Art-Cinema Narration

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Art-Cinema Narration”

by David Bordwell

The predominance of classical Holly­wood films, and consequently classi­cal narration, is a historical fact, but film history is not a monolith. Under various circumstances, there have appeared alternative modes of narration, the most prominent one of which I shall consider in this chapter. As a start, ostensive definition might be best. L'Eclisse, The Green Room, Rocco and His Brothers, Repulsion, Scenes from a Marriage, Accident, Teorema, Ma nuit chez Maude, Rome Open City, Love and Anarchy: whatever you think of these films, they form a class that filmmakers and film viewers distinguish from Rio Bravo on the one hand and Mothlight on the other. Not all films shown in "art theaters" utilize distinct narrational procedures, but many do. Within a machinery of production, distribution, and consumption—the "international art cinema," as it is generally known—there exists a body of films which appeal to norms of syuzhet and style which I shall call art-cinema narration.

We could characterize this mode by simply inventorying our theoretical catego­ries. We could say that the syuzhet here is not as redundant as in the classical film; that there are permanent and suppressed gaps; that exposition is delayed and distributed to a greater degree; that the narration tends to be less generically motivated; and several other things. Such an atomistic list, while informative, would not get at the underlying principles that enable the viewer to comprehend the film. Our study of The Spider's Stratagem in Chapter 6 has already shown how its temporal manipulations are based on three broader interlocking procedural schemata—"objective" realism, "expressive" or subjective realism, and narrational commentary. The same schemata explain the various narrational strategies, and their instantiation in syuzhet and style, characteristic of this mode of filmmaking.

Objectivity, Subjectivity, Authority

The Russian Formalist critics pointed out that artists often justify novelty as a new realism, and this observation is borne out by art-cinema narration. For the classical cinema, rooted in the popular novel, short story, and well-made drama of the late nineteenth century, "reality" is assumed to be a tacit coherence among events, a consistency and clarity of indi­vidual identity. Realistic motivation corroborates the com­positional motivation achieved through cause and effect. But art-cinema narration, taking its cue from literary modern­ism, questions such a definition of the real the world's laws may not be knowable, personal psychology may be indeter­minate. Here new aesthetic conventions claim to seize other "realities": the aleatoric world of "objective" reality and the fleeting states that characterize "subjective" reality. In 1966, Marcel Martin summed up these two new sort of verisimilitude. The contemporary cinema, he claimed, fol­lows Neorealism in seeking to depict the vagaries of real life, to "dedramatize" the narrative by showing both climaxes and trivial moments, and to use new techniques (abrupt cutting, long takes) not as fixed conventions but as flexible means of expression. Martin added that this new cinema deals with the reality of the imagination as well, but treats this as if it were as objective as the world before us.1 Of course the realism of the art cinema is no more "real" than that of the classical film; it is simply a different canon of realistic motivation, a new vraisemblance, justifying particu­lar compositional options and effects. Specific sorts of real­ism motivate a loosening of cause and effect, an episodic construction of the syuzhet, and an enhancement of the film's symbolic dimension through an emphasis on the fluctuations of character psychology.

The art film's "reality" is multifaceted. The film will deal with "real" subject matter, current psychological problems such as contemporary "alienation" and "lack of communica­tion." The mise-en-scene may emphasize verisimilitude of behavior as well as verisimilitude of space (e.g., location shooting, non-Hollywood lighting schemes) or time (e.g., the temps mort in a conversation). Andre Bazin emphasized such aspects of the art cinema when he praised Neorealist films for employing non-actors to achieve a behavioral con­creteness. Bazin also analyzed how specific stylistic devices, such as deep focus and the long take, could record the phenomenal continuum of space and time.

Such localized aspects do not, however, do justice to the extent to which an "objective" realism becomes a pervasive formal principle. In the name of verisimilitude, the tight causality of classical Hollywood construction is replaced by a more tenuous linking of events. In L'Avventura, for in­stance, Anna is lost and never found; in Bicycle Thieves, the future of Antonio and his son remains uncertain. We find calculated gaps in the syuzhet, as Bazin writes of Paisa: "This fragment of the story reveals enormous ellipses—or rather, great holes. A complex train of action is reduced to three or four brief fragments, in themselves already elliptical enough in comparison with the reality they are unfolding."2 The viewer must therefore tolerate more permanent causal gaps than would be normal in a classical film.

