MCC248 Lecture Six
Narration 2: The Puzzle Plot
Dr Yingchi Chu
2 September 2014, Murdoch Campus
The lecture addresses the following questions
What is the puzzle plot?
How different is the puzzle plot from the classical
David Bordwell, Edward Branigan, Michael Wedel
and Warren Buckland.
1. Classical narrative & narration
To understand how the ‘puzzle plot’ works as a disruption of viewing expectations trained on classical film narrative, we need to remind ourselves of the principles on which Hollywood narratives are constructed.
Cause-effect chain of events; beginning/middle/ending;
closed ending; chronology or mildly modified chronology;
Individual characters as causal agents; motivated by
his/her desire; unrestrictive narration; ease of identification with screen characters;
verisimilitude ‘reality’; invisible techniques; seamless continuity; focus on what is happening, not how the story
2. Enter the ‘puzzle film’
Since the 1990s a large number of films have become
more complex, opaque, and difficult to follow.
‘The puzzle film is made up of non-classical characters
who perform non-classical actions and events. Puzzle film
constitutes a post-classical mode of filmic representation and experience not delimited by mimesis.’
This has led to a scholarly debate as to how much the new
puzzle style really deviates from classical narrative film
norms and so constitutes a radically new historical phase
3. Bordwell: forking-path plots
Puzzle films are no more than a minor complication of the
traditional plot path by splitting it into two or more, which he calls the ‘forking path plots’;
‘forking path plots’: well-marked, linear, developed,
cohesive, unified with one another, ordered sequentially to
make the final path a climax, and designed to pinpoint
clear, contrasting parallels;
‘forking-path narratives’ flaunt their parallels, whereas classical narratives "often bury their parallels" amidst
minor characters and subplots that exist to work out
versions of the main plot line.
Generic features of the forking-path
Bordwell identifies 7 conventions of the forking-path plot:
1. forking paths are linear;
2. the fork is signposted;
3. forking path intersects sooner or later;
4. forking path tales are unified by traditional cohesion
5. forking paths will often run parallel;
6. all paths are not equal, the last one taken presupposes the others;
7. all paths are not equal, the last one taken or completed, is the least hypothetical one.
4. Branigan: ‘forking-path’ and
Acknowledges the new phenomena in contemporary film
narratives; and largely agrees with Bordwell’s theorization of the puzzle plot;
However, taking spectatorship on board, Branigan suggests that ‘there exist other types of plotting not dependent on the "river of time" metaphor, where the relationship among parallels and
alternatives is neither flaunted nor buried, but is ambiguous or indeterminate, as if the parallels were seen in parallax’.
Therefore, the name "forking-path" narrative suggests a
conservative, generic form of narrative (as exemplified by the films Bordwell discusses), while leaving the name "multiple-draft" narrative as a way to cover a more general phenomenon.
5. Wedel: sound & rhythm
Refining Bordwell’s characterization by Run Lola
the temporal structure of the individual episodes
is not ‘circular’;
the temporalities in each individual episode are
not ‘being organized in a strictly ‘linear’ fashion’;
Sound, movement and rhythm are ‘radically
diverging’ from chronological temporal modes.
6. Buckland: the Puzzle plot
‘Puzzle films embrace non-linearity, time loops, and
fragmented spatio-temporal reality. These films blur the
Interpretations. A Response to David Bordwell’s ‘Film Futures’.”
SubStance, 97, Vol.31, No.1 (2002):105-14.
edited by Warren Buckland, 1-12. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.
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