Theory Narrative Comprehension and Film

David Bordwell's Narration in the Fiction Film pioneered the cognitive theory of film, which flourished in the 1990s with books such as Joseph Anderson's The Reality of Illusion (1996), Edward Branigan's Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992), Gregory Currie's Image and Mind (1995), Torben Grodal's Moving Pictures (1997), Carl Plantinga and Greg Smith's (eds) Passionate Views (1999), Murray Smith's Engaging Characters (1995) and Ed Tan's Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film (1996). These authors acknowledge the originality of Bordwell's book, and then proceed to refine the ideas articulated there, either by exploring underdeveloped areas (the role of emotions in cognition, how genres determine comprehension, the different levels on which spectators engage characters, the role of imagination and intentionality in comprehending fiction films), or re-establish cognitive film theory on a deeper foundation (such as ecology, biology, or neuroscience).

One frequent criticism emerges from these authors: Bordwell is an 'atheistic' narratologist because he does not recognize the role of an external 'master of ceremonies' controlling the events in the fabula. In other words, he does not posit the existence of external narrative agents (external to the fabula). He asks: 'must we go beyond the process of narration to locate an entity which is its source?' (Bordwell 1985: 61-2) and answers: 'To give every film a narrator or implied author is to indulge in an anthropomorphic fiction. ... [This strategy takes] the process of narration to be grounded in the classic communication diagram: a message is passed from sender to receiver' (p. 62). In place of this communication model, Bordwell argues that narration 'presupposes a perceiver, but not any sender, of a message' (p. 62). Branigan's cognitive model of narration presupposes both a sender and receiver of a film - in fact several senders and receivers.

Branigan draws upon concepts from cognitive science, narratology, and linguistics to develop his theory of film narrative and narration - more specifically, a theory of a story world's space, time, causality, of point of view, levels of narration, the relation between subjective and objective narration, and the relation between fiction and narrative. We shall not give a complete overview of Branigan's theory, but will instead focus on its most fundamental concepts and unique methodology. Like Bordwell, Branigan employs the concept of schema to explain the role of narrative in organizing the spectator's experience of a film. Moreover, Branigan does not represent the narrative schema as a linear list, as Bordwell does when writing about the canonical story format. Instead, Branigan develops a more open and dynamic model, one organized as a hexagon with the main narrative actions (exposition, complicating action, and so on) represented at the points of the hexagon, and linked together by connecting lines (Branigan 1992: 17). This model captures the complexity of narrative more than a linear model because it describes the recursive nature of narrative: 'Narrative is a recursive organization of data; that is, its components may be embedded successively at various micro- and macro-levels of action' (p. 18). The narration conveys these narrative events to spectators, and the uniqueness of Branigan's theory and methodology lies in the complex model of narration he develops in Chapters 3 and 4 of Narrative Comprehension and Film.

While chapter 3 outlines disparities and hierarchies of knowledge conveyed by film narration (concepts that are similar to Bordwell's concepts of the range, depth, and communicativeness of the narration), it is in chapter 4 that he develops a systematic theory and methodology of film narration. This theory is based on eight levels of narration, with a 'sender' and 'receiver' on each level (see diagram on p. 87 of Narrative Comprehension and Film). Branigan remains neutral on the controversial issue of whether we can describe narration as a form of communication (p. 107-10), but it is clear that he goes beyond Bordwell by theorizing the role of narrators in films.

Branigan defines narration as 'the overall regulation and distribution of knowledge which determines how and when the spectator acquires knowledge [of narrative events]' (Branigan 1992: 76). Whereas to study narrative is to find out what happens in a film, to study narration is to find out how spectators acquire knowledge of the narrative. The film agent is a crucial component in this process of knowledge acquisition.

For Branigan, a theory of film agents requires a fundamental distinction between historical authors, implied authors, narrators, characters, and focalizers. For the purposes of this section, we shall only focus on the latter three, since they are the most relevant in terms of methodology and textual analysis. Spectators comprehend characters as agents who exist on the level of narrative; the character is therefore an agent who directly experiences narrative events and who acts and is acted upon in the narrative world. A character whose experiences of the narrative world are then conveyed to spectators become focalizers. Narrators, on the other hand, do not exist in the narrative; they exist outside it on the level of narration. This means they have the ability to influence the shape and direction of the narrative.

