Lade Inhalt...

The distortion of narrative techniques in modern Hollywood

"I wanted to destroy something beautiful!"

Bachelorarbeit 2006 36 Seiten

Medien / Kommunikation - Film und Fernsehen



1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject

2. The classical Hollywood narration
2.1 Space
2.2 Time
2.3 Character

3. Former attempts and influences
3.1 Early Years – Luis Bunuel
3.2 The New Hollywood
3.3 European and independent influence
3.4 Asian film
3.5 Game narration

4. The cinema of distorted narration
4.1 Space
4.2 Time
4.3 Character
4.4 The diegesis problem

5. Conclusion

6. Relapse – Hollywood after 9/11

1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject

Hollywood has a sense of self-rejuvenation that has helped it survive for over a hundred years, through two world wars and against the competition of the television. In every threatening situation, Hollywood found a way to change and to implement new ways of storytelling. In this essay I will try to outline that the late 90ies and the early new millennium saw such a threatening and changing situation and that the new way of storytelling invented in this time, the cinema of distorted narration[1], aims at a revising and misinforming narrational structure that creates a new spectacular sensation using the viewer’s knowledge of Hollywood against himself.

2. The classical Hollywood narration

The starting point for this chapter has to be a question: Is there even something like a classical Hollywood way of storytelling? Or is it rather, that different forms of narration were used from the beginning of profitable movie making? Even the most respected film theorists seem to stultify themselves when it comes to giving an account of an overall theory of classic Hollywood narration. As Elizabeth Cowlie points out in her essay Classical Hollywood cinema and classical narrative even experts like David Bordwell fail to generalize classical Hollywood storytelling. Cowlie compares Bordwell's works The Classical Hollywood Cinema[2] and Narration and the fiction film[3] and concludes that Bordwell's picture of Hollywood narration is strangely varied:

“A classical mode of narration – classical Hollywood narrative – is defined, but its very definition includes, it seems, virtually all possible deviations, so that every exception therefore proves the rule. The church is so broad that heresy is impossible”[4]

And indeed it seems rather difficult to describe what a classical Hollywood narration is actually composed of. The large number of genres and sub-genres form own systematics that have been followed by generations of film makers and directors. The narrational effect of a happy-end for example can never be used in the cinematographic sub-system of the genre melodrama. And this is only a very strong example for the thousands of inbound rules that have been developed in the classical Hollywood realm of cinema.[5]

But although one can therefore not talk about one overall classical Hollywood narration, surely some main ingredients of profitable cinematographic narration can be found. In the following paragraphs I will try to point out which means of storytelling have been employed in almost every successful movie up to the post-modern era of Hollywood.

2.1 Space

A classical Hollywood movie is set in a place that the viewer is familiar with because he has been in a similar spot (a suburb house for example), a place that is present in a collective knowledge (like the Eiffel tower) or a place that is at least reconstructable by the viewer's mind. An example for the last instance would be a distant alien planet. Neither the viewer nor anyone else has been there. Therefore the recipient cannot draw from his own or from the collective’s knowledge. He can, however reconstruct how an alien planet could look like and how he himself could interact with such a place. Hence, an indirect identification with this sort of presented space is possible which makes even an alien planet a believable cinematic space. We therefore have a variety of spaces a classical Hollywood movie can draw from. I will try to give some examples as to how far this variety can be stretched.

My first example involves one of the most typical examples of action movies per se. 1988 saw the publication of the first Die Hard[6] film. The movie (as well as its two successors) features Bruce Willis as the ex-cop John McLane fighting against evil terrorists / mercenaries / bombers. Die Hard 1 is set in a gigantic Los Angeles office building. McLane's ex-wife is held hostage in one of the upper floors and the whole house is controlled by heavily armed terrorists. And as the police is unwilling or unable to do something about the situation, McLane has to fight his way through the building floor by floor to the showdown on the top level[7]. This is probably the most perfect spacial situation for a classical action movie[8]. The viewer is familiar with the environment as he sees a similar office building (from the outside or from the inside) day by day. He can connect to the presented narrational space from the beginning of the movie onwards. Additionally, the progress of the story corresponds to the spacial progress that McLane makes through the building. In this way the viewer is always informed about the process and does even know more about the story world than the protagonist himself (as McLane spends much time crawling through ventilation pipes not knowing where exactly he is).

