Classical Hollywood Narration and its Limits

By Kelly Mu 😀

In his essay Classical Hollywood Cinema: Narrational Principles and Procedurals, Bordwell seeks to highlight how classical Hollywood narration constitutes a specific and normalised way of representing and presenting a particular story, through manipulation of compositional style and techniques. According to Bordwell, there are three components, or purposes of a narrative: representation, structure and act. Bordwell focuses on the former two to show how classical Hollywood narration (prevalent in American films in the 1960s and 1970s) is able to differentiate itself from other narrative modes.

The prerequisite to outlining a narrative in a classical Hollywood film is the existence of a central focal point, or the protagonist. This centrality and focus marks the first difference between Hollywood narrative and other narrative modes, such as the absence of a consistent and goal-oriented characters in art-cinema narration. The protagonist is often a psychologically defined individual that struggle to solve a problem or to attain certain goals. This character is often depicted in detail, and becomes the chief object of audience identification. The existence of such a character endows the Hollywood narrative structure with a justified sense of purpose: the narrative naturally follows this individual in his or her attainment of some goal. The narrative therefore begins with the elucidation of the problem, and follows the protagonist in coming into conflict with others, or some external circumstances. The narrative then ends with a clear victory of defeat, or at least a clear achievement or nonachievement of the goals. According to Bordwell, even though this narrative arc is a common inheritance from theater and literature, cinema makes it unique by the addition of particular motifs and habits.

Given a permanent central character, the rest of the narration is related and constructed through the principle of causality. This unifying principle is the logic around which temporal and spatial organisation is planned. Spatial composition is organised around causality or a realistic necessity: the placement of a table is for the purpose of writing, and the existence of a phone is for the purpose of calling. The reason for the spatial compositional parts is logical; though metaphors can exist, the objects are utilised to the end of fulfilling a particular practical purpose. Similarly, temporal progression follows the same logic: the most prime example is the deadline, like a ticking bomb that explodes at a particular endpoint in time. The organisation and presentation of time therefore has a sense of purpose, and to lead up to the deadline. The causal logic gives the classical Hollywood narrative a unity in time, space and action: the transition is always logical and expected. The result of the careful planning is a coherent narrative that is linear in nature, motivated to reveal the causal-effect relationship.

A further aspect of classical narration is its invisibility. Classical narration tends to be omniscient, very communicative, and only moderately self-conscious: the narrative structure possesses more knowledge than any character and does not move in a random fashion, it conceals relatively little, but it seldom acknowledges its own existence to the audience. According to Bordwell, this trend is clear when we trace the progression of the narration. In the opening passage, the narration is the most communicative, revealing plenty of information about time, space, and character. However, once the causal relationship has been initiated and an initial problem that the protagonist experiences is delineated, the narration retreats to the background and becomes more covert; the audience is immersed in the mise en scene. The story does not seem constructed, and the setting seems to pre-exist the construction of the narrative. There is coherence and permanence in time and space.

Bordwell does a good job in illustrating how classical Hollywood narrative is purposeful. Film techniques are a vehicle for story-telling and for revelation of information; transition is always seamless and cinematic space is calculated. There is a kind of “editorial intelligence”; specific stretches of time are selected for a full-scale treatment, while inconsequential sequences that do not contribute to storytelling is omitted. I feel like Classical Hollywood narration seems pathologically fixated on the coherence of an archetypal story, and even to a certain extent, subordinated by this artificial purpose. Shots become exceedingly practical; though metaphoric shots and devices exist, they still serve to elicit particular emotions and interpretations that contribute to the meaningful engagement with the story. This is certainly very different to many non-Hollywood films, such as Spirited Away. In class we talked about the existence of seemingly useless and purposeless scenes that exist for aesthetic, rather than practical values. That is to say, non-classical Hollywood films present an alternative possibility to story organisation and film techniques: they can be defiantly empty, meaningless, and purposeless.

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Another prominent example is In the Mood for Love, a movie produced by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai. This movie defies Hollywood’s logic on many fronts, while retaining a coherent narrative structure. The audience is able to make out a clear story line, though not as effortlessly as one would be able to in a classical Hollywood movie, which exists for the purpose of telling the story. Wong Kar Wai seems much less fixated on this purpose; the story that arises is a spontaneous product that is created casually. Instead of a communicative storyteller, Wong Kar Wai presents an absent-minded and unfocused one. Unlike the Hollywood storytelling which utilises an “editorial intelligence” and the most efficient use of on-screen time in order to present the most relevant details, Wong Kar Wai leaves the work up to the audience to piece together a narrative that is not in itself complicated, but becomes convoluted because the storyteller has no intent in telling the story well.

Moreover, Wong Kar Wai is not fearful of distorting the unity in time and space; transition between scenes are often so abrupt that the audience have no idea where the particular characters are and how they got there. In fact, after the whole movie, the audience has no clear conception of the elapse of time and the distance of space. This stands in stark contrast to Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where conception of time is clearly given through reference to the time it takes for Jeff’s leg to heal, and spatial awareness is clear through the various opening pan shots of the neighbourhood.

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The result of Wong Kar Wai’s narrative technique is a story that defies interpretation using the classical Hollywood logic. That is to say, when examining Wong Kar Wai’s shots, it is meaningless to seek meaning. His use of cinematic techniques does not have an overarching purpose, and it is clear when we examine a particular scene at 14:47. We follow the movement of Maggie Cheung downstairs when she goes to buy noodles. Absolutely nothing happens in this scene, and her buying noodles is an irrelevant detail that would be easily omitted in a classical Hollywood film. However, I think Wong Kar Wai included the shot for more of an aesthetic purpose than a practical one. Through the contrast of light, the slow motion in movement, and the enchanting background music, Wong Kar Wai creates a beautiful shot. We are able to appreciate Maggie’s elegance in movement and the suppleness of her body (ignoring problems associated with the male gaze), and the luring beauty of the alleys of Hong Kong. The most ordinary and ugly is given new life in the hands of Wong Kar Wai.

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Re-watching scenes from In the Mood for Love reminds me of Susan Sontag, as I remember the first time I watched this movie. It was an experience of visual amazement and appreciation; a simple story elicited a colourful and vibrant Hong Kong that I had never seen before. I was unable to remember the details of their affair or the meaning in the character’s dialogue, but only dream-like neon lights, broken violin tunes, and fluid movements. “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art”, Susan Sontag said. I think this is what In the Mood for Love is: an erotics of art. A primal appreciation of the visual stimulus, reacting to a presentation rather than a representation. It calls for the senses as the brain takes the back bench, as interpretation cools down and enjoyment ensues. This process becomes all the more difficult when we have been conditioned, by the classical Hollywood narrative and other narrational modes alike, to intake and expect a coherent story being fed to us. We need to be acceptant of the fact that within a movie, there could be no meaning. Art at its core is an immediate and immersive experience, leaving the senses to be amazed as one does while gazing at the stars. Interpretation should be left as only a rational afterthought.

Bordwell, D. Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology. Columbia University Press, 1986.

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