One of the more interesting developments in the cinema of the past 15 years or so has been the surge of mainstream films with complex narratives. Consider Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004), or Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006) for instance, each of which employs a narrative that asks much more from their audiences than your average Hollywood film and yet was critically and commercially successful. This trend has raised a unique set of questions for scholars in the early part of the 20th Century, among which are questions of categorisation: Do these films represent some new form of cinema or are they simply variations on a theme? Are they “art films” that have crossed-over into the mainstream, or are they something else altogether? If so, what?
Consider the difficulties of classifying films such as Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) or Eternal Sunshine. Memento is a small-budget independent film with a highly complex narrative structure that is not only confusing but also quite radical in its relation to one of Hollywood’s most useful action-film tropes: the rape-revenge narrative. This structure – which has been a cherished means of justifying American violence from John Ford’s westerns to George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” – is used in the film to closely align its audience with a serial killer who wilfully deceives himself in order to commit a cold-blooded murder. Memento turns the rape-revenge narrative on its head and in doing so, implicates its audience in the corruption of its character. Upon close analysis, then, Memento seems closer to the counter-cinema of Jean-Luc Godard than the genre cinema of Hollywood, and yet it took over $25 million at the US box office alone. Further, in what seems like a perverse irony, it has been argued by David Bordwell that Memento’s mass appeal is the result of its excessive redundancy and adherence to key conventions of the classical Hollywood style – particularly, its resolving of many, if not most, of the enigmas it raises (1).
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, written by Charlie Kaufman, is similarly challenging. Unlike Kaufman’s Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002) – which is directly concerned with the possibility of art in the cinema and ultimately lapses into a farcical parody of the Hollywood style – Eternal Sunshine presents its viewer with a classical boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl romance structure. It also offers its audience the conventional happy ending they expect from romantic comedy (albeit via very un-conventional means). What is fascinating, however, is that Eternal Sunshine’s happy ending sits rather uncomfortably at the conclusion of a film that demolishes the thematic core of the genre itself: the idea that these two lovers are made for each other and that they will, as a result, live happily ever after. They most certainly will not since they have learned nothing in the film (and even if they have, this knowledge has been erased from their memories!).
Both of these films, then, subvert the structural and ideological norms of the mainstream American cinema they operate within. Structurally, they violate the continuity style, and ideologically, they violate the norms of their respective genres: Memento by challenging the notion that violence is acceptable when it is in the service of a just cause; and Eternal Sunshine by rejecting the idea that true love can overcome all obstacles. Yet they both do this while still offering the type of resolution audiences have come to expect from mainstream cinema. So again, the question is raised: What kind of films are they? And, where do they fit in the discussions that have shaped film studies in the previous decades?
David Bordwell, not surprisingly, tells us that these types of films are simply variations on the classical Hollywood narrative. Their complex structures hide classical stories and thus further affirm the triumph and genius of the Hollywood system. To make his argument, Bordwell must, of course, ignore those aspects of the films he studies that do not fit the classical narrative structure, like the non-classical nature of a character such as Memento’s Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce). Warren Buckland, by contrast, picks up exactly these aspects which do not fit and argues that these films do indeed represent something new, something that is not classical at all; his edited collection, Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, offers a number of interesting perspectives on just what is new about these films (2). Allan Cameron’s Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema, the subject of this review, does something similar – for the most part – to Puzzle Films and seems to sit clearly on the side of the debate that understands there is indeed something unique about the complex narratives of contemporary cinema, arguing that these films are different not only from classical Hollywood films but also from the art cinema and experimental films they often resemble.
Modular Narratives is one of the few book-length studies on contemporary complex narrative cinema to date. Notable others include Buckland’s Puzzle Films and Eva Laass’ Broken Taboos, Subjective Truths: Forms and Functions of Unreliable Narration in Contemporary American Cinema (3). Although Cameron’s work covers some similar territory to these, it offers a uniquely illuminating perspective and makes a useful and interesting contribution to the slowly growing body of work on the subject of complex narrative in the cinema.