The second example shall show how small a classical story space can be. The German production Abwärts[9] from 1984 tells the story of four men stuck in an elevator in a business building on a late Friday evening. As the story develops, the story space is mostly confined to the small square of the elevator cabin. As the film implies a crime story, the confinement of space is also an homage to the narrational tradition of the “closed room” introduced by Edgar Allan Poe in his short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue[10] (1841). But applied to the idea under observation in this chapter of my essay, the film implies one of the smallest story spaces that is bearable for a viewer. We are deterred by the thought of being stuck in such a confined area. And yet we know how it is to use an elevator, we are familiar with that space. The reduction of story space does not prevent us from understanding the narrational structure of the film.[11]

As a third example I want to present the movie What dreams may come[12] (1998) by Vincent Ward. The film utilizes, alongside others, the story space of heaven. Not only is there an infinite amount of perceptions of how heaven may look like, but additionally none of these perceptions features a limitation of space for heaven. What then is to show in the presentation of such a place? Ward circumvents this problem by presenting heaven as a picture painted in pastel oil colours. Instead of confronting the viewer with an infinite, non-definable space, Ward relates to something that most of the viewers have probably seen sometime in their life – a pastel picture. What dreams may come therefore is a movie with a classical Hollywood narration because it cares about the perception of the viewer. Ward did not only create this vision of heaven because it is optically impressive, but also because it allows the viewer an easier access to the story space.

2.2 Time

So, as we have seen, easy access to the diegetic space is very important for the financial success of a classical Hollywood movie[13]. In this chapter I want to show that same holds truth with the notion of time in a classical Hollywood narration. A classical Hollywood movie has to have a congruent, understandable time line to allow a viewer to have direct access to the story world. The viewer seeks for a conceivable time pattern within the movie. Edward Branigan explains:

“The impetus for creating a story time does not derive in any simple way from the running time of he film – screen time – but rather from top-down processes seeking a new order which will be sensitive to other constraints on the data, e.g. presumed causality and event duration.”[14]

Consequently, if a director can not build up a coherent story time all by himself and is dependent on the viewer to assemble this story time in the viewing process, it is one of the main goals of cinematic narration to construct a diegetic world filled with hints that lead the viewer to the desired conception of story time.

Again, I would like to apply three examples of a classical Hollywood narration in which the construction of time is done in a way that steers the viewer into a desired direction.

When my first example for classical narrative space was the Die Hard trilogy, I want to apply another successful movie series for the notion of time: James Bond. Ian Fleming's story of the British super-agent follows a straight formula in nearly every film. And this is also true with the chronological order of the movies. Nearly all of the movies feature a small pre-scene to introduce the protagonist or the situation, followed by a briefing in the MI6 headquarters. The rest of the film is made up by Bond chasing the bad guy, trying to defuse a bomb in the nick of time and by a constant on and off of verbal or stalwart encounters between Bond and the villains. As simple as this might seem, it works for most of the movies. The Bond series is one of the most successful ones of all times. The scheme is also applied to the classic Bond movie Octopussy (1983)[15]. In the opening scene, one of the MI6 agents, 009, is killed in the British agency in Berlin holding a Russian Faberge-egg, which leads Bond (in agreement with his superiors in the MI6) to the insane soviet general Orlov, who wants to blow up an atomic bomb in an American air base. Bond has to capture the villain and the bomb (which is deployed in a moving train) to save the world. With this scenario set up, director Glen can be sure that the viewer has only two options to construct a story time. Either the film will run up to the point where Bond manages to defuse the bomb and save the world, or the film will run up to a point where Bond is killed and the bomb explodes. Because the viewer has so much pre-knowledge about the person James Bond and about other movies, the second possibility is not likely to appear. Therefore, Glen has reached his goal of conveying a coherent time pattern to the viewer.

We see that a count-down (like that of the ticking bomb in Octopussy) is a classical device of constructing a clear time line within a classical movie narration[16]. But there are also movies that follow a classical narrative order that do not construct a time line that runs from one point to a later point without any deflections. Flashbacks and flash forwards are also legitimate means of storytelling.

