form (narrative theory) The arrangement of disorganized material into an organized form. Writing into the novel. Film into the feature film. The question that arises in relation to form is what shapes the form. There is also the question of the value given to forms: how the creation and existence of form is understood.
A material is found and its uses are tried and tested: clay is found and it can be formed into pots, bowls, plates, tiles, ornaments, a range of forms. Clay as a medium is less suited than other materials to produce some forms, such as boats, saddles, and sails. So, it can be accepted that any material due to its properties to some extent determines or at least limits form. However, where the ideas surrounding the use and utility of a material becomes flawed, or is radically changed and enlarged, is when claims are made that a medium has a natural form, that form is an extension of Nature: that a material has a truthful and a false or imperfect form: this is were false and essentialist theories are made for a material and its form: woman is a form shaped for certain tasks, man is a form built for certain tasks. This idea of the natural or the true form is dependent upon history and culture rather than any intrinsic property of the material.
One can recognize that views on material and form have been and are still posed as religious, philosophical and aesthetic questions: What is the essential form of the world and why is it in this form? What is our essential material and being and what form should we seek to take? What form should society have based on natural forms, what is the natural form of the human? What forms should we create as aesthetic objects based on natural form?
An overarching conception of form is that of ideal forms. This is the conception of a perfection of form, which is immaterial form, but to which we all aspire: as a philosophical argument these ideal forms exist because we can imagine them and their perfection, even though we cannot find them in the real world. The concept of ideal form is pre-Christian, and is presented in the work of Plato (427-347BCE). And this idea of ideal form is carried into Christian thought in the perfection of the immaterial God and the imperfect materiality of the material world and actual things. As a religious ideal, as it is embedded in Western thought people should strive for spiritual perfection, to escape the failures of materiality. This means that the concept of form is as a pure and untarnished entity: a goodness. This is very problematic assumption, because it is used to control and shape political systems, religion and culture.
In Western thought concepts and practices of religion, philosophy, art, society, ethics and morality have become bound to the idea of perfect form: correct behavior, correct action, correct being. This might seem to have diminished in contemporary secular thought, but it remains in the place, even if problematised, and within aesthetic theory, secular theory, there are claims made regarding form, and what forms are more truthful and moral than other forms. The practice of cultural criticism is concerned with form and indicates what is successful and unsuccessful in a specific form as though there is a perfect form that could be produced to answer these criticisms and critiques of form.
In contemporary critical theory, in an attempt to move away from earlier established theological/philosophical aesthetics, and also to move away from the perception that art and literary criticism is just superficial, taste based, subjective criticism, a social bias, the theories of formalism and structuralism operate with a claim to analyze cultural texts, cultural artifacts and forms by proposing that there is an analysis that operates as a science because of its method. The notion of form that structuralism applies to replace the term natural form is deep structure, but the difficulty here is in proving that this deep structure is essential and explains or determines surface structure, so theories of the mind, of language, are claimed as the basis for this deep structure: form is not in the material but in the way it can be used: in structuralism the linguistic nature of thought shapes structures/forms, and so cultural forms, literature, film, can be understood through a linguistics based scrutiny. In its pursuit of structure to suggest something immutable, the term structure effectively replaces the word form. Structure makes no claim to perfection, but it can be used to create moral arguments related to structures/forms: what the novel should do, what film narrative should do.
Structuralism as a theoretical method is still applied in academic theory, even though structuralist theorists have themselves indicated the failures and collapse of this analytical project because of the issues raised by post-structuralism and deconstructionism. In deconstruction the world is formless, and there are clusters of meaning, with there being no essential forms or structures: language systems have a grammar, they generate meaning, but in terms of language having an underlying coherence of form and essential meaning this is not the case: the use of the term discourse within this area of theory implying a flow and change to meaning that will have no permanent shape or form, and grand narratives being the discourses that have had a long term historical, social and cultural development until they have been taken and accepted as reality, as forms/structures that are natural and essential, but the construction of these grand narratives can be traced through their origin and development to be shown as political and social constructions. So, there are no underlying ideal forms and no ideal form that can be moved towards. In science the uncertainty and happenstance of quantum mechanics is used to illustrate and perhaps even confirm that certainty and coherence are not built on any set and consistent system, deep structure is not certain, but uncertain. This is the use of scientific theory to inform a philosophical argument and to support critical theory: trying to link a scientific scrutiny to an aesthetic and moral analysis, as though this is a valid methodology. What might happen as a result of deconstructionism, that every type of cultural production and cultural criticism and consumption is political is that critical theory becomes a specialist, high brow form of criticism: claiming the right to analyze and judge from an abstruse, elitist perspective: obscuring the politics of culture. Here narratives are undermined, and so what might be radical in deconstructionism, taking things apart to see how they work, instead denies and disparages narrative: creating a conservative politically inactive rhetoric.
