David Bordwell: Narration in the Fiction Film

[Readings] (02.16.09, 3:22 pm)

David Bordwell’s book Narration in the Fiction Film explores the narratology of film. He argues in the introduction that, at the time of publishing (1985), few scholars have examined the narrative theory of film. Bordwell is interested in understanding the relationship between narrative and film. This goal seems straightforward at first, but it is complicated by the questions of what narrative is, exactly, and how the content of film might be translated into narrative segments. A natural application of this is to examine how games might convey narrative segments, much like the way that films do. I think another more interesting use is to use the narrative approaches to film to examine how fiction is adapted into film, and how narrative devices might be translated into games.

Bordwell’s introduction outlines three different ways of looking at narratives: as representations of a world, as a structure, and as a point of view. This latter approach seems to be Bordwell’s favored one, but the three approaches often intersect. The approach of looking at a narrative as a model of a world I think combines the three of these. The model represents a world, and its representative layer contains mimetic elements, the model also defines a structure, and the model is also constructed with a specific point of view.

Mimetic Theories of Narrative

The mimetic theory of narrative is most strongly derived from Aristotle’s poetics, and his application of them to drama. Bordwell’s goal is to outline the diegetic and mimetic theories of narrative, which roughly translate to telling versus showing. The mimetic element of narrative is wrapped up in spectacle and witnessing the events. In context of showing, there is an implied viewer who is the witness to the shown events. The existence of a witness implies a relationship between the witness and the spectacle, introducing right away the issue of perspective and point of view. The Greek theatre addresses the question of perspective by creating a clear and idealized relationship between the audience and the action in the performance.

Perspective takes on a special meaning when applied to painting in the middle ages, especially in the 1400s to the 1600s when linear perspective was being introduced as a technology for representation. The use of perspective in painting is similar to Athenian stagecraft because it implies an idealized relationship between the scene and the viewer. There is an interesting cultural moment over whose perspective is taken, which is frequently the point of view of the king. In medieval painting, the paintings generally were highly iconographic, representing narratives, usually about the lives and tribulations of saints. Bordwell argues that the idealized perspective found in painting is at odds with the perspective of narrative, that the narrative dimension of mimesis is mental, not optical. This seems like a relatively trivial thing to say, but it is important in context of the argument as applies to film: that showing is bound in the mental life of the viewer, not just in the literal events taking place on the screen.

With realist literature, the mimetic perspecitve is taken to an extreme. The logical comparisons are made between the dense narrative depictions of James and Dickens, and are fit toward the portrayal of realist fiction as pictoral.

Applied to film, mimetic theories rely on a careful understanding of the role of the camera. Mimetic theories of cinema treat the viewer and the camera as an “invisible observer”, who watches and becomes close to the action. The position and movement of the camera are seen as reflective of the viewer’s engagement with the content of the narrative, indicating closeness or distance. Cutting is explained as similar to how the observer might shift its gaze to get a different view of the scene, or examine a particular detail. While it does account for cutting and the engagement of the camera, this approach does not account for the arrangement of scenes, or for camera positions which do not make sense as coming from a human observer. Bordwell introduces the scenography of Eisenstein as a narrative form, because the scene itself is wrapped up in expression. The role of the camera becomes subordinate to the scene in terms of communicating a narrative moment. Scenography makes sense when applied to games as well, with its focus on spatial and environmental storytelling.

Diegetic theories of Narration

Diegetic narration is about telling, and ultimately, communicating the world of the fiction, without the elment of the spectacle. Diegetic theory originates with Plato, but the modern theorists are Bakhtin, Barthes, and various Russian formalists. Diegetic theory considers narration to be primarily about telling, and is primarily linguistic. Bordwell makes an interesting paraphrase of Bakhtin which seems particularly relevant, “The novel, according to Bakhtin, is not a spectacle organized around Jamesian straight lines; it is a polyphony, even a cacophany, of different registers of speech and written language: a montage of voices.” (p. 17) Diegetic narration as applied to film is predominantly explored by Colin MacCabe and Emile Benveniste. Benveniste treats the language of film as a special kind of enunciation. This is a flawed approach, much like the theory of the invisible observer, because it privleges certain techniques and representation systems.

The Viewer’s Activity

Both mimetic and diegetic theories downplay the role of the viewer (with the arguable exception of Bakhtin, who would probably argue that the viewer is a participant in the dialogue). The viewer is normally assumed in these theories to be passive and credulous, absorbing the material presented and treating it noncritically. Bordwell’s theory is that the spectator executes operations corresponding to filmic devices. The viewer constructs the narrative, actively making inferences and comparing the portrayed events to other knowledge.

There are three factors in the constructivist theory: 1) The viewer percieves the film in a special way, reading it visually, as made of light, color, and darkness, and reading the screen in both a top-down and bottom-up manner. 2) The viewer brings to the film a large set of schemata derived from experiences with the real world, other media, and other films. The viewer recognizes the events of the film in terms of fitting them in with known schemata. 3) The narrative cinema contains a structure based on narrative conventions and expected viewer activities. These are story-constructing activities that have a history in narrative practices.

The construction theory involves a composition of many schemata, which are recognized and understood in context. When a viewer applies a schema to a film, then events in the film become relevant in context of that schema. For instance, if the viewer is expecting a love story, events will be read and matched to the format of the schema of the love story. Bordwell gives a revies for the recognition of schemata, in a format that resembles an algorithm.

What is interesting about this, as applies to the theory of narrative models, is that a schema is only part of the process. The viewer may recognize that a film is a love story, and identify the schema (or schemata) to which the narrative subscribes, but that is not the end of it. The film continues to contain meaning, even if the viewer knows what the format is. So one interesting question is why the viewer stays captivated. One element of this is that the viewer is interested in seeing the enactment, and even knowing the resolution, the performance of it is still important. I would argue that there is more to it, that schemata are not realized as static accounts, but rather a schema describes a formula for turning narrative events into meaningful ones. The story is not defined by the schemata, but it is parameterized by it. Thus, the composition of schemata form a system, which is insufficient to fully specify an artifact, but defines a range of possible ones. One film could concievably veer off course from its expected conclusion and still belong to the same equivalence class as the film that stays on course. This approach to the schema or model concept is loose and general, not as tightly constrained as, for instance, Polti’s dramatic situations.

Principles of Narration

Bordwell examines narration as broken into three systems: fabula, syuzhet (also spelled sjuzet), and style. The fabula is the story. In film, the fabula is not given to the audience, it is constructed based on what they see. The syuzhet is the plot, how the narrative events are depicted and arranged. What Bordwell calls syuzhet is similar to what Chatman calls discourse. The style is the use of cinematic techniques and devices in order to affect the discourse.

Bordwell gives a very useful definition for narrative in film: “In the fiction film, narration is the process whereby the film’s syuzhet and style itneract in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator’s construction of the fabula.” (p. 53) It is important to note that the connotation of the narrative is not actually part of the narrative itself in this definition.

Subsequent chapters

The subsequent chapters examine several genres specifically in the context of narrative, and then the narrative dimensions of time and space. These are of less relevance, so I’ll leave them alone for now.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBordwell, David
TitleNarration in the Fiction Film
Tagsmedia traditions, film, specials, narrative
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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