Chapter 3 – Some Thoughts on Narrative

If, in contemporary North American culture, the telling of dreams is generally not a recommended practice, similarly, in screenwriting circles, dreams are considered a sudden death; the certain collapse of plot, energy, and narrative drive. Yet many films do have dream sequences, with different modes of functioning in relation to the central character, and different implications for the narrative structure. To understand why dream sequences are discouraged, and why they continue to proliferate, first we must look at some rudimentary concepts from different cultural and artistic perspectives about the fundamental ideas of what constitutes narrative. Outlining these apparently obvious notions will provide a framework with which to discuss specific films and their narrative treatment of dreams. The central influences in my overview comes from the formalist work on narrative, particularly that of David Bordwell, whose delineation of the functioning mechanism of Classical Hollywood Cinema versus Art Cinema is both thorough and clear. However, we will not be going too far into the elaborately detailed analyses or complex terminology of narratology proper. Robert McKee’s screenwriting tome will be used as a source of what is generally held to be the tried and true rules of screenplay structure. Also included are some storytelling and general narrative analysis texts for understanding different cultural tendencies in narrative construction – these are not film theory texts but more concerned with both literary and oral traditions.

Much of this chapter will be about causality and the degree to which it is generally understood to be the key underpinning to any narrative structure. This then takes us to questions of how the subjective experience of dreams is translated into the causal framework of a film. This leads us to consider the internal logic and narrative design, particularly in relation to how the philosophy around the dream and the beliefs about the dream, will affect the way the story is told.

The definition of narrative tends to be articulated precisely as a relationship with causality – the basic premise in Western classical narrative tradition is sharply focused on the linking of one event to another through a causal relationship. The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, for instance, claims that “narrative is the representation of an event or a series of events.” (12) And Abbott suggests: “Narrative itself, simply by the way it distributes events in an orderly fashion, very often gives the impression of a sequence of cause and effect.” (Abbott 37) Film analyses are similarly inclined: “Presented with two narrative events, we look for causal or spatial or temporal links”, (Bordwell Narration 49) and “Classical story design…lays bare the network of chain-linked causalities that, when understood, give life meaning.” (McKee 53) These quotes are all variations on a similar notion – given a series of events, the mind seeks a connection, a relationship between one thing to another.

Our experience of causality, then, depends upon our assessment of various probabilities. On a small scale, the connections among events may be quite weak and indirect even though on a large scale, an overall pattern may be evident. Recall that for Todorov, “causality” or the logic of mere succession was not enough to define a narrative: change must also emerge on a large scale in the form of transformation” among events.” (Brannigan 27)

The linking of one event to the next is the mind’s natural projection of meaning upon the events and the ensuing development of story.

If the story is built around the series of events and the links between events, where do we see dreams falling within a spectrum from lucid causality to randomness? What part do the dreams play within the narrative? If dreams are not a narrative event, are they simply a descriptive passage, an insight into character psychology? Various questions emerge about whether or not dreams are or can be understood as “events” themselves, beyond an expression of subjectivity. If they are events do they then have an identifiable causal relationship with the rest of the narrative? These questions about the role of dreams within a series of events will be our ongoing area of investigation. Some scholars argue that subjective experiences such as memories and dreams form a realm of special treatment within narrative logic. Maureen Turim states:

A linear, causal temporality is implicit in the proairetic code, or the code of actions as it can be called. This linear sequence of cause and effect forms a hypothetical logic, a kind of assumed background against which narrative events unfold. It is based on a sense of the “way things work in the real world”. (Turim 11)

Often we are able to recognize and distinguish how many of these more subjective moments should be understood within a story, though not always. Dreams have a set of problems associated with them in their placement within the narrative code. Part of why dreams are considered deadly in North American screenwriting circles is because they are seen as outside of the plot, therefore hindering the forward thrust of the narrative drive. The basic premise of what screenwriting guru Robert McKee would refer to as “classical story design,” and filmmaker Raul Ruiz would refer to as “central conflict theory” is logical causality.

Causality drives a story in which motivated actions cause effects that in turn become the causes of yet other effects, thereby interlinking the various levels of conflict in a chain reaction of episodes to the story climax, expressing the interconnectedness of reality. (McKee 52)

Dramatic structure is also largely about character – the character’s trajectory is the basis of story; the needs and desires of the character the basis from which all actions emanate. The essential element in the world of cause and effect is the role of the characters, as agents of will, as exerters of action. In screenwriting terms, “…the protagonist has the will and the capacity to pursue the object of his conscious and / or unconscious desire to the end of the line.” (McKee 140) The role of desire in the shaping of the plot is summarized by Amnon Buchbinder:

A plot then, fits Woody Allen’s definition of a relationship: like a shark, if it doesn’t keep moving forward, it dies….the motive force in this forward movement – human desire. (Buchbinder 123)

However human desire must be rendered comprehensible through action, rather than the internal world of the character – this is the key to dramatic action in both theatre and film.

