pondělí 30. července 2007

„An Aesthetics of Astonishment“ from storytelling: Self reflexive tendencies of narrative strategies in contemporary Hollywood Cinema

One of the common features of several Hollywood films released at the end of the year 2005 through 2006 is a conscious effort to consciously test the boundaries of the classical style and narration. Playing with established models of narration leading to the establishment of the specific type of subversive narration; it draws attention to the process of its construction itself and by posing requirement on the necessity to take a distant approach to the depicted images whips out viewer from absorptive watching.[1]

For more than 20 years, there has been a discussion on transformation or, contrary, on reinforcement of the narrative system in Hollywood history; during this era two branches of theories were brought up: 1) supporters of so-called New and Postclassical Hollywood (Thomas Elsaesser, Thomas Schatz, Justin Wyatt, Rick Altman), 2) supporters of conception of reinforcement of traditions and rules of classical Hollywood system in postclassical Hollywood era (David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, Janet Staiger). David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson insists that the model of narrative is simultaneously led on two parallel lines of action (private/work), connected with causal relations, deep motivation of scenes connection and rhythmical by the system of deadlines, and at the end the deadline is solved and heterosexual couple is (re)established.[2] On the other hand, supporters of postclassical Hollywood claim that it came to hybridization of this system and to a shifting of the emphasis to attraction, when traditional features become mere impulses for attraction kick-in, and causal relations were transformed in parallelism. Simultaneously, Thomas Elsaesser says that films are conscious of their own past and are familiar with the in-them-projected theory (like the example, he mentions Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale).[3] This discussion is still vital, but for me and this text, it means mostly kind of a background for my own analytical thinking about the films I am going to focus on: Domino, The Prestige, Lady in the Water, and Stranger than Fiction.

In general, the system of formal and stylistic exceptionality of these films has been usually hidden behind the romantic vision of ingenious auteurs and it has not been perceived as consequential reciprocally elaborative tendency which I do recognize: The Usual Suspects, Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Spy Game, The Sixth Sense, Memento or Reservoir Dogs. I consider these films to be a commencement of the tendency identified by myself as "Cinema of Intellectual Attractions" which partially lies in self-reflexivity of the system of narration.

These (at least) four movies made during 2005 and 2006 present their own narrative organization to be more important than the story itself and they do so with open ostentation. The process of narration becomes superior… Domino, Lady in the Water, The Prestige, and Stranger than Fiction…With all these films taken to consideration, Stranger than Fiction moves on as it offers intensive genre experience and traditional absorption by the film at the same time. But its emphasis on own system of narration makes it an indisputable member of the above-mentioned category. Let me specify the basic area that makes these films so strange... as a fiction.


The positions of “who tells” and “to who is he speaking” is not entirely clear from the beginning in these movies, the narrator keeps changing and transforming before your eyes, whereas his reliability is being impeached by his shifts in a hierarchy very close to narration system of Edward Branigan.[4]
Implied Author – as a kind of Great Image Creator (Albert Laffay´s term). We don’t know him and suppose, he is in charge of the whole film over all the characters. He is usually called implied author and is accredited to the director (not a particular living person but the director as a symbol).
External Focalization, who addresses us as viewers from outside of a barrier of his narration. Occasionally he tells the story without a clearly defined listener – e.g. in the form of a diary.
Internal Focalization, whose narrative activity is targeted to other characters and we perceive his narration from a point within a frame consisting of more relations with listeners. He doesn’t have to tell the truth, he can also leave out some important information.
Character – Agent of Narration...
Although the character is not a storyteller we perceive the narrative through him and he’s determining for us. It doesn’t have to be a lead character, because this position may be shifting.

In contrast to the films such as Fight Club and The Sixth Sense where the viewers are tricked by an implied author, in the films such as Domino and The Prestige the characters deceive from their positions of external and internal focalization. We have to take a point of a distant viewer from outside the storytelling.

We have to realize that although Domino Harvey told us that the children of mafia bosses were executed, the truth is different. She tells us this only after we have been watching for several tens of minutes of film with the information that they are really dead what effects the subsequent narration. Suddenly we are told that the police were not telling the truth and the teenagers are, in fact, alive, which is, on the stylistic level, shown to us by a back run of the image and with the corrected demonstration of the events. Firstly, we saw the mafia members killing the teenagers. Here we see how they smile, give a hand wave and bury the kids up the neck into the ground before the police would find them.