Gapping the syuzhet's presentation of the fabula is not the only way that art-cinema narration loosens up cause and effect. Another factor is chance. Contingency can create transitory, peripheral incidents—the locus classicus is the unexpected rainstorm and the chattering priests in Bicycle Thieves—or it can be more structurally central. It is by chance that Anna is not found in L'Avventura; and by chance that Antonio discovers, then again loses, his bicycle. It is only coincidence that in Wild Strawberries Isak Borg's path crosses that of young people who trigger such signifi­cant memories. In this mode of narration, scenes are built around chance encounters, and the entire film may consist of nothing more than a series of them, linked by a trip (The Silence, La Strada, Alice in the Cities) or aimless wanderings (La Dolce Vita, Cleo from 5 to 7, Alfie). The art film can thus become episodic, akin to picaresque and processional forms, or it can pattern coincidence to suggest the workings of an impersonal and unknown causality. Here is Bazin on Diary of a Country Priest:

If, nevertheless, the concatenation of events and the causal efficiency of the characters involved appear to operate just as rigidly as in a traditional dramatic struc­ture, it is because they are responding to an order, that of prophecy (or perhaps one should say of Kierkegaard­ian "repetition") that is as different from fatality as causality is from analogy.3

After working to open gaps, chance can also close off the syuzhet. When, at the end of Nights of Cabiria, the youths miraculously materialize to save Cabiria from despondency; or when the mimes make their calculatedly unexpected reappearance at the close of Blow-Up; or when two thugs emerge to rob and kill Fox at the close of Fox and His Friends—in each case, the narration asks us to unify the fabula by appeal to the plausible improbabilities of "real life."

We have seen that the classical film focuses the specta­tor's expectations upon the ongoing causal chain by shaping the syuzhet's dramatic duration around explicit deadlines. But the art film typically lacks such devices. How long do the searchers in L'Avventura have before Anna's fate is sealed? What could limit the time span of Marcello's adventures in La Dolce Vita or Alma's disintegration in Personae? By remov­ing or minimizing deadlines, not only does the art film create unfocused gaps and less stringent hypotheses about upcom­ing actions; it also facilitates an open-ended approach to causality in general. While motivated as "objectively" realis­tic, this open-endedness is no less a formal effect than is the more tightly "economical" Hollywood dramaturgy.

The loosening of causal relations is aided by a second sort of schema, that of a subjective or "expressive" notion of realism. The art film aims to "exhibit character." But what kind of character, and how to exhibit it?

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 (e. g., Lidia in La Notte) or they may question themselves about their purposes (Borg in Wild Strawberries, Anna in Les rendezvous d'Anna). 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. Again consider L'Avventura. Anna's disappearance is motivated to some degree: she is dissatisfied with Sandro, she is capri­cious, and she yearns for solitude. But once she vanishes, all our hypotheses become equally probable: she has died (by accident? by suicide?) or fled (in a passing boat). In the second half of the film, Claudia and Sandro take as their putative goal the tracing of clues to Anna's whereabouts. But the film's syuzhet devotes so much time to the couple's emotional reactions and to the other people they encounter that their objective starts to collapse. The recovery of Anna is no longer the causal nexus of the action, and our hypotheses turn to the development of the Claudia-Sandro affair.

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. Especially apt for the art-film fabula is the biography of the individual (Ray's Apu trilogy, Truf­faut's Antoine Doinel series) or the slice-of-life chronicle (Alfie, Cleo from 5 to 7). If the classical protagonist strug­gles, the drifting protagonist traces out an itinerary which surveys the film's social world. Certain occupations (e.g., journalism, prostitution) favor an encyclopedic, "cross­sectional" syuzhet pattern. In general, as causal connections in the fabula are weakened, parallelisms come to the fore. The films sharpen character delineation by impelling us to compare agents, attitudes, and situations. In The Seventh Seal, the Knight's tour of medieval society is enhanced by the juxtaposition of flagellants and buskers; Watanabe, the pro­tagonist of Ikiru, must encounter the denizens of night town and the kindly factory girl Toyo. At its limit, the device of parallellism can form the explicit basis of the film, as in Chytilova's Something Different and Pasolini's Pigpen. The art film's thematic crux, its attempt to pronounce judgments upon modem life and la condition humaine, depends upon its formal organization.