And this is expressed, or visualized as “…an active protagonist, in the pursuit of desire, takes action in direct conflict with the people and the world around him.” (McKee 50) As Bordwell makes clear:

The classical Hollywood film presents psychologically defined individuals who struggle to solve a clear-cut problem or to attain specific goals. In the course of this struggle, the characters enter into conflict with others or with external circumstances. (Bordwell Narration 157)

Protagonists or characters in film are not generally revealed in terms of their internal life (this being more the domain of written narratives) – in cinema they are more commonly revealed only by dialogue and action. Says McKee, “we must realize that a screenplay is not a novel. Novelists can directly invade the thoughts and feelings of characters we cannot”. (343) However stories often require some revelation of the internal world of the character and finding ways to convey this can be a challenge for the writer.

We could say that drama is information that has been translated into the language of conflict. The reason voice-overs and flashbacks so often fail is because they are treated as expositional devices. (Buchbinder 121)

Within this world of actions and events built on a cause and effect relationship, dreams are a problem. Interior states, subjective experiences, the past life of the character will all inform his or her decisions and choices, but how to convey them is always a problematic question. They are frequently discouraged as a device, seen as either too arty and overly subjective or clumsy in an excess of exposition. McKee says that the “dream sequence is exposition in a ball gown…feeble efforts to disguise information in Freudian clichés”. (343) This set of ideas and reservations about the problems of dreams in film are not taken lightly by funding bodies and the teams of producers and story editors who are generally part of most North American production – how this ultimately plays out in the way stories are told is one of the more mysterious realities of the movie business.

The rules and limitations on cinematic endeavours that we have been looking at are not universally followed, and where we do see the dream, the memory, the flashback, the subjective experience explored extensively, is in the art cinema tradition. Art films (often European) allow for an entry into a range of subjective states, as well as actions with effect and / or events without prior cause. While classical film narratives have generally been governed by goals, timelines, strong driven plotlines, the looser causal framework of the art film, and the less definitive approach to character motivations allows for a different role for central characters. As Bordwell states:

Equivocating about character causality supports a construction based on a more or less episodic series of events. If the Hollywood protagonist speeds toward the target, the art-film protagonist is presented as sliding passively from one situation to another. (Bordwell Narration 207)

Where story structure in classical narrative was determined by character drive, there is a somewhat different formulation for the character’s will in art cinema.

Certainly the art film relies upon psychological causation no less than does the classical narrative. But the prototypical characters of the art cinema tend to lack clear-cut traits, motives and goals. Protagonists may act inconsistently…or they may question themselves about their purposes…This is evidently an effect of the narration, which can play down characters’ causal projects, keep silent about their motives, emphasize ‘insignificant’ actions and intervals, and never reveal effects of actions. (Bordwell Narration 207)

Filmmaker Raul Ruiz, whose work we will look at in the chapter on Surrealism, is a vocal dissenter to the classical Hollywood, or classically dramatic mode of storytelling. Within his writing on film, he offers his critique of what he calls “central conflict theory”, articulating some of his objections to the essential structure of the classical narrative:

What I particularly dislike is the underlying ideology: central conflict theory…I recall the first statement of the theory: a story begins when someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it….What I immediately found unacceptable was this direct relations between will…and the petty play of strategies and tactics around a goal which if not in itself banal, is certainly rendered so. (Ruiz 11)

The dominant role of the will of the central character is clearly identified as the locus of the mechanisms within classic screenwriting approaches:

Central conflict theory manufactures athletic fiction and offers to take us on a journey. Prison of the protagonist’s will, we are subjected to the various stages making up a conflict of which he, the protagonist, is at once guardian and captive. (Ruiz 13–14)

Ruiz’ resistance to the constrictions of classical narrative structure is palpable in his language and in his argument for different styles of storytelling or filmmaking:
Even more than scenes devoid of any action, central conflict theory banishes what we called mixed scenes: an ordinary meal interrupted by an incomprehensible incident with neither rhyme nor reason and no future either so it ends up as an ordinary meal once more. (Ruiz 11)

Ruiz gives us a sense of the narrative shackles which are resisted in many art film approaches, where we see a different weight between causal and protagonist links. Not bound by the same set of rules between character, plot and conflict, a different relationship to the imperatives of story becomes possible.

Specific sorts of realism motivate a loosening of cause and effect…and an enhancement of the film’s symbolic dimension through an emphasis on the fluctuations of character psychology. (Bordwell Narration 206)

This opens up a form ideal for exploring more subjective experiences – the blending and blurring of reality and dream become acceptable, even desirable, and may well have an entirely different narrative purpose.