Returning to the medium of clay. It has a utility as a material, and this utility has limitations, but utility is a criteria framed by the user. Form is a function that is determined by the user: it’s possible to set out and argue for essentialist claims, but these are framed by abstract concepts, nature, perfection, ideal. So form is an evolving social and cultural construct: the on-going relationship between the medium and its use, and if one is looking for a theory of forms, what makes form/structure possible one might look to complexity, emergence, evolution, change, development. So, from a simple combination of elements, complex and unique structures occur. This is not the production of static entities, set and codified forms, but an evolutionary process: man is not a static form, woman is not a static form, there is no intrinsic form and no inherent stasis. There’s no reason in this to propose that we are evolving into a more perfect form and certainly not that there is an ideal form that marks the genesis of things or towards which things strive: a final perfection. In this context language is understood to be generative: it has rules for joining and this allows for the complex development of language and its uses, but syntax and grammar do not determine the forms of language or the description it gives of things. Language offers a structure, but does not set limitations on what can be stated, and the truth of falsehood of any statement is not verifiable in the statement itself, but only in relation to the world.
To move to film and its forms: there is film as a medium and film as a form: what society has done to shape and use film. In its use of critical theory academic film studies as it became established as a formal and recognized discipline took an approach to studying film form based on structuralism, codifying forms: classical narrative film, documentary film. This placed a conceptual framework on film form and by extension a particular perception of film making and film production, clarifying what has occurred in the history of film, the forms it developed, but also presenting this a linear or static, a narrowly categorized model of film and its possible usages. To a small extent Film Theory has shifted and invested in deconstruction and post-structuralism to consider the narratives produced by film with their meanings and interpretations becoming fragmented, but this academic field does not consider what forms of film narrative might be developed. Film Theory studies films, but it does not speculate and promote forms of practice in relation to narrative film.
This methodology for film theory is like art theory only concerning itself with realist painting, drawing and sculpture within a conception of realist forms. This creates a model, a framework for understanding and interpretation of artworks, but not for creativity and the development of forms of narrative practice. In terms of this process being static, Art, Fine Art, Contemporary Art, in practice and theory is no longer codified as it once was or limited to the craft based production of aesthetically pleasing realist images and objects, but in comparison narrative film is still held as a particular category of film, the quality drama, as though there can only be one form of narrative film fiction: mimetic realist drama, but this is not correct: at its inception, at its historical beginning what uses were going to be made of the ability to produce moving images on film was unclear and even the use of the medium or it having any potential to develop form was doubted.
The impetus in the 19th century to discover a material and invent a method, an apparatus for capturing light to make an image and then to create a technology for producing moving images and the viewing of these images was extensive. This effort can be centered ideologically within the industrial and scientific environment of the 19th Century, but this aim also brought together earlier aims, knowledge and understanding: the study of light, the production of lenses, the phenomena of the camera obscura, the production of realistic images on flat panels or canvases, and in these handmade artifacts the production a realistic images. Within this long term picture-making activity there was no absolutely defined and articulated impetus for the development of chemical-based mechanical image making, what its social purpose would be, what forms photography and film would produce, but the general impetus was to record and measure and to represent the world: recording and measuring being part of the development of civil society, property and law, and the representation through images offering social presence, giving significance, prestige and permanence to people and things.
Photography established its form as a medium aligned with painting, drawing and engraving, through portraits, landscapes, as displays of status and property. But with moving images what form the medium would take was initially unclear, and in the mythology of the invention of the moving image, there was supposedly a dismissal of the technology by the one its inventors Thomas Edison, who considered the medium as a technology lacking any usefulness or commercial purpose, which it turn indicated that the moving image would produce no aesthetically viable form. Moving images would merely be a scientific curiosity, comparable in its usage to the kaleidoscope, or the hologram.
