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November 08, 2005

Nonlinear Storytelling

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Wife and I made it to the movie theaters a few times recently. First we took in Tony Scott's "Domino." The film is loosely based on the life of a woman named Domino Harvey. The daughter of a Vogue model and the dashing British star Laurence Harvey, Domino grew up angry and a little crazy, and became a bounty hunter. Yup, although it sounds Too Good to be True, she really did. The film is a frantic, hallucinatory, cyber-fantasia based on a few episodes in Domino's life.

Before anyone asks what we were thinking, attending an obviously appalling movie like "Domino," let me say that The Wife and I sometimes enjoy seeing obviously-appalling movies. There's the fun of tuning into the zeitgeist. But there's also mucho fun to be had in gasping in horror at what the media have become, and where life generally seems to be heading.

In the case of "Domino," we thoroughly enjoyed being appalled. I don't know when I've seen such a foaming-at-the-mouth commercial film. Always flashy and aggressive, Tony Scott seems to have spent time recently studying at the "Natural Born Killers" finishing school.

Imagine a cable service whose every channel is broadcasting something about Domino Harvey: on one channel a documentary; on another a movie of the week; on a third the rock-video version; on the fourth a drug-trip account, etc etc. Now imagine spending two hours surfing randomly among these many stations. That's what watching "Domino" is like. It's more about the twitchy fun of channel-surfing than it is about its ostensible subject.

There was some non-campy pleasure to be had watching the performers. Nearly all of them show enjoyable "what the hell?" attitudes, and nearly all pitch themselves into the punkish attitudinizing with likable ferocity. I'd never watched Keira Knightly before, but I'm a fan now. She's cute as heck, of course. But she also shows a lot of zest, and a lot of uninhibited and naughty-spirited avidity. As Domino's mentor, Mickey Rourke does his specialty -- seedy-and-bemused -- and he flexes a lot of reluctant charisma too. Keira and Mickey both do excellent jobs making the filthy bluejeans they wear seem recklessly glamorous. Playing their opposite number -- an opportunistic reality-TV producer in a business suit -- Christopher Walken is even more wackily Martian than usual.

I felt very happy when the credits at the end of "Domino" visually showed the film's lead actors. I often wish that movies would all show images of the performers they name during their credits. It's a nice tribute to the performers as well as a service to viewers. Anyway, at the end of "Domino"'s credits, the actual Domino Harvey shows up for a few seconds. She's smiley, tough, careworn ... And her presence answers a lot of the questions that the film raises. All along, you've been wondering what kind of woman would become a kickass bounty hunter. The film tries to give the impression that the explanation has something to do with celebrity, with the media -- maybe even with America itself. Then Domino Harvey shows up and (if you're me, anyway) you go, "Oh, I get it now! She's a dyke!"

In fact, the actual Domino Harvey wasn't a kissably impish sexpot like Keira Knightly; she was bisexual if not entirely lesbian, and a drug addict. She was a genuinely screwy tough case, belligerant and on-edge even as a child. I don't want to traffic too much in stereotypes, and I'm happy to be contradicted. But I've known very few nondruggy straight women who have devoted serious stretches of their lives to courting physical danger. It's sad to learn that Domino Harvey died of a drug overdose shortly before the film was completed. Here's a Guardian piece about her life and her death.

The next day, we caught up with "Where the Truth Lies," Atom Egoyan's new film, based on a novel by Rupert Holmes. It was a different kettle of fish entirely -- a brooding, arty, period piece that concerns a wildly popular comedy-singing team from the '50s that is clearly modeled on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Why do they no longer perform together? What drove them apart? And how about that girl who turned up dead in a bathtub? A young woman with a big book contract is determined to track down all the tacky and embarassing details.

Flash forward … Flash back … Cut to different versions of the same event … Raise lots of questions about betrayal and identity, even about what's real and what's not …

It's a modernist puzzle picture, in other words -- a metaphysical semi-thriller that's a bit like "The English Patient," if much less sweeping and romantic in style and scale. There's the myth and the romance. There's the mystery. And what really happened, dammit? I suspect it wasn't a coincidence that the film's version of "truth" finally emerges during a conversation that takes place on a Hollywood film set, if you know what I mean. Even the film's title embodies paradoxes. "Where the Truth Lies" ... "Lies" suggests that the truth is buried, of course. But perhaps we're also meant to take "lies" as "misleads." So the title can be read two ways: "Where the truth is buried," and "An instance where the truth misleads."