One major consequence of the goal-bereft protagonist, the episodic format, the central boundary situation, and the spatiotemporal “expressive” effects is to focus on the limitations upon character …enhance identification (character knowledge matches ours)…the narrow focus is complemented by psychological depth; art film narration is more subjective more often than is classical narration. For this reason, the art film has been a principal source of experiments in representing psychological activity in the fiction film. (Bordwell Narration 209)

One of the psychological activities that becomes a territory for exploration and experiment is the dream, the vision, the reverie. If we return for a moment to our example of Wild Strawberries, and to Professor Borg’s reflection on his life, his nostalgia for his childhood and adolescence, his mounting regrets of the limitations of his human relationships. These are not items of dramatic action, and yet as a strong example of art cinema narrative, they have been woven in successfully to convey the character’s need for transformation – they are revelations of internal conflicts with the external pressure of his sense of the nearing end of his life.

According to screenplay structure, the “inciting incident” of Wild Strawberries would be Professor Borg’s first dream. “Inciting incident” is a popular term in screenwriting, referring to how “the first major event of the telling, is the primary cause for all that follows, putting into motion the other four elements – Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, Resolution.” (McKee 181) And so it is Professor Borg’s dream which sets an existential quest into motion, and the basis on which his decisions start to be made, further observations begin to turn, leading to a spiritual transformation that happens in the course of the day rendered in the film. Borg’s dream is the first causal factor: he wakes up from the dream and chooses to drive (a change in plans), which in turn, gives him time alone with his daughter-in-law (who happens to speak frankly to him on this occasion), and they have a series of adventures along the way, all of which feeds into his self-reflective mood. Everything, ultimately, is leading to a deep change of attitude in the character.

As viewers, we are privy to his internal life, we see his dreams, the daydreams – we notice the missing hands of the clock in the dream and appreciate the emphasis on the missing watch hands at Borg’s mother’s house, we sense his distress at the echo of the image. The character’s existential crisis and ensuing personal transformation are intrinsically linked to connections between dream and life. As an “art film” we see that while the narrative shape of Wild Strawberries is constructed around the cause and effect of night dreams and daytime musings on mortality to a transformation in the character, however, this is not the driving, goal-specific, time-bound structure of an action film – the links between moments are much looser. But over the course of Wild Strawberries, Professor Borg changes, and this change is effected by the influence of various things, both the more nebulous subjective moments, and the human encounters on the trip. The external events such as the conversation with his daughter-in-law and his sympathetic encounter with a young woman and her friends, are facilitated and echoed by his dreams and memories. The small nature of these events nonetheless drastically alter his personality over the course of 24 hours.

If we shift our gaze away from both mainstream American and European art film to consider an even deeper cultural distinction, as Bordwell observes: “it seems likely that, in non-Western cultures, following a story does not take the exact forms it does in ours.” (“Classical” 34) While it is difficult to identify precisely how true this is, there are some strong indicators that we will see some different tendencies and approaches within a different cultural context. Some of the differences we can observe relate to a different attitude towards causality, some of it about protagonist’s will, and the context of the community. Individual will may mean something different if the individual’s role in the group, the community is different from what we understand about individuality and individuation in the West.

Here we will be looking at story theory, or oral storytelling theory, as there is no film theory directly addressing these questions, but this nonetheless gives a sense of cultural context and priorities. Alfred Kroker, an author from a family with a respected legacy in this anthropological area, says in his introduction to Native American Storytelling, “for Indians, storytelling was their most important cultural activity.” (6)

The Indian teller evokes his listeners’ freedom to imagine. The teller does not trace out explicit connection; he provokes listeners to conceive of these. He is not telling a story he privately invented but one that belongs to his people, one that has been told before and will be told again by others. (Kroker 5)

He locates the place of storytelling in the culture to give us a sense of how the tropes and narrative conventions have evolved in a particular context, and evolved quite differently from many Western / Aristotlian conventions.

Stories that had been told for years, decades, even generations were familiar to everyone but the youngest children. Since Native Americans cultures did not favor professional storytellers, and everyone told stories, listeners to a story might well have told that story themselves, perhaps many times. So suspense, passive curiosity as to what happens next, was of little interest to any Indian. (Kroker 2)

This is strikingly different from the Western tradition. Indeed, if we look to Aristotle, he places a clear negative value judgment on storytelling that is not built with strong causal links: “Among simple plots and actions, the episodic are the worst. By ‘episodic’ I mean one in which there is no probability or necessity for the order in which the episodes follow one another.” (34) But apparently this is not universally true.

In Indian stories, plot often serves mainly to bring into meaningful contrast parallel actions, scenes, characters, and speeches that have no direct causal connection. This large rhetorical structure is supported by a preference for paratactic sentences…Our style is to connect the two parts of the sentence with an unequivocal cause-effect relation, a relation often made equivocal in Indian stories. It is not that Indians necessarily believe that bears hibernating cause winter, but they are more modest then we in assuming they infallibly know what causes things to happen….the paratactic style leaves more to listeners imaginations – they are not told what the relation of two events is. (Kroker 4)

Chapter 4 – Surrealism & Dreams

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