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Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

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Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

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A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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One last big job: How heist movies tell their stories

The Underneath (1995).

DB here:

The announcement of Ocean’s Eight (premiering, when else?, on 8 June next year) reminded me of the staying power of the heist genre, also known as the big-caper film. I discuss it a bit in Reinventing Hollywood, my book on 1940s storytelling, but it developed and spread out most vigorously from the 1950s on.

In its origins it relies on masculine roles; if women are present they’re likely to be at best helpers, at worst traitors. The big job is likely to be endangered by a man telling his wife or mistress too much, and then the police or rival gangs may interfere. So the news that Ocean’s Eight will center on a female gang constitutes an intriguing wrinkle. (Will a boyfriend try to spoil the caper?)   Warners’ ambitions for another trilogy seem evident: presumably the entry is Eight because Warners hopes for a Nine and a Ten. Commenters are already worried that a “feminized” version runs the risk of flopping the way Ghostbusters did last year, but I’m more hopeful. The reason is that clever storytelling is encouraged in this genre. There’s a chance that the film, produced though not directed by Steven Soderbergh, will show us that this old dog has new tricks.

Because I’m interested in how the storytelling strategies of popular cinema, the heist film is a natural thing for me to consider. Refreshing the genre may involve not just adjusting the story world—giving men’s roles to women—but also considering ways of handling two other dimensions of narrative: plot structure and cinematic narration. I argue in Reinventing that Hollywood filmmaking uses a sort of variorum principle, a pressure to explore as many narrative devices as possible within the constraints of tradition. For this reason, the prospect of Ocean’s Eight prodded me to think about how convention and innovation work in the caper movie. It’s also a good excuse to go back and watch some skilful cinema.

 

From the fringes to the core

The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

It’s useful to think of a genre as a category having a core and a periphery. At the core are prime, “pure” instances: prototypes. Stretching out from it are less central, fuzzier cases. Prototypical musicals are Footlight Parade, Shall We Dance?, Meet Me in St. Louis, and My Fair Lady. Somewhat less central are concert films and musical biopics like Lady Sings the Blues and Coal Miner’s Daughter. At the periphery are movies with a single song or dance number. Of course the category changes across history; a critic in 1960 might have picked North by Northwest as a prototypical spy thriller, but ten years later a Bond film would have probably held that place.

The prototypical heist film, critics seem to agree, doesn’t just include a robbery. There are robberies in films about Robin Hood and gentleman thieves like Raffles and the Saint. The outlaw or bandit film like They Live by Night and Bonnie and Clyde contains a string of robberies, but they wouldn’t be at the center of the heist category.

Donald Westlake proposed a concise characterization: “We follow the crooks before, during, and after a crime, usually a robbery.” This indicates two things. First, the plot is structured around the big caper, though there might be lesser crimes enabling it, such as stealing weapons. Second, the viewpoint is organized around the criminals, not the detectives who might pursue them, as in a police procedural. By these criteria, High Sierra (1941), although allied to the bandit tradition, fits because most of the film concerns a single robbery, its preparations and aftermath.

Westlake shrewdly goes on to note that the interest of a heist plot inverts that of the traditional locked-room detective story. Instead of wondering how something difficult was done, we wonder how something difficult will be done. “The puzzle exists before the crime is committed.” To fill in the how, crooks with specific skills (safecracking, demolition, getaway driving, and so on) are recruited. Because the process matters so much, Westlake adds that heist plots focus on details of time and physical circumstance, and they draw attention to impediments such as “dogs, locks, alarms, watchmen, and complicated traps.” Most of these features are missing from High Sierra; we’re not encouraged to speculate how the job will be pulled, there’s little meticulous planning and no division of labor by expertise, and the only dog is friendly. So it’s unlikely to be a core instance of the genre as we now consider it.

Most critics consider The Asphalt Jungle (novel, 1949; film, 1950) a solid prototype. In fiction and film it’s not the very earliest instance, but it displays what we might call the “completed arc” of a heist plot. A gang of varying talents is assembled and funded to pull off a jewel robbery, which succeeds partly at first and eventually fails.

A less famous example comes from 1934, Don Tracy’s novel Criss-Cross. Here an alienated loner finds that his long-ago girlfriend has married a local crook. To get her back, the hero agrees to be the inside man in a robbery of the armored truck he drives. The heist goes badly, with the hero shooting the gangster and getting shot himself. He’s acclaimed as a hero, but fate catches up with him when a blackmailer who knows the truth starts putting the squeeze on him. Where The Asphalt Jungle ranges across many characters’ knowledge in a fairly tight time span, Criss Cross restricts its point of view to the protagonist but traces his life over a long period. These storytelling options, ingredient to any narrative whatsoever, will shape how the heist plot is handled.

Criss-Cross and The Asphalt Jungle show that we’re dealing with an exceptionally schematic plot pattern. For convenience we can distinguish five parts.

Circumstances lead one or more characters to decide to execute a heist (robbery, hijacking, kidnapping).

The initiators recruit participants.

As a group they are briefed and prepare their plan. They study their target, rehearse their scheme, or take steps to make it easier.

The heist itself begins and concludes.

The aftermath of the heist, failed or successful, shows the fates of the participants.

There are other conventions, nicely laid out by Stuart Kaminsky in 1974 and more recently by Daryl Lee. But I’ll just concentrate on this structure and how it governs narration, because these aspects show very clearly the constant dynamic of schema and revision in the filmmaking tradition.

 

Four capers, mostly unhappy

Criss Cross (1948).

Four films in the period covered in my book point toward the heist genre, though only one became a core instance. The presence of a “consolidating” film might be one way genres emerge.

The earliest candidate is an unlikely one. In 1941 Laura and S. J. Perelman mounted a notably unsuccessful play called The Night Before Christmas, a farce in which crooks buy a luggage store in order to tunnel from its basement into the bank vault next door. Although Paramount was a backer of the stage show, Warners bought the rights and revamped it for Edward G. Robinson, who had had success in gangster comedies like A Slight Case of Murder (1938). The adaptation, Larceny, Inc. (1942) maintained the premise but revised the plot, multiplying the complications that face the leader Pressure and his two minions. The twist is that thanks to Pressure’s daughter, who’s unaware of the scheme, business starts booming and the crooks find themselves prosperous businessmen. Woody Allen swiped the premise for his Small-Time Crooks (2000).

Just as we don’t expect a comedy to be the initial entry in a genre mostly associated with drama, we might expect that the early entries in the genre would be the tidiest, with complex variations building on them. Actually, two precursors of The Asphalt Jungle display remarkable complexity.

The simpler one, Criss Cross (1948), starts late in the preparation phase: the night before the caper, when the gang is holding a party to distract a local cop who has his eye on them. We learn that Steve is working with Slim’s wife Anna to double-cross the gang. The next day, Steve is driving the armored car and recalling how he got into this situation. A flashback provides the circumstances for the robbery—Steve’s pursuit of Anna, her marrying Slim, and Steve’s impulsive proposal of a robbery to protect Anna from Slim’s punishment.

