A LIKELY STORY
This paper was delivered on a panel September 3, 1976, as part of the “International Forum on Avant-Garde Film” during the Edinburgh Film Festival. It was later published in Idiolects, no. 6 (June 1978). The panel of which I was a member – along with Peter Wollen, Manuel DeLanda, and Simon Field – was on film and narrative. I recall Paul Sharits at some point asserting that everything was narrative, even his work, which of course derailed any possibility of subtle argumentation. It was at this conference that I first met Laura Mulvey and heard her speak about her now-famous essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. I gathered my chutzpah to ask the poor woman “what about the female spectator?” as though she hadn’t already been put through the wringer on this issue. She replied that she was going to be dealing with that in a later essay, which of course she proceeded to do in her usual breathtakingly thorough manner.
In a strict sense – and I always prefer narrow definitions because then we know where we stand – in a strict sense, a narrative state of affairs exists when at least one of certain conditions is met, such as indications of causality, or temporal or psychological coherence, or dramatic resolution dependent on a clear rendering of past and future time. Narrative demands that objects, events, and personages be connected, however marginally, by something other than fortuitous proximity in time and/or space or morphological and iconographic similarity.
Narrative produces an expectation and effect different from those produced by the distillations, transmutations, and perambulations between meaning and sound that characterize poetry. It also stands in opposition to the parataxic, a method of ordering that in its emphasis on the discreteness of things, presumes their a priori relatedness or equivalence, a relatedness that is not always immediately evident. Evidence and qualification are not as crucial to a parataxic method of ordering materials as to a narrative one. The latter continues to overwhelm and intimidate us with its hierarchies of contingent facts, its hordes of psychological priorities, circumstantial details, and extenuating circumstances; its excesses of circumspection – or irresponsibility, as the case may be – in revealing or concealing particularities of location and time; its potential to produce endless speculation, discourses on the real and the plausible, mistaken identities, and chronic complication, not to mention murder and mayhem. Is it any wonder that so many artists have given it a wide berth and a short shrift?
I suppose that there have always been those works that can rightfully be called neither narrative nor nonnarrative, works that share both narrative and nonnarrative characteristics. In such a work there may come a point where you realize that the point of departure, or center of gravity, or stylistic mode has drifted, forcing you to shift your attention and look and read with a new frame of reference. For example, a series of events containing answers to when, where, why, whom, gives way to a series of images, or maybe a single image, which, in its obsessive repetitiveness or prolonged duration or rhythmic predictability or even stillness, becomes disengaged from story and enters this other realm, call it catalogue, demonstration, lyricism, poetry, or pure research. The work now floats free of ultimate climax, pot of gold, pay-off, future truth, existing solely in the present.
Or perhaps a work that starts out being meditative, concerned with resonance, mood, or investigation of its own procedures and premises suddenly changes its density by appropriating elements of melodrama. And there may always be the possibility for a simultaneous fusion or coexistence of these modes rather than the succession I have described.
If I may shift to a more personal narrative for a moment, let me insert here that my own involvement with narrative forms has not always been either happy or wholehearted, rather more often a dalliance than a commitment. The reason lies partly in the nature of the predominating form of narrative film. The tyranny of a form that creates the expectation of a continuous answer to “what will happen next?” fanatically pursuing an inexorable resolution in which all things find their just or correct placement in space and time; such a tyranny, having already attained its epiphany in the movies (I think of Gertrud, Senso, Balthazar, Contempt, Lulu) such a form has inevitably seemed more ripe for resistance, or at least evasion, than for emulation.
My own forays into this territory border on a kind of banditry, the need for which has slowly evolved out of a dilemma imposed by subject matter. This dilemma has become more clarified for me on the completion of each of my three films, presenting itself in the form of basic, though variously oriented, questions asked – and not always answered – by each of these films and having, I would hope, wider application than my own work.
Can the presentation of sexual conflict in film or the presentation of the experience of love and jealousy be revitalized through a studied placement or dislocation of clichés borrowed from soap opera and melodrama? Can specific states of mind and emotion or subtleties of social interaction be conveyed in film without being attached or by being only provisionally attached to particularities of place, time, person, and relationship? And can such subject matter be presented without being “acted out” – in both the theatrical and psychoanalytic senses – via simulated dialogue and gesture? Are faces such as belong to Katharine Hepburn and Liv Ullmann the only vehicles for grief and passion? Can a film achieve comparable impact through means other than these faces? And why in the world would one ever want to achieve an effect comparable to that wonder of art and nature, the smile fading from Hepburn’s face?
Can an audience learn to abandon its narrative expectation once that expectation has been aroused by narrative elements in a work? Must modes of operation be consistent within a given work? Can subject matter dealing with perceptual and photographic phenomena be sequentially – rather than narratively – linked to material that has already been invested with “storyness”? When one can say – to quote from Annette Michelson’s reading from Eisenstein’s diary the other day – “Experiment external to the thesis is impossible” and when is such experiment possible, or appropriate? Conversely, when is it inappropriate to use a narrative thesis? Why bother with it at all? What is the connection between lions and Jews? What is the relationship between a man stepping forward from a line of people and a distant car moving out from behind a foregrounded group of lions? And does not a photograph of a forty-five-year-old peroxide blonde female lion-tamer tell us all we need to know about the “shit of the world”?
What kinds of clues tell us, the audience, when to read an image – or series of images –narratively, when to read them parataxically, and when to read them iconographically? What constitutes continuity in the movies and what kind of clue tells us to “begin again”? Why this urgency in our accultured and suppurating brain that propels us to find connections between what we simultaneously see and hear, between what we have just seen and what we are about to see? What constitutes unity in a film? Can the narrative and the other-than-narrative exist simultaneously in the same shot, creating a kind of strobe effect with regard to meaning?
Can something – say, a tiger – at a narrative level be at once illustrative of the heroine’s vocation, symbolic of unknown danger, representative of endangered species – and at the same time function as an object of choreographic and cinematic pattern-making? Or does this something – say, a tiger – once having been assigned its narrative raison d’être, refuse to be relegated to what may seem by comparison a limbo of purely formal filmic construction? Or, on the other hand, can this filmic construction infuse new life into an old story, create new meanings and levels of interpretation? (Witness Critical Mass.)
It is entirely Quixotic to entertain notions of a work that might accommodate both a cone of light, and a wedge of pie being eaten by an escaped Brazilian political prisoner in the San Juan Hilton at 5:30 P.M. August 5th before meeting his brother-in-law, who has the keys to...
Will generational, or multifold techniques of reproduction of pictorial, kinesthetic, and behavioral material, or techniques for diffusing and fracturing the re-presentation of the real – will such techniques bring about a rapprochement between nonnarrative film and narrative and the irritation-cum-intellectual-deprivation that so often goes with film-as-pure-research? But now I had better stop asking questions. I’ve already started to rig the game. And besides, it isn’t as if there aren’t already lots of films that have achieved this – at least for moments on end.
 See October, no. 2.
 These references are to my film Kristina Talking Pictures, screened on the previous evening.
 Reference to a paper delivered by Adriano Aprà on the first day, in which he said, “Structuralist films are not concerned with the shit of the world.”
 Critical Mass, a film by Hollis Frampton, 1971.
(A Woman Who – Essays, Interviews, Scripts. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 137-140)
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