Saturday, March 17, 2007

Denby on Non-Sequential Chronology in Movies

Here's David Denby in the New Yorker on trends in non-chronologically sequential narratives in film. Excerpts: As they seem to be heading in separate directions, these fate-driven films [Amores Perros, 21 Grams, and Babel] can be seen as a kind of trilogy. All three send characters from separate stories smacking into one another in tragic accidents; all three jump backward and forward in a scrambling of time frames that can leave the viewer experiencing reactions before actions, dénouements before climaxes, disillusion before ecstasy, and many other upsetting reversals and discombobulations... ...In recent years, we’ve had movies, like “Adaptation” (written by the antic confabulator Charlie Kaufman), that are explicitly about the making of movies, and others, like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (also written by Kaufman), that move forward dramatically by going backward in time. Then, there is a related group of clogged-sink narratives, like “Traffic,” “Syriana,” and “Miami Vice,” which are so heavily loaded with subplots and complicated information that the story can hardly seep through the surrounding material. “Syriana” made sense in the end, but you practically needed a database to sort out the story elements; the movie became a weird formal experiment, testing the audience’s endurance and patience. Some of the directors may be just playing with us or, perhaps, acting out their boredom with that Hollywood script-conference menace the conventional “story arc.” But others may be trying to jolt us into a new understanding of art, or even a new understanding of life. In the past, mainstream audiences notoriously resisted being jolted. Are moviegoers bringing some new sensibility to these riddling movies? What are we getting out of the overloading, the dislocations and disruptions?

Real good article. He comments on Pulp Fiction as the film that set off the latest wave of non-sequentialism. Lots of other examples he could have given, but the one most notable by its omission was Stanley Kubrik's 1956 film The Killing, which was very much a forerunner to Pulp. It was a heist movie about these thugs who have a sure thing but manage to screw it up with their backstabbing. The story unfolded through the eyes of each character, so that you saw the day's events several times from different perspectives. If you like Pulp Fiction, then I can't recommend this film enough.
Also, I ought to point out that my favorite 20th-Century American novel is Catch-22, which manages to intimidate even the most anal-retentive reader away from trying to put its events into chronological sequence. Once when I was in high school, I spent a whole weekend with notecards spread out on the floor of my bedroom trying to do just that, before I just decided to enjoy the revolving door of the whole thing.

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Blogger Reel Fanatic said...

That's a great article ... Since Oscar voters love these kinds of movies (Babel, Crash), they're definitely not going away anytime soon .. I wouldn't have minded if Syriana were so hard to peice together if they had just taken an ounce of time for character development .. without it, for me, the movie was just a very elaborately constructed empty shell

4:21 AM  

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