narrative film (film theory) While potentially referring to any form of film that narrates a temporal sequence of events, narrative film is the term that is applied in its understanding and usage to fiction film and predominantly the fiction feature film as it was established through film production in the first half of the 20th century. This form of narrative is theorised as Classical Narrative Cinema, and as a near-synonymous term Classical Narrative Structure: the first term connecting the narrative form of the feature film to its process of production and distribution as a populist cinema, and the second term relating the feature film to the concept of a specific narrative form: character based realist drama with predominantly ‘happy endings’.
The conception of narrative film being limited to a particular and specific form, developed and standardised at a particular historical period, is problematic for studying narrative in film because it isolates the understanding and discussion of narrative in the medium, separating film from other mediums, particularly literary and dramatic narrative, and also, subdividing film forms and practices that are also narrative into separate categories, as areas of production and practice, for academic and critical study. These divided categories are broadly, narrative film (feature film fiction), documentary film (factual/non-fiction), and television, which has both fiction and documentary all of which are narrative forms.
Positioning television as a separate institution to cinema, creates a disruption of continuity in narrative theory between the theorisation of narrative in film, and the narrative form and function used in television: a disruption that is formally held in place in film studies, film theory, by excluding television drama as a subject, while oddly including documentary within film studies/film theory, even though the majority of documentary production is television broadcast production. Both film fiction and television drama utilise the same techniques of narration and are primarily distinctive only through form in terms of production format: the feature film being a single drama narrating a complete story, and television having multiple story formats for story narration: sitcoms, continuing story serials, single episode serials, limited episode serials, soap operas.
Discussing film as narrative, so that storytelling in film can be understood, and connecting this to a more expansive and inclusive concept of narrative and narrative theory is further problematised because narratology is the theorisation of narrative in literature, and this field/discipline has established an extensive understanding of narrative through the medium of the written text. Narrative Fiction (Rimon-Keenan, 1983) as the title of a theoretical study of narrative fiction might be taken to include both film fiction and literary fiction, but the subject matter is solely literature, and the categorising of this study of ‘narrative fiction’ is stated as being that of ‘contemporary poetics’ with poetics being the study of literary forms, poetry, drama, song: Poetics being originated as a of theory of function, form and effect stemming from Aristotle’s Poetics (335, BC). Classical narratology, effectively centred and stopping at the literary form of the novel and stating that this is narrative fiction dead ends the theoretical consideration of narrative and narrativity: what enables a medium to produce a narrative. Transmedia narrative theory does exist, and how narrative and a narrative can be articulated across a range of mediums, should be a central concern of narrative theory, as it shows how story is not medium specific, but transmedia narrative is a little known and little used term.
Film is a much more recent medium compared to Ancient Greek drama, and the discussion of poetics stems from historical this point, long before the invention of photography and film, but the omission of poetics from the theorising of film narrative is a significant issue for the understanding of storytelling in film. Adding to this omission narratology as a critical term was coined by Tzvetan Todorov in 1969 in Grammaire du Décaméron with narratology developing as a discipline from the earlier part of the 20th century to study literary narrative. The development of narratology could have included film narrative, and this exclusion might now be considered a flaw in a theorizing of narrative: because narrative is not dependent upon medium, each medium narrates story in different ways.
Narratology provides a developed and critical theorisation of narrative, but discussing film narrative via literary narratology is confusing and complicated, making the explication of a medium inclusive theory of narrative uncertain. For example: one primary statement of narratology is that every text has a narrator, there is an implied author, there is a narrator of the story, either wholly outside of the story or participating in the story in some role where they are a narratee who can witness events and so narrate them. This is not how film narrative functions, there is no implicitly implied narrator in fiction film but the concept of narration is as crucial to film as it is to text-based narratives because narration relates to concepts of subjectivity and objectivity, to viewpoint, perspective and and the role of the reader, that are essential to both film narrative and text-based narrative.
Film theory has made some use of narratology such as the use of The Morphology of The Folk Tale (1928) to consider story structure in relation to film, but this is not integrated into a comparative theory of film narrative and text-based narrative. The theory of narrative in film is locked in by the conception of narrative film as the fiction feature film, and central to this, the conception of a classical narrative structure.
In the present day transmedia narratology, as an academic and theoretical field, aims to study narrative across all media and all forms, but this is presently a very small field of theory in terms of output and usage, and it is doubtful, or it will be the success of a future and long term development that will bring transmedia narratology to the forefront of narrative theory to encompass and define the study of narrative as related to all narrative mediums and forms. Narratology based on writing has itself has not remained static and has developed theoretically, but this is seen as the development of narratologies: the multiplying theories of narrative, a diversifying concepts and understanding of written narrative rather than the development of narrative theory across media. There is no shared terminology for narrative theory, it is expanding in terminology rather than expanding the field of study.