One of the most important contributions Branigan makes to the study of film narration is his rigorous theory of focalization in film:

Focalization (reflection) involves a character neither speaking (narrating, reporting, communicating) nor acting (focusing, focused by), but rather actually experiencing something through seeing or hearing it. Focalization also extends to more complex experiencing of objects: thinking, remembering, interpreting, wondering, fearing, believing, desiring, understanding, feeling guilt.

Branigan therefore distinguishes two types of focalization, each representing a different level of a character's experiences: external focalization, which represents a character's visual and aural awareness of narrative events (the spectator sees what the character sees, but not from the character's position in the narrative; the spectator shares the character's attention, rather than their experience); and internal focalization, which represents a character's private and subjective experiences, ranging from simple perception (optical vantage point) to deeper thoughts (dreams, hallucinations, memories).

The narrator is the third agent in film. For Branigan, a narrator by definition does not exist in the narrative world, but on the level of narration. The narrator is an omniscient 'master of ceremonies' who does not see anything from a perspective within the narrative. Although the narrator is absent from the narrative, its presence is felt on the level of narration. For example, elements of the film that spectators cannot attribute to characters attest to the narrator's existence, including unmotivated camera movements (not motivated by the movement of characters or objects), inter-titles, and foreshadowing effects. (In classical mise en scène, shot changes are usually motivated by character movement, character glances off-screen, or by offscreen sounds and voices.) If a character in the narrative does not motivate a technique, then the spectator attributes it to the external narrator. Classical narration is defined by its attempt to conceal the narrator's presence from the spectator, whereas modernist narration continually reveals the narrator's presence (by means of unmotivated cuts, camera movements, and so on).

To avoid confusion, we should note that a character can become a narrator in the narrative world, where we see the character narrating the events in the form of flashbacks (as in films such as Double Indemnity or Sunset Boulevard). But these character-narrators are still characters, and a narrator external to the narrative still narrates the film.

Finally, Branigan emphasizes that these film agents and the levels at which they operate are not immanent in the film, but constitute part of the spectator's narrative schema: 'Such concepts as "narrator," "character," and "implied author" (and.perhaps even "camera") are then merely convenient labels used by the spectator in marking epistemological boundaries, or disparities, within an ensemble of knowledge; or rather, the labels become convenient in responding to narrative' (Branigan 1992: 85). We can go so far as to say that what exists on the movie screen is simply changing patterns of light and shade, from which the spectator then generates hypotheses to construct the film's fabula, including characters. It may sound strange to say that a character is simply a hypothesis generated by the spectator from a series of cues in the film, because characters seem so permanent. But as we have already seen, in Lost Highway the characters are not permanent, which prevents spectators from automatically applying their 'character' schema, making them aware of the schema's conventions.

From this brief outline, it should be evident that Branigan's theory of narration is more subtle than Bordwell's because Branigan makes more and finer distinctions. Moreover, Branigan does not use the same terminology as Bordwell. Branigan talks about 'diegesis' and 'narrative', rather than 'fabula' (although the terms are not equivalent); and 'levels of narration' rather than 'syuzhet' and 'cues', a difference that marks a fundamental philosophical difference between Bordwell and Branigan. 'The notion of levels of narration' Branigan writes, 'provides a way of escaping a simple structuralism as well as a strict empiricism, because comprehension is not made to depend upon a few basic surface units, or "cues/' which may be endlessly combined in strings through addition and subtraction' (p. 112). For Branigan, schemata do not simply prime spectators to spot cues on the surface of a text. More fundamentally, they act as a cognitive frame or guiding procedure that enables the spectator to transform data and create perceptual boundaries. The basic information is present in the data, but spectators need to shape, transform, and segment it. A spectator can completely transform a 'text' by perceiving it on a different level. Moreover, the levels of narration that Branigan outlines are not mutually exclusive; spectators can interpret the data in the film on several levels simultaneously; in terms of agents of narration, the data, when interpreted as a shot, can be attributed to several agents at once. This philosophical principle should become clearer in the following two sections.

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