The Artists Of Nonlinear Narrative

The contributions of Porter, Griffith, and Vidor to the history and practice of film editing is that they created a series of editing choices that underpinned linear narratives—the close-up to articulate clearly the goal of the main character, a cutaway to provide an analogy for what the character was thinking about, and pace to provide an emotional rhythm for the clash of the main character's goal with the barriers to that goal. All these choices, including extreme long shots, camera placement, and camera movement, provided the code for the linear narrative.

It was the work of the Russian Revolutionary filmmakers, particularly Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Dovshenko, who clarified the nonlinear possibilities. Images could be juxtaposed and, although random, the juxtaposition and sometimes the clash of images created new ideas and perceptions of narrative. The presence of nature—flowers, apples, cows—acts as a counterweight to the death of a patriarch in Dovshenko's Earth (1930); the playful camera/eye of the cinematographer as a character in Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929); Eisenstein's stylized executions near the beginning of Alexander Nevsky (1938); and the casual introduction of the character Nevsky acts as a visual counterpoint to those executions. Each example illustrates how thinking in terms of juxtaposition opens up the story to new interpretations. The result is greater than the parts (shots) in each case.

Perhaps no filmmaker took this principle of nonlinearity as far as Luis Bunuel, who in his work with Salvador Dali, set as his primary goal to destroy linear narrative and the restorative resolution it implies. There is no peace of mind for the audience when they view Un Chien d'Andalou. There is only the unpredictable sense while watching the film, that anything can happen next. Whether Bunuel wishes to launch an attack on the Parisian bourgeoisie or to create an anarchy of experience, his images of sexuality, death, and horror are provocative and unforgettable. The totality of the experience of Un Chien d'Andalou is a true nonlinear experience. There had been vestiges of such an experience in Eisenstein's Strike (1924) and in Dovshenko's Earth, but no film experience was as devoted to a nonlinear experience as Bunuel's film. He was to continue this pattern of narrative experience through Belle de Jour (1967) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).

Other filmmakers have digressed from linear narrative: the Shakespeare performance sequence in Ford's My Darling Clementine (1946), the closing sequence in Antonioni's L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) (1962), the introduction of a second but different story and genre in Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). More often when the intention was a nonlinear narrative, filmmakers have found an orderly approach to the issue—the multiple narrators in Welles's Citizen Kane, and Kurosawa's Rashomon (1951)—or the overreliance on rituals and time in Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988). In the evolution of nonlinear narrative, however, few filmmakers have been as bold as Humphrey Jennings.

In his documentary Listen to Britain (1942) (see Chapter 21), Jennings achieves a remarkable film that is notably nonlinear. A war documentary that emphasizes the survival capacity of the British Isles against the Axis threat, would, in a linear narrative, highlight the Battle of Britain, focus on a single character or place at a particular time, or use of a political figure such as Winston Churchill as the unifying voice. Jennings does none of these. Instead, he uses music—orchestral, dance hall, pianists, guitar-

strumming soldiers—to unify the film. Music is not war-like, but it does create a counterpoint sound and idea in the light of the sights and sounds of war.

Jennings sidesteps the single character, but shows many characters at work, at leisure. Again, the counterpoint is to people at work for war and people at leisure from war. Jennings creates an attitude rather than an act, and the consequences are powerful and moving.

Another dimension of his nonlinear approach is that he moves geographically from place to place, from time to time, in a random fashion. There is no obvious cause and effect here. Instead the geography, whether urban or rural, is a unity rather than a specific place. Trafalgar Square is as important as a beach looking out to the English Channel and the North Sea. Time is managed rather than being viewed as a dramatic end game of fighting the war. The cause and effect relationship between time, place, and history is sidestepped, undermined, and thus Jennings can step away from the actual event and present an attitude that, in the end, will persevere and assure Great Britain's allies that she will triumph.

The result of Jennings nonlinear approach to the subject is a film as fresh and innovative today as it was in 1942.

The next figure that is critical in nonlinear narrative is Jean-Luc Godard. Although others in the New Wave were interested in genre subversion (François Truffaut in Shoot the Piano Player, 1962) and expansion of the interplay between the past and the present and how memory defines one and redefines the other (Alain Resnais in Last Year at Marienbad, 1961), no one was as radical about narrative as Jean-Luc Godard.

Whether using essay as a formal structure (Two or Three Things I Know About Her, 1966), or a polemic (La Chinoise, 1967), or a musical (Tout Va Bien, 1970), Godard would always subvert that narrative invention with another. The result was to move us away from character towards ideas. His overriding concern with the journey in Weekend (1967) is subverted by his shifts in time from one place to another, leading us to question meaning in Weekend. An early scene, the leave-taking on the journey, is a farce; a middle scene, the Leonard character, meditates on history, academia, and the future; in a late scene, a husband in the traditional family considered the breadwinner, is actually consumed by his wife. He is "bread" rather than the breadwinner. These radical shifts take us away from the literal meaning of content (so often the core of the linear narrative) toward a experimental, almost explosive, set of new narrative ideas. As with nonlinear narratives already highlighted, the key to this new perception is to undermine the relationship between the audience and the main character. The jump cut, the overuse of the long shot, and the long take underscore our distance from the character.