An earlier attempt to move the study of film forms into a wider conception of the medium, extending beyond film theory and narrative film, and proposed during the 1970’ and 1980’s, was that of using the term time-based media to frame film and video practice, but this overarching term and concept gained little critical usage and no general currency, and the term time-based media is now effectively discarded as a framework, and its project to incorporate a range of film practices and forms under a shared title has been abandoned. Also, and even though there is today, only extremely limited use of actual film technology in film production, the term narrative film remains dominant. One might refer to digital narrative, rather than film narrative and this term could include, fiction, documentary, art, experimental, installation, cinema, gallery, art house, television, internet, all with narrative or non-narrative forms but studied together under the heading of digital film but there is no move to this usage, and the potential inclusiveness of digital narrative has been co-opted as a term to describe what is or was labelled new media, studying narrative in digital computer games, and other emerging technologies: VR, augmented reality. Games theory is developing its own formulation for narrativity in games under the theorizing of games as ludology, so another field of narrative theory has opened and it is developing its own terminology and concepts.
Within literary theory and narratology the non-narrative, text is treated and incorporated as part of narrative theory: the experimental novel, the anti-novel, the anti-narrative is part of the history and development of the form of the novel, and it is understood to have developed as a response, a reaction to realist, naturalist fiction and as part of postmodernism, a change in contemporary social and cultural structures that are inflected/reflected in cultural practices. In contrast the non-narrative film, which might be identified under the broad heading of art practice, experimental film or alternative film, is understood and studied as a distinct, different and even oppositional practice to dramatic fiction, the narrative film. This creates a further division in how film theory considers and studies narrative. Narrative film is sharply contrasted and separated to non-narrative film rather than theories of narrative and narrativity being considered and made inclusive across the medium of film and its forms.
There are historical reasons for the non-dramatic, art-based film being understood separately to narrative film. Film’s non-narrative or minimal non-dramatic, non-mimetic narrative forms have been developed through art practice and this is articulated theoretically from within art theory, aesthetic theory, not narrative theory. Art Film, Experimental Film, Avant Garde Film, Art Practice, Fine Art Film can be studied as forms of film that are distinct from narrative film, and as art forms, but this is problematic for narrative theory in film because a specific and enduring theoretical and polemical claim has been made for art film, art practice and this is the rejection and problematising of narrative film making. This is evidence is theoretical in film studies, concentrating on the feature film and art practice being a separate field.
The theoretical proposal for counter-narrative, non-mimetic film is that if offers a politically and culturally necessary alternative form of practice to narrative film and this is because narrative film is an ideologically determining and essentially repressive form: one of the theoretical concepts that defines this is Institutional Mode of Representation (Burch, 1969) which depicts narrative film as controlling and intrinsically normative and restrictive: realist fiction depicts an ideological picture of the world, that through the rhetoric of its form has to be accepted by the audience as realistic.
This issue is obscure outside of academic film theory, art film theory, and film art practice, but the persistence of the issue in film theory and art-based film making prevents and creates resistance to change and the broadening of the study of narrative in film to consider narrative within film and across mediums. In the 1960’s through the 1980’s a dominant trend in film theory was to reject film narrative and to propose deconstruction, or alternative forms of film as the ideologically correct method of film making. What this issue means in present film theory is that art practice in film is ideologically and critically separated from narrative practice in film and this again locks narrative film, the conception and understanding of narrative and drama fiction, into a narrow model of form and function in relation to narrative theory and the consideration of storytelling as a spectrum of practices across film making and across mediums. Art theory considers the development of art across millennia, from prehistory to the present, but film studies defines its field not through narrative forms across millennia, but through the feature film as it was established in the 1920’s and in a single form. This is comparable to art theory only studying modernism in the 1900’s and rejecting any other area of art any developments that lead to modernism.
A simple claim to end the debate which indicates the ideological limitations and social determinants of the feature film would be to state that narrative film as a form does not in itself dictate and create an ideological construct: narrative is an open form, storytelling is not closed off by the practice of mimetic realism anymore than the notion that the novel or realist painting can depict only certain narratives, truths or viewpoints. What is defined as narrative film in film theory is a specific historical form and period of film making practice, and so the ideology of that time is embedded in these narratives, but the medium and the forms of film are not fixed: film is a rhetorical form, it does structure a limited set of meanings: the films of the past slowly lose their realism and seem out of date and contemporary narratives appear more realistic and valid: audiences, people, societies change and so do their narratives.
What is understood to be particularly problematic for film making in the period of the Classical Narrative Structure is that it was part of a hegemonic structure: film was capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal, racist, sexist, hetero normative. In this period, 1920’s to 1960’s access to production was extremely limited because of production costs and production technology, and so narrative film had a standardisation of stories: a limited ideological scope. This hegemonic situation might seem to indicate that the form of narrative film, the drama feature film, narrative fiction, is problematic in itself, but this would be a critical mistake and the perspective of film theory on this subject would change if it considered narrative film as part of a narrative field: mediums and narrative are all engaged with storytelling and there is no form or medium of narrative that is essential and fixed. People do not consume narrative in a single medium, and so the range of narratives across mediums is important to study. The field of media studies, works to study media, but its formulation might or often does not include the feature film, or fine art and instead includes television, print news, and digital media: so the mass mediums. Media studies has declined as an academic discipline and as a field of educational study. So, the possibility of media growing to include all media is not going to occur.