Although my general preference is for straightforward storytelling, I have nothing against metaphysical semi-thrillers. Hey, the art cinema has its own genres. And why not? The metaphysical semi-thriller can deliver some distinctive pleasures. It can point fingers at cultural phenomena; it can establish a mood; it can be sexy and exotic.

A good metaphysical semi-thriller is like an erotic game: it'll keep you convinced that a gigantic revelation of unbelievable import is on the verge of being delivered. That feeling of sinister and expectant alarm is almost like hypnosis; it can heighten tensions and throw relationships into dreamlike relief. And of course a good metaphysical semi-thriller will -- must -- deliver a lot of chic style.

On the other hand, the metaphysical semi-thriller has its traps too. Everything inevitably gets to be excessively abstract. The philosophizing is almost always less impressive than it first appears to be. And the resolution is inevitably a let-down. Short of God Himself making an appearance, what could ever live up to the feeling of dreaded-yet-desired expectation? In other words, even at their best, these films tend to hit a sexy-sinister mood, sustain it for a couple of hours, and then end with a pffft.

Still, why not cut the genre some slack? In this case: Hats off to the performers (Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman, Rachel Blanchard and others), the designer, and the cinematographer, all of whom turn in professional work. I especially loved watching Alison Lohman as the young journalist. Her eensie-weensie, completely earnest wisp of a voice; her could-be-15 / could-be-25 baby face; the determination she gives her character to be taken seriously ... Well, it's all deliciously pornographic, as well as a spot-on portrayal of a certain kind of introverted / narcissistic / ambitious media girl, er, young woman.

My only beef with the picture is that, like every other Egoyan I've ever seen, it completely failed to persuade me. Egoyan gets a little mood-poetry going, but nowhere near enough to make up for the plodding, frozen-in-amber quality of most of his work. He fails on very basic levels. When are we in the '50s, and when is the action set in the 1970s? Even when it seems meant to be clear, I found myself mystified. And the Martin-Lewis-esque performance routines -- which include nightclub acts as well as telethons -- lack fire and spontaneity. Everything seems canned.

I could forgive the film its stiltedness if Egoyan came through with a couple of juicily memorable scenes. After all, if I'm able to sit through the tedium of David Lynch's semi-similar films it's because Lynch almost always delivers a few miraculously zingy minutes: Patricia Arquette stripping with a gun to her head in "Lost Highway"; the audition and the lesbian lovemaking in "Mulholland Drive." Egoyan isn't bad at hinting at perversity and sexiness, but when the moment comes to deliver and follow through, the scene usually ends.

It's very peculiar that "Where the Truth Lies" was released unrated, by the way. Films that are released unrated are usually sexually edgy. But "Where the Truth Lies" isn't explicit at all. A few boobs, a couple of buns, the hint of a head in a crotch … Twenty years ago, a film like this would have received an R rating, perhaps even a PG-13. Evidently the ratings board has tightened up a lot in recent years.

If I can be forgiven a small rant: Kevin Bacon playing a character who's obviously meant to evoke Jerry Lewis? Kevin Bacon playing a character who makes a big deal out of being Jewish? Now, I like Kevin Bacon. He's a skillful and energetic performer who takes a lot of admirable chances. Here he clearly enjoyed the challenge of being cast wildly against type. He studied the mannerisms, vocal patterns, and energy dynamics of Jerry Lewis. But all his good work can't overcome the basic miscasting. With his squinty eyes, his pug nose, and his bantam strut, he doesn't look like an out-there, emotionally slobby loose cannon. He looks like someone you'd run into sipping Guinness at a working-class bar, or maybe running an IRA cell. I'm pretty loose about casting and I don't like getting hung up on racial or ethnic types. But not since Diane Lane played Jewish in "A Walk on the Moon" have I balked like this. Like Bacon, Lane did a fine job -- but were the Catskills resorts ever home to someone who looked like Diane Lane? Very odd: the performers on "Seinfeld" look Jewish yet play characters who never say they're Jewish. In "Where the Truth Lies" and "A Walk on the Moon," Bacon and Lane don't look remotely Jewish, yet they play characters who we're explicitly told are Jewish. Color me confused.