We return to the armored car’s routine briefly before we flash back to the planning phase. The robbers assemble and the task is reviewed by a mastermind they hire. This second flashback ends and, back in the present, we see the heist itself. The aftermath of the bloody robbery shows Steve in the hospital, honored by the community. A thug kidnaps him and takes him to Anna. Slim has survived the gun battle and finds the couple; he kills them before he is mowed down by the police.

Early as Criss Cross is in the history of the film genre, the plot components are already being scrambled. Thanks to 1940s Hollywood’s commitment to flashbacks and character subjectivity, the novel’s linear action gets fractured, compressed, and stretched. Moreover, in most films, the decision to pull the heist is made fairly early. Here and in the novel, circumstances slowly force Steve to rescue Anna from the man who mistreats her. The buildup to this decision consumes nearly forty minutes of an 87-minute movie. Similarly, the aftermath of the heist is quite protracted, running about twenty minutes. And whereas other films (and novels) dwell on the recruitment of thieving talent, here this is elided. That’s because the other members of the gang are less significant than the central triangle of Steve, Anna, and Slim.

The Killers (1946) is even more complex because it clamps the block construction of Citizen Kane onto the heist schema. We start with one bit of the heist aftermath: the death of the gas-station attendant Ole. Like Kane, who also dies in his bed at the start of his film, Ole is the protagonist of the past-tense story. We next meet the protagonist of the present-time story, the insurance investigator Riordan, who functions like the reporter Thompson in Kane, and sometimes even gets the same silhouette treatment.

          

The rest of the film splits up the basic parts of the heist schema, rearranges their order, and presents them through a series of several flashback blocks, anchored in six characters’ testimony.

The heist itself is very brief, running only about two minutes, and the planning phase is only a little longer. As in Criss Cross, the leadup and the aftermath constitute the bulk of the film, but these phases are broken up into many bits, and these are often shuffled out of chronological order. We see Ole’s discovery by Big Jim years after the heist and then we see Ole, days after the heist, distressed that his lover Kitty has betrayed him. Similarly, a crucial event after the heist—Ole’s stealing the loot from the gang—precedes a scene before the heist in which he learns the gang is planning to double-cross him. We have to reconstruct the canonical sequence, from circumstance to aftermath, out of fragments revealed in testimony taken by Riordan.

Critics haven’t taken Criss Cross and The Killers as the first core instances of the heist film, perhaps because these movies complicate the classic plot template. In addition, they downplay the planning and execution phases. The heist scenes are relatively minor compared to the time devoted to other phases, particularly the circumstantial buildup. Moreover, the robber teams aren’t vividly characterized and don’t display a range of expertise. The emphasis falls on Steve and Ole, both played by Burt Lancaster, as the beautiful losers who become suckers for treacherous women and their brutal men.

By contrast, the linearity of The Asphalt Jungle throws the plot template into crisp relief. Both novel and film offer a full-blown enactment of central features picked out by Stuart Kaminsky. The gang, despite low social standing, has many skills. They’re held together by a leader who may also be a brainy planner. The robbers’ plan requires “skill, practice, training, and above all, perfect timing.” The gang’s resourcefulness is tested by accidents. The caper is partly successful but largely a failure, often through sexual weakness on the part of some players.

W.R. Burnett’s book opens up the wide narrative possibilities of the genre, thanks to an expanded group of characters. Where Don Tracy’s novel Criss Cross confined itself to relatively few figures, Burnett innovates by developing no fewer than eighteen distinct individuals, all somehow connected to the jewel robbery. New roles are assigned that will be staples of the genre—financier, go-between, bent cop, owner of a safe house. We see policemen of all ranks, a news reporter, the master mind Dr. Riedenschneider, the fixer Cobby, the bankroller Emmerich (who has a wife, a mistress, and a hired detective), and the four men on the team, two of whom have women attached.

The novel lays out the canonical action phases with surgical efficiency. But as in the films I’ve just mentioned, the planning and the heist itself take relatively little space. Given so many characters’ contribution to the action, their gradual convergence and their dispersed fates dominate the book. Over a hundred pages are devoted to setting up the circumstances and recruiting the gang. The aftermath, tracing the outcome for all involved, runs another 140 pages.

The film adaptation retains the novel’s scope, trimming only a couple of minor characters. It moves briskly among the ensemble, attaching us to several in turn, so we know more than any one character does. The narration creates parallels among the team members and their affiliates (such as four women of different classes, with varying commitments to their men).

The result is something of a network narrative, a cross-section of several people whose lives change because of the robbery. There’s no clear-cut protagonist like Steve in Criss Cross. Dr. Riedenschneider has the most screen time, but the film begins and ends with the hooligan Dix, and the fate of both men dominates the climax. I point out in Reinventing Hollywood that a multiple-protagonist film often gives extra weight to one or two characters.

 

50s and 60s stylings

Violent Saturday (1955).

With The Asphalt Jungle as a robust prototype, writers and filmmakers developed the heist plot throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Despite his clumsy style (”He nodded with his head”), Lionel White became known as “the king of the caper novel” for his tireless variants on robberies, hijackings, and kidnappings. The other major figure was the far superior Donald Westlake, who  wrote brutal heist tales as “Richard Stark” and comic ones under his own name.

In the comic register, Westlake was beaten to the post by heist films from England. The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) showed a timid clerk engineering the theft of gold bullion, which he disguises as kitschy miniature Eiffel Towers. The Lady Killers (1955) centered on a gang fooling their landlady into thinking that their planning meetings are actually string-quartet sessions. In Italy, the classic Big Deal on Madonna Street (I soliti ignoti, 1958) showed five incompetents trying to break into a pawnshop safe.

Big Deal was considered a parody of a much more serious film, one that was by then a landmark: Rififi (Du rififi chez les hommes, 1955). It did a great deal to consolidate the genre in France, along with Touchez pas au grisbi (1954) and Bob le flambeur (1956). (Both The Killers and Criss Cross had been imported in the Forties.) In England, the heist drama was seen in The Good Die Young (1954), while in the US there were 5 Against the House (1955), Violent Saturday (1955), Plunder Road (1957), The Big Caper (1957, from a White novel), and Odds Against Tomorrow (1959). The year 1960 saw a remarkable number of releases, with The League of Gentlemen (U.K.), The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, Seven Thieves, and most famously Ocean’s 11 (all U.S.).

Through the 1960s the genre proliferated, including a remake of The Asphalt Jungle (Cairo, 1963), Jules Dassin’s near-self-parody of Rififi (Topkapi, 1964), and a string of heist films that mixed in romantic comedy (e.g., Gambit, 1966; How to Steal a Million, 1966). The Italian Job (1964) became a cult movie, with tourists visiting the sites of shooting in Turin. The genre has remained robust throughout world cinema ever since.

The very rigidity of its format and the constraints it lays down, have allowed for ingenious innovations. I’ll sample some of those from the genre’s first dozen or so years, concentrating on three areas: the differing emphasis given to the plot phases; variants of point-of-view; and manipulations of time.

