Screen Narrative

This week’s reading by Stadler & McWilliam, titled Screen Narratives: Traditions and Trends, dissects the patterns and structures of film, television and game narratives. Stadler & McWilliam take the reader on a journey through the history of screen narrative, from the traditional three-act narrative to the fragmented and multi-strand narratives that have become increasingly popular since Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). Stadler & McWilliam differentiate between the terms plot and story, which are often confused as meaning the same thing, and they also introduce the structuralism technique for analysing narratives, using the movie Natural Born Killers (1994) as an example. The authors then compare film narrative with television narrative and finish off by exploring the narrative found in video games.

 Stadler & McWilliam (2009, p. 156) suggest that movies such as Crash (2004), Babel (2006) and Pulp Fiction (1994) indicate that screen narratives are ‘becoming more complex, adventurous and experimental’, compared to the classical narration style which typically follow a three-act structure (beginning, middle and end), fragmented narratives are often ‘broken up into jumbled segments featuring an array of characters in different places or non-sequential timelines’ (Stadler & McWilliam, 2009, p. 157). I’ll draw from the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) to illustrate this style of narrative structure. The movie begins with Jim Carrey’s character Joel Barish waking up in his bed, he then skips work and catches the train to Montauk. Upon arriving he sits on the beach and opens his diary only to notice pages missing that he doesn’t remember ripping out, ‘it appears this is my first entry in two years’ he thinks to himself. Later he meets a girl with blue hair called Clementine and they appear to hit it off.

 The audience would assume at this stage that the movie is running in a sequential order that is characteristic of the classical narration style, but this idea is shot down fairly suddenly. Joel is seen parked outside his girlfriend’s house when a man walks up to his car and asks him what he’s doing there, the scene then jumps to Joel driving in the night, crying over what we expect to be the eventual breakup of his new relationship. We eventually discover that he was crying because his girlfriend had her memory of their relationship completely erased, out of sadness and rage he goes to the clinic that erased her memory and asks them to do the same for him. Joel is asleep for the rest of the movie while scientists on computers attempt to erase his past relationship, the narrative then shifts from memory to memory of the good and bad times that they had together. Eventually he wakes up and has completely forgotten about Clementine, and the audience soon discovers that the sequence of events that then follow lead to the events of the beginning of the movie.

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