Like Broken Taboos, Modular Narratives is a modified version of a PhD dissertation and so presents a rigorous theoretical framework with which to analyse some of the more interesting films of the past two decades, including but not limited to 12 Monkeys (Terry Gilliam, 1995), Adaptation, Fight Club (David Fincher, 1999), The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), Memento, Open Your Eyes (Alejandro Amenábar, 1997), Eternal Sunshine and Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1998). Dr Cameron provides a clearly articulated set of categories for thinking through the contemporary cycle of complex narrative films as well as for considering experimental narrative forms of earlier cinematic eras to which they are deeply indebted.
To do this, Modular Narratives offers a brief account of the relationship between twentieth-century modernist literature and its cinematic offspring, focusing particularly on the ways in which complex and experimental narrative structures react to and negotiate theoretical conceptions of time. It argues that there are three phases in the narrative temporality of the modern era: the subjective, the schismatic, and the modular, and that these three phases – which double as theoretical categories – are important points of reference for considering the similarities and differences between the complex narratives of contemporary cinema and those of previous eras. The subjective and the schismatic are used to refer to the narrative forms of the early and late modernist era, respectively, while the modular is the term used to describe contemporary forms.
The subjective temporalities of early modernists like Marcel Proust, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf opposed an analytically defined public temporality with the non-linear subjective temporalities of their novels. “Subjective time”, in this sense, diverged significantly from the more linear and rationalistic temporalities of popular narrative forms, whether literary or cinematic. Examples from early twentieth-century cinema that explore temporality in a similar manner include The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1919), A Page of Madness (Teinosuke Kinugasa, 1926), and Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), where the emphasis is on the subjective experience of time rather than the rational, linear temporalities of conventional cinema.
In the next phase come the schismatic narratives of later modernist and post-modernist writers, which articulate more fractured temporalities that could be said to lose their human, or at least “storied”, dimension. Literary examples of temporally schismatic narratives can be found in the works of writers from Samuel Beckett and Alain Robbe-Grillet to Thomas Pynchon and William S. Burroughs, particularly those that “fragment time and narrative and resist recuperative readings” (p. 32). Feature films with such temporalities are less common, but Last Year at Marienbad (Alain Resnais, 1961) is not unlike a modernist novel in this sense. Many examples drawn from experimental cinema might also be considered under this category.
The third phase of narrative temporality is the modular, which Cameron argues is the mode in which the contemporary cycle of complex narrative cinema operates. Modular narratives explore the representation of time in a manner that reflects anxieties specific to the present, and as such, are distinct from the subjective and schismatic. As the digital era has brought about new ways of representing time, it has also brought about a new set of anxieties. Modular narratives represent the negotiation of these anxieties, which are not the same as those of the recent past. In fact, modular narratives move in a different direction than the schismatic narratives of recent fiction and this, argues Cameron, is one of the key differences: contemporary modular narratives in the cinema ultimately resolve with “analytic perspectives on time” rather than seeking to overthrow them (p. 20). That is to say, modular narratives represent the domestication or harnessing of the excesses of late modernist forms through new structures that tame their excess and subject them “to rational or affective organization” (p. 38).
Cameron’s taxonomy of cinematic modular narratives is made up of four categories: anachronic, forking-path, episodic and split-screen narratives. Anachronic narratives feature flashbacks and/or flash-forwards and are the most common type of modular narrative in contemporary cinema. Although flashback structures have been used regularly since the early 1940s, Cameron shows how contemporary anachronic structures have pushed the boundaries of the form. For instance, films like Eternal Sunshine modify classical flashback structures by departing from the initial temporality of the narrative and remaining in flashback for the majority of the film. Shifts such as this result in “a sense of uncertainty regarding the primacy of one narrative temporality in relation to another” (p. 6). Other examples of anachronic narratives considered by Cameron are Pulp Fiction, 21 Grams (Iñárritu, 2003), Memento and Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002). These films all feature temporal structures that complicate the spectator’s attempts at identifying causal relations between events, thus challenging comprehension.
