Lesson #40 The Simple Truth Behind Unconventional Film Structures
In general, there are two basic unconventional types of film structures: realistic ones that can play with our perception of time and therefore reality (Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros, Irreversible) and unrealistic dreamlike ones that deal with myths, dreams and different subconscious forces and symbols (where everything that didn’t happen is treated as relevant as what did happen). The second type plays directly with our perception of the psyche and also time and therefore reality (Memento, Fight Club, Lost Highway).
Even though for now I am interested in just revealing the most basic idea behind unconventional storytelling, have in mind that from those two types, we can have all sorts of different structure variations: tandem narratives, double journey narratives, multiple protagonists - portmanteau narratives, flashback narratives, consecutive stories structure, fractured tandem… For those of you who are interested in finding out more, all of these are explained in detail in The 21. Century Screenplay book by Linda Aronson.
The narrative structure that this blog describes in detail is a psyche development structure that uses archetypal elements as dramaturgical elements and arranges and classifies them into the underlying film structure. It represents the emotional archetypal psyche architecture, from which we are all built. By understanding this structure, it not only clear why we all understand the same story and the same film, but why we all react similarly, emotionally, to the way stories are told.
The turning points may not always be in the same place in a script, as in most of David Lynch’s films, or in The Mirror, or in 8 ½ , but that doesn't mean those stages and turning points don't exist and don't have the same emotional charge or the same energy.
We must acknowledge that energy is everything. This system is neither a dogma… nor a rigid formula, much less a simplification of the infinitely complicated need for meaning within the incomprehensible human psyche. Rather, it is flexible and perhaps most accurately and most usefully viewed as a universal rhythm, a metaphor for the transformation of the hero, his and her song on the journey to self-realization. The mythological truths that belong to eternity can travel through the psychological labyrinths of the desires and motivations of modern men and women and their psychological pursuits, only if we blow an intuitive wind into their sails.
When we have linear structures, progressions on the wheel develops in a counter-clockwise direction. We know what stages on the journey to expect next because by now we know the basic development of the psyche.
But what about the non-linear or unconventional structures, that I usually refer to as emotional, not because linear structures are not emotional – but because the left-brain logic (cause and effect plot) is really not of any use in non-linear structures.
When we play with structure, we have events that are linked to each other by following the emotional and imaginative right-brain logic. This usually means that the sub-textual level (the emotional and metaphorical one) is becoming the textual.
For example – you can say for your hero that he feels inadequate as a man and that he is scared of losing the woman he loves, or rather, that he is scared that he never really had her to begin with. Sometimes she appears or behaves one way, but other times, she appears another way, as if she were someone else. The question of who she really is puzzles him so much that he is torn apart by these feelings, so much so that he becomes obsessive. His feelings are conflicting: on the one hand, he would rather kill her than share her with anyone else, but he also would do anything to have her. He is willing to change into another man to try to have her no matter what. This is the plot of Lost Highway, not a description of the idea behind it, but the actual plot, itself. It is one of the most intimate films by David Lynch, who wanted to tell a story about the biggest fear men often have: feeling small, powerless and manipulated by the mighty and magical force of nature that women are. Usually, this force feels unknown to men and therefore can be threatening and also disintegrating.
There are also examples when the basic premise of a story becomes the structure, like in Irreversible: “time destroy everything,” but also every single decision in life, no matter how small, can have a crucial impact on your life forever – irreversibly – so that’s why every decision is so important. This premise literally plays out in the structure in reverse chronology. With this, the director, Gaspar Noe, also manages to reverse the ending (the whole meaning of the film where the premise is delivered). He starts in ‘hell’ and ends in ‘heaven,’ even though we know that the real ending is in ‘hell.’ By seeing and understanding how the soul of the child came into the world (at the beginning), we are able to understand where it returns to, because everything is happening at the end. When you find the perfect structure for your story, magic can really happen and this is one of those examples.
What you have when you integrate the metaphorical sub-textual level into the narrative (text and structure) is an ‘empty subtext.’ This can actually open up a huge imaginative space for the audience, who can start to connect their own emotions to certain images and events in the movie more freely, and therefore they are able to create parallel narratives that are solely theirs.
In other words, their brains cannot really follow the actual plot, so sooner or later they let go and surrender to emotional ‘manipulation’ only. I think that by telling stories this way, we basically help the audience ‘to split’ as well, to experience the story emotionally and directly, but also to logically try to understand it indirectly.
Through the disintegration that is happening in the narrative, the process of integration can begin in the psyche of the viewer.
Not all stories are successful when told in a nonlinear way, but if we have broken or double personalities, or personalities that are in any way, shape or form, torn (like in Mulholland Drive), a nonlinear structure can help us shine a light on those characters, from the structural point of view as well.
Also, if we want to show broken and fractured relationships (Irreversible, 21 grams) or fractured societies (Amores Perros), it would be wise to consider those kinds of structures as well.
In the next several posts, I will analyze Lost Highway, The Mirror, Persona, and Irreversible. Stay tuned.