One of the first technologies of the moving image, the kinetoscope, enabled a single viewer to see a moving image, as an individual and private experience, so that the use of film seemed to offer only a private voyeuristic device, what the butler saw, and it was the invention of moving image projection that led to the development of a viable film form, with cinematic projection as a key element in the establishment of cinema, beginning with its primitive form, single shot films of activities in life, and from this to the development of narrative film forms with economic and social utility.
The development of primitive film, single shot films into narrative film, into one and two reels films, then into the form of single drama feature film shown in purpose built cinemas is the basis of film narrative’s development into the forms and technologies that are present today, and the same sort of development process can be understood for printing with the press and the fiction novel, matching and developing within certain technological, economic and social circumstances: mass literacy and mass printing enabling the forms of the newspaper and the fiction magazine and the novel to be produced and circulated.
In the development of narrative film, the feature film form fitted the leisure time for the working patterns in industrial societies, and the town provided a sufficient population to view films, for the cinema to host films as a profitable business, for the films shown needing to change so that customers would revisit the cinema, and in this environment the aesthetics of the form narrative film with the high cost methods for producing the fiction feature film involving, writers, production teams, actors, sets, costumes, was developed, supported and sustained. Also, the narrative form of film in its form of narration had to be understandable for a mass audience, so that realist mimetic continuity film was wide established as an extension of the realist novel and realist drama. The cinema was and is principally a realist fiction cinema, where it might have been developed as an educational form, to offer lectures, or as a religious form, using projections of religious imagery as part of formal religious services. Film studies has focused on the feature film as single form and then considers other forms as alternative and oppositional and so codified film aesthetics within a schism that is self-limiting. The cultural understanding is that fiction film, is drama fiction, mimetic, realist narrative.
In the contemporary digital environment the forms of the moving image have changed in relation to the technology, circumstances of production and consumption, with internet production and distribution extending beyond a professionally produced and pay-per-view ticket based audience consumed product, something made as part of a professional production process, to the forms of film now having a self-made and participatory aspect: vlogging, personal channels, browsing, surfing, which have established a habit of non-linear consumption. The video game being a particular, significant and largescale development in narrative forms where the play and interactivity is part of the narrative: the form of the video game being theorized within ludology as narrative, but disconnected as an area of academic study from Fine Art, Literature and Film Theory. Video games use many perhaps all aspects of previously established narrative, aesthetics and technology of literature art and moving image, but video games are not widely presented and understood as a development of narrative forms in the 21st Century. Fixed linear narratives, being considered narrative and unfixed being non-linear, so being separate rather than an extension of narrative with the computer, digital environment being the new medium.
Within all of the developments of moving image technology, from the single shot film to the narrativity of CVR, cinematic virtual reality, there is no predetermined use of the film/moving image medium, the technology does not define the form, but at the same there is no sense of change of revolution in narrative film form as there was in the novel at the start of the 20th century, moving prose fiction from realism to modernism, or film narrative evolving into contemporary film narrative, as there was in Fine Art developing into Contemporary are, starting in modernist period and which has then developed into the postmodernism of the second half of the 20th century.
Narrative film as a medium and also television may have been kept outside these aesthetic changes because the production of its forms was based on standardization kept in place by a range of economic and cultural institutions, the film industry, the broadcast industry, the established conventions for narrative film and their reception, but the film making of the 1960’s did show that changes and developments in narrative form were practical and possible: this independent film making, acknowledge differences in cultural production, acknowledging the potential of authorship to produce distinct and different forms of narrative, but this period of expansion in film form, developing new aesthetics has now passed. The widespread availability of moving image technology has not led to a diversity of forms and the narrative fiction film, quality drama is still the single established fiction form.
Given the history of film, its production, consumption and theorizing, the form of narratives in the medium of film can seem to be limited because the conventions of form are so widely established and because there are so many social systems that accept and/or judge narrative film within this context: there is the control of production, distribution and construction, the criticism and judgement placed on content and form by audiences, by critics, and through the teaching of taste and judgement within education and academic disciplines. Film makers themselves have of course been inculcated in conceptions of form: there are formulation of how things should be represented, what a film should be, how it should be made. There is also the long standing notion of perfection of form and this conception of the social purpose or art and its aims is an underlying and persistent constraint. Every film produces a form that has unique aspects and this form and rather than being a fixed entity is a form of exchange: the film being accepted or rejected as part of a currency of representations and meanings. Film narrative can develop into new forms, but the impetus for this is presently severely limited, because of past history, because of present expectations and understandings of what film form should be.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019