Postmodern Cinema, Part Four: Narrative

Post-structuralist narratology

Throughout this series of articles, I’ve been emphasising the idea of ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’ as a distinguishing feature of postmodernism. With postmodern film, this idea can be expressed even more simply – incredulity towards narrative. After Citizen Kane simultaneously interwove two different storylines – each taking place in different temporal and spatial locations – post-structuralist filmmakers have questioned and altered conventional storytelling structures, forms, character archetypes and narratives in their experimentation with the capabilities of the filmic form. The ethos behind this is ‘fragmentation’: a fracturing of the expected, conventional order of a film’s plot by shifting between different times, spaces and characters in the creation of a non-linear narrative, or no narrative at all.

While non-narrative films have existed since the silent era, with films like An Andalusian Dog and Man with a Movie Camera ostensibly exhibiting no temporal or sequential relation from scene to scene, it is the fragmentation of linear stories that made postmodern cinema a popular form. Post-structuralist films still tell a story per se, but do so by reneging conventions like the three-act structure – the concept that a film’s structure should consist of, in this order, exposition, complication and resolution, and should progress in a linear fashion.

Let’s take Woody Allen’s 1977 postmodern romantic comedy, Annie Hall. Annie Hall contains exposition, complication and something of a resolution – but not necessarily in that order. The first time the protagonists Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) meet is not the first time we see them together in the film. Indeed, Annie Hall dispels the rom-com structure as Alvy and Annie do not end up happily together at the end of the film, and we know this from the very start of the film as Alvy breaks the fourth wall to tell us so. The film is full of postmodern quirks and asides that draw the audience’s attention to the fact that we are watching a film – from subtitling characters’ dialogue with what they are thinking when they are speaking, to having media theorist Marshall McLuhan himself appear in a cameo to explain his work to the characters and the audience.

Plot-wise, Annie Hall captures an arbitrary, momentary and ultimately inconsequential part of its characters’ lives. The idea underpinning this is that art does not have to tell an important story to be an important work of art. Postmodern films are not trying to create metanarratives; they’re trying to shun them. They’re not trying to tell grand historical stories of grand historical people, unless they are questioning the truth of what happened in those grand historical stories. The fragmented, non-linear order of postmodern films can be categorised into two other concepts – the ‘Sisyphean cycle’ and ‘the death of the hero’.

Albert Camus’ 1942 essay The Myth of the Sisyphus discusses how futile man’s desire for meaning and clarity \is given the absence of universal truths, values and realities in the world. Camus compares the postmodern individual’s search for purpose and meaning to Sisyphus, the figure from Greek mythology who found fulfilment in the monotonous repetition of one meaningless task. This is reflected in films like Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, which follows three days in the monotonous life of single mother and prostitute Jeanne Dielman and how she creates drastic meaning from the minor alterations in her day-to day routine.

ClerksAnd then, of course, there’s Kevin Smith’s 1994 appropriation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – better known as Clerks. I was pretty proud when I realised Clerks was essentially Waiting for Godot placed in the context of Generation X counterculture – so much so that I added it to the Waiting for Godot Wikipedia page a few years ago. But really, the appropriation is blatant – Dante and Randall are Vladimir and Estragon, two disillusioned men stuck in the dull cycle of the everyday, waiting for something or someone grandiose to pull them out of their rut. They contemplate abandoning their repetitious, meaningless existence, but they do not; instead, they generate meaning through their inconsequential, stichomythic conversations with each other. Oh, and Pozzo and Lucky and Jay and Silent Bob, obviously – when Silent Bob breaks his silence, it’s like Lucky’s illuminating monologues in Godot.

Joseph Campbell’s monomythic idea of a hero with a linear journey has been expelled by postmodern filmmakers. Some postmodern filmmakers use protagonists without a clear, demarcated and expected arc. Other postmodern filmmakers tell episodic, ensemble stories with so many characters that it’s impossible to tell who the ‘hero’ is.

There are so many examples of post-structuralist narratives in film. So in order to narrow the focus of this article, I’ll be looking at three key independent films from the 1990s and how they disturb the conventions of linear, narrative order.

Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)Slacker

Slacker is one of the most influential films of the 90s because it is, essentially, about nothing. The notes it plays resonate through films from Reservoir Dogs to Clerks. Many shitty critics pass around the phrase “the film that defined a generation” like a chlamydic football, but Slacker did define a generation through its one-word title. Generation X was a generation of slackers, and Slacker embodies that through its unemployed characters and the inconsequential conversations they have.