"Domino" and "Where the Truth Lies" couldn't be more different in many ways. "Domino" is as berserkly hyper as "Monday Night Football," while the Egoyan is as hushed and solemn as a morning in church. What they do share, though, is a nonlinear approach to storytelling.

"Domino" is all over the place. Although it begins with Domino's capture and spends its running time flashing back to tell how she got there, it's beyond-scrambled in its general attack. A character starts to tell a story, and boom, you're watching that story. Something is hinted at and -- boom -- it materializes before your eyes. I wasn't entirely sure, but there were passages in "Domino" that seemed to have nonlinearity within nonlinearity. Meanwhile, the Egoyan was an intellectualized jigsaw puzzle.

I'm not sure how I feel about nonlinear storytelling. Are you? Critics, academics, and the media often celebrate nonlinearity. There are three reasons usually given for the greatness of nonlinearity.

  • One is the usual avant-garde argument: Traditional storytelling is felt to be oppressive, and in need of subverting -- linearity is evil, therefore nonlinearity is good.

  • The second argument is related. It's claimed that our minds don't work in linear ways. They're said to work associatively, not plodding relentlessly forward but instead zigzagging their way around a firmament in which time and cause-and-effect play little part. We're said to need an approach to narrative that reflects the way we actually experience thought and imagination.

  • The third case that gets made for nonlinearity is that today's young people have left conventional storytelling behind. Plugged into multiple devices and drenched in innumerable media streams, kids today are beyond been-there-done-that. They're said to have seen it all a thousand times, and it's claimed that they need entertainment that reflects the multi-tracking natures of their brains and nervous system. This is clearly the Tony Scott approach: "OK, you know the big explosion is about to come. I know it too, and you know I know. So I'm not even going to try to involve you with it, or justify it dramatically. What I'm going to do instead is deliver what you know has to come in a cool way." Egoyan? Well, he might well think he's doing something subversive and revolutionary. On the other hand, maybe he just likes making circuitous art films.

But a few important matters get overlooked in these discussions, it seems to me.

  • One is the glory of straightforward narrative. Has there ever been a period in history when a well-told, first-class story didn't fascinate? The modernist-academic belief sometimes seems to be that telling a story is a trivially easy thing to do. Having written a little nonlinear fiction and a little linear fiction, I dispute that belief. In my experience, dreaming up and telling a straightforward story is to fiction what figure drawing is to the visual arts: always basic, yet always a challenge.

    Creating recognizable and believable characters … Defining what the situation they're caught up in is … Being clear about what's at stake … Making firm choices about what your characters do as they pursue their goals … Trying to involve your audience in these affairs … These are tasks that take a lot of imagination, a lot of skill, and a lot of hard work.

  • Another question that gets overlooked is a very practical one: the utility of traditional narrative. Traditional storytelling gives you the means to order your material -- not strict rules, but principles of organization that are akin to tonality in music. If you want to put your ideas up on their feet, casting them in terms of a traditional story will usually prove to be a much more direct activity than casting them in modernist-poetic terms. And if you like the relating-to-an-audience side of art and entertainment, traditional storytelling is a boon; it equips you with a whole language of sympathy, point of view, climaxes, suspense, surprises, revelations, pacing, setups and payoffs. Take the time to learn the language, and you'll be (more or less) able to say what you have to say, in a way that an audience might very well enjoy. That's nice.

  • Yet another thing that's seldom discussed is the pitfalls of nonlinearity. For every "Pulp Fiction" and "Run Lola Run" -- films that found witty and surprising ways to order and deliver their fictional material -- there seem to be dozens of nonlinear films and novels that lie there like souffles determined not to rise. Nonlinear works seldom strike me as revolutionary and exciting, while they often strike me as disorganized and childish. "Domino" is an example. Watching the film is less like watching a movie than like listening a child tell you about a movie, or like overhearing a bunch of overcaffeinated geeks mutter and vent while a movie plays in the background. And "Where the Truth Lies"? Well, it might have been re-cut in dozens of different ways without much affecting the experience. And its big final revelation might have come at any time. It arrived at the end of the film only because, otherwise, why else would an audience wait around?

Here's a neat quote from the German director Volcker Schlondorff. It appeared some time ago in the Boston Review -- alas, I can't find the interview online.

