Classical Hollywood narrative two possible models

When outlining some of the possible prototypes of the classical Hollywood narrative, two groups or families come to mind, both of them literary in inspiration: one is derived from classical drama and the novel (Aristotle's poetics, Russian formalism, Gérard Genette); the other from oral narratives such as myths, fairy tales, and the early (picaresque) novel (Lévi-Strauss, Propp, Bakhtin). In film studies, the first is associated with the canonical story structure as taught in screenwriters' manuals, and refined in David Bordwell's neo-formalist poetics (Bordwell 1985); the second either adapted Vladimir Propp's Morphology of the Folk Tale (1973) (e.g. Wollen 1982) or evolved via Claude Lévi-Strauss's Structural Anthropology (1972) (as modified by, for instance, Raymond Bellour or Fredric Jameson) a standard structuralist reading of classical Hollywood that was widely debated thanks to exemplary analyses, such as Cahiers du Cinéma's collective essay on John Ford's Young Mr Lincoln (in Nichols 1976: 493-529); structuralist studies of certain genres (the Western, the gangster film), or Colin MacCabe's ideological reading of the 'classical realist text' in literature and film (1985; 1986); finally, some scholars derived a method for the analysis of (mainly non-Hollywood) films from Mikhail Bakhtin's theory of the 'dialogical' or 'heteroglossic' text (e.g. Stam 1992). To these one could add the narratological model developed by Roland Barthes's S/Z, which will be laid out in more detail in Chapter 5.

Generally speaking, these models make a distinction between the macro-analytical level, which all narratives share, regardless of the medium and the material support (i.e. oral, written, film narratives, strip cartoons, allegorical painting), and the micro-analytical level, where one would be looking for the medium-specific stylistic devices and formal elements most pertinent to the analysis - in this case - of the cinematic discourse (the scale of the shot, camera movement and camera perspective, composition of the image, the transitions from shot to shot, the possible relations between sound and image).

For the macro-analysis, Lévi-Strauss has provided some of the more familiar categories, such as the notion of binary pairs as the building blocks of most known narratives. His method proved influential not because it represents some 'truth' about the world or even about the human mind, but because his key text in this respect, the 'structural study of myth' (1972: 206-31), adheres to a rigorous formalism and highlights central theoretical concerns of all narrative analysis, such as the question of segmentation, categorization, and classification, with (perceptible) 'difference' as the minimal condition for the production of meaning. Lévi-Strauss also drew some inferences as to the socio-cultural function of narratives: how narratives construct a culture's idea of nature and the supernatural, how they articulate kinship relations (and thus address the question of sexual difference), how they deal with contradictions (what logical categories are involved in narratives), and finally, how important they are for symbolizing a society's economic relations (their implicit systems of exchange and equivalence). He also provided a handy soundbite for the overall relation of narratives to the non-narrative world of brute facts and the social conditions of existence: myths are, he says 'the imaginary resolution of real contradictions' and therefore help human beings make sense of their lives.

The Aristotelian model by comparison seems to stress overall unity (of time, place, and action), rather than segmentation. It also centres on characters as initiating agents rather than on interpersonal transactions (functions) as the core elements of a narrative. But this type of analysis still distinguishes discrete units, such as act division (as in Greek tragedy, or the 'well-made' boulevard play), while also specifying the relation between acts (according to Aristotle, the 'complication' is followed by the 'reversal of fortune' which leads to the 'unravelling', coming after the 'moment of recognition'). Aristotle also noted that dramatic narratives are generally centred on a single protagonist. Accordingly, commentators agree that much of classical Hollywood narrative conforms to such a pattern:

What is narrative ('a sequence of action ordered in time and space'), and what is Hollywood narrative? The scriptwriters' manuals borrow their models from drama, the Aristotelian division, or from the short story. Three or four act division, development of character, transformation, the initial situation, the complication, the resolution, the consequences of the resolution.

