pondělí 30. července 2007

"An Aesthetics of Astonishment" from Storytelling: Self-reflexive Tendencies of Narrative Strategies in Contemporary Hollywood Cinema (2005-2006)

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

For more than 20 years, there has been a discussion on the transformation or, contrary, on the reinforcement of the narrative system in Hollywood history. During this era, two branches of theories were brought up: 1) Supporters of so-called Postclassical Hollywood (Thomas Elsaesser, Thomas Schatz, Justin Wyatt, Rick Altman), 2) Supporters of the conception of reinforcement of traditions and rules of a Classical Hollywood in a modern era (David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, partly Warren Buckland). David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson insist that the model of the classical narrative is simultaneously led on two parallel lines of action (private/work), connected with causal relations, the complex motivation of scenes connection and rhythmical by the system of deadlines, and at the end, the deadline is solved, and the heterosexual couple is (re)established.[2] On the other hand, supporters of postclassical Hollywood claim that it came to hybridisation 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 Femme Fatale, 2002).[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 (2005), The Prestige (2006), Lady in the Water (2006), and Stranger than Fiction (2006).

In general, the system of formal and stylistic exceptionality of these films has been usually "hidden" behind the romantic vision of ingenious and exceptional auteurs, and it has not been perceived as a consequential reciprocally elaborative tendency which I do recognise: Pulp Fiction (1994), The Usual Suspects (1995), Fight Club (1999), The Sixth Sense (1999), Memento (2000) or Spy Game (2001). I consider these films to be a commencement of the tendency identified by myself as "A 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 organisation to be more important than the story itself and they do so with open ostentation. The process of narration becomes superior in 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 its own system of narration makes it an indisputable member of the category as mentioned above. Let me specify the primary 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's instance keeps changing and transforming before your eyes. In contrast, his reliability is being impeached by his shifts in the following hierarchy.[4]

Implied author, who is supposed by us in charge of the whole film over all the characters. He is usually accredited to the director (not a particular living person but the director as a symbol, an artificially formulated intention behind the text).
External focalisation, what addresses us as viewers from outside of a barrier of his narration. Occasionally the story is told without a clearly defined listener – e.g. in the form of a diary.
Internal focalisation, whose narrative activity is targeted to other characters, and we perceive such a narration from a point within a frame consisting of more relations with listeners. It does not have to tell the truth, it can also leave out some vital information.

Character, or, Agent of narration. Although the character is not a storyteller, we perceive the narrative through him, and he is determining for us. It does not 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 primarily by an implied author (although it is hard to say in Fight Club), in the movies of "intellectual attractions" such as Domino and The Prestige the characters deceive from their positions of external and internal focalisation. We have to make a point of a distant viewer from outside the storytelling.

We have to realise 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 the film's duration 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. This 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 had seen the mafia members killing the teenagers. Here we can see how the same mafia members smile, give a hand wave and bury the kids up the neck into the ground before the police would find them.

The implied author has an effect that Domino Harvey take has the authority of an internal focalisation and tells everything to the FBI agent. In fact, she is weakening this position steadily. When Domino describes the film images, unavailable to the FBI agents, we can assume that she is addressing "us" as 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 (as characters) are so amazing. Actually, this scene comes from the last quarter of her story though, and when the film reaches this point in the chronological order of plot, 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 version of unreliable narration appears as the whole system as such is much more complicated. The unreliable authority is not only the implied author itself, but the characters as the agents of narration also 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?

Naturally, 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 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 these "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 and its world 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 films present characters as a kind of agents of an expert/informed mode of viewership/readership, who render themselves as reliable providers of the critical information to the narration.

In Lady in the Water, there is this character of a film critic that is presented as an expert on the narrative (re)constructions and thus entitled to provide the hero with the key to solve the plot. Noteworthy 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 transparent. 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 literary theorist professor Hilbert is, as an expert on storytelling, set as a guide through the film's 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 does not belong to.

Professor Hilbert’s key to Harold’s problem lies in the elementary dividing of narrative genres into comedy and tragedy. If Harold “lives” in comedy, he will overcome all of the issues 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 realise 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 explanative pattern. It is because the discovered author it Harold's story does not follow such patterns. Actually, 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 fictional worlds does not put human life over the oeuvre. Harold reads the book as well and realises 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 patterns of itself renders its system completely non-transparent. The story is developing around two versions of Harold simultaneously. The first of them (the filmic one) knows that he is a character of a story and deals with it. The second one (the literary character “living” in the mind of the author) does not know about that. Nevertheless, the second one blends together with the first Harold in all the crucial points. How is it possible for the two stories to evolve simultaneously while reaching common moments in different ways?