This sub-paragraph shall exploit this fact and show, how a classical narration can imply a deviating time line without distorting the narrative process. As an example I will use probably one of the most well-known and respected movies of all time – Citizen Kane[17] (1941). Aside from being considered as THE classical movie of all times by many critics[18], Citizen Kane is also famous for its employment of flashbacks. The film begins with the death of Charles Foster Kane, a rich and unscrupulous man. Throughout the film, a reporter tries to unveil the secrets of Kane's life and character and the meaning of Kane's last word “Rosebud” by interviewing several people who knew the deceased. Re-narrating this search for truth, the movie is composed of flashbacks containing the remembrances of the interviewed people. What distinguishes the employment of flashbacks in this movie from the construction of time lines in the modern distorted narrations that I want to describe later on, is the clear-cut disclosure of the notion flashback. The viewer knows that he is witnessing a flashback although the different time schemes are overlapping and intertwining[19]. The scene in which a TV program is recounting Kane's life for example is clearly deviated from the rest of the movie by style and cut. Therefore, although Citizen Kane is a highly complex and complicated movie, it does not place an emphasis on the transmission of misinformation.

As a third example, I want to speak about the sub-genre of episodic filming. When thinking about a distortion of narration, it would be quite naturally to conclude, that episodic filming is the prototype of this distortion. However, I want to show that this film technique can be accounted for as a mean of narration-distortion but that not every episodic film has a distorted narration. I will briefly explain what I mean, using the example of Tarantino's Pulp Fiction[20] (1994), a film that has acquainted cult status with younger viewers. Tarantino's movie tells four small stories about gangsters, love, killing and mayhem that intertwine throughout the whole of the viewing experience. Surprisingly enough, as confusing as the plot is, it works pretty well in this movie. The discontinuity of time is balanced by the clever use of recognition marks. Characters, places and sound schemes are implied in a manner that makes it easy for the viewer to recognize, which time scheme is accounted for in each scene. Of course this is reinforced by a wide range of very famous stars whose faces are easily recognizable for the recipient[21]. Retrospectively, the construction of a notion of time in a classical Hollywood narration is (as well as the notion of space) aimed at an understanding by the recipient and not aimed at a misinformation. However, Pulp Fiction (being on the verge of the period that is under observation in this essay) has appendages of a distortion of narration as the viewer is forced to revise what he has seen once the film is over.

2.3 Character

What we have seen now is that space as well as time are crucial points when it comes to understanding a movie and (on the director's side) to allowing the viewer an easy access to the diegetic world. In this sub-chapter I will go into detail on the third, and maybe the most important point of connection between the diegesis and the viewer – the character.

A good movie offers the viewer a character that he can connect with. The notion of the hero relies strongly on the assumption that a recipient needs a role model within a movie to be closely attached to the story. An understandable character development is therefore one of the key concepts of classical Hollywood narration - be it a hero, an anti-hero or even a villain.

I shall first have a look at the notion of the hero. Embedding a central figure in a movie whose positive attributes are admirable for the viewer is a key approach since the early days of the big studio era. An approach that was soon formed to be what is today called the “one star hero system” – one star with such exaggerated (mostly physical) aspects that he seems nearly supernatural. And he uses his superior qualities to achieve the ultimate goal (saving the girl, the world, escaping prison etc.). As I will show in chapter 3.4, the development of the hero character took a different progression in the Asian realm of film. The perfect examples for this kind of hero embedding is of course the sub-genre of the superhero movie. Protagonists like Superman[22] (1978), Spiderman[23] (2002)[24] or Captain America (1944)[25] use their super powers to achieve their goals and serve as excellent, clean role models. But what is even more important: They do not change. The classical hero does not change his character traits. He stays good from the beginning to the end. Superman for example is an immotile character since the publishing of the first comic. And his positive attributes will not change drastically in the upcoming movie Superman Returns[26] (2006) – the classical hero is a fixed character-entity.


[1] Cover-Picture: Screenshot from 12 Monkeys (1996) DVD. The mentally and physically injured James Cole (Bruce Willis) awakening from coma in front of an 18. century picture.

[2] Bordwell, David: The Classical Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

[3] Bordwell, David: Narration and the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

[4] Cowlie, Elizabeth: Storytelling – Classical Hollywood cinema and classical narrative. In: Neale, Steve and Murray Smith: Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge, 1998. Page 178.

[5] As Knut Hickethier puts it: "Was der Show-Down im Western ist, dass ist das Verhör im Kriminalfilm. Viele der Dialogelemente sind dabei zu 'Chiffren' geronnen, die der Zuschauer nicht nur rasch wiedererkennt, sondern sie auch schon erwartet. Die einfache Narrationsstruktur ist Vorraussetzung dafür, dass die erzählten Geschichten in hohem Maße mit zusätzlichen Bedeutungen aufgeladen werden können." - Hickethier, Knut: Genretheorie und Genreanalyse. In: Jürgen Felix (Hrsg.): Moderne Film Theorie. Bender Verlag: Mainz, 2002. Page 82.