This contrasts with the Russian formalist model, which either follows Vladimir Propp, who simply chained together a series of narrative functions, or takes its lead from Victor Shklovsky and distinguishes between the underlying narrative material (story: the time-space continuum) and its compositional arrangement (plot: the discontinuous distribution of information). Shklovsky's distinction offabula (story) and syuzhet (plot) has been reworked by David Bordwell, in his influential books The Classical Hollywood Cinema (co-authored with Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson, 1985) and Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), where he theorizes the macrostructures and micro-levels of the canonical story-telling format by a blend of Aristotelian and Russian formalist principles. (In the first part of Chapter 6 we use Narration in the Fiction Film to analyse Lost Highway.) Thus from Aristotle Bordwell takes the 'character-centred' causal nexus driving the action forward, adding to it the double plot-line in the classical Hollywood film, the adventure and the romance plot, with the terms of narrative closure depending on the way these two plot-lines are intertwined, cross each other, and become the conditions for each other's resolution. From the Russian formalists he takes the idea of narration as the variable distribution of cues which the spectator has mentally to reassemble into a linear time-space continuum.

The double plot structure usefully directs attention to another way of describing the Hollywood film, which would combine the Proppian model with the Levi-Straussian one. Instead of a double plot-line, one could speak of two levels, each of which is organized in specific ways. For instance, the adventure plot could be said to provide a film's 'surface structure', while the romance plot traces out a 'deep structure': one supplying the overt logic, the other a covert one. Simplifying perhaps, one might say that a particular kind of interaction links surface structure to deep structure, where 'realism' (verisimilitude) competes with 'fantasy' (a complex of desire and prohibition) and 'intelligibility' with 'real contradiction'. If we wanted to give this interaction a psychoanalytic turn, we could distinguish between the 'rational agent logic' and the 'logic of desire'. The former is unilinear, sequential, and causally connected; the latter is attached to the past, typified by repetition, and therefore often circular. These two levels can stand in a marked tension to each other, but this need not be noticed by an audience. In fact, it may be in the nature of the logic of desire to be invisible because in order to be effective emotionally as well as ideologically, it has to remain 'unconscious'.

To anticipate one point of our analysis of Die Hard: as a rational agent, McClane is trying to reclaim his wife, and he can do so only by rescuing the hostages and defeating the terrorists. But parallel, or 'underneath' this rational agent motivation, there is the logic of desire - or anxiety - which centres on McClane's desire not so much to retain his family as to maintain his identity as a working-class male, whose position in life is threatened both by the ascendancy of women in the world of (middle-class) management and by the devaluation of manufacture through the rise of (multinational) companies and their ability to shift production to low-wage countries. Thus, while at the rational agent level, McClane has to act purposively by calculating means and ends, at the level of desire he stubbornly sticks to his guns, an American male who asserts himself through macho values, brute force, and physical bravery. The skill of the film (or its 'ideological work') is to balance these two kinds of logic by melding them into a single, emotionally acceptable, and narratively plausible story. What appears as natural and self-evident to an audience focused on action and suspense could also be seen as a dubious ideological manoeuvre to reassert the values of patriarchy and (white) supremacy during a period of acute economic and multicultural transformation. At the surface structure, the film invents an external threat - the foreign terrorists - who are made to 'stand in' for the internal threat in the hero's deep structure, namely the contradiction between patriarchal masculinity (in the film encapsulated by the hero's wish never to have to say sorry) and corporate capitalism (its need for women in middle management jobs, dealing with personnel, communication and services, at the expense of semi-skilled males in the manufacturing sector). A substitution of one set of problems ('terrorists' or gangsters) for another (gender, race, and class identity) allows the film's narrative to engineer a trade-off between rational action logic and the logic of desire/anxiety whose exact working remains hidden and unconscious to both the hero and the audience.

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Responses

  • Ricardo Weakley
    What film is the prototype for the classical american film?
    8 years ago
  • Miranda
    How to analyse using classical hollywood narrative?
    7 years ago

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