středa 13. září 2017

More than three hours…? Research of (Hollywood's) narrative principles in very long films (Conference paper)

Conference Paper: ENN – The 5th International Conference of the European Narratology Network. Narrative and Narratology: Metamorphosing the Structures. Prague, 13th September 2017.

The aim of the paper is to present my current research project – which is… and approximately next few years also will be in-progress. The object of the research is storytelling in very long movies with the focus on Hollywood cinema. But why just Hollywood if we would find a lot of very long films across different cinematic traditions?

From the perspective of national cinemas is allowable to speak about traditions of very long films for example in Japanese cinema, in Russian cinema, in Hungarian cinema, in Italian cinema or... in a very special way... in Indian cinema. From the perspective of poetics, we can think about traditions of using very long narratives in international art cinema like in Andrey Tarkovsky’s films, Bela Tarr’s films, Jacques Rivette’s films and so on. But also there is a strong poetic tradition of epic historical narratives like GENROKU CHUSHINGURA (1941), SHICHININ NO SAMURAI (1954), NOVECENTO (1976) or SIBIRIADA (1979).

However, it’s hard to find a unifying background for all of them as narrative systems… With the exception of Hollywood cinema, which is known and popular around the world and represents kind of internationally shared background which filmmakers use as a positive or negative field for their own artistic decisions. According to that, Hollywood cinema may be used as the background for broader thinking about trends: How filmmakers can and would like to tell a story? How filmmakers can and would like to create a fictional world? How filmmakers can and would like to direct our attention? So if I would like to understand very long films in broader perspective sometimes, I have to understand them in the context of a Hollywood system with its specific demands first.

But what exactly the very long film is? And to what degree it represents more or less specific category in thinking of not just Hollywood storytelling? More specifically, if the main aim of Hollywood storytelling is to be maximally comprehensive, continuous, unified and consuming, then which narrative principles are being followed in very long films of that tradition?

Very long films are these with more than 180 minutes... which means more than three hours of projection duration. 

Although it seems to be arbitrary, actually it’s not.

With the help of the Internet Movie Database I found out total duration of all American sound feature movies and divided them according to their length into sets of fifteen minute intervals: set of films with a total duration of interval from sixty one to seventy five minutes, set of films with a total duration of interval from seventy six minutes to ninety minutes and so on.

The final table (left) sheds light on the possible borders between films with short duration, normal duration, long duration and very long duration.

Without the respect of historical shifts, the normal length of the Hollywood film is the length up to 120 minutes. Nevertheless, with the respect of historical shifts, we can observe an inclination to prolong the normal length up to 136 minutes on one side and on the other side the declination of films which are shorter than 90 minutes.

Yet, the most important on the table is the clear and significant shift at three hours in length.

In this moment we know what very long films are and that at least statistically they represent a specific category of Hollywood films. On the contrary, we can find many different kinds of aberrations in cinematic history or cinema storytelling. So… why is just this one worthwhile, let alone interesting for research? 

The answer is rather easy, mostly they are not just more or less unimportant, eventually more or less experimental departures. Mostly they are important, significant and famous. I claimed before, that the main aim of Hollywood storytelling is to be maximally comprehensive, continuous, unified and consuming. At least in this aspect, these forty-six very long films seem to be clearly Hollywood-like… because they follow this maxima and most of them are very successful in that.

The successfulness of those movies is obvious from the fact that plenty of them are the most significant films of Hollywood history: economically, technologically and artistically. Four of them are in the top ten domestic grosses adjusted for ticket price inflation. Eleven of them are in the top two hundred and fifty on IMDb. Nine of them are part of the list of one hundred best American films, set up by the American Film Institute. Almost half of them are part of the popular book “1001 movies you must see before you die”. That probably doesn't mean much, but at least it implies that (a) they were popular at their times and they are popular now as well, (b) they are part of institutional “the best of” lists and they are part of popular “best of” lists as well. Not all of them, but a remarkable number of them… and I suppose you are familiar with many others of them, how you can judge from the list of all of the very long American films below.