 

Where’s the action?

Rififi (1955).

The Asphalt Jungle offers a fairly pure geometry: the heist, lasting about eleven minutes, ends just before the film’s midpoint. On the other side of that is another big scene: a gunfight initiated by Emmerich’s henchman Brannom when Dr. Riedenschneider and Dix bring in the loot. That confrontation takes another seven minutes, so the heist and its immediate wrapup sit at the center of the running time. What led up to the heist, the circumstances, recruitment, and planning phases, consume the first forty-five minutes of the film, and the aftermath of the heist, affecting the surviving characters, will take just about as long. This balanced geometry, putting the heist snugly at the center of the plot but devoting most time to showing many lives leading up to and away from the crime, suits the extensive characterization of all involved.

This is a neat structure, but not the only possibility. Any phase of the action can be given great weight. The first half hour of Bob le flambeur is an episodic introduction to Bob’s routines and associates. It’s the circumstantial phase—he’s running out of money—presented at low pressure, emphasizing instead the fascinating milieu Bob coolly drifts through. Only when Roger points out a croupier at the Nantes casino does Bob formulate “the job of a lifetime.” Then crew assembly and planning can begin. As the plot develops, characters and relationships presented casually in the exposition become crucial to the heist and its unraveling.

Other phases can be stretched out. Ocean’s 11 dwells on the phase of gathering the talent. Before the start, Danny Ocean has already conceived the heist, but we aren’t told the plan. Instead we watch his team members converge on Las Vegas. Not until the film’s midpoint, at 53:00, is the plan revealed in a briefing. The dawdling exposition suits a film about cool guys hanging out.

The formation of the crew is exceptionally protracted in Odds Against Tomorrow, because here two members hesitate about participating. The racist Earl Slater, wracked by the shame of not providing for his wife, finally gets her to agree to let him join. Not until twenty-three minutes from the end does the African-American musician Johnny Ingram finally accept a role in the heist, which immediately becomes the film’s climax.

The source for Odds Against Tomorrow (one of the better heist novels) handles the basic pattern very differently, putting the heist just before the midpoint and devoting the second half of the book to the increasingly hopeless getaway, where the interracial tensions play out at length.

The planning phase sometimes includes a rehearsal for the heist, and that may require a subsidiary crime, such as stealing keys or a vehicle. The League of Gentlemen has an unusually long planning phase, in which the gang masquerades as soldiers in order to seize weapons from a military post. This robbery, running nearly twenty minutes, takes longer than the film’s main heist but serves to demonstrate the team’s resourcefulness and esprit de corps. The men’s precision and resourcefulness (based on their wartime experience) lead us to expect a successful main event.

Kaminsky suggests that the big-caper genre resembles the soldiers-on-a-mission movie, which centers on the details of a process executed by skillful specialists. That display of process comes to the fore in The Asphalt Jungle’s central robbery, which initiated the convention of detailing the mechanics of the heist. Other films expanded the heist sequence to larger proportions than was evident in The Killers or Criss Cross. Rififi became the model; its heist runs twenty-five minutes without any words being spoken. (That sequence is part of an even longer wordless stretch that runs over thirty minutes.) Dassin’s film meticulously breaks down the steps of a complicated robbery, allowing us to appreciate the men’s clever planning while, as usual, ratcheting up moments of suspense when it appears they might fail.

After Rififi, heist scenes got longer and more intricate. The one in Big Deal on Madonna Street runs twenty minutes, those in Seven Thieves and The Day They Robbed the Bank of England run thirty minutes, and those in Topkapi and The Italian Job approach forty minutes. To motivate these long, virtuosic passages, there need to be many obstacles, many ingenious ways around them, and many characters concentrating on their assigned duties.

Long or short, the heist can be shifted off-center. The heist can be the climax, as in The Big Caper, or it can be virtually the film’s entire second half, as in The Italian Job (which arguably doesn’t complete the heist and so never provides a proper aftermath). Topkapi’s flamboyant robbery, involving elaborate subterfuges, dominates the film’s latter stretches, leading to a quick reversal in its epilogue. The heist is finished early on in The Lady Killers, since the crucial action is the long aftermath in which, contradicting the title, the crooks dispose of one another. By contrast, the heist dominates nearly all of Larceny, Inc. Most of the film is devoted to the crooks’ slowly deepening tunnel, as the process is interrupted by breaks in the water main, a geyser of furnace oil, and their decision to abandon their plan in favor of going straight—before another crook comes along to continue the caper.

Or the heist can launch the film. In Plunder Road, after the train robbery is completed, the rest of the film is the aftermath, consisting of chases and suspense sequences. The circumstances, recruitment, and planning phases are alluded to in dialogue, as suits a low-budget production. The plot of Touchez pas au grisbi starts the morning after the caper and shows thieves trying to protect their loot from a treacherous drug dealer. It was probably inevitable that somebody would make a heist movie that keeps the heist offscreen and makes the action one long aftermath.

 

Steering the moving spotlight

Topkapi (1964).

Many films based on mystery rely on restricting a character’s range of knowledge, as in detective novels told in the first person. But suspense, Hitchcock and others recognized, relies on greater access to story information. If there’s a bomb under the table, Hitch advised, tell the viewer but don’t tell the characters. The heist film, as an account of how a crime is committed, depends more on suspense than mystery. So we’d expect a constant shuttling from character to character, filling us in on how the scheme is going and letting us worry about impending dangers.

This is generally what we find. Criss Cross is unusual in confining us to what Steve knows about Anna’s and Slim’s real agendas, and this confinement is what yields the surprises that pop up in the film’s final stretches. Mostly, though, heist movies and novels use omniscient narration. Employing what I call in Reinventing Hollywood the “moving spotlight” approach, the film shifts us from attachment to one character to another.

The moving spotlight permits us to understand the choreography of the crime, in which many characters play a part, and to feel suspense when matters of timing or accident intrude. Indeed, the convention of the unforeseen accident that spoils the heist relies on our breaking attachment to the crooks and getting privileged access to the off-schedule night watchman, the passing witness, or the failed piece of machinery. In Topkapi we and not the thieves learn how a stray bird will upset their getaway.

This omniscient narration (which need not tell us absolutely everything) can be deployed in a range of ways. One option is chapter titles, as in Big Deal on Madonna Street (and revived by Tarantino in Reservoir Dogs). A more common resource is the non-character narrator, present as an authoritative voice-over. In Bob le flambeur, a worldly male voice introduces us to Bob’s daily routine and comments somewhat cynically on his place in his milieu.

A similar all-knowing voice introduces us one by one to the heisters in The Good Die Young; there it eases the transition into expository flashbacks. Topkapi treats this convention, as others, with self-conscious playfulness. At the beginning the beguiling woman in the gang addresses the camera and explains that the heist aims to get the emerald she covets. She doesn’t take this narrating role again until the very end, in a brief epilogue that replays the gathering of the gang in stylized form.