In the above-written paragraphs, we have introduced fairly difficult relations between various narrators, relations between character and narrator and also relations between the narrator and the film. It is rather evident that none of the films we mentioned provides his viewers with traditional "absorptive" narration, and fascination with the story is replaced by a fascination with the narrational process. 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 such a story based on a different story and knowledge of conventions of other stories. The very reception of the story as the system with clearly defined rules as such is transformed into the story-telling of the film itself. This meta-narration does not offer many of the traditional emotional or identification schemas.

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 a 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 the recognising of the rules of storytelling is much more connected with traditional models of reception and experience. Their "nuisance" lies in constant derangement from these patterns. 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. These fictional worlds have many layers, appearing, and disappearing when they lose their relevance. Remember the scene of the murder of teenagers which is "erased" in Domino by being rewritten by the scene of teenagers not being murdered.

In Stranger than Fiction, we operate within three parallel possible worlds of fiction. One of them we can only anticipate and two of those will ultimately interconnect: Harold in the film's basic fictional world; Harold in the literary work of the author’s storytelling; the author’s "meta-fictional" world, where she thinks of ways of killing Harold. In The Prestige, we can identify five possible 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. At the end comes 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 narrations 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 a trick consists in the viewer's wanting to be deceived. 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 does not 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 (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 deceived while knowing.


Is it possible for these films to be perceived in a traditional way? You can try it and have yourself being immersed 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 idea of "The Cinema of Attractions".[6] The notion of “cinema of attractions” has come through several significant transformations which are not important for us if we are not willing to consider its historical consequences. Let us use it only to think about such films that do not affect their viewers with the story (at least not on the primary level), but with its own constructional media qualities themselves.

As the very aim of these films is to surprise and shock their viewer, the pleasure springs from the astonishment of their technical possibilities. As the very examples might be cited The Mummy Returns (2001) or Van Helsing (2004). 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 the concept in another way? The films analyzed in this text spectacularly draw attention also to their own mechanisms, whereby they try to astonish by the capacity of their own complex narration as a kind of attraction. The astonishment does not 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 the case of Domino, an absurd phrase about "victory of form over the content" is brought to use. (It was rebutted by Christian Metz forty years ago and later even more intensively by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson – or, on the contrary, much sooner in relation to literature by Jan Mukařovský.[7] I agree with Kristin Thompson that "meaning is not the end result of an artwork, but one of its formal elements."[8] Therefore the form can’t win: everything is part of the form.) 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 film 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 trend of narration construction, 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 in an invisible way. We can’t expect (as it is not even possible or reasonable) that this trend will ever become dominant or widely popular form because it does not offer an immersive film experience and the pleasure from an organic unity of artwork, so the classical narrative traditions are still very alive. But it brings an exceptionally intensive and enthralling cinematic experience for these cinephiles who find themselves as - we can say - „narrative hedonics“.[9]

(Udine, June 2007)

[1] When I write about a 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, pp. 29–47.

[2] BORDWELL, David – STAIGER, Janet – THOMPSON, Kristin: The Classical Hollywood Cinema. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. In a broader context, cf. BUCKLAND, Warren: Directed by Steven Spielberg. New York - London: Continuum, 2005.

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

[4] I broadly inspired by certain ideas in BRANIGAN, Edward: Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge, 1994, pp. 86–91. Nevertheless, I decided not to use his eight levels of narration and followed the more traditional categories of narrative analysis. It is because the adequate application of his complex system would require much longer and detailed analysis - and it is worth to do that in the future because it can help us with much more nuanced understanding of these films' techniques.

[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; BORDWELL, David - THOMPSON, Kristin: Film Art: An Introduction. Reading: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1979, pp 28–29. THOMPSON, Kristin: Breaking the Glass Armor. Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 11–12; MUKAŘOVSKÝ, Jan. Umění jako sémiologický fakt. In Studie I. Brno: Host, 2000, p. 214.

[8] THOMPSON, Kristin: Breaking the Glass Armor. Neoformalist Film Analysis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988, p. 12.

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