DEFINING MULTIPLE NARRATIVE STRUCTURES

When we look at multiple narrative cinema, the first question we should ask ourselves concerns the nature of a multiple narrative (or multiple story) picture. In most cases it is rather easy to see whether a film consists of more than one causal chain of events or not. Since the rest of this paper will deal specifically with the characteristics and hallmarks of multiple narratives structures, I will first go into an example of a typical classical structure. For once we have set multiple narrative cinema apart from ‘regular' narrative cinema which employs a single unified narrative, we will be able to categorize the various forms that multiple narrative structures can take.

 

Classical unified narrative in The Untouchables

 

Classical Hollywood cinema has traditionally presented its viewer with a unified narrative. A filmic grammar was developed gradually to help the viewer make sense of the narrative. Elements such as main and supporting characters help the viewer understand what the story is about. In Bordwell's definition of the classical Hollywood cinema, the narrative is focused on a goal-oriented protagonist: a hero who is drawn into a situation which he must resolve in some way. Since the plot is typically focused solely on the goals of the protagonist, supporting characters are introduced into the plot to fulfill a certain function. These characters may have their own goals, which may or may not become part of the hero's quest, but they usually have a single specialty or trait that gives them a function in the plot (romantic interest, sidekick, evil henchman, etc.)

The Untouchables (1987) is a perfect example. The film's narrative deals with Treasury officer Elliot Ness's quest to get criminal Al Capone behind bars. This is a goal that is clearly and explicitly delineated from the start, and most scenes follow the protagonists's actions from that point on. At first he tries to achieve this goal by himself, which leads to failure when he finds out that the rest of the police force is corrupt. As he walks home, depressed about his embarrassing failure, the character of Malone (Sean Connery) is introduced. In the first dialogue between the two characters, Malone shows himself to be an expert on Chicago in general and police work in particular. Ness therefore looks Malone up the next day and persuades him to join forces and go after Capone. Malone continues to tutor Ness about Capone and police work throughout the rest of the picture, until he delivers the last clue on catching Capone to Ness, at which point he is killed off. The death of Malone not only has the plot function of strengthening Ness's resolve to catch Capone, it also functions structurally as reinforcement of the audience's sympathy for his quest.

The other key supporting characters have similarly functional plot activities: Stone (Andy Garcia) is recruited from the police academy, where he is introduced as an excellent marksman. This quality will serve its purpose in two key sequences, while other character elements are either underplayed or simply not included: the only information on Stone is that he is of Italian descent, he is not married and he is and excellent marksman. The third supporting man in Ness's quartet of heroes is the accountant (Charles Martin Smith), who has the structural function of providing comic relief for the audience as well as the providing the plot with a solution for convicting Capone. Once these two elements have been exhausted, the character is logically the first one to be killed off. His death, like Malone's, strengthens both Ness's resolve and audience support.

The same kind of functionality is to be seen on the side of the ‘bad guys'. Using the same technique as Hitchcock did in North by Northwest (1959) , the structural entity of the ‘bad guy' is divided into two characters in the plot: the main character of Al Capone (Robert de Niro), who is seen to be vindictive and remorseless yet amusing and sophisticated, and the character of Nicci, the embodiment of evil. Nicci carries out every single unforgivable act in the film, and is therefore executed by the hero in the film's finale. Since the story was based on actual figures and the audience knows Capone will survive to go to prison, the creation of this supporting evil character was necessary to fulfill the genre demand of having the hero actually be driven to kill the bad guy at the end of the film. This again corresponds with the structural division in North by Northwest, in which the more charming evil character played by James Mason survives but is caught, and the nastier, ‘executive' evil character played by Martin Landau is killed at the end.

The A-Team

But not only the characters' functionality within the plot is classically structured; the make-up of the core ensemble of characters can also be divided into the mutually complementary prototypes of the naive hero, the cynical yet wise tutor, the handsome young gunslinger and the baby-faced astonished fuddy-duddy. These are characters that play off each other well. Like television's The A-Team, they are a male group in which each member has his own expertise, his own plot function and his own personality element to add to the group.