Heist films must often choose whether to widen the field of view to include either the cops or civilians. Armored Car Robbery (1950), for me a peripheral instance of a heist film, alternates the gang’s activities—which do pass through the phases I’ve outlined—with the detectives’ investigation. The result is balanced between heist film and police procedural. Something similar happens in Violent Saturday (1955), which devotes most of its plot to a gang’s scheme to rob a mining town’s bank. Crosscut with the gang’s gathering and planning are scenes showing several members of the community, each with domestic problems. These scenes, typical of small-town melodrama (dissolute rich people, sexy nurse, repressed librarian, lovelorn bank manager), not only pad out the film but show us characters who will be affected by the heist. Some become witnesses and bystanders during the robbery, one is killed, and one, a local mining manager, will be forced to fight the gang at the climax.

The timing and selection of the shifts among characters can build up specific effects. For instance, in Big Deal on Madonna Street, the heist is conceived by Cosimo, a hardheaded crook doing time. A handful of would-be crooks decides to execute the robbery without him. We know, as the gang does not, that he has been released and is conspiring to interfere. The filmmakers could have made Cosimo’s return a surprise revelation, but instead our expectation that he’ll start meddling intensifies our interest.

Similarly, we know, as the Topkapi gang does not, that Arthur is a police spy. But then he confesses to them, so we know, as the Turkish police do not, that he is to be a double agent. The film milks suspense during the scenes in which Arthur relays information to the authorities, and then it makes us wonder how the gang will use their new knowledge of police surveillance. This is the sort of fine-tuned choice about “who knows what when” that heist films must make at every turn.

At a more granular level, when the spotlight is on one character, the filmmakers must choose whether to make those moments, shot by shot, highly restricted or not. In The Killers, Nick Adams’ account of Ole’s reaction to the stranger stopping for gas is more or less plausibly limited to Nick’s ken. But the precise exchange of glances between the driver and the Swede signal to us that Ole has been recognized. Nick doesn’t register this, since he’s standing at the rear of the car (barely visible in my first still, over Ole’s right shoulder).

          

In effect, this is a narrational aside to the audience. Nick can’t see this significant exchange of glances, and his voice-over doesn’t specify it, so we can’t assume Riordan learns of it. But this privileged moment primes us to see Big Jim as a major menace in scenes to come. This sort of deviation from what a character could plausibly know or notice is common in cinematic narration and differentiates it from literary narration, which is more tightly restricted in handling “point of view.” Classical Hollywood is biased toward unrestricted narration; radical restriction is rare. The heist genre can exploit many fine gradations between attachment to a character and more wide-ranging knowledge.

 

What’s our clock?

The Killing (1956).

As we’ve seen, two early instances of heist films break with a linear layout of the story. Criss Cross presents what Reinventing Hollywood calls a crisis structure, beginning just before the turning point and flashing back to show what led up to it. The Killers has a refracted narration, with all of the past events passed to the investigator Riordan and us through witnesses’ testimony. The flashbacks in Criss Cross are chronological, but those in The Killers are drastically out of order.

Time-scrambling, then, seems to be especially welcome in the heist film (as not, say, in the Western). The basic plot pattern is such a simple one that shuffling phases or parts of phases doesn’t create confusion. Yet few films of the 1950s I’ve found display the complexity of the Forties examples. Indeed, a time-juggling heist novel, The Lions at the Kill (Simon Kent, 1959) was ironed into straightforward linearity in the film version, Seven Thieves.

The Good Die Young displays a more complicated structure. It begins at a point of crisis, with four men driving in a car to the site of the caper.

The voice-over narrator introduces each man in turn, and then a long flashback explains his backstory. Deprived of information about the heist, we have to wonder how the narration will bring the men together and create their plan.

After the long section explaining each man’s circumstances, all involving women and money, the flashbacks meld. The men gradually come to know each other through frequenting the same pub. Their desperation pushes them toward accepting one man’s proposal that they rob a post office. With so much time spent on preparation and assembly, the actual planning is necessarily brief. Eventually the final flashback flows seamlessly into the present-time situation, initiating a brief replay of the dialogue in the car that opened the film. The heist (devolving into a disastrous gun battle) initiates the climax, and an airport aftermath concludes the film.

The most ambitious 1950s recasting of the nonlinear efforts of the 1940s films is The Killing (1956). The source novel, Lionel White’s Clean Break (1955) consists of interwoven threads. A crook, his pal, a cashier, a bartender, and a crooked cop conspire to rob a racetrack. They will employ helpers to start a fistfight and shoot a racehorse. The early chapters devote short stretches to following each one, already recruited, through the circumstances phase of the heist template. The men assemble at their planning meeting, which is invaded by the snoopy wife of the weak cashier. She then tells her boyfriend about the heist, so another strand involving other characters is introduced.

On the day of the robbery, White’s narration again attaches itself seriatim to each man as he executes his role in the scheme. While the early part of the book had a few mild jumps back in time to follow each heister, the day of the job creates extreme back-and-forth shifts. We follow the bartender, for instance, going to the track on the fateful day, before the next subchapter skips back to the cashier waking up and then going to the same train. In a later section, we skip back to the previous day and attach ourselves to the sniper who will shoot the racehorse. Because of the overlapping lines of action, the shooting of the horse and the starting of the bar fight are presented twice. Everything eventually converges on Johnny Clay, the mastermind, who breaks into the money room and steals the day’s revenue.

These temporal overlaps emerge partly from the description of the action, but they’re also marked by either characters looking at clocks or watches, or by explicit mention in the prose, such as “It was exactly six forty-five when…”

The film version makes these overlapping schedules much more explicit. A detached voice-over describing police routine or criminal behavior had become a commonplace in the 1940s, in both “semidocumentary” films and in radio drama, notably Dragnet. In The Killing, apart from lending an aura of authenticity, the voice-over exaggerates the time markers of the novel by introducing scenes crisply. The first five scenes are introduced with these tags:

“At exactly 3:45…”

“About an hour earlier…”

“At seven PM that same day…”

“A half an hour earlier…”

“At 7:15 that same night…”

These lead-ins remind us of the ticking clock, set up parallels among the characters, and get us acclimated to the film’s method of tracking one character, then jumping back in time to track another. This is moving-spotlight narration on markedly parallel tracks. The same method will be applied during the heist, when ten consecutive scenes and several others will be tagged in the same way. (“Mike O’Reilly was ready at 11:15.”)

It’s not just the repetitions that exaggerate White’s jagged time scheme. When the sniper Nikki is shot after plugging the racehorse, the narrator reports drily: “Nikki was dead at 4:24.” Cut to Johnny leaving a luggage store, and the voice-over announces: “At 2:15 that afternoon Johnny Clay was still in the city.”

     

     

The time jumps more or less buried in White’s prose are made dissonant in the film. Here the juxtaposition heightens the likelihood that Johnny’s robbery won’t go according to plan.

The replays are no less sharply profiled. As the scenic blocks move from character to character and skip back in time, they include actions we’ve already seen. The most persistent is the repetition of the track announcer’s calling the start of the crucial seventh race, but we also get replays of the wrestler Maurice starting a fight, the downing of the horse, and glimpses of Johnny waiting to slip into the cash room.