It is only in this sense that the art cinema counters Holly­wood's interest in "plot" by an interest in "character." If the classical film resembles a short story by Poe, the art cinema is closer to Chekhov. Indeed, early-twentieth-century literature is a central source for art-cinema models of character causality and syuzhet construction. Horst Ruthrof points to the emergence of a new sort of short story in the modem period, one which is "organized towards pointed situations in which a presented persona, a narrator, or the implied reader in a flash of insight becomes aware of meaningful as against meaningless existence."4 Typical of this is what Ruthrof calls the "boundary-situation" story, in which the causal chain leads up to an episode of the private individual's awareness of fundamental human issues. Examples would be Joyce's "Araby" and Hemingway's "Snows of Kiliman­jaro." The boundary situation is common in art-cinema narration; the film's causal impetus often derives from the protagonist's recognition that she or he faces a crisis of existential significance.

A simple instance is Fellini's 8 1/2 (1963). Guido, the wo­manizing film director, has coaxed cast and crew out on location to make a film whose point and script he cannot articulate. He also brings his Mistress, thus creating marital problems for himself. And he is plagued by memories of his childhood, guilty feelings toward his family, fantasies of his dominance over women, and the vision of an idealized muse. As the film progresses, Guido becomes trapped in the world of his problems until a press conference called by his pro­ducer forces him to choose some course of action. What he chooses remains uncertain (he may kill himself), but that Guido reaches a boundary situation with respect to the pur­pose of his life is beyond doubt. A different sort of boundary situation can be found in The Spider's Stratagem, when Athos Magnani discovers that his father was a traitor.

How heavily the film weights the boundary situation de­pends partly on the syuzhet's expositional procedures. The syuzhet can lead up to the situation by dramatizing the pertinent causal chain, as in The World of Apu when the hero's youth gradually prepares us for his recognition of the meaninglessness of art after his wife's death. Or the syuzhet can confine itself more stringently to the boundary situation itself, providing prior fabula information by exposition. Ruthrof points out the tendency of modem literature to focus on the boundary situation by compressing duration and restricting space. In theater, the Kammerspiel tradition achieved a comparable end. The habit of confining the syuzhet to the boundary situation and then revealing prior events to us through recounting or enactment became a dominant convention of the art film, seen in Rashomon, Ikiru, Death in Venice, The Go-between, The Model Shop, The Immortal Story, and most of Rohmer's films. Bergman, with his strong affinities with Kammerspiel, provides perhaps the most obvious examples.

The boundary situation provides a formal center within which conventions of psychological realism can take over. Focus on a situation's existential import motivates charac­ters' expressing and explaining their mental states. Con­cerned less with action than reaction, the art cinema pre­sents psychological effects in search of their causes. The dissection of feeling is often represented as therapy and cure (e.g., many of Bergman's films), but even when it is not, causation is often braked and the more introspective charac­ters pause to seek the etiology of their feelings. Characters retard the movement of the syuzhet by telling stories—autobiographical events (especially from childhood), fanta­sies, and dreams. Even if a character remains unaware of or inarticulate about his or her mental state, the viewer must be prepared to notice how behavior and setting can give the character away. The art cinema developed a range of mise­-en-scene cues for expressing character mood: static pos­tures, covert glances, smiles that fade, aimless walks, emotion-filled landscapes, and associated objects (e.g., Valentina's wire toy in La Notte or Catherine's hourglass in Jules and Jim). Within the fabula world—one that is usually as autonomous and internally consistent as that of the Holly­wood film—psychological realism consists of permitting a character to reveal the self to others and, inadvertently, to us.