What I think is changing is the language of filmmaking, through the technology on one hand, but also through the dominance of the audiovisual medium over all other media and art forms nowadays.

When I grew up, there was no television. By the age of about 18, I had seen maybe 50 or 100 movies. My 13-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has probably seen hundreds of movies by now. She lives in this constant stream of audiovisual stuff where it doesn't make a difference when the movie ends and a commercial starts.

Like her, you have all these people who have grown up in total audiovisual immersion. They don't expect (like we did) that movies should be closed objects with well-defined borders - a beginning, an end, and a climax. The younger generation's perception is totally different than ours was -- and it shows in the way they make films. You can already see that in the making of action films: they barely pretend to have a plot. Those filmmakers know damn well that people are waiting for a chase or a fight scene or some special effects; they don't care about a plot any more. It's a totally different perception.

How do you feel about nonlinearity? Has it liberated narrative from what has always oppressed it? Or is nonlinearity too often a coverup for illiteracy, disordered thinking, and poor impulse control?



posted by Michael at November 8, 2005


I have threatened to do linear 'fan edits' of David Lynch and other non-linear movies, but my wife always talks me out of it. And I no longer work somewhere with access to good video editing software. Oh well!

Posted by: David Mercer on November 8, 2005 3:49 AM

Tedium, thy name is Atom Egoyan. His work always looks good on paper, but the execution is so pedestrian... Leaving aside "Where the Truth Lies," which I haven't seen, most of Egoyan's films aren't actually non-linear - they just SEEM non-linear because he's such a bad storyteller.

Posted by: houyhnhnm on November 8, 2005 8:52 AM

I view nonlinearity as yet another tool in the toolbox of storytelling, but much like a miter saw, it has a very specific purpose and you use it only when appropriate. It's appropriate to use nonlinearity, as it is with most devices, only when it serves the story. Frinstance, I thought it was put to great use in "Memento." One-third of the way into the film, you experience the kind of nauseous unhinged feeling the character must by not being able to remember anything. And it's a fun surprise when and why repeating characters show up. I liked the effect in "Pulp Fiction," too. "Primer" is still a new favorite, though in theory it's only nonlinear behind the scenes.

I think a storytelling technique that will become much more common was the one used in "Moulin Rouge" (which I loathed outside of the storytelling device), where needless seconds were cut out. For instance, a character would enter the room and rather than our having to watch them walk all the way across, there'd be two jump cuts and they were in place delivering a line. I loved that. Talk about cut to the chase.

David Mercer, the deluxe version of "Memento" has just that hidden on the second disc - a linear version of the movie. You have to go to easter eggs sites to learn how access it, but it's a fun ride.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 8, 2005 9:05 AM

Trying to remember the moments of non-linearity in the print version of "The Maltese Falcon". I think the story of the partner getting killed, and the history of the Falcon. Of course, maybe we should the Falcon history when Spade does, and that isn't non-linear at all. But "flashbacks" are used in print story-telling all the time. Almost all mysteries depend on the device of the most important part of the story not being revealed til the end.

I like Egoyan. A lot. I cannot imagine "Exotica" and "Sweet Hereafter" with their ending scenes placed at or near the beginning of the movies. It is not only a matter of revelation, but of giving that information a priority of importance it wouldn't have in linear storytelling.

In "Catch 22" why didn't Heller put Yossarian's airplane revelation at the start, so we might better understand his motivations when reading? I don't think I understand you.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on November 8, 2005 9:26 AM


While I understand your points, and agree with most of them, I too would have to cite detective stories as fairly well established exercises in non-linearity. All of them dribble out the 'real' story (to wit: the murder's motivation, his criminal actions, and his attempts to avoid discovery) in disconnected chunks and fragments, although I grant you those are presented through dialogue or other methods in the surface story, and don't disrupt its apparent dramatic unity.

Actually, told linearly, a detective story becomes a different genre altogether, pyschological suspense I think it's called. And now that I think of it, don't you really prefer pyschological suspense to detective stories, by and large? Well, I applaud you on your consistency!

