eternal sunshine of the spotless mind

Screen Narrative Traditions and Trends

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.

 Rather than showing the story in a chronological order the fragmented style of narrative instead chooses to scatter the scenes onto the floor, forcing the audience to put the pieces together themselves. The film showcases a circular structure, which suggests that ‘the problems of the narrative are not solvable, but are part of an inevitable, ongoing cycle’ (Stradler & McWilliam, 2009, p. 161.) The movie begins with Joel meeting a girl for assumedly the first time, but by the end we realise that they had already met before, however the question of how many times they’ve met prior is never clear. It is apparent that they will continue to meet, fall in love, erase each other from their memories and then repeat the cycle over and over again.  Stadler & McWilliam (2009, p. 160) also differentiate between the meaning of plot and story; story is ‘a chronological sequence of cause and effect that the audience actively infers from the raw material of the plot’, while the plot is the way the story unfolds on the screen. In the case of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) the story is basically boy meets girl, they fall in love, they fall out of love and have their memories of each other erased, boy meets girl again and the cycle continues. But the plot of the movie is not shown in that order, rather it is revealed to us through the clever use of flashbacks (analepsis) and scene fragmentation (anachrony).

Stadler & McWilliam (2009, p.161) introduce to the reader a style of narrative analysis called structuralism, which rather than focusing on the structure of a story it instead draws attention to its semiotics (signs) and the underlying myths that are present: myths being ‘stories that encode and naturalise the belief structures of a society’. Joseph Campbell was an American mythologist and writer who spent the majority of his life examining the myths of many cultures which are present in nearly all texts, from religion to fairy tales. George Lucas was inspired by Campbell’s novel ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1949) and turned that inspiration into the classic Star Wars trilogy. In an interview Campbell states ‘George Lucas was using standard mythological figures: the old man as the advisor [which represents] the Japanese sword master… he gives [Luke] not only a physical instrument (lightsaber) but a psychological commitment and a psychological centre (the force)’ and the character Han Solo ‘who begins as a mercenary and ends up as a hero… the adventure evoked the qualities of the character that he hadn’t known he possessed’ (The Power of Myth, 1988). Obi Wan playing the part of the Japanese sword master taking on a student, and teaching him to feel rather than fight is a common theme evident in a lot of texts, some examples include ‘Way of the Peaceful Warrior’ (Millman, 1980) and ‘The Karate Kid’ (1984). Stadler & McWilliam (2009, p.165) state that ‘structuralism itself is based on the assumption that there are patterns shared by all narratives, and a pool of universal stories or myths common to all cultures’, Star Wars is loaded with mythical undertones and classical hero/villain archetypes that are shared by most narratives, and this could be a reason for its huge success as a larger audience can relate to and understand its characters.

Stadler & McWilliam (2009, p. 172) also go into detail about the narrative style of television, which in contrast to film is ‘ongoing and character driven’ and rarely has a well-defined goal or resolution, due to its drawn out and interrupted structure, rather than having a linear form, television has a serial form which revolves around its audience tuning into the show at a particular time once a week to pick up where the show left off. ‘Television content also tends to be intertextual… incorporating references to other television shows’ often. (Stadler & McWilliam, 2009, p. 173), this is the most obvious in the television cartoon ‘The Simpsons’ which makes numerous subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, movie references in each episode. For example one episode has Lisa conduct an experiment on Bart designed to compare his intelligence to her pet hamster. In one of the experiments she leaves a tray of muffins on his desk, wired up to electric nodes. Each time he touches the muffins he gets an electric shock, but despite the shock he keeps attempting to pick up the muffins, the hamster however learns his lesson after one shock and cowers in the corner. Later on in the episode, Marge asks Bart to get the muffins from the table, which are placed next to each other and have cherries on the top, he reaches up towards them with extended hands and then collapses on the floor, which is a very subtle reference to a scene in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange’ (1971).

 The writers conclude their article by discussing the narratives found in video games, I could go on and on about this topic but I feel I have written too much already so I will also conclude. In conclusion, the writings of Stadler & McWilliam explore the varieties of narrative structures found in nearly every text and also introduce to the reader the tools necessary to analyse and interpret these narrative structures. It is clear that the traditional three-act narrative is evolving rapidly to meet the expectations of an audience which is ‘becoming more sophisticated’ (Stadler & McWilliam, 2009, p.156.)