The film has no overarching plot, no single protagonist, and hence no structural, narrative order. Instead, it is a series of rapid vignettes that are linked by only one thing – largely unnamed people talking endlessly about nothing to people who aren’t listening. Each vignette follows on from the other – a character meets a character, who meets another character, and this endless cycle continues throughout one day in Austin, Texas. And the ‘nothings’ that these people talk about are inherently postmodern too. Ideas about what ‘reality’ is recur in the film; as one character describes seeing someone murdered in front of his eyes, he says it didn’t seem realistic as the murder didn’t look like deaths on TV. As he says, “you can’t be sure if it happened to you or on TV” – this line encapsulates Slacker perfectly, as audiences watching this at the time must not have been sure if Slacker is a work of fiction, or an account of their everyday, trivial lives.

Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

Pulp Fiction 2If the Coen brothers are the Judeo-Christian God of mainstream postmodern cinema, then Quentin Tarantino is their son, Jesus Christ, proselytising the Good News of postmodernism to the masses. All his films are intensely self-reflexive in subtle ways. Inglourious Basterds is a Haneke-esque comment on cinematic violence, Django Unchained is a reimagining of the 1966 ultra-violent Western Django with a pastiche of Western and blaxploitation genres, and even his casting draws attention to the filmic nature of his stories. Django Unchained features Frances Nero, the star of Django, in a cameo, and Tarantino’s version of a blaxploitation film Jackie Brown stars Pam Grier – the 1970s blaxploitation icon (who also follows me on Twitter). Pulp Fiction is the zenith of Tarantino’s postmodern experimentations – Christopher Walken features as a Vietnam Prisoner-of-War survivor, just like he does in The Deer Hunter; John Travolta dances in the film in a similar fashion as he does in Saturday Night Fever; and the title of Pulp Fiction pays intertextual homage to the pulpy and gritty LA morality tales of authors like Elmore Leonard.

While Tarantino had played with the ordering of linear events in his film Reservoir Dogs, flashbacks are not an inherently postmodern device. Pulp Fiction, however, has an underlying linear story – Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are hitmen who (again) engage in inconsequential conversations and eat at diners. Their boss Marcellus (Ving Rhames) orders Vincent to keep his wife Mia (Uma Thurman) company for one night. The next day, boxer Butch (Bruce Willis) is on the run from Marcellus, after Butch failed to fix one of his fights. However, these events are told in such a way that you’re never sure what comes first in this story and what comes last; the film is bookended by an event that takes place in the middle of the story, the events at the end of the story take place in the middle of the film, etcetera etcetera, and Tarantino uses this to hold out the most intriguing, tantalising and pivotal details of his narrative until appropriate or unexpected moments.

The confrontation between Jules and Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) is the most naturally dramatic moment in the film, even though it is near the start of the story; so naturally, Tarantino positions this scene as the climax of the film. Jules and Vincent are the most interesting characters, so by delaying their return until the end of the film, Tarantino draws the audience further into the film and has us as putty in his hands; ultimately, the film’s structure seems circular, cyclic. By fracturing the narrative structure of the film, the film becomes three smaller vignettes about redemption, loyalty, revenge and how one singular event can alter your entire life’s course.

Chungking Express (Wong Kar-Wai, 1994)

Chungking ExpressI’ve written a lot about films I love in these articles, so I think it’s time I write about a film I don’t love: Chungking Express. Having seen it three times now, it’s become abundantly clear that Chungking Express is quite an overrated film, and becomes increasingly more unwatchable each time. The most superficially interesting aspect of the film is, indeed, its postmodern structure: the first half is about a disillusioned police officer who suddenly falls in love with a mysterious woman, and then the second half is about a different mysterious woman who falls in love with a different disillusioned police officer. While this repudiation of the three-act structure – even the two vignettes don’t follow the rules of exposition, conclusion and resolution – is certainly engaging on first viewing of the film, when you watch Chungking more than once, some underlying flaws emerge.

Chungking Express suffers from what I call ‘Crying Game syndrome’ – it is a film in two sections where the second section is infinitely less interesting than the first section, which undermines the film as a whole. While the conversations had by characters in Slacker are superficially about different things but are innately about the same thing, the two acts of Chungking Express are so explicitly about the inability of institutional authorities to successfully engage with others that the film requires little decoding.

Despite Christopher Doyle’s kinetic cinematography effectively evoking the dizzying atmosphere of Hong Kong, the film is one note and one tone the whole way through, and becomes tiresome when you realise the second half of the film will reach the brilliance of the first half. There’s only so many times you can hear the song ‘California Dreamin’ and watch the odd Asian stereotyping of the local fast-food store owner, who seems to exist as a misplaced homage to Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Chungking Express is essential viewing for all cinephiles, especially people interested in post-structuralist experimentation with narrative form and order, but trust me: don’t watch it more than once.

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