This is a fully expressive realism in that the syuzhet can employ film techniques to dramatize private mental pro­cesses. Art-cinema narration employs all the sorts of subjec­tivity charted by Edward Branigan.5 Dreams, memories, hallucinations, daydreams, fantasies, and other mental ac­tivities can find embodiment in the image or on the sound track. Consequently, the behavior of the characters within the fabula world and the syuzhet's dramatization both focus on the character's problems of action and feeling; which is to say that "inquiry into character" becomes not only the prime thematic material but a central source of expectation, curios­ity, suspense, and surprise.

Conventions of expressive realism can shape spatial repre­sentation: optical point-of-view shots, flash frames of a glimpsed or recalled event, editing patterns, modulations of light and color and sound—all are often motivated by charac­ter psychology. In Repulsion, Belle de Jour, Juliet of the Spirits, and many other films, the surroundings may be construed as the projections of a character's mind. Simi­larly, the syuzhet may use psychology to justify the manipu­lation of time. The flashback is the most obvious instance (Hiroshima mon amour, Wild Strawberries, A Man and a Woman). Subjectivity can also justify the distension of time (slow motion or freeze frames) and manipulations of fre­quency, such as the repetition of images. (Hiroshima mon amour, The Spider's Stratagem). As V. V. Ivanov notes, the distortions in modern cinema are often motivated not by "Newtonian" time but rather by "psychological" time of the sort discussed by Bergson.6

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 knowledge. Unlike most classical films, the art film is apt to be quite restricted in its range of knowledge. Such restriction may enhance identification (character knowledge matches ours), but it may also make the narration less reliable (we cannot always be sure of the character's access to the total fabula). Sometimes the syuzhet will confine itself to what only one character knows, as in Blow-Up or The Wrong Move; sometimes the syuzhet splits knowledge between two central characters, as in Anto­nioni's trilogy. 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.

To "objective" and "subjective" verisimilitude we may add a third broad schema, that of overt narrational "commen­tary." In applying this schema, the viewer looks for those moments in which the narrational act interrupts the trans­mission of fabula information and highlights its own role. Stylistic devices that gain prominence with respect to clas­sical norms—an unusual angle, a stressed bit of cutting, a striking camera movement, an unrealistic shift in lighting or setting, a disjunction on the sound track, or any other break­down of objective realism which is not motivated as subjec­tivity—can be taken as the narration's commentary. Recall the "prophetic" camera movement in The Spider's Strat­agem (figs. 6.28-6.32), or the satiric freeze frame in Virid­iana that invites the spectator to compare the beggars' feast to the Last Supper. The marked self-consciousness of art­-cinema narration creates both a coherent fabula world and an intermittently present but highly noticeable external au­thority through which we gain access to it.

Thanks to the intrusive commentary, the self-conscious points in the classical text (the beginning and ending of a scene, of the film) become fore grounded in the art film. The credits of Persona and Blow-Up can tease us with fragmen­tary, indecipherable images that announce the power of the author to control what we know. The narrator can begin a scene in a fashion that cuts us adrift or can linger on a scene after its causally significant action has been completed. In particular, the "open" ending characteristic of the art cin­ema can be seen as proceeding from a narration which will not divulge the outcome of the causal chain. V. F. Perkins objects to the ending of La Notte on the grounds that "the 'real ending' is knowable but has been withheld .... The story is abandoned when it has served the director's purpose but before it has satisfied the spectator's requirements."7 To complain about the arbitrary suppression of the story's out­come is to reject one convention of the art film. A banal remark of the 1960s, that such films make you leave the theater thinking, is not far from the mark: the ambiguity, the play of alternative schemata, must not be halted. Thus the unexpected freeze frame becomes the most explicit figure of narrative irresolution. Furthermore, the pensive ending ac­knowledges the narration as not simply powerful but humble; the narration knows that life is more complex than art can ever be, and—a new twist of the realistic screw—the only way to respect this complexity is to leave causes dangling and questions unanswered. Like many art films, La Notte bares the device of the unresolved ending when a woman at the party asks the writer Giovanni how a certain story should end. He answers: "In so many ways."