Not every Hollywood film has a cast of characters as overtly schematic as The Untouchables. But genres like the action picture that usually adhere strictly to genre conventions are good examples for the principles that guide most of American cinema. The Untouchables is so thoroughly made up of genre elements that it verges on pastiche. Just like Miller's Crossing (1990), it chooses not to play with these conventions to confound the viewer, but to deliver the familiar elements with enough style and reverence to make it an entertaining homage to the action movie's past. Unlike Pulp Fiction, which deliberately plays with genre conventions and audience expectations, The Untouchables flaunts the narrative clichés of the genre, making it a good example of contemporary formula-bound filmmaking.

The viewer uses these structural narrative conventions to make sense of a picture, and since he is used to have a picture make sense according to these rules, he expects a film to follow them closely. For instance, when the character of Malone is elaborately introduced in the above example, the viewer expects this character not to vanish completely after this scene (which would have been a more likely thing to happen in real life). Neither does the viewer expect the narrative to start delving into a completely separate story, following Malone into his personal life while cutting back and forth between this narrative and that of Elliot Ness. Mainstream American cinema apparently has very strict rules about the introduction and departure of main characters, which are only rarely broken (cases in point would be Psycho (1960), in which the protagonist is killed off after the first 25 minutes, and Fargo (1996), where the heroine is not introduced until a third of the way into the picture).

Another way in which a filmmaker can decide to move against audience expectations is by not presenting the characters within the framework of a unified narrative. A different route The Untouchables might have taken might have been by having Malone and Ness meet on the bridge as they do in an early part of the film, and instead of pairing them up to fight Capone together, intercut their narratives with one another. Their stories would co-exist within the film without exerting causal influence over each other, encouraging the viewer to construct meaning based on the various parallels and similarities between the characters' stories. Had director Brian de Palma and screenwriter David Mamet chosen to travel this less conventional route, the result would have been a simple multiple narrative structure.

 

Fabula and syuzhet in multiple narrative structures

 

In the above example we have seen that classical narrative breaks down into a causal chain of events, usually centered around a single goal-oriented protagonist, in which other ‘supporting' characters function only insofar as they contribute to the development of the main plot. A broad definition of multiple narrative cinema would therefore be the existence of more than one causal sequence of events (which constitutes a narrative) within the framework of a single picture, without one governing narrative event to tie them together.

Bordwell's use of the terms fabula and syuzhet can help further elaboration of this broad definition. According to his definitions for film narration, a viewer constructs the fabula (or story) based on the way the plot elements are organized in their own specific way within a picture (syuzhet). In more precise terms, ‘the fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and a spatial field', while ‘the syuzhet (usually translated as "plot") is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film.' In theory, one fabula can be presented in an infinite number of ways: Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet for instance tells the same story as Baz Luhrmann's 1997 film, but they tell their stories in very dissimilar ways.

In the case of multiple narrative structures, the question is automatically raised whether a multiple narrative picture viewer constructs multiple fabulas, or a single fabula that encompasses several strands of storytelling. The question of fabula construction will therefore be a key issue in my discussion of the two main forms of multiple narrative cinema: separated multiple narratives and integrated multiple narratives. This broad distinction sets apart pictures in which the syuzhet prompts the viewer via formal cues to interconnect the multiple narratives from multiple narrative structures that do not. It is a distinction that would therefore put a multiple narrative film like New York Stories (1991) in a different category than for instance Short Cuts (1993).

The above distinction cannot be applied off-hand, for the issues it raises are more complex than first impressions might suggest. For when one starts to examine cases more closely, it becomes apparent that the precise borders between the various varieties can be difficult to define. On one level, separated and integrated multiple narrative films are the same: they have more than one causal chain of events that exist alongside each other and that encourage the viewer to construct more than one fabula. On another level, however, in the case of integrated multiple narratives, I will argue that cues are included within the film's structure that encourage the viewer to construct meaning from thematic and/or formal parallels between the multiple narratives.