But back to the real point: there's linearity and there's linearity, so to speak. Maybe it would help to distinguish one type from another.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 8, 2005 11:56 AM

My prize for best nonliner storytelling goes to "Catch 22", in which the story actually doesn't add up linerar-ly if you try to reorganise it. Reality is a shaky thing. That's a good reason to use nonlinearity, and I do agree that there must be one.

I read that Domino's demise is still officially unsolved, and her friends think she may have been murdered by angry bounty. Interesting person, but I'm still not sure whether to see the film or not.

Posted by: Alice on November 8, 2005 12:25 PM

Sometimes the non-linear storytelling is so chaotic it becomes too detrimental to the movie, i.e. "Memento" directed by Christopher Nolan, which actually IS linear - only in reverse.

Even though I am an avid fan of weird movies, especially anything by David Lynch, "Memento" just drove me nuts.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on November 8, 2005 12:41 PM

I've read that Domino before she died was very upset at being called a lesbian in the press. I think I read it in an article in the LATimes after she died. I'm not sure if she just didn't want them interfering in her private life or she didn't feel she was a lesbian.

Posted by: lindenen on November 8, 2005 2:45 PM

I think Friedrich raises a good point about linearity. Maybe chronologically would be a better word for this discussion. Nearly all films skip moments and experiences of the characters to keep the action moving, and many intercut scenes to make the action seem simultaneous. In the early days of filmmaking, that might've felt nonlinear to some. I think a certain amount of exposure to films and tv results in a visual shorthand that's colors what we'll accept as "traditional" storytelling in films.

Posted by: claire on November 8, 2005 3:51 PM

David -- That's a funny idea. It'd probably work well. I read somewhere that Lynch himself shuffles the sections of his movies around in a "no one can tell the difference" kind of way.
Maybe he should hire you as editor!

Houyhmnhm -- Maybe you've hit on a new genre or storytelling form: the film that only seems nonlinear.

Yahmdallah -- I like your notion that nonlinear is fine so long as there's a good reason for it. I wish I saw more reason for it (other than being "with it") in a lot of nonlinear works. "Memento" drove me out of the movie theater in about 15 minutes -- that whole mimicking-a-disordered-brain thing struck me as interesting for about 2 minutes, then plain annoying. But I often like expressionism, so what am I complaining about?

Bob -- I'm not sure flashbacks should qualify as nonlinear, are you? They're a standard feature in fiction right from the outset, and words-on-a-page or at least narrated fiction needs 'em just as a basic tool. They're like explanations -- they clarify the linear progression of a story. Glad to hear you like Egoyan. I actually like a lot of what he raises and muses about, I just find the filmmaking flatfooted. Have you caught "The 5 Senses," the movie his producer directed? Not a nonlinear thing, more like a miniature "Short Cuts." But I liked it a lot.

FvB -- Detective stories nonlinear? Oh, you mean in the sense of uncovering and putting together the pieces of a mystery? Right, but that almost always happens in the context of a present-tense story that's moving relatively straightforwardly. In completely nonlinear narratives even the present-tense story gets fractured. Because, like, life's a four-dimensional tangle, you know what I mean?

Alice -- You and Bob are making me want to go re-read "Catch-22," which I obviously don't remember as well as I should! One of the funny thing about the new nonlinearity is how much it's made out to be new. In fact there have been a lot of narrative experiments over the centuries, not least at the beginning of movie history and in the 1960s. A lot of this stuff has been tried before. (A lot of it was discarded because it was found to not work very well, too.) I suppose kids hate hearing that, though.

Pattie -- Weird can be fun. And that's a great topic too: favorite weird movies. Interesting the way David Lynch has made a career of creating weird movies, isn't it? His "Eraserhead" certainly qualifies as one of my favorite weird movies.

Lindenen -- I wonder if Domino Harvey would have been happy with anything anyone ever said about her. Not that I know anything that I haven't read in the press, but she certainly seemed like a terrifically difficult person.

Claire -- FvB and you both raise a good point. And it's interesting that detective stories have struck many people as semi-surreal right from the outset, with Poe, and the French silent movies. Maybe it's partly that sense of progressing through time linearly in the present while exploring time in a more fractured way in the past that's partly why they can seem so dreamlike ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 8, 2005 4:16 PM

I thought Diane Lane looked a bit like Amy Irving, but I can see why you balked. Of course, out of all the interesting things about this post, I have to point out that bit of trivia. I don't get me, either.