In this moment we know what very long films are and furthermore we know that they represent a worthwhile group of films which are both deviating and significant for the understanding of Hollywood cinema. Nevertheless, today’s most important question is: Would it be worthwhile to analyze and explain them as a storytelling phenomenon? 

In other words, in an echo of what I said before: If the main aim of Hollywood storytelling is to be maximally comprehensive, continuous, unified and consuming – and very long films aimed for this maxima too – then which narrative principles of that tradition are being followed in very long films?

We have learnt quite a lot about these principles in the case of fewer than three hours Hollywood films. Film scholars David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson through their careers analyzed hundreds and hundreds of them and discovered that at least since 1917 most Hollywood films share the same set of narrative principles and aesthetic norms which represent paradigmatic axe of preferred creative possibilities for Hollywood filmmakers.\1 These observations were discovered bottom up based on careful analyses of films – not top-down through applying of predetermined premises. In other words, they had been looking for the set of actually preferred creative choices of filmmakers… set of artistic ways overlapping genres, trends or authorial poetics.

As a narrative phenomenon, for Bordwell and Thompson, the Hollywood cinema is high standardized. According to them, in the center of Hollywood narrative stays psychologically defined and active protagonist with at least one main goal. That is developed through two lines of causal actions at the level of narration as a process and through the regular and balanced structure of narrative acts with specific functions. The most important unit is a scene – spatiotemporally closed, but causally opened, whereas the whole of the plot is deeply connected and directed through mostly two causal lines: the private one and the professional one. The significant role plays causal motivation of motifs, whereas this kind of narrative system aims to broader ambitions which I mentioned before: comprehensibility, continuity, unity, and grippingness.

According to Bordwell’s and Thompson’s research, we can assume that most of up-to-three-hours Hollywood films seem to be more or less following the same set of sketched principles of narrative patterning.

Yet I can say about very long films in Hollywood cinema up this moment of my research two important remarks:
(1)    In aggregation those very long films don’t follow the same set of organizing large-scale narrative principles and they seem to be more divergent than convergent.
(2)    In aggregation they also does not seem to be following equal set of Hollywood aesthetic norms of small-scale narrative principles, which were described by Bordwell and Thompson.
But as I said before, the very long films obviously are Hollywood films in their broad narrative and artistic aiming and most of them are very successful in their goal to be comprehensible, continuous, unified and consuming.

So which likely alternative principles are followed by these films and do those films represent the comparable set of aesthetic norms like shorter ones? That’s an object of my following research and I could choose between two different ways how to conduct the research.

The first possible way is the top-down way. We have a concept of traditional Hollywood narrative and we can ask, in which aspects very long films differ from the traditional narrative concept and in which aspects they do not. But I chose the second way, the bottom-up way. We can deeply analyze all of very long films carefully scene by scene, and try to uncover and explain how do they tell stories, how do they create fictional worlds, how do they direct our attention through their vast structures, their narrative outlines, their narrative processes, their more or less complex and rich fictional worlds. And on the other side, we can ask, to what degree and how exactly they make an effort to be a Hollywood storytelling. I have already realized that there will be set of very different alternatives in all of these aspects…

For a brief example, let’s look at the year 1956, when three very long films were shot: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, GIANT, and WAR AND PEACE. THE TEN COMMANDMENTS have 231 min., GIANT has 201 min., and WAR AND PEACE have 208 min. – and all of them represent different narrative tactics, how to become Hollywood film, which I’d like to explain in a very sketchy way of the example of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and GIANT.

Film THE TEN COMMANDMENTS is so-called roadshow spectacle – it has overture music, intermission music, exit music and entr’acte, and also it has an introduction of Cecil B. DeMille, the director and the producer of the film (see above). He offers a kind of manual of what we can – as viewers – expect from the movie. It is a surprisingly communicative tactic – which is not usual in other very long films.