Implied author has an effect that Domino Harvey take has the authority of an internal focalization and tells everything to the FBI agent. In fact, she is weakening this position constantly. When Domino describes the film images, unavailable to the FBI agents we can assume that she is addressing the viewers. This continuous tension between these two positions, addressing the FBI agents and the viewers, effects the watching of the film and demands vigilance from the viewers.

Discrepancies appear inside the Domino’s narration. In one of the opening scenes of heroes’ assembly into action, Domino describes, in her off-screen commentary, how everything is cool and they themselves (as characters) are so amazing. This scene comes from the last quarter of her story though, and when the film reaches this point in the chronological order, these images appear in a very different context. Everyone’s exhausted and afraid... which has an effect on Domino’s current commentary that differs from the one she used to describe the very same images in the beginning. Again we can speak of it as of self-consciously unreliable narration.

In The Prestige, even more complex unreliable narration appears as the whole system as such is much more complicated. The unreliable authority is the implied author itself, the characters as the agents of narration become involuntarily unreliable as they read suppositional-personal diaries of each other (these are encoded); as “personal” they are rendered as very reliable. By being read by a reader-magician (either Angier or Borden) the diary becomes a narrator within the system; as it contains thoughts of a man talking to himself he has no reason to lie.

The fact is that both diaries are fakes and are ostentatiously unreliable, as they reveal as being a form of a false letter (false message) for the reader. Consequently, this fact renders the narrator, addressing the other character (the “reader”), highly unreliable. While following this procedure the viewer can watch the reader of the other’s diary reacting naturally in accordance with the information gained and thus he can be considered reliable… The question is, why the viewer, as well as the character, let himself be deceived in the very same manner and do that twice?

Simply, it is because that the implied author reveals the death of the writer of the second diary (i. e. Angier) to the viewer and to Borden in the very beginning of the film. In addition to that, Borden is accused of his murder. This all renders the second diary does not foist as was the first one, as it is a kind of a legacy of the late Angier. Why would Angier lie to the viewer and to Borden? Well, he is not dead…

The implied author does not evolve the story chronologically; the additional non-chronology is motivated by the means of reading the diaries. Moreover, we can never be sure of when the narration is led by the authority of the implied author and when it is just another fragment narrated by one of the characters. The very ending of the film offers key information by disputing the identity of the characters and revealing Borden as being a double-character (i. e. that “he” is two men). Thus the question of reliability and unreliability of the characters becomes much more important than the narrations themselves; the reason for this is that the narration is not reliable.

Thinking of Lady in the Water and Stranger than Fiction we can assume that in these movies it depends much more on pleasures derived from the reconstruction of the adequate narrative system than from the questioning of the reliability of the information provided by the characters. Nevertheless these films as well as Domino and The Prestige present characters that make it difficult for the viewers to put the functional system together. Both of these films present characters as a kind of agents of an expert/informed mode of viewership/readership, who render themselves as reliable providers of the key information to the narration.

In Lady in the Water, there is this character of a critic that is presented as an expert on the storytelling (re)constructions and thus entitled to provide the hero with the key to solve the plot. Important is that the key is functional even on its own. The implied author uses it against the viewer and the lead character/communicator of the narrative. We are presented – it is palmed on us – a sum of the characters so obviously fitting to the system in a very clear way.

The viewer can thus feel expert-like for a few minutes, not needing anyone to tell him the obvious and being very sure of not being deceived by anyone; everything is so clear. This convenes to the hero’s way of thinking; let us not forget that he is our guide through the fictional world, and he knows it better than we do. The key provided by the critic works but for different characters; for a very long time, this remains hidden and impossible to be uncovered.

In Stranger than Fiction, the literature theorist – professor Hilbert is, as an expert on narration, set as a guide to the narrative as he helps Harold Crick to identify the nature of narration Harold found himself involved in. Harold Crick hears a voice speaking of him in a third person what makes him believe he is a hero of a story told by someone else. According to “the voice” he should die pretty soon. Professor Hilbert as an expert on theories of narration creates a list of questions eliminating all the story-types Harold doesn’t belong to.

Professor Hilbert’s key to Harold’s problem lies in the basic dividing of narrative genres into comedy and tragedy. If Harold “lives” in comedy, he will overcome all the problems and won’t die; in tragedy, he will die for sure. Apparently, Harold is a character (“hero”) of tragedy, but suddenly his situation transforms and everything indicates a shift towards comedy. A problem appears as at that moment, we, Harold and professor Hilbert realize that system is no longer working, as the story is written by a very specific author-woman who keeps killing all their characters – even the happiest ones.