Instead of shuffling flashbacks in the manner of The Killers, The Killing offers brief time chunks stacked in slightly overlapping array until they all square up in a single moment, the consummation of the robbery. This structure allows for the sort of character delineation we find in The Asphalt Jungle while also offering the audience a formal game to enjoy. Kubrick’s film can be seen as pointing in two directions—revising the flashback format of the 1940s entries, but becoming a point of reference for later filmmakers eager to innovate games with time and viewpoint that would remain comprehensible to the audience.

The Killing helped make Clean Break White’s most famous novel. It was often republished under the film’s title. Perhaps in a grateful spirit White’s 1960 novel Steal Big (1960) included this scene.

Donovan didn’t look at the half-dozen worn, barely legible signs in the dingy lobby of the building. He went at once to the elevator and asked for the fifth floor. Getting out of the elevator, he turned left, took a dozen steps and knocked on a pebbled-glass door. The door bore the legend, KUBRIC NOVELTY COMPANY.

Mr. Kubric, it turns out, supplies illegal guns and explosives.

 

Art for artifice’s sake

Inside Man (2006).

White’s in-joke, along with The Killing’s gamelike approach to structure, reminds us that whatever its claim to realism, this is a highly artificial genre. The strict template and the ritualistic steps in it—recruiting the crew, casing the target, checking watches—invite filmmakers to tinker with self-conscious narration that lets the viewer in on the joke.

One convention, that of the rehearsal for the big job, is flaunted in Bob le flambeur, when the narrator simply breaks into the film with the line, “Here’s how Bob pictured the heist,” and we get a stylized, hypothetical enactment of the job carried off perfectly. In these films, when the rehearsal goes well, you know the real thing will face problems.

     

Something similar, though suited to light comedy, takes place in Gambit. Here we think we’re seeing the heist as executed (across twenty-three minutes), but it proves to be no more than the fantasy of the crook hatching it. Again, everything that succeeds in the fantasy goes wrong in reality.

As it gained a profile, the genre got reflexive. In the novel that was the source for The League of Gentlemen, the heisters explicitly model their plan on the one in Clean Break. The film version likewise sets its heisters mimicking a pulp novel, though it didn’t specify the title. And in The Wrong Arm of the Law (1963), Peter Sellers’ cockney mastermind promises to show his henchmen “educational films and training films” like Rififi, The Day They Robbed the Bank of England, and The League of Gentlemen.

The opportunities the genre provides for experimenting with story stratagems, sometimes in very self-conscious ways, seem to have been part of the reason later filmmakers tried their hand at it. In the 1990s and 2000s, writers and directors drawn to neo-noir and narrative experiment took up thriller conventions generally, and the heist film was one option.

In Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tarantino revived the shuffling of time and viewpoint that was ingredient to the genre. Although the film pays homage to Clean Break, its form is no less indebted to Criss Cross. Like that film, it flashes back from the day of the heist in order to run through the canonical phases of action. And as in The Killers, those phases are scrambled out of order. Brian Singer’s The Usual Suspects (1995) brings the (very ‘40s) device of the lying flashback to the genre, within the template of police questioning after the heist. Inside Man (2006) mixed to-camera narration, flashbacks, and flashforwards to interrogations after the crime.

Among Americans it’s Steven Soderbergh who has returned to the caper film most frequently. The Underneath (1995) is a remake of Criss Cross, with an extra layer of flashbacks. Logan Lucky (2017), with its deadpan redneck losers, joins the tradition of comic heist movies. Most strikingly, the Ocean’s series makes a virtual fetish of the male camaraderie and playful plot tricks typical of the genre. The films pepper the action with voice-overs, cunning ellipses, and flashbacks within flashbacks. The plots hide key information about the plan. They fill the action with in-jokes, such as a star cameo by Bruce Willis commenting on box-office grosses. Like 1960s films, they incorporate romantic comedy. In Ocean’s Eleven ((2001) Danny and Tess arrange a post-divorce reconciliation, and in Ocean’s Twelve (2004) Danny’s pal Rusty gets involved with police agent Isabel.

Piling up obstacles, reversals, bluffs, and double-bluffs, the films form a kind of anthology of the genre’s tricks. By the time we get to Ocean’s Thirteen (2007), the early phases of the standard plot schema can be given short shrift. We know the gang and its modus operandi, so the bulk of the film becomes a mind-bogglingly intricate heist including everything from planting bedbugs in a hotel room to manufacturing loaded dice in a Mexican factory under threat of strike. The network of rules and roles laid out in the 1950s—master mind, aged expert, financier, crooked helpers, allies and rivals and go-betweens and stooges—are given baroque elaboration and treated with an almost self-congratulatory panache.

 

So am I looking forward to Ocean’s Eight? It’s directed by Gary Ross, so I don’t expect Soderbergh’s casual sheen. And the target of the heist, a fashion show at the Met, may be a bit too on the nose; why can’t the ladies tackle a payroll or a munitions factory? Still, like a butterfly collector looking for new specimens, I’m quite curious. When it comes to narrative strategies, I’m a sucker for a fresh con.


Thanks to Jim Healy and Geoff Gardner for discussion of the genre.

Stuart Kaminsky’s American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory of Popular Film (Plaum, 1974) is a trailblazing study, and the chapter on the “big-caper” film is an indispensible starting point for studying this kind of movie. Later editions of the book eliminated this chapter. A wide-ranging recent survey is Daryl Lee’s The Heist Film: Stealing with Style (Wallflower, 2014). Alastair Phillips offers an in-depth analysis of a classic in Rififi (Tauris, 2009).

My quotations from Donald Westlake come from Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Detective Stories (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 1 and 126. I also found the entry on Lionel White in Brian Ritt’s Paperback Confidential: Crime Writers of the Paperback Era (Stark House, 2013) helpful. The “KUBRIC” passage in White’s Steal Big (Fawcett, 1960) is on p. 47. White much influenced Westlake, as I hope to show in a future entry, but Westlake was a far superior stylist, as I discuss a little in this entry. See also this note on Levi Stahl’s anthology of Westlake nonfiction.

For more on analyzing narrative see “Three Dimensions of Film Narrative” and “Understanding Film Narrative: The Trailer.” Tarantino’s debts to the 1940s are reviewed in this entry. See as well my recent entry on thrillers. I analyze the convoluted narrative of The Killers in Chapter 9 of Narration in the Fiction Film. The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies discusses 1990s filmmakers’ relation to the Forties. Multiple-protagonist plotting is considered in Chapter 3 of Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling.

The concept of schema and revision is considered here as applied to style; this entry, like Reinventing, applies it to narrative principles. My Dunkirk entry points out affinities between the overlapped time frames in The Killing and the three-track scheme Nolan gives us. Unlike Kubrick, Dunkirk applies the principle to the entire film and assigns each timeline a different duration, but it generates a back-and-fill organization and clusters of replays reminiscent of The Killing.