Posted by: MD on November 8, 2005 4:27 PM

I think nonlinear stuff needs a certain flamboyant type of storyteller to succeed - a ringmaster or a master of ceremonies type, if you know what I mean. The most delightful nonlinear films I can think of come from Welles (F For Fake) and Fellini (8 1/2), both of whom were brilliant hosts indeed. They delighted in delighting. Egoyan is just too dull of a host to make it anything more than a plodding exercise, while Scott is simply too stupid - and both of them are doing it not out of conviction or temperment, but because it's the "in thing" to do.

The guy who did Eternal Sunshine managed it pretty well though, and more power to him.

BTW, is A Christmas Carol considered nonlinear?

BTW2, the Welles picture Mr. Arkadin is an example of a story that was filmed nonlinear, then reassembled linear by its phillistine producers. It wasn't improved by this.

Posted by: Brian on November 8, 2005 5:55 PM

Narrative discontinuities, like a bared bum, is simply an attention-getting device.

I just rewatched American Grafitti the other day, and on the DVD extras George Lucas says how radical his "interweaving storylines" seemed to studios and critics at the time (even though by now it's a cliche).

I suppose the trick is knowing whether a the technique flows naturally out of the storyline.

One other point I wanted to make: TV sitcoms and dramas have been wildly inventive about narratives recently (and American audiences are more receptive to daring experimentalism than one might think). Two examples that come to mind are Drew Carey Show and How I Met Your Mother (currently on CBS and terrific). Both shows have ordinary characters, cliched plots and sitcom environments, and yet both are wildly inventive with the way these tales are told. Carey has the musical numbers and the genre-bending episodes; Mother has a good hook (father telling his children in the year 2030 how he met their mother) and lots of asides and private thoughts. (BTW, one of the character has a blog ). I've watched almost all the episodes, and I still haven't a clue how Ted will meet the woman of his dreams.

These techniques are rather showy, but I doubt they'd alienate viewers as much as say Mulholland Drive. (Of course, the 22 minute formula imposes a lot of constraints, preventing artistic indulgence.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 8, 2005 6:37 PM

"Has it liberated narrative from what has always oppressed it? Or is nonlinearity too often a coverup for illiteracy, disordered thinking, and poor impulse control?"

The latter.

Actually, I'm not sure what non-linear means. Just a term people use when they’ve decided that certain scenes and events and cheap button-pushing antics would be super-neat-o, yet lack the imagination or desire to find a way to set them all in a context. If the point of telling a story – and it is – is to give people a story for musing at their leisure. For that, storyteller needs narratives, linear as the day is long, of what was, what might have been, what life is like or like for a particular person to long for/fear the might have beens, etc. etc. I mean.

Yam-doll - "I think a storytelling technique that will become much more common was the one used in "Moulin Rouge"? Is this supposed to be a joke? Before closeups of people rattling on with pointless pop-cult refs, this was common. Genre films have made good use of this storytelling technique since a trip to the moon.

I stand by my theory that Momento is an allegory about dealing with people who interpret events differently than you do. Am I the only one who has sat in a meeting convinced where everyone is smiling and nodding peacefully when the only way anyone could smile or not is complete amnesia?

Posted by: j.c. on November 8, 2005 8:24 PM

I like nonlinearity in movies: the storytelling can always move next to the part that would be most interesting at that time, making the whole movie more interesting.

Besides, if the chronological order of events would be A-B-C, where A is needed to understand B but having seen C would also allow the viewer to understand what is going on B, you can just show the events in the order C-B and leave out the establishing scene A completely. This gives the filmmaker more freedom, at least.

I noticed a while back that this idea has a lot in common with literate programming, where the program code is shown to human reader in different order than it is given to the compiler.

And perhaps the human mind automatically enjoys nonlinearity, somewhat the same way that it automatically enjoys animation.

Posted by: Ilkka Kokkarinen on November 8, 2005 9:09 PM

Most of anything sucks, unless one plays that unseemly semantic game (*whether, say, Pale Fire and Pulp Fiction have had or will continue to have a symbiotic relationship in terms of people experiencing them, talking about them, listing them among the Great Works, etc.) where no sucky example ever counts as “real” jazz, indie pop, existentialism, post-impressionism, or whatever. Narrative didn't need liberating; it just needed our meme-driven homo ludens population to become a more fertile environment for increasingly complex ways of developing a body of information over time. Non-linear narratives are way over-represented among my lists of favorites, in literature and film: “Catch-22”, “Pale Fire”, “Slaughterhouse-Five”, “Gravity’s Rainbow”, “Lola Rennt”, “Amores Perros”.

