Narrative music

A. and I saw two films yesterday, and my reactions to each of them probably say a lot about what sort of person I am.

We headed over to Hollywood in the afternoon, got caught in one of those inexplicably snarly patches of LA traffic, missed the start of the film we’d intended to see, but found that Hotel Rwanda was just about to start, so dived in. It did almost exactly nothing for me. Despite the vastness and gut-wrenching horror of the source material, and also despite some technically dead-on performances, the narrative is small, clumsy. Whether for lack of budget, lack of artistic guile, lack of bravery, there’s no poetry. I wasn’t remotely moved.

And then, in the evening, we stuck The Usual Suspects in the DVD player, I geeked out to a film I adore, which I’ve seen countless times — even dissected the screenplay for PhD stuff — and at the moment where the narrative comes together in the most beautiful structural ballet, not for the first time I found myself genuinely moved, tears in my eyes. (The moment, for what it’s worth, is when Kevin Spacey’s leg straightens. It never fails to take my breath away.) It’s quite silly, because there’s nothing close to sentimental about the film. Hotel Rwanda is about genocide. The Usual Suspects is about noirish crime. And yet it’s Suspects that consistently moves me.

Narrative can have music. When it works, it can be like music. It’s no longer about discovering the plot. It’s about experiencing the structure of the thing as a whole, just as we thrill to a favourite song. I’ve taken a lot of stick from A. and others about how much I was moved by Titanic. I agree with their criticisms of the film, mostly, but I also can see why we disagree about the film as a whole: I think its narrative structure is entirely magnificent. It’s that which moves me, not caring about the characters, or being swept along by the score. Certainly it’s not the dialogue. So I find myself profoundly moved most of all by elegance and beauty in the structure of narrative. I suspect that might make me very strange.


  • Hmm… as you know, I agreed with you completely until you threw Titanic into the mix. The narrative of that film was flawed it took away much of the story’s dramatic tension — we know within the first 20 minutes what happened to the necklace, ths she survives, that he did not, and we start the film knowing that the boat sinks and there aren’t enough life boats.

    Titanic’s saving grace, beyond sentimentality, was incredible special effects, not narrative. A film more unlike the narrative grace of The Usual Suspects would be hard to find.

  • A.: Is okay, but obviously I disagree. I just don’t buy a general argument that if you happen to know, broadly speaking, how things turn out, then the narrative is lost. Plenty of canonically great films play out entirely as flashback: I’m thinking Citizen Kane, Kind Hearts and Coronets. Besides, is there any difference in effect between a within-narrative flashback that reveals an ending, and the sort of meta-reveal that we have with genre fiction? We don’t moan about a whodunit that it was obvious in advance Poirot would solve the mystery. We don’t moan about a Bond film that it was obvious in advance he’d kill the bad guy and save the world. They’re all about the specifics of how.

    There’s a great deal of that in Titanic, IMO. The framing narrative does give us a lot, but it certainly doesn’t give us everything. Indeed, I’d argue that the first part of the frame gives us enough to know that what we’re about to see will be epic, but that there’ll also be plenty of stuff we don’t yet know. It doesn’t spoil; it whets our appetite. Or mine, anyhow.

    More than that, though, I don’t buy a specific argument that Titanic’s dramatic tension is lost. It’s a romantic tragedy layered on top of a social tragedy. The point isn’t that it’s unexpected. The point is exactly that it’s inevitable. It makes the frantic plot within the frame all the more weighty. What we definitely don’t know until we’re shown it as the plot plays out, is that he saves her, so that she can save him, so that he can, in the end, save her. However, as with all tragedy, there’s still a small part of us that believes it can turn out differently this time.

    The framing narrative gives all of the events on the boat resonance. It wouldn’t work as well if, say, the story were told chronologically, and we only met old Rose at the very end. Such a leap in time, introducing what would amount to a new character, would be very clumsy. By introducing her at the beginning, we already know her at the end – as old Rose, as well as young Rose – so the effect is of bringing the pieces together, rather than adding new pieces. It’s death to a screenplay to add new characters late on.

    The ending – as that of Kind Hearts and Coronets – does still have a twist or two. It’s been a while, but I think you’re wrong about the jewel. We don’t find out that she has it until the very end. We learn the significance to the rest of her life of those few days. The effect is of looking back on a life well-lived, in a way that would have been terribly clumsy told chronologically.

    Oh, and would it be unfair of me to point out that the beginning of The Usual Suspects tells us a great deal too? We know that they all die, apart from Verbal. 🙂

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