Professor Hilbert is not unreliable as a provider of a story but he turns out to be unreliable as a provider of a functional scheme. They encountered an author who doesn’t follow the schemes; she just keeps killing all her characters with no mercy. Indeed the narration keeps getting more and more complicated because Harold decides to meet the author to persuade her not to kill him.

Professor Hilbert reads the book and tells Harold that according to the book’s narrative demands his death is inevitable; professor’s discourse of different fiction worlds doesn’t put human life over the oeuvre. Harold reads the book and realizes the same: he has to die because the book wouldn’t work without his death. Paradoxically, it is this assumption of his that makes the author change her mind; as she comes to the point that such a personality does not deserve to die even when the book might lose its charms.

The film that is based on knowledge of various schemes of itself renders its system completely non-transparent. The story is developing around two versions of Harold simultaneously; while one of them (the filmic one) knows that he is a character of a story and fights it, the second one (the literal character “living” in the mind of the author) doesn’t know about that. Nevertheless, the second one blends together with the first Harold in all the important points. How is it possible for the two stories to evolve simultaneously while reaching common moments in different ways?


In the above-written text, we have introduced quite difficult relations between various narrators, relations between character and narrator and also between the narrator and the film. It is quite evident enough that none of the films we mentioned provides his viewers with traditional absorptive narration and this fascination with the story is replaced by a fascination with narration. The uncovering and revealing of the way the narration works and of the system becomes more important than “ordinary” pleasure from the story evolving from point A to point Z; the only Stranger than Fiction provides the viewer with the choice.

Lady in the Water seems to be the most courageous as telling the story about creating a story based on a different story and knowledge of conventions of other stories. Reception of the story as the system with clearly defined rules as such is transformed into the story of the film itself. This meta-narration does not offer any of the traditional emotional or identification schemes.

The characters occupy positions of characters of another story. As a consequence of this action, they can’t possess their own, authentic, emotions; the pleasure of the viewer has its source in sharing pleasure with the characters. It is the pleasure of reconstructing distributing the right roles in the right way and thus reconstructing the story and saving Story (a word game: Story is the name of a Nymph to be saved).

In Domino and The Prestige recognizing the rules of storytelling is much more connected with traditional schemes of reception and experiencing. Their „nuisance“ lies in constant derangement from these schemes. Only by situating the viewer outside the film (the viewer is not absorbed by the film) the right way of following the narration can be understood.

We are not constantly confronted with a single fictional world, as it is common in most of the films. Fictional worlds have layers, appearing, and disappearing when they lose their relevance. Remember the scene of the murder of teenagers is erased in Domino by being rewritten by the scene of teenagers not being murdered.

In Stranger than Fiction, we operate within three fictional worlds; one of them we can only anticipate (Harold in the film diegesis; Harold in the literary work of the author’s storytelling; the author’s world, where she thinks of ways of killing Harold) and two of those will ultimately interconnect. In The Prestige, we can identify five fictional worlds (the world of Borden’s diary, the world of Angier’s diary, two worlds portraying their thoughts/narration visually and the world created by implied author).


Submitting a key to its very own system that is later on revealed as invalid or, at least partially invalid, or are used against the viewers is another of the specifics of the above-mentioned films.

In Domino, the whole system is based on the tension between Domino as the narrator addressing her to viewers, and Domino who is talking with an FBI agent inside her fictional world. This is at the end denied Domino’s statement: „If you're wondering what's true and what isn't, fuck off, because it's none of your goddamn business! “ The keys to the narration of the other three movies are ostentatiously defined. The way the keys are employed within their narration is explained above; The Prestige presents the most extraordinary use of the keys.

The Prestige presents itself as the magic inside its own narration. Let us quote the film itself:
"Are you watching closely? Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige"."
The point of trick consists in the viewer's want to be fooled; if the point of a trick is disclosed it will spoil the pleasure of it. The Prestige keeps its viewer at the position of a person who knows but still doesn’t want to know. Consequently, the viewer constantly tries to find out how the film works as a system, but in the same time, he is afraid of the confirmation as he might lose the pleasure resulting from uncertainty and the victory. The Prestige s (as well as Lady in the Water and Stranger than Fiction) deteriorates the key and partially denies it when in the end it reveals all its secrets and spectacularly prevents the viewer from being fooled while knowing.