Art-film narration goes beyond such codified moments of overt intervention. At any point in the film we must be ready to engage with the shaping process of an overt narration. A scene may end in medias res; gaps are created that are not explicable by reference to character psychology; retardation may result from the withholding of information or from overloaded passages that require unpacking later. Lacking the "dialogue hooks" of classical construction, the film will exploit more connotative, symbolic linkages between epi­sodes. Scenes will not obey the Hollywood pattern of exposi­tion, pickup of old line of action, and start of new line. Irony may burst out: in The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Run­ner, Richardson cuts between a borstal choir singing "Jeru­salem" and a captured boy being beaten. More generally, the canonic story schema we bring to the film may be disarrayed. There may be little or no exposition of prior fabula events, and even what is occurring at the moment may require subsequent rethinking (Sternberg's "rise and fall of first impressions"). Exposition will tend to be delayed and widely distributed; often we will learn the most important causal factors only at the film's end. Like classical narration, art­-film narration poses questions that guide us in fitting mate­rial into an ongoing structure. But these questions do not simply involve causal links among fabula events, such as "What became of Sean Regan?" (The Big Sleep) or "Will Stanley seduce Roy's husband?" (In This Our Life). In the art film, as we saw in our analysis of The Spider's Stratagem, the very construction of the narration becomes the object of spectator hypotheses: how is the story being told? why tell the story in this way?

Obvious examples of such manipulation are disjunctions in temporal order. One common strategy is to use flashbacks in ways that only gradually reveal a prior event, so as to tantalize the viewer with reminders of his or her limited knowledge. The Conformist is a good example. Such a flashback is also usefully equivocal; it might be attributable to the character's spasms of memory rather than to the narration's overt suppressiveness. A more striking device is the flashforward—the syuzhet's representation of a "future" fabula action. The flashforward is unthinkable in the classi­cal narrative cinema, which seeks to retard the ending, emphasize communicativeness, and play down self-con­sciousness. But in the art film, the flashforward flaunts the narration's range of knowledge (no character can know the future), the narration's recognition of the viewer (the flashforward is addressed to us, not to the characters), and the narration's limited communicativeness (telling a little while withholding a lot).

What the flashback and flashforward do in time can also take place in space. Odd ("arty") camera angles or camera movements independent of the action can register the pres­ence of self-conscious narration. The "invisible witness" canonized by Hollywood precept becomes overt. In La Notte, for example, the bored wife Lidia leaves a party with the roué Roberto. As they drive in his car down a rainy street, they talk and laugh animatedly. But we never hear the conversation, and we see only bits of it, because the camera remains obstinately outside the closed car, tracking along with it as it passes through pools of light. The narration has "chosen" to "dedramatize" the most vivacious interpersonal exchange in the film. Such procedures tend to set an omniscient narra­tion's range of knowledge in opposition to the character's; effects of irony and anticipation are especially prominent. In the La Notte example, the camera position deflating the scene foreshadows the somber turn the action will take when Roberto soon tries to seduce Lidia. Unlike the classical film, however, which usually makes the profilmic event only moderately self-conscious, art-cinema narration often sig­nals that the profilmic event is also a construct. This can be accomplished by means of unmotivated elements in the mise-en-scene, such as the sourceless strips of pink and blue light sliding through Fassbinder's Lola. Alternatively, styl­ized treatment of situations, settings, or props, or of an era or milieu, can seem to proceed from the narration. In Senso and 1900, events are presented with an operatic opulence that invites us to consider the profilmic event itself as the narra­tion's restaging of history.

The result is that a highly self-conscious narration weaves through the film, stressing the act of presenting this fabula in just this way. Deviations from classical norms can be grasped as commentary upon the story action. More gener­ally, the degree of deviation from the canonic story becomes a trace of the narrational process. Syuzhet and style con­stantly remind us of an invisible intermediary that structures what we see. Marie-Claire Ropars's discussion of ecriture­the tendency of directors like Resnais and Duras to bar direct access to a profilmic reality—emphasizes the general tendency of the art film to flaunt narrational procedures.8 When these flauntings are repeated systematically, conven­tion asks us to unify them as proceeding from an "author."

