By Raymond Durgnat, David Ehrenstein and Jonathan Rosenbaum
(Film Comment, July-August 1978) available online at Light Sleeper.
Note : A survey of the various typologies of plot structures in CCC would be another interesting study to note the commonality and peculiarities. I don't think plots in CCC are necessarily complicated or poetical. They are often very basic, and don't play much role in the overall atmosphere of the film.
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM (roundtable introduction) : To broach a subject and isolate a problem that most film criticism represses, stumbles over, or refuses to acknowledge, preferring to stick to the authoritarian guidelines of the synopsis and the plot summary. "Telling a story" (...) becomes a singular grid through which all the diverse structures and operations of movies can theoretically be apprehended, codified, and converted into meanings. (...) Peter Gidal addresses a related question when he complains about several critics interpreting even Michael Snow films in relation to narrative models. The problem is, Gidal’s definitions and descriptions of non-narrative structures are nearly all negative indications. What we need are some positive ones.
"It's not as boring as we'd expect", "it's long but I didn't see time pass by", "We have no problem to follow the story even without much dialogue"...
Adrian Martin mentioned the same problem for Avant Garde cinema, which is compared to the Mainstream norm by critics, who fail to understand that this norm doesn't apply.
RAYMOND DURGNAT: No, it’s a question of defining relations. Semiologists often assume that you start from units and then define the relationships between them by certain syntactical procedures. But the alternative approach, taken from structuralism in the life sciences, or Gestalt psychology, or many different positions in philosophy, is that units are only phases in structures. You don’t start from the unit, you start from the structure ... You have to distinguish among movement, action, event, and narrative. They’re four completely different things, or rather the last three shade into each other. But time and time again people imply that movement entails narrative, making film a mainly narrative act. Yet movement often isn’t even action. All the leaves moving around on a tree don’t constitute as many narratives as there are leaves. (...)
Or let’s consider Vigo, times three. I don’t think one could describe A Propos de Nice as narrative. In Zero de Conduite, there is a narrative, and it does make sense, but nonetheless it’s just a broad structure, or rather just a drift, and the meat is the heavy atmospherics wound around and around the plot, at right angles to it.
I especially like the tree-leaves analogy. It's a matter of perspective scale. The unit is either the leaf or the tree, depending on what scale is considered. All the shots don't necessarily constitute a narrative point, we should be able to consider the film as a whole, and the blank spaces (slow long-takes, empty frames) as one of many leaves that build the overall shape of the tree we are looking at. We shouldn't expect a meaningful message or an action in every shot. The film is a flow and we experience the length of a film in its entirety, with its time dedicated to "movements without action" and its time dedicated to "events with narrative progression". And these movements are as important as the action in cinema. Especially in CCC.
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: The guiltless pursuit of desire that they espouse is like a sensual dive into non-narrative, a constellation of wants that shine in different directions, make individual demands, create a stampede rather than get herded together on one cattle car that is headed for the slaughterhouse. That may sound like a brutal metaphor for narrative, but the functional structure of the cattle car and the story in relation to the occupant (whether it’s a character or a spectator) is quite similar. (...)
Theoretically you could say that this process [disintegration of a single continuous thread] takes place at one point or another in every film, whenever one’s attention becomes discontinuous. The synopsis is therefore not only a life preserver for the less courageous, but a Platonic model of the way we’re "supposed" to read films, of films as they’re "supposed" to be read.
They denounced this lazy practice 30 years ago, and film reviewing has not improved since on this aspect...
RAYMOND DURGNAT: Narrative is run largely by the laws of music. When Truffaut compares a film to a circus in which there’s a sequence of contrasting moods, he’s absolutely right. In 42nd Street each of the Busby Berkeley numbers is an elongation of a static situation. They’re states lyricized rather than sequences of actions decisively changing states. Many writers, especially poets, begin with a feeling -- what they’ve got to put before you is a state of mind, which in itself is complex and simultaneous, a vertical structure but in a sequential order. Verse form often functions as a kind of binding over the sequentiality, by regular repetition and rhythm.
RAYMOND DURGNAT: The pacing of the plot is always lost amongst a swarm of conspicuous details that have to do with the kind of physical integrity of the scene, or act like digressions.
JONATHAN ROSENBAUM: It’s almost as if the physical details on the screen become a rhythmic structure, and the plot disappears into the rhythmic pacing of the details, as in a mosaic. Finally temps morts are becoming important in Hollywood, which has finally picked up on neo-realism, and picked up on this interesting nitty-gritty mosaic of detail.