Is it possible for these films to be perceived in a traditional way? You can try it and „have yourself being absorbed by the story, identify with the characters and experience the full-value story with fulfilled expectations“. But this is, especially while talking about Lady in the Water and Domino, a demand that is sentenced to fail to satisfy. If we would try to make a hypothesis, we could be searching for analogies between Gunning’s conceptions of An Aesthetics of Astonishment[5] connected with the concept of the cinema of attractions.[6] The notion of “cinema of attractions” has come through several significant transformations and I will not annoy you with all of them. This term is used to design the films that do not affect their viewers with the story (at least not on the primary level).

As the very aim of these films is to surprise and shock their viewer, the pleasure springs from astonishment of their technical possibilities. As the very examples might be cited The Mummy Returns or Van Helsing. The pleasure from watching these films draws from the feeling of astonishment of possibilities of film as a medium bringing up unique audiovisual experience (photorealistic destruction of monuments, a morphing of one person into another, etc.). But... what if we used these concepts in another way? The films analyzed in this text spectacularly draw attention to their own mechanisms, whereby they try to astonish by the capacity of their own complex narration as a kind of attraction. The astonishment doesn’t originate in sensual or bodily pleasure as in the case of the cinema of attractions but stimulates viewers‘intellect.

Very often from users of film databases (IMDB, CSFD...) complaints about the disputable or controversial ending or about the problematic reception – the film is difficult to watch can be heard. It is quite probable that the denial of letting themselves to be seduced or amazed by basic stimuli during watching of these films is the very reason for those complaints. The viewers usually demand traditional pleasures: the full climax of the story at the end of the film based on their own empathy with the heroes of the story, as well as (re)establishing of the ideal state (or the opposite in case of an unhappy ending).

What these complaints are? In case of Domino, an absurd phrase about „victory of form over the content“ is brought to use (which was rebutted by Christian Metz[7] forty years ago and later even more intensively by the neoformalists[8] - the form consists of narrative and stylistic system, therefore it can’t win). In the case of Lady in the Water, the databases-users usually talk about the absence of real emotions and simple artificiality, whereas the character of a film critic is wrongly perceived as a mockery to film critics. In the case of The Prestige, the viewers blame the film for transparency of particular points of the story, not noticing that it is a point of the film to make something obvious as a trick used to hide some other actions. The only Stranger than Fiction offers three possible modes of reception but only one of those offers fully absorptive experience. Though some reproofs related to the end of the film can be found; in spite, it explains itself as the conscious step from „quality of oeuvre“ to „human look“ it is provocative, of course.

In this article, I tried to introduce these films as examples of a specific model of narration, which is – as it was stated at the beginning – fascinating especially because it sets a conscious presentation of itself as the goal of the film and not as a mean to narrate a comprehensible story invisibly. We can’t expect (as it is not even possible or reasonable) that this model will ever become dominant or especially popular form because it does not offer a fully absorptive film experience. But it brings an exceptionally intensive and enthralling cinematic experience for these cinephiles who find themselves as - we can say - „narrative hedonics“.[9]

[1] When I write about the viewer, I refer to the concept of a cognitively active viewer as was proposed by David Bordwell in BORDWELL, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

[2] BORDWELL, David – STAIGER, Janet – THOMPSON, Kristin: The Classical Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

[3] ELSAESSER, Thomas – HOFFMANN, Kay (eds.): Cinema Futures: Cain, Abel or Cable? Amsterdam, 1998, p. 143–158.

[4] BRANIGAN, Edward: Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge, 1994.

[5] GUNNING, Tom: An Aesthetics of Astonishment. Early Cinema and the (In)credulous Spectator. Art & Text, 1989, no. 34, p. 31-45.

[6] GUNNING, Tom: The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator, and the Avant-Garde. In Wide Angle, 1986, vol. 8, no. 3-4. p. 63-70.

[7] METZ, Christian: Essais sur la Signification au cinéma, tome II. Paris: Editions Klincksieck, 1972, p. 97-110.

[8] THOMPSON, Kristin: Breaking the Glass Armor. Neoformalist film analysis. Princeton University Press, Princeton 1988, p. 3-46.

[9] I thank Kristina Aschenbrennerová for her kind help with this article.