In Chapter 4, I argued that there was no good reason to identify the narrational process with a fictive narrator. In the art cinema, however, the overt self-consciousness of the narration is often paralleled by an extratextual emphasis on the filmmaker as source. Within the art cinema's mode of production and reception, the concept of the author has a formal function it did not possess in the Hollywood studio system. Film journalism and criticism promote authors, as do film festivals, retrospectives, and academic film study. Directors' statements of intent guide comprehension of the film, while a body of work linked by an authorial signature encourages viewers to read each film as a chapter of an oeuvre. Thus the institutional "author" is available as a source of the formal operation of the film. Sometimes the film asks to be taken as autobiography, the filmmaker's confession (e.g., 8 1/2, The 400 Blows, many of Fassbinder's works). More broadly, the author becomes the real-world parallel to the narrational presence "who" communicates (what is the filmmaker saying?) and "who" expresses (what is the artist's personal vision?).

The consistency of an authorial signature across an oeuvre constitutes an economically exploitable trademark. The signature depends partly on institutional processes (e.g., advertising a film as "Fellini's Orchestra Rehearsal") and partly upon recognizably recurring devices from one film to another. One could distinguish filmmakers by motifs (Bunuel's cripples, Fellini's parades, Bergman's theater per­formances) and by camera technique (Truffaut's pan-and­-zoom, Ophuls's sinuous tracks, Chabrol's high angles, An­tonioni's long shots). The trademark signature can depend upon narrational qualities as well. There are the "baroque" narrators in the films of Cocteau, Ophuls, Visconti, Welles, Fellini, and Ken Russell—narrators who stress a spectacular concatenation of music and mise-en-scene. More "realist" narrators can be found in the films of Rossellini, Olmi, For­man, and others. The art cinema has made a place for satiric narration (e.g., Bunuel's) and for pastiche (e.g., the many homages to Hitchcock). The author-as-narrator can be ex­plicit, as in Le plaisir or The Immortal Story; or the narrator can simply be the presence that accompanies the story ac­tion with a discreet but insistent obbligato of visual and sonic commentary. The popularity of R. W. Fassbinder in recent years may owe something to his ability to change narrational personae from film to film so that there is a "realist" Fass­binder, a "literary" Fassbinder, a "pastiche" Fassbinder, a "frenzied" Fassbinder, and so on.

The authorial trademark requires that the spectator see this film as fitting into a body of work. From this it is only a short step to explicit allusion and citation. A film may "quote," as Resnais does when he includes classic footage in Mon oncle d' Amerique; it may be "dedicated," as La sirene du Mississipi is dedicated to Renoir; or it may cite, as when Antoine Doinel steals a production still from Monika. The film can allude to classical genre conventions (Fassbinder recalling the Universal melodrama, Demy the MGM musi­cal). The art film often rests upon a cinephilia as intense as Hollywood's: full understanding of one film requires a knowledge of and a fascination with other films. At its limit, this tendency is seen in those numerous art films about filmmaking: 8 1/2, Day for Night, Everything for Sale, Beware of a Holy Whore, Identification of a Woman, The Clowns, and many more. A film-within-a-film structure realistically motivates references to other works; it allows unexpected shifts between levels of fictionality; it can occasionally trig­ger parody of the art cinema itself. In La Ricotta, Pasolini's episode of RoGoPaG, Orson Welles plays a director filming the Christ story; he is pestered by a journalist who asks him about his vision of life and his opinion of Italian society. Antonioni's Lady without the Camellias portrays a vacuous starlet who marries a scriptwriter. He immediately forbids her to play in any of the cheap romances that were her forte and instead puts her in a biopic of Jeanne d'Arc: "An art film, something that will sell abroad!"

The art cinema's spectator, then, grasps the film by ap­plying conventions of objective and expressive realism and of authorial address. Yet are these schemata not incompati­ble? Verisimilitude, objective or subjective, is inconsistent with an intrusive author. The surest signs of narrational omniscience—the flashforward, the doubled scene in Per­sona, the shifts from black-and-white to color in A Man and a Woman and If—are the least capable of realistic justifica­tion. Contrariwise, to push the realism of chance and psychological indefiniteness to its limit is to create a haphaz­ard narrative in which an author's shaping hand would not be visible. In short, a realistic aesthetic and an expressionist aesthetic are hard to merge. The art cinema seeks to solve the problem in a sophisticated way: through ambiguity.