The various varieties of multiple narrative structures should however not be regarded as absolute categories; they exist along a scale that allows different varieties to ‘bleed into' one another. Even the most classical narrative structures allow some space for narrative diversions into terrain more typical of multiple narrative cinema, making it difficult to define precisely where multiple narrative structures begin or end. Classical pictures often have multiple protagonists whose narratives may start off separately, only to reveal the way they fit together late in the picture (as in L.A. Confidential [1997]). It is even harder to draw an absolute line between separated and integrated multiple narrative structures, and though these borders can be found, it takes close examination of particular cases.

 

Separated multiple narratives

 

Separated multiple narrative structures are most common in ‘compendium' films, the most cliched form of which would be three men sitting around a campfire taking turns telling each other stories. Horror compendiums incorporating similar framing devices were popular between 1962 and 1972 and included such titles as Tales of Terror (1962), Tales from the Crypt (1972) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1965). In the latter, the framing device consists of five men traveling in a railway carriage who have their future told by a sixth passenger who turns out to be Death. The five narratives are similar (the protagonist dies in each one due to macabre and/or supernatural causes) but wholly separate from each other. The order in which they appear is of no importance as the stories have no causal bearing on one another, nor do the parallels between the various narratives invite the viewer to construct meaning from them.

These pictures do however illustrate the tendency evident in most (if not all) separated multiple narrative structures, which is to have some form of framing device for the stories. A popular device has always been the concept of the hotel with many rooms, each of which harbors its own miniature narrative. This device has been used since Grand Hotel (1932) through California Suite (1978) up to and including Four Rooms (1996). The fact that the four stories in the latter example were directed by four different people is indicative of the absence of unity of meaning.

Separated multiple narratives have allowed filmmakers to engage in anecdotal storytelling as in Night on Earth (1992) and The Yellow Rolls Royce (1964), and it has provided the opportunity for similar-minded directors to contribute vignettes to a themed compendium as in Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and New York Stories (1991). These pictures are best approached as short story collections in which the framing device is the binding that holds them together as one picture. Within this framing device, the narratives then appear consecutively. They encourage the viewer to construct separate fabulas for the various narratives rather than construct meaning on another level from the parallelism evident in the stories. The structure of these films encourages the viewer to do this via formal cues such as a title card or a cloudy dissolve to begin the next episode and a lack of recurring characters from story to story, so the narratives draw a minimum of narrative meaning from each other.

When a picture's multiple narrative structure is less rigid, the process of fabula construction becomes more complex. And as soon as formal cues explicitly encourage the viewer to connect the causally separated narratives to infer meaning from their co-existence within a single framework, the picture can be said to utilize an integrated multiple narrative structure.

 

Integrated double narrative structures

 

In the case of the integrated multiple narrative structure, two or more narratives exist alongside each other without exerting any great narrative power over each other or eventually combining into a unified narrative. The viewer is then encouraged through the use of specific cues to draw meaning from parallels and contrasts between the different narratives. Examples of this kind of picture include and The French Lieutenant's Woman, Short Cuts and Parenthood. This parallelism is a key concept for all forms of integrated multiple narrative cinema. A viewer expects a film to adhere to some kind of unity. In the case of a multiple narrative structure, the viewer's intuitive search for unity drives him inevitably towards a comparison of the events and characters from the two narratives. This is of course only the case if and when the viewer cannot connect two events presented within the syuzhet via procedural schemata (‘a search for appropriate motivations and relations of causality, time and space'), and is thereby forced to create more than one causal chains of events.