I hope you didn’t intend these two questions as a strict alternative. Of course, it’s true that most instances suck. The general lack of an activity isn't equivalent to its being tacitly available but taboo. I resent such Marxist terminology in the arts, where it manages to be even more facile than it is for economics in general. For film in particular, more attempts at non-linearity fail by attempting too much reconciliation with linear expectations that the other way around. The extent to which nonlinearity in fiction reinforces itself (*) is an interesting question.

To the second:

To your first question:

No, and maybe.

But, whatever is going on, I can't see it as analogous to opening the flood gates of traditional plot guidelines.

Michael --

Posted by: J. Goard on November 8, 2005 9:11 PM

I admit, I'm joining this discussion late, and I am currently lacking the attention span to read in any depth the comments preceding mine.


Let's not act as if chronologically linear narrative storytelling has always been the gold standard. Granted, the Greek paradigm of drama and poetry was to tell the story in a linear and timely manner, and certainly the Medieval and Rennaissance playwrites adopted this method of telling their stories.

Yet when novels arrived on the scene in Europe--and specifically in England, as this is the space of my limited expertise--linear storytelling was not the norm. Aphra Behn's "first" novel Oroonoko is a story within a story. Danieal Defoe's Roxana plays with time as promiscuoulsy as his titular heroine plays with men.

And certainly the great father of all digressionary tales Lawrence Sterne's Tristram Shandy centers on the chronic instability of time.

My point is this: yes, as good inheritors of the Victorian novel--published serially and therefore chronologically--we feel most comfortable with a linear narrative.

But who says narrative/storytelling/life should be comfortable?

In many ways the non-linearity of narratives such as those you describe so fully, Michael, is a more accurate way of how we humans form the stories of our lives.

We may experience things chronologically, but how we process those experiences, and how we choose to tell the story of our lives, may follow a logic outside time.

Posted by: chelsea girl on November 8, 2005 10:01 PM

j.c. - No, I'm not kidding. I hated hated hated Moulin Rouge. A lot. But. I did like I guess what you could call the editing. I wasn't thinking about the cloying pop culture references or their singing old pop songs to make a point. I was like that poor sap in "Clockwork Orange" after the conditioning - gagging all the way. But the "getting to the point" editing was cool. I think we'll see variants of that from now on.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on November 8, 2005 10:48 PM

I'm not sure what I'm doing here, being almost totally indifferent to literature and movies and all...

But Chelsea Girl's comment "We may experience things chronologically, but how we process those experiences, and how we choose to tell the story of our lives, may follow a logic outside time." sparked a thought.

We experience time linearly, regardless of how we deal with it retrospectively. So why wouldn't it be more "natural" to present a story linearly, as in daily life. Then we would always have the option, after the event, of non-linearly musing about what we experienced in the movie/play/novel. Why should the novelist/playwright/auteur do that introspection for us?

Just an ill-infomed conjecture. After all, those folks are creating Art, so what's to criticize.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on November 8, 2005 11:38 PM

MD -- I think such questions as who resembles whom and how far you can push unlikely casting in movies are really interesting. Me, I thought Diane Lane was doing her best to channel Ellen Barkin.

Brian -- That's a nice way of highlighting another underdiscussed genre, the movie-as-circus, director-as-ringleader genre. I tend to think that of all genres it's the most dependent on inspiration if not actual genius. But it does seem to be the direction many things are going. Here's hoping the inspiration holds out.

Robert -- TV writing (like genre writing in book-fiction) is 'way too taken for granted, don't you think? And I agree that the interweaving-storylines form has been much underdiscussed too -- it seems to me like one of the major narrative forms of the past 30 years. Where are the PhD theses about it? Not that I'd read any such thing ...

JC -- I'm not sure "nonlinear" is a good term. But I'm not so sure that "linear" is a good term either. Both seem as likely to mislead as to clarify. Candidates for better terms?

Ilkka -- Interesting to learn of your taste for nonlinear narratives. Have there been recent examples that have made you especially happy?