At the first sight is the film externally (with the help of Intermission) divided into two big narrative blocks: in the first part we follow Moses’s change from prominent Egyptian via Jewish slave to exile a man with a new family and new life – but in the very last scenes of the first part Moses meets the God and realizes his destiny is to be God’s tool in escorting Jews from Egypt to Canaan. And the second block of the film is about the execution of this plan and about struggle on the way from Egypt to Canaan. But that’s very superficial explaining of almost four hours long storytelling because its particular narrative tactics are much smarter.

One on each side of these two blocks is internally divided into ca. 30-40 minutes long sections with their own goals and separate lines of narrative action. On the other side, there is a significant change in global structuring the fictional world. The most apparent is that tactic on change of two main characters: Moses and Rameses. In the first block Moses as well his rival Rameses are causally very active characters with a strong impact on their world. But in the second block, both of them become very passive characters and just following more powerful characters: God on one side and mostly Nefertiri on the other side. Moreover, Moses’s passive obedience to God is so strong and narratively important that his wife and son disappears from surprisingly significant part of the second block’s plot.

So we can roughly see a complex structure with two big blocks with their own sections and changeable set of functions – when the protagonist of the first part of the film is in the second part just a tool of another character, although a lot of important motifs from the first part is mirrored in the second part.

THE TEN COMMANDMENTS: introduction, overture, first block, entr'acte, second block, exit music
And what about film GIANT? GIANT has a very different large-scale structure as well as small-scale structure. Yes, in both cases - THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and GIANT - we can speak about several big blocks, but their relationship is much more complex in the latter one. Moreover, GIANT has no external communicative dividing into self-conscious separate blocks with an intermission.

We have two main generations of characters, we have two main lines of more and more characters, but mainly we have the structuring of global changes of the fictional world which is connected to the structuring of very small everyday changes of the forking subworlds around the main characters.

It is just the well-considered thematic and temporally virtuous work with microworlds of characters, subworlds around them and the fictional world as a whole instead of primarily causal structure... what makes GIANT so different than much more straightforward THE TEN COMMANDMENTS are.

This sketchy juxtaposition of two narrative constructions becomes even more interesting when we compare these two films with another. With WAR AND PEACE, which stays somewhere in between these two tactics. With BEN HUR (1959), which varies THE TEN COMMANDMENTS just at a first sight. With much older GONE WITH THE WING (1939) establishes so complex fictional world just with the help of the one love triangle pursued across years.

And what about JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG (1961), LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962), THE GODFATHER: PART II (1974), THE DEER HUNTER (1978), GANDHÍ (1982), ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), JFK (1991) or SHORT CUTS (1993)? None of them deeply follows the set of so-called classical Hollywood principles, but all of them are a part of so-called classical Hollywood tradition. Moreover, they were shot in particular historical conditions, which means another set of important research questions about why.

So, we should understand which principles, practices and tactics they actually share and which they don’t – and what actually makes them part of the tradition. After that we will be probably prepared to put this fascinating tradition of very long films into international context. I hope that my research can help with that…

1/  See Bordwell, David - Staiger, Janet - Thompson, Kristin. The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. London – New York: Routledge – Columbia University Press, 1985, mainly pp. 11-69, 157-193; Thompson, Kristin. Storytelling in the New Hollywood. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999; Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It. Berkeley - Los Angeles - London: University of California Press, 2006; Bordwell, David. Reinventing Hollywood. Chicago - London: The University of Chicago Press, 2017. See also an alternative approach to Hollywood classicality in Buckland, Warren. Directed by Steven Spielberg. New York: Continuum, 2005; for polemics with the concept see Neale, Steve - Smith, Murray (eds.). Contemporary Hollywood Cinema. London: Routledge, 1998.


PS: There was a funny moment for me when one colleague asked me kindly during a discussion to the panel if I ever thought about the possibility to analyze television serial narratives also because there could be similarities. Well, I did.