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Narration in the Fiction Film

miércoles 2 de febrero de 2011

Narration in the Fiction Film

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Fragmentary notes on David Bordwell’s book Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Winsconsin Press, 1985. Paragraph-initial numbers correspond to the pagination of this edition.


Three possible approaches to narrative:

a) As representation
b) As structure
c) As narration, as process

Narration understood as "the activity of selecting, arranging, and ordering story material in order to achieve specific time-bound effects on a perceiver" (xi). Bordwell starts from Formalist aesthetics, which "encourages the breaking of arbitrary boundaries among theory, history, and criticism" (...) "While it is true that the Formalists stressed the specificity of the aesthetic function, they were quick to assert the central importance of social convention in defining what any culture counted as ’work of art’" (xii). There is a relational and functional (but not an essential) difference between poetic language and practical language.

xiii - "Filmic narration involves two principal formal systems, syuzhet and style, which use the spectator to frame hypotheses and draw inferences". Sets of conventions, modes, are known to both filmmakers and audiences. There are four major modes: classical narration, art-cinema narration, historical materialist narration, and parametric narration.


1. Mimetic theories of narration

3- Back to Aristotle. Diegetic versus mimetic theories of narration (narration as telling / as showing).

4- Perspective as narration.
Mimetic theories of narration take the act of vision as model; perspective is a key term. Stage and perspective in drama, and framing of fiction. Perspective in Antiquity.
5- Perspective binds together viewer and object; it presupposes "a rule-governed, mesurable scenic space organized around the optical vantage point of an implied spectator." "Space is autonomous, a grid or checkerboard or stage preexisting any arrangement of objects upon it". Western perspective closes off the subject from the object, while "Tarabukin contended that Oriental inverse perspective placed the spectator at the center of a scene that surounded him".
6- Visual tricks through perspective; aperspectival medieval stage, etc. In modern staging, the Renaissance proscenium roughly equals a "windowpane" pictorial perspective. The central point of view is occupied by the ruler’s box in the auditorium.
7- Narrative pressures actually make "pure" perspective a compromise. Perspective is a mental, not an optic system.

Perspective and Point of View in Literature.
Traditionally, mimetic theories have been proposed (Henry James, etc.).
8- "James explicitly develops point of view as a post-Renaissance perspectival metaphor". Percy Lubbock places emphasis on the dramatic mode, and opposes it to the pictorial method. The novel is a synthesis of both. "James and Lubbock collapse the question ’Who speaks?’ into the question ’Who sees and knows?’" The question of language is played down in favour of perception and thought. Norman Friedman, Wayne Booth and Wolfgang Iser strengthen the pictorial and theatrical analogy; narrative and film are equivalent,
9- "All of which assumes cinema  to be yet another perspectival art".

The Invisible Observer
Cinema theories, before 1960, are mimetic. An invisible observer is created. "On this account, a narrative film represents story events through the vision of an invisible or imaginary witness". Cf. Pudovkin, who conceives "an observer ideally mobile in space and time" — equivalent to a narrator, an "all-purpose answer to problems involving space, authority, point of view, and narration".
But they must limit the awareness of the camera’s omniscience.
10- Objections to this view [which Bordwell takes a bit too literally]. Bordwell stresses fictionality and technique [like García Landa in Acción, Relato, Discurso, he assumes that perspective shapes the story a posterior, retrospectively].
11- "In the fiction film, not only the camera position but the mise-en-scene, as it unfolds in tone and space, is addressed to the spectator".
12- All elements in the fiction film function narrationally: "The invisible observer is not the basis of film style but only one figure of style."

Eisenstein: Narration as Scenography
Eisenstein pushes the mimetic position to an extreme—using a "cinematic" stage, etc.
13- Acting conceived as the processing of a material: the spectator’s emotions.
14- Cinema conceived as a contemporary extension of theater, similar "attractions", directed to catch the attention of the audience; similar reactions are sought (perceptual, affective, and cognitive). The "dialectical" approach to shooting and editing mimes the stream of consciousness, etc. Emphasis on style. Narration conceived as an expressive representation of the story action. Eisenstein versus the notion of an invisible witness: the effect on the audience is the goal, and the camera the means; there is little concern for verisimilitude. Staging is conceived as the first ideological processing—he speaks of mise-en-scene (but also mise en jeu, mise en geste, mise en cadre).
15- A continual awareness of the director’s shaping hand is assured (though not mentioned by Eisenstein). There are even self-reflexive or metafilmic moves. Eisenstein sets the bases for a future theory of film narration.

2. Diegetic Theories of Narration

16- In Plato, and in Étienne Souriau, diegesis equals "recounted story", a represented fictional world. Priority is given to the poet’s voice.
17- Bakhtin conceives the novel as language, as play of voices. Brecht brings out the diegetic element in drama. Barthes: narration rests on linguistic codes. 1966 essay: transition, shift from the study of signification to the study of enunciation. Emphasis on process and play. Formalists spoke of the poetic use of film—they seek equivalents for literary devices. But they lack a fully developed linguistic theory of cinema or literature—which would have to wait for the structuralists.

18- Film narration as Metalanguage
Colin McCabe compares cinema to the 19th-century novel. Both frame the object languages with a metalanguage which
    1) thereby creates a hierarchy of discourses,
    2) is "true" and
    3) issues from no identifiable speaker.
In film, the camera roughly equals this metalanguage.
19- In McCabe there is a crude distinction between object language and metalanguage, etc. Bordwell pro Bakhtin’s dialogism: "Bakhtin denies that there can be any static or stable metalanguage".
20- The division between object-language and metalanguage may run through a word—it does not refer to distinct patches of text. Every language is a system of languages. Bordwell is against the notion of privileging the camera work over other film techniques. There is an interplay of narrational factors, not a single "metalanguage".

21- Film Narration as Enunciation
Application to cinema of Benveniste’s theory of enunciation (histoire / discours, etc.). Benveniste is not very consistent. According to Kerbrat-Orecchioni, after Benveniste, the study of enunciation derives into the study of the marks of enunciation. Derivations from Benveniste are to be found in Barthes and Genette.
22- For Christian Metz, film gives an illusory impression of histoire, but it is discursive.  He proceeds to track discursive signs.
23- Problems of using Benveniste applied to film: e.g. the notion of discours masquerading as histoire is not found in Benveniste (who speaks simply of histoire). Metz confuses discours with enunciation itself. "That traditional cinema is ’enunciative’ would not automatically make it ’discursive’ in Benveniste’s sense". There is an absence of justification for applying linguistic categories in enunciation theories (of film); they make for a troublesome translation. Vs. automatisms. E.g.:
24- "the shot is a materialdivision, not necessarily a signifying one". "The lack of a clear theory of enunciation leads to an intuitive, ad hoc spotting of discours. Camera work and editing, the two techniques privileged by the invisible observer model, become the principal bases of enunciation (...)." Should the camera be equaled to enunciation? to voice? to the narrator? to the author?  [By the way, Bordwell is in favour of the distinction narrator does not equal implied author does not equal real author].
25- Stephen Heath formulates the most ambitious theory of enunciation. "Position" used in 4 senses: physical perspective, mental space created, narrative point of view, and "subject-position" as the stability of a self. However, they are not integrated. Mimetic assumption "that shots create invisible observers and that editing creates ideal ones".
26- Bordwell: "because a film lacks equivalents for the most basic aspects of verbal activity, I suggest that we abandon the enunciation account". He is against the unjustifiable privileging of certain techniques over others.

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