Realism/Classicism/Formalism as a Framework to Understand Narrative

As we began to unpack the concept of narrative in fiction during last Wednesday’s class, I found myself somewhat frustrated and confused trying to navigate Michael Bell’s “How Primordial is Narrative?” The ideas did not need Bell’s assistance of convoluted writing to be a little difficult to understand; I thought for sure I was going to end up agreeing with Christopher Nash’s take on narrative for the sheer fact that “Slaughtering the Subject: Literature’s Assault on Narrative” was more penetrable for being more clearly written. As I went over my notes and re-read the reading, however, I surprised myself by coming to something more resembling Bell’s thinking. Applying some principles from film appreciation – namely the realism/classicism/formalism scale and some insights I’ve taken away from my recent documentary film class – we can see that Bell is right when he references McIntyre and says narratives are metaphor, and also when he discusses Mink and the idea that texts act on readers and readers act on texts.

Louis Gianetti’s (Understanding Movies) realism/classicism/formalism scale is a handy reference tool here because, among other things, it refers to degrees of manipulation and can be applied to narrative structure. The most realistic film one could possibly make would be to set up a camera somewhere and start recording, letting the action unfold organically in front of it – no script, no setup, no alteration to lighting or setting, etc. Keeping in mind that the camera is a proxy for the audience who will later watch the film, we must be aware of the fact that even in this example, some manipulations are occurring: the filmmaker has decided where to set up the camera, what direction to point it, and when to start shooting. In this way the camera as proxy for the audience breaks down because *we* have not decided where to stand, what to look at, and when to look. These decisions have been made for us by a filmmaker. Therefore, the most rudimentary of a structure has been imposed. That it otherwise lacks a structure is a de facto structure. The movie didn’t shoot itself, after all, just as stories don’t write themselves.

In his chapter about story, Gianetti spends much time discussing the classical paradigm – Freytag’s Pyramid as it was taught to me in high school lit classes – in that classically-structured (as in Hollywood) films likewise have an exposition, an inciting incident, rising action, a climax, and a resolution. This is about as structured of a narrative as one can get. It is formulaic, and Hollywood loves this formula because it keeps making money. This is a formula imposed on a film by a writer and a director; as such, it is a manipulation. The manipulations, however, are intended to be seamless; as audience members, we are not thinking about the continuity editing or the natural (as opposed to real) dialogue or the fact that the mise en scene is no accident. In this way, narrative is not life, but it is like life – a metaphor for life, with manipulations in place that are intended to make the audience buy into what it is seeing for the duration of the film (or reading for the duration of the story).

There are always exceptions. Recently in the class in which I’m the Supplemental Instructor, we screened Dazed and Confused. This film does not follow the classical paradigm. There is no obvious protagonist or antagonist, unless you want to broaden the terms to say “youth” and “authority” respectively – but even that is a stretch. The narrative is very linear. There is conflict in the film, but it doesn’t build to an obvious climax. Rather, Dazed… has more of a “slice of life” structure in that it follows a group of kids beginning on the afternoon of the last day of school until the sun comes up the next morning. The chronologically-dependent plot, then, would fall somewhere between realism and classicism on Gianetti’s spectrum. Though it doesn’t exactly fit the classical paradigm mold, there were still manipulations, decisions made for the viewer – a narrative that did not write itself.

When Bell references Mink, the idea that readers affect texts just as much as texts act upon readers again becomes obvious if we shift from a story that is words on a page to one that is images on a screen. Whether a film is abstract because because it’s extreme realism (the setting up of a camera and letting life unfold in front of it) or so formalistic that it does not seem to be saying anything at all, it is human nature to want to make some kind of sense of it, to apply logic and order where we see none. What we are doing is trying to impose a familiar structure upon it, and if we can’t, we either try to see where the film and the familiar structure intersect, or we modify the old structure to fit what we’re watching. In short, we are turning to a prior order of meaning because we need the familiar to help us navigate the unfamiliar. At this point, we could even flash back to Hirsch’s claim that the need for a common frame of reference is essential to cultural literacy and apply it to narrative literacy.

Nash may claim that truth is unstable because language is unstable, but this does not change the fact that when we’re in unfamiliar territory, we look for what it has in common with things that are familiar. A writer’s choice to create using some sort of “anti-narrative” is still a conscious decision, and therefore it is a structure placed by an external hand; films and texts don’t self-create out of nothing. Since such narratives come from human minds and human hands, it is inevitable that viewers and readers with human eyes and human minds are going to try to impose familiar structures upon them.


~ by Shanna Gilkeson on February 11, 2013.

One Response to “Realism/Classicism/Formalism as a Framework to Understand Narrative”

  1. The movie Dazed and Confused is one of my favorites! I love how you describe what’s taking place in it. There is no clear narrator or main character, just a group of kids hanging out, dealing with everything that comes with being a teenager. I think a movie like this doesn’t even need a point to it. It’s just one of those films for nostalgia and paying homage to a great decade. It’s weird how I don’t particularly like reading literature with a bunch of different narrators jumping back and forth. I mean, if it’s done right, I’ll like it, but usually I’m not crazy about it. With movies, I actually like the different characters, and having no clear narrator. It fits for a movie like this. I like how everything just flows. It’s almost like somebody just decided to film their last days of high school.

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