Non-narrative film criticism

Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative
By Raymond Durgnat, David Ehrenstein and Jonathan Rosenbaum
(Film Comment, July-August 1978) available online at Light Sleeper.

Adrian Martin recommended me this roundtable organised by Jonathan Rosenbaum, 30 years ago, precisely on one of the theme I wanted to expand upon on this upcoming blogathon. So it will be a very valuable preparatory reading for further discussions.
Although the premise of their discussion is about writing non-narrative reviews without making sense of an eventual plot, in films either non-linear (mainstream) or nonsensical (Avant Garde), most of what they bring forth could as well apply to C.C.C. (where narrative is rather minimalistic than actually non-linear or nonsensical). The point being to approach cinema from a visual sensibility, opposed to the literary framework of a plot-driven synopsis.

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.

That's one of the key concerns about CCC, they are called "boring art films", "festival films", slow. They emphasize on what CCC doesn't do, in comparison to the usual expectations from mainstream cinema, instead of judging them for what they do ambition to achieve. So CCC films are systematically portrayed in "negative" terms (not necessarily pejorative but contrasted to a positive norm), and defended in terms moderating the weight of non-mainstream traits :
"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.

Here is an interesting angle to explore for us. What are the functions and nature of "movement", "action", "event" and "narrative" in CCC?
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.

I wouldn't blame traditional mainstream narration in genre cinema myself. It has its own rational and its legit purpose. There is an audience for it, who ask to be herded and cued for a submissive escapism.Though, the readership of mainstream criticism is enslaved by this plot-drive indeed. And every film, mainstream or contemplative or experimental, must fit in a predefined template, a capsule summary, an abstract giving the protagonists and the argument.
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.

The musicals may seem far away from CCC, but the example of Busby Berkeley is an interesting alternative (body language) abstraction (although highly codified and choreographed) to the traditional mainstream narrative. So in this sense, it also eshews dialogue and plot to convey an atmospherical experience of cinema, rather than rely on a word-driven walk-through. And as far as what Durgnat exposed earlier, we find the same distinction between movement and action, with a focus on rhythm and flow that could theoretically correspond to the spirit of CCC. Even some Contemplative filmmakers of the Méliès tradition (Column G : Contemplative Fantasy) resort to this kind of lyrical staging of bodies (albeit without heavy music), like Barney (Cremaster, DR9), Suleiman (Divine Intervention), Tsai Ming-Liang (The Hole, The Wayward Cloud), Sokurov (Russian Ark) or Opera Jawa...


Anonymous said…
Right on, Harry!!! :)

I am exploring similar ideas to the CCC, and it is so refreshing to hear that there is a recognition of how experimental cinema and contemplative cinema are so frequently & inaccurately described in their relation to a plot driven narrative. This is an assumption that we can tear down together! :)

Have you seen my ying/yang model of cinema? I'm totally serious! CCC & experimental cinema flow into each other through poetic, experential phenomena. Experimental cinema is based on direct experience, and is frequently composed without language. When we are contemplating a scene (rather than talking), we are in a state of being.

Just a few thoughts . . .

Thanks for the link to the article, I have no problem going back to 1978 if I have to!

Congratulations on your awesome blog-a-thon!
Anonymous said…
P.S. I'd love it if we all discontinued the use of the term "Non-Narrative." :) It is 2008! Could we try the term, EXPERIENTIAL cinema?
HarryTuttle said…
Thank you for the good words and for your comment. You're right, I'm guilty of speaking "negatively" of CCC when I use the word "non-narrative"! This is another thing we must change indeed. And not refer to this in contrast with the classical tradition of cinema.

I like your post about Experiential cinema. This term fits a lot of CCC films but I don't know if it could become an "umbrella label" for everything. We shouldn't lump together Experimental (though the ones I put in the F and G columns on my genealogy chart could be Avant Garde sometimes) and CCC... it would be another broad simplification. I wonder if it suits all Experimental films either...
We should at least discuss the matter. Let's do a roundtable on this. ;)
HarryTuttle said…
The roundtable mentionned in this post is now available on Rosenbaum's blog, fully illustrated.