Burt Lancaster is considered here, and why not?

Ocean’s Eight (2018).

ARRIVAL: When is Now?

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Arrival (2016).

DB here:

A lot of today’s movie storytelling is nonlinear. Filmmakers rely on flashbacks, replays, and voice-overs in order to shape our experience, sometimes in fairly daring ways. In Hollywood these strategies got consolidated in the 1940s. Or so I argue in my Reinventing Hollywood, now in copy-editing (or as the University of Chicago Press calls it, copy editing).

The question today is the same as back then: How do ambitious filmmakers handle these conventions? I think the ambitious writer or director faces at least three tasks.

How do I innovate—that is, how do I treat time shifts in a fresh way?

How do I motivate the shifts—that is, justify the scrambling of chronology?

How do I make the new version clear enough for audiences to follow?

Novelty, motivation, and clarity seem to me essential considerations for a filmmaker who wants to play with time and the viewpoint shifts that often come with it.

I’m not alone in thinking that Arrival succeeds in creating its particular engagement with the audience by tackling my three tasks. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer innovate in handling time, and they in turn carefully motivate the device and find ways to make it clear to the audience. Today I want to consider how this all works. I have to assume you’ve seen the film, so of course there are spoilers.

 

Back to what future?

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Cinema didn’t invent broken timelines; they’ve been used in literature for centuries. The Odyssey has blocks of flashbacks. Literature benefits from the fact that language has simple and direct ways to signal jumps in time.

For example, the writer working in English can make flashbacks clear though time tags and verb tense. Take this passage from John Le Carré’s novel Our Kind of Traitor. We’re told that on Sunday morning an anxious Perry Makepiece is climbing into a chauffeur-driven Mercedes. Then:

Last night, returning to the Deux Anges from their supper party, Perry had caught Madame Mère’s boot-button eyes peering at him from her den behind the reception desk.

“Last night” tells us we’re in an earlier period, and that information is reinforced by the past perfect tense of “had caught.” Page layout helps too: the entire flashback to the previous night is blocked out within extra spaces separated by a centered ★.

After recounting what happened when Perry returned to his hotel last night, Le Carré returns to the present time, the narrative Now, with a turn to the simple past tense:

The Mercedes stank of foul tobacco smoke.

Apart from the change of tense, the Mercedes mention reminds us of Perry’s morning trip. In addition, the shift back to the present opens a new section marked by ★.

On my three dimensions: There’s nothing innovative about this instance, though Le Carré will try some unusual things elsewhere in the book. The flashback is motivated by Perry’s remembering last night, and it’s made clear to the reader through repetition of several cues.

But what do we do with this passage?

I remember the scenario of your origin you’ll suggest when you’re twelve.

The tenses are out of whack, thanks to that “you’ll.” Then there’s the very meaning of the word “remember.” (Replacing the phrase with “I imagine.”) How can you remember something that has yet to happen? This isn’t just a casual slip. The speaker goes on to report an entire conversation that uses the future tense: “you’ll say bitterly,” “I’ll say,” “That will be in the house on Belmont Street,” and so on.

This passage comes near the start of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life,” the source of Arrival. The story is what literary scholars call an apostrophe, a discourse addressed to an absent person. Louise Banks explains how her daughter came into existence. The story begins with Louise’s husband asking one evening, “”Do you want to make a baby?” It’s this point in time that’s marked as the present (and is rendered in present tense), but the bulk of the story shuttles between the past and the future. From the benchmark moment we get, in other words, flashbacks alternating with flashforwards.

On my three-dimensional scale, Chiang gets credit for innovation. Stories told in the future tense are pretty rare, especially when the events are presented as memories. And he makes the narrational premise clear. After a few pages, it’s established that Louise purports to know things yet to happen. The tenses cooperate: Present for the baby-making moment, past tense for the past events, future for the future ones.

We’re used to characters who know their past, but how can one know her future? For the story-maker that reduces to: How to motivate Louise’s knowing the future?

The answer is aliens. In the past, Louise met her husband when floating seven-legged creatures came to earth. As a linguist, she was assigned to learn the Heptapods’ language. Gradually she discovered that they had a mentality that refused causality and sequence in favor of a holistic view of time. Their language, to put it crudely, gave them access to past, present, and future.

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By learning their language Louise absorbed, to some extent, their world-view. (Yes, the untenable Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is invoked.) Her precognition allows her to know, moments before she and her husband conceive the girl, what her daughter will do from her childhood right up to her early death. Louise also knows that she and her husband will divorce and find new partners. For us, these episodes are rendered as flashforwards from the Now, even though for Louise they are, paradoxically, memories (of things yet to happen).

Chiang’s story explores the emotional effects of knowing the future and deciding not to try to change it. For all I know, this may be another innovation in the realm of speculative fiction. Most time-travelers seek to alter the past or the future, but Louise is aware of the paradoxes of time travel. If you know the future, you can freely decide to alter it by choosing differently at crucial junctures. Marry somebody else, and you’ll change what happens afterward, so you didn’t really know the future. But Louise comes to believe that free will is a part of linear, causal thinking, the sort that the Heptapods have given up.

The existence of free will meant that we couldn’t know the future. And we knew free will still existed because we had direct experience of it. Volition was an intrinsic part of consciousness.

Or was it? What if the experience of knowing the future changed a person? What if it evoked a sense of urgency, a sense of obligation to act precisely as she knew she would?

The Heptapods know that they will need help from Earth in 3000 years, and they presumably know that they’ll get it, but to fulfill that future they need to ask. The story’s analogy is to the daughter’s wanting to re-hear a story she knows by heart. As a story reader replays a known tale, the aliens perform the incidents that make things inevitable.

So Louise accepts her role in playing out whatever future is predetermined. For this reason she can address her (future) daughter with foreknowledge of the pains and delights that are coming, accepting them as part of a seamless whole.

 

Image + sound + time

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Lacking a tense system like language, cinema has devised other time signals. In the classic flashback we get a combination of them. We’re presented with a speaking or remembering character, a track-in to her, perhaps some music, a hint in the dialogue that we’re going into the past, a dissolve, perhaps a voice-over indication, and then a scene obviously situated in an earlier period. Filmmakers have discovered ways of altering some cues (cuts replace dissolves, tight close-ups replace track-ins) and deleting others (music and voice-over seem fairly optional now). Other cues are added for clarity, such as a different color palette for scenes in the past, or perhaps slow-motion imagery, or sound from the past that leaks in over imagery in the present.

Of course films use written and spoken language too, and so they can deploy tenses and time tags. Sometimes that can help us understand the time status of the scenes we’re seeing.

Voice-over is very helpful here. Take another Le Carré example, this time from Fred Schepisi and Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of The Russia House. Play the clip below and you’ll see what I mean.

