What are the narrative principles and techniques that describe how contemporary art films tell stories? Specifically, how do art films organize the viewer’s experience of the plot into large-scale parts? What, in other words, are the structural dynamics of the modern art film?
These questions will guide my next big research project–which will evolve a theory of what I call “narrative harmonics” in art cinema. In the coming months I will begin to analyze a sample of films and form some firm hypotheses, and I hope to share some of my initial findings here.
Three factors, I think, make these questions worth pursuing. First, the study of art cinema storytelling hasn’t progressed much since the publication of David Bordwell’s seminal Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). Although his 1979 article “Art Cinema as Mode of Film Practice” is more widely read, it is in this book that Bordwell lays out the mechanics, if you like, of plotting in art cinema. (I will have more to say about this in the coming months.) This leaves one to wonder how much art cinema storytelling has changed (if at all) since 1985.
Second, some theoreticians, like David Andrews in his recent book Theorizing Art Cinemas (2014), contend that “art cinema” is such a multifarious phenomenon that in effect no useful formal description could ever be made of art cinema in toto. Coupled with this, many critics (too numerous to name here), deny that art films tell stories at all. Art films are often described as “non-“ or “anti-narrative.” These developments in the critical literature of course leave one to wonder whether a closer look at a representative sample of art films would reveal otherwise—that in fact art films do create narrative worlds and fictional characters and that it is useful to preserve the notion that art cinema stands as a formal (narrative) and stylistic (visual and sound technique) category.
Third, since 1985, substantial progress has been made in study of narrative technique. In 1999, Kristin Thompson published Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique, in which she innovated an “inductive” approach to the plot structure of modern Hollywood films. After surveying 100 films, she concluded that contemporary mainstream movies are organized into four acts, approximately 20-30 minutes of screen time apiece, each of which centers on the protagonist’s goals (their definition, redefinition, complication or achievement). This leaves one to wonder whether art films follow similar or altogether different principles at the “macro” level.
So, these are the starting points of inquiry and debate surrounding the modern art film and its contributions to cinema as a narrative art. Now, in this post I do not wish to set out a firm definition of the “art film” or of “art cinema” or any cognate concepts. This is a point I’ll tackle at some point down the line. For the moment, I would make two recommendations.
The first recommendation I’d make is that anyone interested in the complicated matter of defining the art film should consult the useful introduction to Rosalind Galt’s and Karl Schoonover’s Global Art Cinema: New Theories and Histories (2010). (Again, more on this in due course.)
I would also recommendation the following: on some level, it is useful to conceive of art cinema in Western Europe and North America at least as a reinterpretation of traditions of modernism and postmodernism in art. Modernism, which concern us here, is an artistic impulse given to aesthetic self-criticism, which involves (among other things):
- a critical rejection of Western artistic notions of naturalism and illusionism
- an exploration of the specificity of a given medium (i.e., an effort to flaunt what makes it formally or conceptually unique)
- reflexivity or heightened aesthetic self-consciousness (in the form of “device baring” or apparent or disguised allusions)
- abstraction, whereby the viewer is challenged to “make sense” of spatial, temporal or narrative cues (which may involve non-figurative composition, like flat surfaces or fragmentation, and ambiguity of meaning or “relativity of truth”)
- the depiction of interior landscapes and time, or subjectivity (rather than “objective” spaces and chronologies)
- and grotesquery, whereby art rebels against genteel notions of beauty, and bourgeois taste and decorum
With these aspects of art cinema in mind, I would like to dive headlong into the question of structure. One film that has often been associated with modernism is Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987). It differs markedly from an earlier film he wrote and directed, Paths of Glory (1957). But more importantly, its organizing harmonies are brought to the surface of the work. In other words, like other modernist art, it makes its structuring principles known.
War in Two Modes: Classical and Modernist Plotting
During the early phase of his career, Stanley Kubrick wrote his scripts according to the “classical” model described by Kristin Thompson. This means that his films will tend to have four acts (of approximately 20-30 minutes in duration), the acts will be defined by the formulation, redefinition and achievement of the protagonist’s goals, and a shift to a new act will involve what screenwriters call a turning point in the protagonist’s quest. Consider how Paths of Glory follows these principles.