Classical structures often seem to follow two separate narrative paths that are in fact always causally unified. In Desperately Seeking Susan for instance, the plot follows two protagonists separately without having them meet each other until the end of the picture. The entire plot is built around the farcical construction of the two main characters continuously missing each other, which leads to the complications that make up the plot. Woody Allen's Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) has a structure that might appear similar when glanced at superficially: two protagonists with little in common are both followed separately until they meet in the last sequence of the film. Why then, does Crimes and Misdemeanors qualify as a double narrative picture, since the two protagonists likewise do not meet each other until the last scene of the film?

The difference lies in the fact that in the case of Crimes and Misdemeanors, there is no narrative event that combines the characters. In Desperately Seeking Susan, the two protagonists finally meeting each other solves the build-up of misunderstandings and brings closure to the two causal chains that had set each other in motion. In Crimes and Misdemeanors, the two protagonists meet coincidentally at a party, where Landau's character tells Allen of his experiences. As Chapter Two will illustrate in more detail, the causal chains of events that make up the narratives of the two protagonists are not causally related in the case of Crimes and Misdemeanors. Judah is not a narrative agent within Cliff's narrative, the links that hold them together within the framework of the film are so tenuous that it is only just likely that they should meet at all as they do at the end of the film. And this scene together, rather than providing the solution for the problems of either one, can be seen as an epilogue in which both characters reflect on the impact the preceding events have had on their respective lives.

It is possible for two narratives within an integrated mutilpe narrative structure to be much farther separated than in the preceding example. In The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), the two narratives both feature characters played by Jeremy Irons and Meryl Streep. One narrative follows them as characters in a Victorian romance, the other as actors playing those same characters in the film-within-a-film. The parallels and differences between the two romances point out salient differences in attitudes towards love, sex and romance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In Sliding Doors (1998), the character played by Gwyneth Paltrow is followed through two different chains of events simultaneously, one of which starts with her missing a train and the other with her just managing to catch it. The parallels between the narratives draw attention to the degree in which coincidence or character mostly determines the course of a person's life. And in The Godfather Part II (1974), which is examined in detail in Chapter Two, Michael Corleone's rise to power is contrasted with that of his father half a century earlier.

The parallelism inherent in integrated multiple narrative structures is clearest in the above examples of double narrative structures. It is most often also the key to more complex integrated multiple narrative structures. But generally speaking, when a film's structure includes more than three or four narrative lines, the viewer's activity will shift from following the individual stories and constructing several fabulas to examining the ways in which the narratives relate to each other. Even when the narratives in a complex multiple narrative structure are relatively distinct and separate, the viewer will most likely construct meaning from the film based on how the many stories co-relate.

Slacker poster

The final point of this process can be seen in Slacker (1991), a fictional narrative film in which the camera tracks along with characters in Austin, Texas that never re-appear once they are out of the frame. The film in its entirety is thereby made up of more than fifty ‘mini-narratives'. This film may be viewed as the most extreme form of multiple narrative structure, though one may wonder whether narrative at this point still exists. The same can be said for multiple narrative structures that do away with causality altogether (such as Luis Buñuel's Le Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie [1972]). Since none of the events in this film are causally related, it is impossible to identify the causally unrelated strands that would make it an identifiable multiple narrative structure.

Plentiful examples of classical Hollywood filmmaking also exist in which several causally unrelated chains of events co-exist, most notably in science-fiction or disaster movies that deal with global events from diverse perspectives. Examples of this kind of film are Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) and Deep Impact (1998). The syuzhet will typically follow several characters unrelated to each other, who might actually never meet during the course of the film. These films will however usually focus on characters that may be viewed as typical for a certain class, culture or group in society (examples being government officials, scientists, teenagers, blue-collar working men etc.). I would argue that these perspectives are included not to draw meaning from the ways in which they contrast or draw meaning from each other, but because of the need to dramatize a global event from different perspectives. These various perspectives may conflict with each other (as in Dr. Strangelove) or they may coincide (as in Deep Impact), depending on the ideology propagated by the film as a whole. I would only include them as exceptions to a rule, not as veritable multiple narrative structures.