[6] McTiernan, John: Die Hard. 20th Century Fox, 1988.

[7] The Die Hard trilogy remains true to itself in this matter as part two is set on an airport and the third part plays in the city of New York (which is – I suggest – rooted in a collective knowledge), where McLane has to fight his way from district to district.

[8] Isabella Reicher and Drehli Robnik describe this situation very thoroughly but also very generalizing in their essay “Das Action-Kammer-Spiel”: “Gegeben sei ein Raum, […] eingebunden in das Ensemble einer Alltagswelt. In einer handstreichartigen Aktion wird er besetzt […]. Der Raum ist eine Kammer geworden. Die Kammer kann auch ein Stadion sein. Sie ist in jedem Fall Spielfeld, auf dem ein beschränkter Satz von Figuren ein beschränktes Repertoire von Spielzügen ausführt: Die Eroberung eines Territoriums, seine Verteidigung (innen) und Belagerung (außen).“

See: Reicher, Isabella and Drehli Robnik: „Das Action-Kammer-Spiel – Hollywood-Filme nach dem Die Hard-Bauplan“ In: Felix, Jürgen: Die Postmoderne im Kino – Ein Reader. Schüren Verlag: Marburg, 2002. Page 239.

[9] Schenkel, Carl: Abwärts. EuroVideo, 1984.

[10] Poe, Edgar Allan: Murders in the Rue Morgue. Reclam: Stuttgart, 1977.

[11] A similar technique is used, for example, in: Fincher, David: The Panic Room. Columbia TriStar, 2002.

[12] Ward, Vincent: What dreams may come. PolyGram, 1998.

[13] Abwärts as well as What dreams may come were pretty successful at the box office, not to talk of the Die Hard trilogy, which was one of the big blockbusters in the 80ies and 90ies.

[14] Branigan, Edward: Narrative Comprehension and Film. Routledge: London, 1992. P. 45.

[15] Glen, John: Octopussy. MGM, 1983.

[16] According to Reicher and Robnik, this idea of the deadline finds more and more stress in modern blockbuster action movies as larger amount of happenings has to be shown in a much smaller amount of time: “Über den Aspekt hinaus, daß in Filmen >immer mehr passiert< kommt es im Zeichen detaillierter, polymorpher Chronometrisierung zur Auswucherung der Deadline-Struktur: Die große Todeslinie zerfällt in viele kleine Fristen.” See: Reicher, Isabella and Drehli Robnik: „Das Action-Kammer-Spiel – Hollywood-Filme nach dem Die Hard-Bauplan“ In: Felix, Jürgen: Die Postmoderne im Kino – Ein Reader. Schüren Verlag: Marburg, 2002. Page 249.

[17] Welles, Orson: Citizen Kane. RKO Radio Pictures, 1941.

[18] The magazine Sight and Sound (which is hosted by the British Film Institute - BFI) for example does a survey among directors and film critics every ten years, asking about the most important film of all times. Since 1962 Citizen Kane is always number one. Source: 12. 8. 2006.

[19] The complexity of the movie is also shown by Branigan’s problems in decribing the flashbacks in the film: „Thatcher’s flashback represents at least an implied author’s view of the reporter Thompson’s view of Thatcher’s view of Kane.“ See: Branigan, Edward: Narrative Comprehension and Film. Routledge: London, 1992.

[20] Tarantino, Quentin: Pulp Fiction. Miramax, 1994.

[21] For example Bruce Willis as a boxer that is set to loose in his next fight.

[22] Donner, Richard: Superman – The Movie. Warner Bros., 1978.

[23] Raimi, Sam: Spider-Man. Columbia Pictures, 2002.

[24] I am aware that the Spider-Man movie was only published in 2002 and would therefore directly connect to the period I want to use for my explanation of distorted narration. But the underlying narratological scheme is much older. In fact, the first comic appearance of Spider-Man was in 1962 in Amazing Fantasy, issue 15. Source:, 15.08.2006.

[25] Clifton, Elmar and John English: Captain America. Republic Pictures, 1944.

[26] Singer, Bryan: Superman Returns. Warner Bros., 2006.




Titel: The distortion of narrative techniques in modern Hollywood