Katya’s delivery of the covert manuscript, given on the image track, seems at first to be in the present. But the voice-over office conversation, only gradually shown through intercutting, is later than the Moscow incidents we see. So the present, the opening Now, is established on the soundtrack, while the image is in the past. As in fiction, the twin cues of verbal tense (“she visited”) and a time tag (“a week ago”) confirm the status of the Bookfair scene. The innovation comes when Stoppard and Schepisi don’t frame the Moscow scene by offering us the present-time office conversation before we see Katya–in effect, establishing the Now before showing us the Then. It’s an economical tactic of exposition, an elliptical revision of the phone conversations about the police investigations in M.

A voice-over can be in same time period as the images, of course, if it’s an inner monologue, a report on what a character is thinking at the moment. But voice-over commentary is often positioned as in the present with the images assumed to be in the past.

The voice-over present can be specified, usually through a lead-in scene showing the speaker recounting or recalling things at a particular time. Or the voice can be in a vague present, a zone we take as simply “after the events of the story.” It’s this no-man’s-land Now that leads us astray in Laura and other tricky films from the 1940s onward. Uncertainty about who’s speaking from when can be a source of interest in its own right. In Road Warrior, the revelation of the source of the opening voice-over provides the final surprise of the film.

So Heisserer and Villeneuve had an opportunity to follow Chiang in using the future tense in the voice-over for Arrival. It would surely have been an innovative move for a film. But they don’t do it. Why?

 

From premise to twist

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Flashbacks are temperamental little buggers. Hard to know when and how to use them.

Eric Heisserer, 150 Screenwriting Challenges

Heisserer was a keen fan of Chiang’s story and spent years trying to get backing for a film version. He recounts various difficulties in online interviews (here and here, for example), but I want to focus on a couple of other problems he faced.

In a general way, the film respects the thrust of the story. At the close, you realize that Louise has gained the ability to anticipate the future, thanks to learning Heptapod. But on a fine-grained basis, the film doesn’t spell out her ability as frankly or as early as the story does.

The first image, a view out onto the patio and the lake, shows no people, just a table with a wine bottle and a couple of glasses. Louise’s voice-over does address someone absent: “I used to think this was the beginning of your story.” But the point in time and the person addressed are far less specific than in the literary version. Then we get a quick burst of images of a baby, then a little girl playing with Louise, and soon a young woman lying dead in a hospital bed. This cascade of impressions ends with a shot of Louise walking mournfully down a hospital corridor, followed by a fade-out. Fade up on her striding into a campus building and attending her lecture. Over this we hear her voice-over.

But now I’m not so sure I believe in beginnings and endings. There are things that define your story beyond your life. Like the day they arrived.

And then we’re confronted by the Heptapods, as broadcast on worldwide TV, and Louise’s getting the assignment to talk with them.

The first shot, of the patio, is enigmatic, but fairly soon we get the sense that Louise is addressing her dead daughter. We seem to have a classic prologue. (Compare the opening death of Starlord’s mother in Guardians of the Galaxy.) Across three minutes, we see a mother loving and losing her daughter. Our default assumption is that after the daughter’s death, she has become solitary and emotionally numb. She doesn’t interact with people on her way to her classroom, and when she goes home alone she watches TV reports with a kind of blank anxiety.

The film sets up a schema: The grieving mother needs to get out of herself, and the assignment to communicate with the aliens would seem to do that. Eventually she finds love with the physicist Ian Donnelly as well. This redemption schema is probably reinforced for some viewers by memories of Gravity (2013), another movie about a withdrawn mother who channels her sorrow into heroic action.

As the alien encounters unfold, the film’s narration starts to sprinkle in more images of the lost daughter at different ages. But the images show up rather late. At about 48 minutes, there’s a brief, out-of-focus image of a baby; at about 51:00, a glimpse of the little girl wading. Not until about halfway through the film (57:00) is there a fairly sustained scene between mother and child, when the girl shows Louise a picture of her imaginary TV show. That’s when we learn that the father isn’t with them any more. Later shots of the daughter are salted through the scenes of the increasingly tense confrontation with the Heptapods.

Just as we’re encouraged to take the daughter’s birth, childhood, and death as a prologue that precedes the alien investigation, we’re inclined to take these interruptive shots of the girl as flashbacks. Louise seems to be remembering her daughter.

At about 82 minutes something happens that challenges our basic assumption. In another household scene, the daughter asks about the “science-y” term for a win/win situation, and Louise is stumped. The narration shifts us back to the tent at the site, Ian mentions the term “non-zero-sum game.” Then we’re whisked back to the scene with the daughter, and Louise repeats that.

I felt a bump there. If the scene with Ian’s use of the term comes after the death of the daughter, during the alien encounter, how can Louise “remember” it to relay it to the daughter? For many viewers (probably not all), this opens the possibility that the “prologue” tracing the daughter’s childhood takes place after the alien adventure, not before. The reinforcement for this, visible to me only on second viewing, is that the earlier glimpses of the girl’s growing up are always triggered by scenes showing Louise learning the Heptapod’s language.

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The filmic narration creates a sort of duck/rabbit Gestalt switch. Things we thought were past are future, things we thought were present are past. If the patio shot is the benchmark Now, the growth and death of the girl are the future and the Heptapods’ visit becomes a sustained flashback.

Now we see why Louise’s introductory voice-over lacks the future-tense sentences that are so startling in the novella. Including those would have been too strong a hint about the status of the mother-daughter shots. Instead, the opening voice-over uses only the past tense (“I used to think”) and the present (“But now I’m not so sure”). Another moment in the voice-over tilts us toward thinking of the image bursts later as flashbacks: we hear Louise murmur over the dead girl. “Come back to me.” Her yearning to reconnect to her daughter inclines us even more to consider the visions of the girl later as flashbacks.

 

Redundancy is your friend

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Okay, pretty innovative—and an interesting departure from Chiang’s story. Instead of telling us at the outset that Louise has precognition, the film holds that as a surprise, and makes us think that her anticipations are actually memories. And we have motivation: as in the story, it’s the alien encounter that endows Louise with precognition. But what about my third consideration, clarity?

I said that not everybody will probably catch the echo of Ian’s “non-zero-sum game.” The last half-hour of the film devotes itself partly to reiterating the news that Louise can discern the future.

Her impulsive visit to the Heptapods late in the film explains why they dropped by. They know they’ll need humans’ help in the future, so they come to make that future happen. At the ninety-minute mark, one speaks, and we get a big old subtitle: “Louise sees future.” If you doubt the Heptapod’s insight, another flashforward soon shows Louise explaining to her daughter why her dad left. Louise “made a mistake” by telling him about a rare disease—presumably the one that would kill their daughter. We’re left to understand that after she told him that she knew their child was fated to die young, he couldn’t take it. The delayed exposition, judiciously repeated, lets the pieces fall into place. We may even start to surmise that Ian is to be that husband, earlier identified as a scientist.

Like the aliens’ sentences, the film is circular. Heisserer told Vox:

When I completed the first draft and the bookends of the first three pages and the final three pages, it felt like I was drawing a narrative circle and I just closed the loop. That felt right.

The narration buckles the film shut by returning to the view of the patio, which is intercut with Louise and Ian embracing. Ian proposes that tonight they make a baby. The fact that Heisserer’s script displaces to the very end what was the opening of Chiang’s story is a fair index of the transformation he has wrought. What was a premise of the novella becomes a reveal in the film.

