This is part of a three part posting taken from a brief lecture I gave during a film class.
Part One: Introduction
As I have been doing, I want to talk in very broad categories, recognizing the reality of many exceptions to the “rule.”
Classical Hollywood Narration presents rather clearly defined individuals struggling toward rather clear-cut goals. These characters move and have their being within clearly presented worlds according to clearly understood time and space norms. And when all is said and done, when the story has finally concluded, these characters have unambiguously either reached their goals or not reached their goals. Typically causality, that thing that keeps the story moving forward and gives a reason to do so, is also unambiguous – such as the solving of a crime, saving the world or saving a private, falling in love, wining a race, escaping death, killing a giant shark, blowing up a deathstar, running from dinosaurs, throwing a ring into a volcano, disarming a bomb, bending it like Beckham, and finding a Nemo, etc.
Life, that great big thing that we are all doing, is typically presented as coherent and free of ambiguities – at least true ambiguities. Characters do have decisions to make – and even decisions are between right and wrong itself. But the characters are understood, the decisions are understood, the world is understood, and we are along for a story that rests upon, and works within this clarity. Of course there might be moments of confusion, but that is part of encouraging tension in the viewer for the purpose of moving the narrative to its climax. In the Classical Hollywood Narrative those moments of confusion are never too long and ideally are not left unresolved at the end of the film.
And an incredibly large number of films have been exceedingly successful within these parameters.
But is life always neatly arranged, clearly understood, free of ambiguities, plainly motivated, distilled into lucid and obvious choices?
If the Classical Hollywood narrative film has it roots in 19th Century drama and short stories (with Edgar Allan Poe being a prime example), then what is often called Art-Cinema Narration has it roots clearly in the 20th Century (with writers such as Anton Chekhov being a prime example). Art-Cinema is firmly a 20th Century phenomena.
These two kinds of narrative structures can be simplistically summed up this way:
- 19th Century drama is about characters, who in the midst of life, are confronted with some external situation (maybe rather ordinary or rather extraordinary) which they must resolve or come to terms with. An internal, spiritual, mental struggle might play into the larger goal of the external struggle, but is ultimately subservient to it.
- 20th Century drama is about characters, who in the midst of life, are confronted with some internal, spiritual, mental struggle with which they must resolve or come to terms with. An external situation may play a significant part in the larger, internal struggle, but is ultimately subservient to it.
Remember, there are many exceptions to this division. The 19th Century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky being just one.
Other influential writers – along with Chekhov:
James Joyce (Ulysses, etc.)
Ernest Hemingway (The Snows of Kilimanjaro)
Virginia Wolf (The Voyage Out, etc.)
Thomas Mann (The Magic Mountain, Death in Venice, etc.)