Even with a running time of approximately 88 minutes (including credits), Kubrick relies on four complete acts to structure the film’s intrigue. In a relatively short act I (the setup, approximately 14:30 in length), Col. Dax (Kirk Douglas) forms a simple military goal—to take the Ant Hill (fig.1).
In a slightly longer act 2 (the complicating action, from 14:30-35:42), Dax attempts and, by virtue of the suicidal conditions of trench warfare (fig. 2), fails to take the Ant Hill.
For the next twenty minutes of the film (act 3, the development, from 35:42-55:40), Dax develops an entirely new goal: to exonerate the soldiers under him from the charge of cowardice in an official court martial (fig. 3). He fails yet again.
In the final section of the film, act 4 (the climax, from 55:40-1:21:20), Dax is given a third objective: to prevent his men from being subjected to an unjust firing squad. And for a third time—on this occasion, tragically—he is unsuccessful.
Kristin Thompson’s inductive study predicts that many mainstream films will end with an epilogue, and that’s the case in Paths of Glory. From 1:12:20-1:26:25, Kubrick provides us with an expressive coda, in which a young woman (played by his future wife, Christiane Harlan) sings a touching melody, “The Faithful Soldiers,” a popular folk song, for the war-torn men (fig. 4).
While in some ways unusual—the anti-war narrative is structured around failure upon failure for a sympathetic protagonist—Paths of Glory ensures viewer comprehension and sympathy by clearly and consistently organizing plot events around character goals. Such is not the case for Full Metal Jacket.
Between the release of Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick developed narrative techniques that serve to draw the viewer’s attention to—and at times cue the viewer to puzzle over—the large-scale structuring harmonies of his films. He does so by consistently “baring the devices” by which his plots are organized at the maco-level. One approach he employs involves self-conscious (and even ambiguous) intertitles and title cards that announce the structure of the film and even the presence of a controlling hand at the helm. Barry Lyndon (1975) is divided into “parts” (fig.5).
And The Shining (1980), in a highly peculiar, abstract and perhaps even ironic choice, uses intertitles that announce the days of the week (narrative information that neither advances the plot—the days in no way appear relevant to the ongoing action—nor creates anticipation—we’re never told what the ultimate deadline is!) (fig. 6).
Full Metal Jacket uses neither of these overt structuring devices, and thus some might suspect that it’s a more “conservative” or less modernist plot. Not so. Just consider how little the protagonist’s goals guide the organization of the narrative.
The film, with credits, lasts 116 minutes. The first large-scale part—is “act” even an appropriate term here?—runs 19:40. One is tempted to “unify” this period of screen time because the plot gives us a series of thematically linked vignettes: “life on Parris Island in the first days of training.” The temporal relations between vignettes are unclear. It’s almost as if Kubrick had structured the plot through an extended montage sequence where we only glimpse “high points” of the narrative. No true goal-oriented protagonist emerges because scenes handle the characters rather “democratically” (i.e., no single character is consistently isolated from the others and we don’t really now what these characters’ objectives are, aside from “going through training”).
It is only in “act” 2 (19:40-45:25) that a character, “Joker” (Matthew Modine), is given a clear objective: he is ordered by Sgt. Harman (R. Lee Ermey) to teach Pvt. Pyle (Vincent D’Onofrio) how to be a good soldier (fig. 7).
“Joker” spends the next 25 minutes of screen time helping Pyle improve his ways. But late in the “act,” Pyle begins to show signs of turning in on himself, of isolation and even psychopathy. When Pyle murders Sgt. Harman (fig. 8) and commits suicide, it’s evident that, like Col. Dax, “Joker” too would have to deal with failure.
But instead of showing the emotional fallout of this failure—and thus using plot to elicit sympathy for our protagonist—“act” 2 comes to an abrupt end. After this intense event, the film fades to black indicating a lengthy ellipsis, after which we discover a sudden shift in setting. We are now in Vietnam. The plot has deprived the viewer of the opportunity to take measure of (and sympathize with) “Joker”’s shock given this traumatic turn of events. This peculiar “twist” requires the viewer to recalibrate. Questions arise: where is “Joker”? What happened to all of the trainees? What occurred in the interval between the double shooting and the ship-off to Vietnam? The plot answers only one or two of these questions, and not that clearly. This is one of the ways that the plot cues the viewer to be aware of its structuring principles. We search for answers to the plot questions, and when they don’t come, or they come only with difficulty, we end up also thinking about how and why the film was put together this way. Form comes to the fore.