Within some traditional aesthetic positions, ambiguity is what philosophers call a "good-making property." Therefore, Hollywood films would be judged bad because they are denotatively unequivocal, while art films become good be­cause they ask to be puzzled over. Within the framework of this book, however, ambiguity is only one aesthetic strategy among many, all of potentially equal interest. What is signifi­cant is that art-cinema narration announces its debt to the arts of the early twentieth century by making ambiguity, either of tale or telling, central.

The syuzhet of classical narration tends to move toward absolute certainty, but the art film, like early modernist fiction, holds a relativistic notion of truth. This effect is achieved by means of a specific strategy. The three principal schemata provide norms, but the puzzling passages of the film will be explained equally well by alternative conventions. We have already seen this ambiguity at work in our analysis of The Spider's Stratagem, where we found contrary cues for whether to assign flashbacks to characters or to the narrational commentary. Antonioni's Red Desert offers another example. Putting aside the island fantasy, we can motivate any scene's color scheme on grounds of subjective verisimilitude (Giulietta sees her life in this way) or of au­thorial commentary (the narration shows her life as being this way). That these schemata are mutually exclusive cre­ates the ambiguity. Or recall Rashomon, in which any char­acter's account of the rape and murder may be objectively accurate or warped by subjective interests. In Herzog's Kas­par Hauser, the interpolated desert footage may be ascribed to Kaspar's visions or to the narrational commentary.

The art film is non-classical in that it creates permanent narrational gaps and calls attention to processes of fabula construction. But these very deviations are placed within new extrinsic norms, resituated as realism or authorial com­mentary. Eventually, the art-film narration solicits not only denotative comprehension but connotative reading, a higher-level interpretation. Whenever confronted with a problem in causality, time, or space, we tend to seek realistic motivation. Is a character's mental state creating the dif­ficulty? Is "life" just leaving loose ends? If we are thwarted, we appeal to the narration, and perhaps also to the author. Is the narrator violating the norm to achieve a specific effect? In particular, what thematic significance justifies the devia­tion? What range of judgmental connotations or symbolic meanings can be produced from this point or pattern? Ide­ally, the film hesitates, hovering between realistic and au­thorial rationales. Uncertainties persist but are understood as such, as obvious uncertainties. Put crudely, the proce­dural slogan of art-cinema narration might be: "Interpret this film, and interpret it so as to maximize ambiguity."

As I have described it, art-cinema narration might seem to encourage what Veronica Forrest-Thomson calls "bad naturalization." She observes of Wallace Stevens, "His obscurity is a kind of coyness, an attempt to stay one step ahead of the reader and so gain a reputation for daring while ensuring that the reader knows exactly where the poet is and how he can take that one step to reach him."9 And it is true that at its most banal, art-cinema narration promises complexity and profundity only to settle our attention on stereotyped figures: "reality," neurotic characters, the author as puppeteer. But in many of these films, the narration sustains a complex play within the conventions of the mode. There is the possibility of exploring non-redundant cues and devising new, wholly contextual narrational devices. The film can build up curios­ity about its own narrational procedures, thus intensifying the viewer's interest in the unfolding patterns of syuzhet and style. Uncertainty about story events, generated by causal looseness and gaps, can create what Sternberg calls "anti­cipatory caution," a thwarting of the primacy effect and a discouraging of exclusive and likely hypotheses. The narra­tion can warn us or mislead us. By alternating overloaded with sparse passages, the narration can demand intense attention; and by creating ambiguous organizational pat­terns, the narration can make such great demands on mem­ory that it may be necessary to see the film more than once (a formal effect not without economic value). Finally, the film can undermine norms far more frequently than can a clas­sical film. The art film plays among several tendencies: deviation from classical norms, adherence to art-cinema norms, creation of innovative intrinsic norms, and the greater or lesser foregrounding of deviations from those in­trinsic norms. To see how the game can go, let us look at one film in detail.





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