In this project we will consider two areas that demand a different approach to narrative.
In some documentaries it is easier to recognise the narrative form than in others. The ‘true life stories’ approach is often structured much like a drama, maybe even including fictionalised scenes or re-enactments to provide the material needed for the chosen narrative. An investigative report has a similar narrative structure. The situation or problem is laid out in Act 1, the investigation carried out in Act 2 and the answers laid out and conclusions drawn in Act 3. In observational documentaries it may be harder to recognise a simple narrative.
A classic observational documentary like the work of Frederick Wiseman takes its cues from the material that is observed. He tries not to impose his preconceptions or influence the action in any way. In editing the film he has to create a unique narrative from the hours of footage observed. Other documentaries have a clear agenda; the starting point for the film-maker is to put across a point of view or discuss an idea. This format is far more scripted; the structure or the key plot points can be laid out in advance. The film-maker then goes out to find or create the necessary footage to fit their script. An example of this might be Michael Moore’s ‘Farenheit 911’ in which he sets out to make a series of points and chooses locations, people and scenarios to test and illustrate these. The narrative here follows the structure of a discursive essay: an introduction, a series of assertions with examples, and a conclusion.
Crudely put, documentaries tend to fall into two categories: those with something to say and those which seek to explore. In the first case the film-maker must fit the evidence and the material they find to their story; in the second case they must try to discover what the story is in whatever they find. In both cases they will have to decide at some point what the story is and create a narrative to tell it.
Think of documentaries you have seen and try to identify which category the film falls into:
• Asking – the film-maker goes into the project without pre-conceived ideas of the message or conclusion
• Telling – the film-maker has a point to make or a message to convey
Pick a film from each category and try to draw a diagram of the narrative structure. (You will probably have to watch them again for this.) You may find there are multiple narrative strands.
Try to include these in your diagram. In each case try to identify the central narrative. Choose a single scene from one of the films and draw a diagram of the structure of the scene.
Upload diagrams to your site.
Compare your diagrams with those of other students.
• Do you notice any patterns? Do your analyses generally agree? Are there any anomalies?
• What do you notice about your diagrams of scene structure?
My Scientology Movie ( dir. John Dower, 2015 )
Louis Theroux’s “My Scientology Movie” is a good example of a project that is not particularly pre-conceived. Despite Theroux’s extensive research into the subject, the film expresses a somewhat aimless sense, that is a metaphor to the confusion and secrecy that the subject matter is allegedly hidden behind. With total non-compliance from the organisation themselves, which is of course the production’s anticipated outcome, the narrative has more than one strand. Theroux’s attempts to interview the current leader David Miscavige; in failing to do so, to recreate interviews using Hollywood aspiring actors to perform documented incidents; and by telling the story of ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun.
Having grown up in East Grinstead in Sussex, the home of the European headquarters of Scientology, I have been interested in this subject matter, not simply because of its locality, but also the organisation’s secretive and allegedly threatening stand-point to its critics and ex-members. Guilt is often the default reputation to clandestine activity and the movement appears to have done little to alleviate these rumours since its inception in the early fifties.
This particular scene involves Theroux’s attempt to hand a letter for Miscavige to the gatekeeper at one of Scientolgy’s Californian missions. The letter is rejected and Theroux is left with his own opinion of why, rather than a resolution, something which is common practice whenever investigative reporters and Scientologists converge. (1)
I preferred to use this format to portray the scene. Still broken down to three acts, the scene is set by explaining a letter is about to be delivered. The conflict is that the security guard refuses the letter, leaving a faux-conclusion as the reporter can only assume the guard is fearful of repercussions from the organisation he defends.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston ( dir. Jeff Feuerzeig, 2005 )
The artist Daniel Johnston is the lyricist’s lyricist, producing sad songs to die for. His traumatic life, documented via hours of cinefilm and audio cassettes captured by Daniel himself is blended with his artwork and interviews with friends and family, even his older self in this outstanding documentary biopic. His mental health is recorded via his astonishing scribbled drawings and his unique songs which are brought to life so hauntingly here. The film is a telling of a life story, Daniel Johnston’s creative achievements crushed by paranoid schizophrenia and a lifetime of anti-psychotic medication. (2)
The scene in which Daniel and friends tell of his absorbing obsession with Laurie, the girl of his dreams, is very poignant and depicting of a creepy nature, indicating a very poorly soul, however his muse allowed him to tap into a creativity that is original and personal, which has a rare honesty that I can fully appreciate. The songs that are the result are incredibly touching and reveal an astonishing lyrical genius.
