. Films by De Sica, Visconti, Antonioni, Truffaut and Godard are narrative, even in as much as they seek, more or less self-reflexively, to unsettle our habituated modes of watching and experiencing narrative cinema. Even such creative and formally audacious films rely in some manner or another on film's capacity to convey a story. The implication that seemed to be raised in class, that studies of film that construe technical and formal features as devices for narrative development are not worth our consideration, strikes me as dangerously close-minded.

Some of the most radical studies of film have undertaken such analyses to suggest the subversive possibilities for what might appear to be very conservative texts. I'm thinking, for instance, of Robin Wood's hyper-politicized writings on studio-era and immediately post-studio era American cinema, based on narrative and technical analysis, in books such as Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond (1998) and Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan (1986). Or, Frederic Jameson's extremely rigorous Marxist interpretations of films like Jaws (1975), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and The Godfather (1972) in "Class Allegory in Contemporary Mass Culture" (1977), with his particular focus on the process of adaptation from novel or true story into fiction film. These and many other astute film studies scholars demonstrate that viewers experience cinema as both an affective series of sounds and images and, the majority of the time, also as narrative. To champion analysis of the one at the expense of the other is to do the reader, viewer and the work under consideration all a great disservice, and leaves the resulting study critically incomplete.

-Benjamin Sutton

1 comment:

  1. Ben, you're point is well-taken. But I still think Frampton's critique of Bordwell is a good one, because Bordwell – for all his sensitivity to cinematic form – still presumes narrative as the ground of cinematographic images, so that everything that doesn't directly relate to the story is consigned to silence. Similarly problematic is the way that all developments in cinema history are defined in relation to mainstream cinema, as though filmmakers expend all their energy either identifying with this system or consciously working against it, when the truth is that modern filmmakers simply ignore such issues and go their own way, find their own path, discover for themselves what cinema is, or can be. (Don't get me wrong. I actually like certain elements of Bordwell's work, and often use articles by him for teaching purposes. However, I've always found his essay on art cinema-as-genre misleading, dubious, and unforgivable.)

    I'd add here too that while I certainly would never claim that neo-realism is a rejection of narrative (the hybrid status of neo-realism, the proximity of fiction and documentary in neo-realism, is absolutely essential to retain; otherwise neo-realism loses its point), it seems to me that we must also be careful not to assume that the term "narrative" itself – as it applies to cinema – has been sufficiently defined or understood.