Forking-path narratives represent the multiple possible futures of their central characters and notable examples are Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993) and Run Lola, Run. The “disjunctive leaps” made by these films are not simply temporal but ontological, and the alternate realities they feature show the different outcomes that follow from “small changes in a single event or group of events” (p. 10). The modularity of forking-path narratives takes place at the level of the story (rather than simply at the level of narration or plot) and represents mutually exclusive realities.
Episodic narratives are defined by Cameron as “structures that critically weaken or disable the causal connections of classical narrative” (p. 13). Episodic narratives are divided into two separate categories: the abstract series and the narrative anthology. Abstract episodic structures use non-narrative systems which dictate or overlay the organisation of elements in a production; examples considered by Cameron include Peter Greewaway’s Drowning by Numbers (1988) and A Zed and Two Noughts (1985). Anthologies, by contrast, are multi-stranded narratives “which are apparently disconnected but share the same diegetic space” (p. 13). Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989-1990) and Three Colours trilogy (1993-1994) as well as Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989) are all considered by Cameron, as are Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993).
Cameron’s fourth category, the split-screen narrative, articulates modularity spatially by dividing the screen into “two or more frames, juxtaposing concurrent or anterior events within the same visual field” (p. 15). The conspicuous example here is Mike Figgis’ Timecode (2000), which follows a number of characters simultaneously by splitting the screen into four quadrants, allowing for the exploration of memory and simultaneity.
Now, with Cameron’s notion of the modular narrative in mind, I would like to return to the question of how to make sense of the contemporary cycle of complex narrative films in relation to previous categories of analysis. Cameron writes:
On the one hand, [modular narrative films] hark back to much earlier innovations of modernist literature and cinema. On the other, they point forward to future textual forms. [...] In this sense, cinematic modular narratives occupy a middle ground between traditional narrative and experimentation. Yet, rather than privileging one over the other, I suggest that the value of these films lies in their agnosticism, in their implicit questioning of both linear narrative and the non-linear forms that would seek to displace it. (p. 183)
Cameron’s argument that these films are theoretically “agnostic” is interesting in that it places them in a rather conservative position relative to past forms, a point which seems to me hard to deny. It is important, then, that Cameron makes it clear in the early pages of his book that what he sees as new about these films is not necessarily their formal inventiveness, but something else:
What is notable about these films is not so much that they mark a new departure in narrative aesthetics (in most cases, they are more conservative than their modern predecessors), but that they signal the point at which these aesthetics have been accepted by popular culture at large. (p. 16)
It is this acceptance at a popular level that is indeed a key novelty of the contemporary cycle, and which can be argued to be largely a result of the formal conservatism of modular narratives. The conservatism is understandable given that producing feature films is a very expensive endeavour and finding the balance between experimentation and accessibility is a risky undertaking. One certainty seems to be that playing with form is palatable in mainstream cinema so long as a large degree of resolution is offered before the curtains close. Cameron’s book, while not limited by such concerns, certainly provides significant support to them.
I wholeheartedly and unashamedly recommend this book to scholars with an interest in the complex narratives of contemporary cinema. It offers a unique and significant contribution to the field and will undoubtedly be influential on future work in the area.
Modular Narratives in Contemporary Cinema, by Allan Cameron, Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke, 2008.
- See David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2006, pp. 78-80, inter alios.
- Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, Blackwell Publishing, Malden and Oxford, 2009, to which Allan Cameron contributes a chapter, co-authored with Sean Cubitt, on “Infernal Affairs and the Ethics of Complex Narrative”, pp. 151-166.
- Eva Laass, Broken Taboos, Subjective Truths: Forms and Functions of Unreliable Narration in Contemporary American Cinema, Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2008.