J. Goard -- That's a funny comment, worthy of Borges. Hey, I wonder if there's the kernel there of a mystery-laden nonlinear narrative ... A mysterious commenter scatters about mysteriously deconstructed comments ... And what is the truth, anyway? Well, it's a start.

Chelsea Girl -- I think "linear" and "nonlinear" may be unfortunate labels, so I'm glad I didn't come up with them. I think most readers and viewers can sense a difference between straightforward storytelling and chopped-up experiements, just as they can sense a difference between tonal music and nontonal music, or between pre-hiphop pop music and pop-music-since-sampling. As you point out, storytelling has encompassed many approaches and techniques right from the outset, just as tonality in music has. What's odd about the new nonlinearity (if you will) is that much of it doesn't evolve out of any kind of art-conscious avant-garde experimentalism, it seems to grow out of ignorance and computers. It's a kind of unconscious avant-gardism.

Yahmdallah -- I agree that the kind of editing you're talking about will be around a lot in the future. As far as I know, the current filmmaker who has done the most to establish the style is Wong Kar-Wai. I wonder if "Moulin Rouge" picked it up from him ...

Donald -- Something that doesn't get said enough is that good straightforward storytelling (like good figurative painting) seldom exists on merely one level. A lot of zigzagging and four-dimensional connection-making can be going on right below the surface, while a comprehensible story advances. To my mind, this is a beautiful thing, reflecting the fact that we experience life in at least two ways: on a deep level, it all seems to connect, backwards and forwards, up and down, inside and outside; on the surface, we're inescapably voyaging through time. BTW, there are interesting studies suggesting that a preference for storytelling is built into our biological beings -- that storytelling is essentially how we account for our experience on almost every level, and may be encoded into our basic wiring.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 9, 2005 1:07 AM

Isn't the focus on nonlinear narrative techniques something like the discovery of the navel?

Okay, maybe it's not wholly self-absorbed and absurd, but nonlinearity is not the Holy Grail or even untrammelled territory. Chalk it up to those slightly crazy self-serious art guys. Maybe the next craze will be film that's shot entirely in first person, since that's a more accurate representation of our lives. Even better, we could make a film without moving pictures or sound, since our experience doesn't occur on a screen with speakers. I'll be sure to enlist Nicholas Cage to star in this filmic tour-de-force. Does 4'22 sound like a good title?

Posted by: . on November 9, 2005 7:40 AM

Dot - it should be encased (enCaged?)into square brackets, to hinto to an "introverted" effect of the contents.

MB and JGoard: my example of the perfectly digestible non-linearity plus multiple versions of the same event (or of posing "was there an event? question) is Heinrich Boll's books (Group portrait with a lady, The clown and especially Billiard at half past 9) - don't know are there any films based on those books; I'd be interested to watch if there are any. Also there was this story "Minotaur", don't remember, by him or by Durrenmatt, of the same torn-to pieces-and-randomly-reassembled-reality method.

Below the surface connections: Nabokov is a primary example. He favored spiral turns of plot, with ends meeting at points slightly shifted in vertical dimension; often revealed in retrospect.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 9, 2005 3:24 PM

"Ilkka -- Interesting to learn of your taste for nonlinear narratives. Have there been recent examples that have made you especially happy?"

Batman Begins, of course.

But even so, I can't even name off the top of my head any nonlinear narrative movie that I didn't at least somewhat like. Even nonlinear B-cheapos such as "Retroactive" easily beat 99% of other movies.

Posted by: Ilkka Kokkarinen on November 9, 2005 3:34 PM

Yam - for the "economy of style" that you crave, I suggest the sex scene in "Double Indemnity." DVD, broadcast, or VHS - it makes no dif.

It's smokin'. Delicious. You see nothing.

Talk about impact.

Just thinking of it reminds me: I have got to start smoking. And get a perm.

Posted by: j.c. on November 12, 2005 12:50 AM

Oh, and ambiguity depends on a narrative. Unless you have idea about what and what not - which would be narratives - you ain't got ambiguity, you got mush.

M. Blowhard - The terms I would use are cogent and blather. This may be part of the reason why I am not in charge of such things. What does the Wife suggest?

Posted by: j.c. on November 12, 2005 12:53 AM

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