Narrative can be said to exist in painting, in music, and in poetry. Yet any description of these narratives would occur outside the artwork as they themselves contain no description. In describing them you either describe the story that you imagine they were trying to tell or you try and describe the artwork itself hoping this will somehow reveal the narrative you imagined. So it is with more abstract forms of film-making. It is often argued that rather than being non-narrative these films experiment with different forms of narrative. They may not have a plot but all films present a series of images one after the other, so all films present some form of narrative. It may be that the narrative takes place on another level that is not directly evident on screen. Perhaps the film-maker wants to take the viewer on an emotional journey. This journey could be seen as the story that is being told.
Going back to the dictionary definition, narrative is “that which is narrated, a story; a written or spoken account of a series of events in the order in which they occur”. In this case, rather than writing or speaking the film-maker is communicating emotions directly through images and sounds; the events are the emotions you feel as a viewer. There is no need for the images to make sense in a traditional, plot driven, way for there to be a narrative. The narrative could also be conceptual. As a viewer you are forced to ask questions; the conceptual journey you make as you struggle to find answers is the narrative. By definition it would be impossible to describe these film in a meaningful way so it is important that you find and watch some films with alternative narrative structures. You can find examples of this approach to film-making in other areas. They often crop up in mainstream films and are prevalent in advertising and music videos. Look for examples of narratives that are represented without a plot and try out the exercise below wherever you find them.
Find some examples of alternative narratives. In each case try to identify the nature of the narrative. This is best achieved by watching the film without any pre-conceptions. Don’t analyse the first time you watch, just watch. Afterwards ask yourself how you felt as you watched. What were you thinking?
• Did the film take you on an emotional journey? Did it cause any reaction – even irritation or boredom? Why was this?
David Lynch ‘s Inland Empire is a difficult film to follow and it takes the audience through what can only be described as a true nightmare, filled with confusing time-frames and red herrings, disturbing imagery, terrifying sounds.
• How was it achieved?
each time the film appears understandable, cuts are taken in such severe tangents, that leave you disorientated and confused.
• What questions were you asking yourself, what puzzled you? What strange ideas popped into your head?
I loved this movie, it was the disjointed nature that achieves its goal the best, it really is a surreal nightmare experience. Few films achieve the distrubing nature of bad dreams.
• Did your feelings or understanding change later when you remembered the film? It is often necessary to watch a film a couple of times before you form a strong sense of it. Of course your interpretation may be very different to someone else’s. This is how it should be. Consider it as a form of poetry. Try to draw a diagram of the narrative. In some cases you may have more than one narrative – for instance there may be a simple plot and a complex emotional narrative in the same piece. Upload your best diagrams to your blog.
After various visits to Inland Empire, I still maintain that it is excellent. With a running time of over three hours, which feels even longer upon viewing, it requires stamina. But with each viewing I find it harder to watch. Part of its attraction is the wonder of what is going to happen next. Just like in a dream. (3)
Inland Empire ( dir. David Lynch, 2006 )
(1) Official film website: http://www.myscientologymovie.com/ – accessed 12th April 2017
(2) Daniel Johnston website: http://www.hihowareyou.com/ – accessed 12th April 2017
(3) http://www.davidlynch.de/ – accessed 12th April 2017