So begins “act” 3 (45:25-58:13). In this short segment, we pick up with “Joker” who has become a reporter on a base in Vietnam. Our hero appears bored with the task, and is scheming to find a way to get out into the field of battle. Still, for much of this segment of the narrative, the character seems almost passive, merely observing and reacting to events around him. Near the end of the “act,” he’s given orders to go out into the field, which leads to a sudden shift in setting.
We now find ourselves on a journey—a type of plot event David Bordwell associates with the art film. Indeed, for the entirety of “act” 4 (58:13-1:25:28), “Joker” is out in the field (Phu Bai, to be exact) in order to gather some reporting—although, his goals here are entirely ambiguous. Playing with abstraction—with the aesthetic experience of raising questions and providing few answers—Kubrick gives us just under 30 minutes of loosely connected episodes, defined mainly by wanderings through the battlefield. We are introduced to a new set of characters—a squad of Marines, which “Joker” soon joins (fig. 9)—but these new characters don’t help “Joker” find a clear goal. To a certain extent, they are used by the plot at this stage to convey a set of themes that define “Joker”’s journey in “act” 4—themes related to the experiences of war in occupied Vietnam.
Near the end of the “act,” an unseen Vietcong sniper kills the squad leader, “Cowboy” (Arliss Howard). Once again, our protagonist is confronted with a traumatic event, especially if we consider a fact that we may have already forgotten by this point in the film given the plot’s focus and structure–“Joker” and “Cowboy” had completed training together. And once again, Kubrick provides us with a fade to black, perhaps creating the expectation that, like the previous fade, we will not see the aftermath of (and “Joker”’s reaction to) the trauma. But not so.
On the other side of the fade, “act” 5 (1:25:28-1:53:00) begins. For the last 28 minutes or so of the film, the protagonist and his new squad have a clear goal: to avenge the death of “Cowboy” and kill the sniper responsible. This act is structured internally by rather conventional “spatial” objectives and obstacles, which pay off by giving the viewer moments of intense anticipation and surprise. After overcoming a difficult and unfamiliar terrain and heavy fire, they accomplish this task, but the feat amounts to another trauma. The sniper is revealed as a teenage girl, whom “Joker” kills at point blank after some hesitation by the squad about who would pull the trigger (fig. 10). Yet again, the film does not allow us to ponder “Joker”’s response to the experience, however, for we abruptly shift to a short epilogue where the Marines, “Joker” included, are shown marching toward their base, singing the Mickey Mouse March.
This admittedly schematic overview of the film omits a number of details—including the role that “Joker”’s voice-over plays in conveying plot information. But this breakdown is sufficient to show that Full Metal Jacket is structured according to very different principles—ones that at times render the protagonist rather opaque and difficult to sympathize with.
What Kubrick has done in his 1987 film is used several narrative techniques that, as we will see over the coming months, deviate substantially from the plot of the mainstream, goal-oriented protagonist film. His film doesn’t follow the conventional 4-act design. Also, scenes in entire “acts” or large-scale harmonic structures do little to reveal what the protagonist’s goals are. Instead, these large parts are devoted to exploring character through theme, or to lengthy journeys through space and experience. Moreover, turning points may not lead to new goals or new phases in the achievement of goals. In a modernist art film, a turning point, it seems, may involve an intense situation for the protagonist (and the viewer), a sudden need to recalibrate for the viewer (we may find ourselves ripped away from the characters and setting we’ve come to know), and an affective experience whereby we are “distanced” from the protagonist (that is, a turning point may come when the filmmaker wants to restrict our access to a character’s reaction to an intense, even traumatic event).
All of these things, if they characterize the plotting of the modern art film, suggest that the art film is a kind of plot that plays with varieties of abstraction, self-consciousness, reflective thought (linked to themes), emotional ambivalence (intensity followed by a feeling of cold distance) and structural improvisation (an art film may have more than 4 acts, and the acts may not follow the setup-> complication action-> development-> climax pattern). We’ll see if this a “Kubrickian” phenomenon, or something more widespread, in both Western and non-Western art cinema.