Mainstream and Alternative Film Form

Mainstream Narrative and Film Form 132 Alternative Narratives and Film Form 143 Alternative Form and Art Cinema 149 Conclusion 150 Summary 150

By the 1920s particular conventions had become well established for making films.

Mainstream techniques such as the organization of time and space through 'invisible' continuity editing and the verisimilitude resulting from particular uses of mise en scène and from cause and effect structures and character motivation began to dominate film-making, as exemplified by the output of Hollywood. In this chapter we shall examine the principal ways in which these and other practices contributed to what Noël Burch has called the 'Institutional Mode of Representation', though the more commonly used term is 'Classical Hollywood Narrative' (see Bordwell et al., 1985). This chapter will also discuss the development of alternative narrative forms. Using the ideas of Peter Wollen in particular, we shall describe alternative techniques such as non-linear narratives, lack of character identification, and the attack on conventional forms of pleasure represented by counter-cinema.


Narratives are central to our existence. Not only can our individual lives be seen as stories, but much of our time is spent telling people stories or informing them of things that have happened. Stories consist of people and events, actions, occurrences. Narratives can be defined as 'chains of events'. They contain actions and events that are linked together and which usually revolve around people, the characters within the story.

We shall be dealing here with narrative fiction. Although documentary films also usually contain narratives and are often structured in similar ways, these are briefly considered elsewhere (see Chapter 15). Our concern in this first part of the chapter will be the Classical Hollywood Narrative (which has already been signposted particularly in the last two chapters).


Narratives are about things happening, usually about people doing things. We may follow a narrative because the events interest us or because we can relate to the characters.

However, if we are to clearly understand the content of a film narrative or fully comprehend the meanings intended by the film-maker, the narrative needs to be structured appropriately.

Cause and effect

Most narratives are what we can call linear narratives. They move forward in a straight line from beginning to end. The events in such a narrative are linked together via a cause and effect relationship. An event takes place which causes an effect upon something else, thus resulting in a new situation; in turn this new situation has an effect upon other elements within the narrative, again resulting in further change. So taken for granted is this basic narrative requirement that we usually do not think about its function. But consider what would happen to a narrative without this cause-effect process: it would stop, the story would remain static. We would have what is called 'dead time'.

Another way of viewing progression within narratives is as a dialectical process. Dialectics, from Plato to Hegel and Marx, is a method for explaining and creating change. It can be summed up by the idea of a thesis which is challenged by an antithesis (an opposite or opposing position); the result of this conflict of ideas or situations is the synthesis, a new concept or situation. The cause and effect structure of narrative works in a similar way, leading us from beginning to end via events, and these events take place within time and space. They occur in particular locations for a certain duration.

The centrality of cause and effect, of change, can easily be identified by looking at the opening scene of Scream (1996). Casey is spending a quiet evening alone at home. It is unlikely that we would sit through the whole film if that situation remained unchanged, and of course it does change. Casey's quiet evening is interrupted by the phone ringing. She answers the phone. A threat is made. This results in a new situation: Casey is scared. The cause and effect process is under way. Her fears are then realized by the attack that takes place in her garden: yet another situation. This in turn leads to further actions: attempts to find the attacker, further attacks.

The logical way in which this cause and effect process develops is not usually questioned by the viewer, but a different arrangement of elements, a different ordering of events, would soon result in an incomprehensible storyline. If Scream began with the attack in Casey's garden and then cut to her having a quiet evening alone we would soon be confused, or would at the very least be expecting a very different type of film.


Narratives thus tend to develop in a linear way, and this, crucially, tends to give us a chronological ordering of events. Events unravel in a logical manner over an ordered period of time. Time is a crucial ingredient in film narratives, not only because the medium itself consists of moving images which give films their duration, but also because the relationships between events and characters only become meaningful as they develop over a period of time.

The events in Scream are presented chronologically. The story's progression takes place from beginning to end through time in a linear manner. We can easily make sense of the film.

This is how most film narratives are structured. However, Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994) interrupts this chronological structure and gives us a non-linear narrative (Figure 8.1). The usual chronological development of narrative is disrupted. Pulp Fiction begins and ends with a scene that is split in two and which chronologically occurs half way through the story. The film opens with Honey Bunny and Pumpkin conversing in a café. We learn that they have previously carried out armed robberies. The film ends with a continuation of this scene in which the couple carry out an armed robbery of the café which is interrupted by Vincent and Jules. In the body of the film the chronological beginning and end of the story are brought together. A young Butch is given a watch that belonged to his father and an older Butch then wins his fight and settles a score with Marsellus. As this latter scene is presented in the film it appears as a flash-forward to the future.

We can speculate about why Tarantino chose to reorder the narrative sequences. Certainly it forces us to think more deeply about what we are watching and possibly engages

Was this article helpful?

+1 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook


  • marigold
    Is pulp fiction a narrative documentary?
    9 years ago
  • klaus
    What is alternate film form?
    8 years ago
  • trahand bolger-baggins
    What is alternative hollywood narrative?
    3 years ago

Post a comment