In Great Britain, Lindsay Anderson (O Lucky Man!, 1973) was the greatest proponent of a nonlinear style. His use of music interludes as well as outrageous set pieces moving away from the narrative action line highlighted an anarchistic style that was in part nonlinear. In Germany, Wim Wenders (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, 1971, and Alice in the Cities, 1974) best exemplify the nonlinear impulse. In the former Yugoslavia, Dusan Makavejev fuses documentary and drama, psychology and politics in WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971), creating a disorderly portrayal of the life and ideas of Wilhelm Reich. Here too the nonlinear overwhelms the linear.

But in order to see the nonlinear aesthetic fully flower, we have to move beyond the experiments and flirtations of Arthur Penn (Little Big Man, 1970), Peter Brook (Marat/Sade, 1966), and Nicholas Roeg (Don't Look Now, 1973). When we approach the recent work of Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, 1994), Milcho Manchevski (Before the Rain, 1994), and François Girard (Thirty-two Short Films About Glen Gould, 1993), we see the nonlinear aesthetic in full bloom. Single character-driven stories are abandoned in both Pulp Fiction and Before the Rain. Although Pulp Fiction has a series of main characters who are criminals wrestling with an ethical question or problem, the affiliation of main characters in Manchevski's film are much looser. All are Macedonian and all are in love, but there the similarity ends. Age, education, geography all differentiate the characters from one another. In both cases, the multiple characters undermine the opportunity for identification. Although Thirty-two Short Films About Glen Gould clearly has a single main character, that character is posing in each film in such a way as to preclude identification. He distances himself from us and so no ongoing identification is possible.

A second dimension of these films is that the dramatic shape is subverted. In Pulp Fiction, we expect the gangster story to proceed according to tradition—crime, rise, fall—this doesn't happen. The crime section is undermined by a debate between the two main characters—Travolta and Jackson. The extent of the discussion/debate, its philosophical nature, undermines any developing sense of anxiety related to what these men are going to do—kill people. Similarly, the dramatic arc of each story in Before the Rain—tales of intrareligious conflict—is undermined by a love story or the aftermath of a love relationship. This introjection of a relationship into a tense and probably violent conflict between Muslims and Christians is a counterpoint that actually makes more powerful the final outcome of each of the stories.

A third dimension of these films is that each scrupulously avoids a cause and effect relationship in their stories. In both Pulp Fiction and Before the Rain, the time line is violated. In Pulp Fiction, we join the story in midstream and return to the same point later in the narrative. In Before the Rain, we begin in one story only to rejoin the late phase of that story at the end of the third narrative. In both cases, we did not know this until a visual cue, or repetition presents the return to the earlier time to us.

In Thirty-two Short Films About Glen Gould, we loosely follow a standard linear chronology of Gould's life, but the prologue and the epilogue may be a vision of Gould in a kind of Arctic heaven, speaking to himself and, in his fashion, to us, or it may be a metaphor for his status as visionary vis-à-vis the rest of us. In either case, these scenes frame the film in a way that subverts the chronological line of his life and of the organization of the films about his life. This nonlinear approach is deepened by using documentary films, abstract films, and dramatized narratives. The mix of styles further subverts the time line and any remaining linearity. Radical shifts in tone between the absurd and the studied or formal also act as a counterpoint to our impulse to organize the material so we can understand it in a linear fashion.

This latter brings us to the final dimension of nonlinearity—feeling over exposition. In these very abbreviated insights into Glen Gould, the filmmaker goes with a feeling—his perfectionism in the playing of a record in his hotel room in Germany, his eccentricity in the film about the Truck Stop. What Gould hears illustrates the extent he tuned out of the kind of observation we associate with such a casual experience (eating breakfast at a diner). When the most obvious becomes surprising, when a recording session isn't about the recording but rather the sense of ecstacy of the artist, we, the viewers, face a different kind of experience. This is the true possibility of the nonlinear revolution, the opportunity to give us a new, surprising experience. Godard, Tarantino, Manchevski understand that to do so means not only creative risk, but the subversion of the linear expectation of the audience.

But just as the more media-experienced audiences grow, the opportunity of accessing specialty audiences via satellite and multi-channel television will encourage filmmakers to continue to experiment with new narrative styles to reach them. Here lies the true potential for a nonlinear aesthetic. The future is here. The technology is available. Filmmakers need only take the risk.

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Film Making

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