This potential for change, a re-consideration of the development of film narrative, is unlikely to happen as narrative in film, its emergence, is taught through a set historical viewpoint and so fixes the meaning of ‘narrative film’. The term Institutional mode of Representation (Noel Burch, Praxis of Cinema, (1969) is used to argue that narrative film is, as the title indicates, an institutional form and therefore a controlled and limited form, but the fact that when the institution changes so does the use of the form is not articulated if the study of film is limited and defined by production method of the feature film, and what points to the theoretical incoherence of the claim that narrative film is implicitly or essentially an Institutional Mode of Representation, and that it is reactionary in its form, is that this challenge is not active in relation to other mediums: realist painting and particularly realism in literature are not subject to this whole scale rejection as institutional art. Drama is not subject to this criticism, only film. One approach to inspecting this theoretical argument in film practice and film theory is to indicate that this issue of ideological control is not in fact related to narrative film, its form, but is due to films’ establishment as a populist medium and the shift of culture that film as a mass medium caused, disrupting established hierarchies of culture.
It was the formation of the cinema as a mass cultural practice that was and is perceived as undermining and disregarding the status and privilege of the previously established arts: film narrative is a form of low culture and therefore subject to enduring rejection and condemnation within society and film theory/film studies as part of this cultural judgement.
The disquiet that is felt in relation to narrative film and the preference for art film practice is bound up in a wider social change, the move in the 1800’s to a mass industrial society and the emergence of mass culture, with the later emergence of cinema becoming the dominant mass medium in the 20th century and therefore the target of a particular critique of mass culture. This disquiet is based on the undermining of traditional art, or rather the purpose of art being threatened by populist film. In Hegel’s university lectures on aesthetics given in the 1820’s and published as a collection in 1835, the death of art, the end of art is perceived as underway with the view being taken that the spiritual purpose of art, it’s true purpose, a religious and spiritual purpose, a higher purpose for art is being lost. Hegel’s lectures cover the arts of architecture, sculpture, painting, music and poetry, not the literary novel or film. The novel as literature did not rise to cultural prominence until the later half of the 1800’s, there were ‘novels’, works of written fiction long before this time, but the social development of mass literacy and mass publication changed the prominence of the form, and with a first public performance of a motion picture in 1895, cinema began to be developed in the early 1900’s, becoming the dominant mass medium in the 1920’s and through to the 1950’s until the emergence of television. Hegel certainly had no view of cinema, but the splitting of cultural production into concepts of high art and low art, elite culture and mass culture, and the place and role of popular culture in relation to art has an important foundation in Hegel’s aesthetic theory: judging art to be failed unless it served a particular high art purpose. This need to protect the status of the earlier arts against mass culture has included film as part of this concern with academic, critics, educators all problematising narrative film.
All forms of cultural production, the arts, are scrutinised, criticised and weighed in relation to aesthetic value, and there through social judgement good art and bad art, and in these circumstances populist art, mass art is very often judged as poor and unsatisfactory. Hegel’s views are not known directly to many but the support of aesthetic theory for high art is its theoretical purpose and this is carried into the public criticism of art in print and other mediums, and also in academia. Walter Benjamin’s Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) can be considered a touchstone for the criticism and condemnation of mass art and the argument that mass art is lacking in artistic and cultural value. This aesthetic theory has been taken into film theory and operates as a criticism of popular cinema, narrative film, and it gives preference to art practice. Aesthetics has dwindled as a familiar term, but it is still an academic practice, and critical theory is the academic forum for the contemporary practice of aesthetics. Critical theory creates an intersection and discourse between the humanities and scientific disciplines and as part of this considers the functioning of cultural production. Narrative film is viewed is part of this critical framework, and this is how film is judged and valued.
Narratology is an element of critical theory. ‘Narrative Film’ is a simple combination of two words, and therefore of apparently little import: film, narrative, narrative film, film narrative, are apparently interchangeable but within the framework of critical theory and through its usage in film theory, Narrative Film is a definition that carries considerable ideological significance: locating drama based fiction film as a particular type of cultural product within a particular social and cultural history and aesthetic value. Filmmakers benefit from being aware and understanding the context in which they work, but to be constrained and controlled by this context is by definition self-limiting and repressive. Film narrative can be produced in many forms, not just dramatic fiction, and so filmmakers should be able to work across forms to recount stories and not be bracketed into such restrictive labels as mainstream or commercial. The novelist is not bracketed buy such limitations, art is not bracketed by these limitations and neither is drama. Film theory established ‘narrative film’ at a time when there was one dominant form of film narrative, but instead of this film is part of a narrative history and development across cultures, with very different forms and uses for narrative. Narrative film should include any form of film narrative and so reconfigure how both narrative and film are understood.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019