 

Semi-multiple narratives

 

Certain genres of classical picture share certain traits with multiple narrative structures without truly sharing the defining features. Just like the preceding pages have illustrated that the fact that Desperately Seeking Susan follows its two protagonists separately does not make the film a double narrative picture, certain genres tend to focus on groups of people rather than on a single protagonist without using a multiple narrative structure. The two genres that come close to a multiple narrative structure are those of the ensemble picture and the heist movie. The main structural difference between these two genres is the constitution of the group.

In the heist movie, the group is, logically, extremely goal-oriented. Its goal as a group is usually: 1. the preparation of the robbery; 2. execution of the robbery; 3. escape and/or double-crossing of accomplices. The individual members of the group may have individual sub-goals, most often the betrayal of fellow gang member, but these sub-goals always have a functional place in the causal structure of the plot, just like the supporting characters are functional units in the structure of The Untouchables.

The Asphalt Jungle movie poster

This is the key difference with multiple narrative structures: all the gang members, no matter how much attention is given in the syuzhet to their background and sub-goals, in the end always function as units within a fabula that consists of the unfolding of the robbery in all its complex ingenuity. A classical example is The Asphalt Jungle (1950). It begins with the introduction of the various characters who will eventually make up the gang. One of the characters chooses to double-cross the others, which eventually leads to the police catching up with the gang members one by one in the last part of the film. The emphasis is thus put on the complexity of a unified structure, how one person's act causes a wave of events that spells out the doom of all the other characters involved in the scheme. Since so several characters have influence over the causal development of the plot, the syuzhet will allow shifts in point of view in order to supply the viewer with all the information necessary for fabula construction. This remains however a single fabula.

Other, more recent examples include Reservoir Dogs (1993), which like the above example focuses on the disintegration of a gang via the betrayal of one member, and Heat (1995), which allows more time for background and character elements and also introduces a second group, one of policemen. Heat even introduces characters that at first seem to be wholly unconnected to either group of characters or their goals, but in the end they are all shown to be connected as parts of one structure.

The group of protagonists in the ensemble picture is typically much less goal-oriented than groups in the heist movie. Typically, the ensemble picture deals with a group of characters that is together in one defined location for a short period of time. In this time, they attempt to solve some of their problems, some of which may be caused by other members of the group. The film usually ends with the characters going their separate ways again, having unambiguously solved their problems or failed to do so. The focus of the picture is typically on the interaction within the group: the characters need each other to solve their problems, and they usually succeed in doing so during the time they spend together.

The Big Chill movie poster

Since the ensemble picture is built around this ‘event', this specific period in which the characters interact and the way in which they do this, this kind of structure is not truly a multiple narrative structure, though it certainly comes close. There is usually so much interaction between the characters that we cannot really speak of multiple narratives at all, but rather a complex structure in which several more or less goal-oriented protagonists work together to reach narrative closure.

A very typical ensemble picture is The Big Chill (1983), which deals with a group of college friends who spend a weekend evaluating their lives since college after one member of their former group has committed suicide. During this weekend, they all come to terms with personal problems they face towards themselves or towards others in the group, and most have unequivocally solved the problems by the end of the weekend. Other similar films include The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1978), Peter's Friends (1992) and Beautiful Girls (1996).

A different (and fairly unique) form of ensemble picture has been pioneered by John Sayles, and might be termed multiple perspective structure. Pictures like Matewan (1987) and Eight Men Out (1988) deal with historical events and the way in which they affected various different groups of people. These films refuse to focus on a single individual's part in the story, but keep shifting perspectives to illustrate the complexity of the causal chain that caused the particular event to take place (respectively the miners' massacre at Matewan in 1913 and the throwing of the World Series by the White Sox). Since these pictures deal with a single – if complex – narrative event, they do not use multiple narrative structures. But as in the above examples, their non-hierarchical structure of characters is in some ways very similar to it.