But the motivation is the same. Flashforwards aren’t exactly parallel to flashbacks, as far as viewer psychology is concerned. Flashbacks are assumed to be veridical unless there’s reason to doubt them (as in trial and investigation films, where people give differing versions of events). The default is that flashbacks really happened, unless there are contrary indications.

Flashforwards, on the other hand, can be of two types. They might proceed from the film’s external narration. In Easy Rider, Petulia, and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? we get glimpses of future events that no character can know. In such cases, the images are usually enigmatic enough that we can’t be sure about the import of what we’re seeing. Flaming motorcycles, the protagonist tossing a bouquet into the water, a brief cutaway to a man in a police wagon (below, from They Shoot Horses): these are teases, not fully informative scenes, and they interrupt the main present-time action.

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Alternatively, more identifiable flashforwards are usually motivated as a character’s precognition. They aren’t necessarily reliable. Flashbacks normally represent “actual” pasts, but flashforwards coming from mediums, psychics, or possessed children are only possible futures. Indeed, one task in such films is to prevent the apparent future from coming to pass, as in Minority Report and It Happened Tomorrow. The past is closed, but in subjective flashforwards, the future is usually open.

How, then, do we motivate trustworthy flashforwards? Here. by having infallible aliens certify them. Like “Story of Your Life,” Arrival assures us that Louise’s premonitions are accurate. It’s just that Chiang’s story proposes that early on and then shows how she achieved them. The film is trickier. It misleads us into thinking she has memories of the past when she is actually learning to see the future. She learns more quickly than we do, though eventually we catch up with her.

We’ve also learned that flashforwards can masquerade as flashbacks—if they’re deployed carefully enough.

 

Adding the ride

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Explaining, very clearly, that Louise is knowing her future is only one task of the last stretch of the film. Another task is preventing a military attack on the aliens.

In Chiang’s story, the creatures simply leave. But Heisserer has explained that he felt the plot needed more conflict, so he added the prospect of brass hats eager to confront the visitors. The Heptapods, Louise suggests, have landed at various places around the world to induce nations to forget their differences in a common purpose. The Americans are suspicious, and General Shang of China breaks away from the alliance and takes steps to attack the ship near Shanghai.

Of the civil turmoil and military threat that fill out the plot, Heisserer noted in the same Vox interview:

The story doesn’t really have any conflict of that nature. It doesn’t need to. It’s a lovely literary conceit in its own right and works without that drama.

However, our early attempts a building this narrative without that conflict added felt very flat, and felt like there were no stakes. There was no ride. The more we played with it, the more Denis and I both realized that if aliens did land on earth and the public didn’t get immediate answers as to what their purpose was, the more everybody would freak out.

In building this climax, the film varies crucially from Chiang’s premise. Now Louise seems to alter the future. She apparently summons the will to induce General Shang, at a future celebration of the successful mission, to give her his private cellphone number and tell her his wife’s dying words. Back in the past, Louise uses this new knowledge to induce the General to hold his fire. All this is presented in a classical ticking-clock drama of suspense and pursuit.

The device is a bit awkward; instead of visiting an actual future, Louise seems present at one where the General, against all plausibility, tells her things she supposedly already knows. And how she induces him to spill all this is unclear, at least to me. The climax also breaks with the original story’s idea that Louise doesn’t exercise free will but accepts her role in the course of time.

More often than one might expect, classically constructed films break some of their self-imposed rules in the rush to a climax. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one of my favorite examples, in which the climax violates the story’s method of pod-cloning. Sometimes an exciting denouement or a shocking twist tends to make us forget not only plausibility but also the premises that have operated over the previous ninety minutes.

An unsympathetic critic could object to  the injection of a chase, a deadline, and a last-minute salvation of the mission, as well as the one-world moral of the movie. But to enjoy Hollywood, as with enjoying friends and other aspects of life, you have to accept, and even come to enjoy, the flaws too. The center of the film remains our transmutation of sympathy for a grieving mother into sympathy for a woman who knows she will be grieving for a child yet unborn, and yet embraces her destiny. The formal strategies serve to vividly convey this reversal of feeling, in the process ennobling a character reconciled to the transient joys of life.

 

Kenneth Burke once characterized literary form as “the psychology of the audience.” Filmmakers, like all artists, have recognized this from almost the beginning, but it may seem that today’s creative community is more self-conscious than ever before. If “form is the new content,” as I’ve suggested before, it’s a welcome development. Filmmakers are exploring lots of possibilities for engaging our minds and emotions, while still striving to keep their stories understandable to a large audience. Arrival could not have been made in my sacred 1940s, but its deft innovations build upon a foundation that was laid then.


Thanks to conversations with Jeff Smith and Kristin about Arrival. Thanks also to Merijoy Endrizzi-Ray and Jacob Rust at Madison’s Sundance Theater.

Jeff Goldsmith has an enlightening interview with Eric Hisserer at Screencraft. Ted Chiang’s novella is in the collection Stories of Your Life and Others. Burke’s discussion is in the essay, “Psychology and Form.”

The first quarter of Le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor consists of an “intercut” sequence between past events and present interrogation that, in its free use of tenses, time tags, and other devices, seems to aim at a literary equivalent of the Russia House film opening. A pity that the recent film of Our Kind of Traitor didn’t try for a cinematic equivalent.

For more on modern treatments of narration and plot structure, try here. For further discussions of 1940s treatments of time-juggling, here are some blog entries.

P.S. 3 December 2016: The original entry didn’t use Minority Report or It Happened Tomorrow as examples of averting the future. They’re corrections to my original mention of Don’t Look Now, which was not an accurate example. David Cairns wrote to remind me of that, and to point out that the glimpse of the future we get in that film is in an interesting way akin to what we get in Arrival, and I hadn’t noticed that. For those who haven’t seen Don’t Look Now, I won’t add to an already spoiler-heavy entry. I’ll simply thank David, whose exemplary blogsite Shadowplay (currently hosting a blogathon under the rubric of The Late Show)  is a must for every film lover. His new film, The Northleach Horror, is nearing completion; details here.

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Arrival (2016).

Eep, omigosh, urk, smerp, and other Archie epithets

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DB here:

Not all cinephiles are comics fans, but quite a few are. I guess it’s partly a matter of the Adolescent Window, and partly an intuition that both are forms of what Will Eisner calls “sequential art.”

For my part, a Boomer childhood spent with Nancy and Little Lulu and Scrooge McDuck was followed by a boyhood fastened on Superman and Batman. Then came the cutoff. I went to college as the Marvel Universe was populating, and I never got into Underground Comix. Only Krazy Kat stayed with me through my college years.

cover-250In the 80s Kristin and I followed young talents like Matt Groening, Berke Breathed, and Lynda Barry, while becoming fans of McCay. When I encountered Eurocomics, particularly the Clear Line style and its heirs, I perked up. Joost Swarte (and here) was a special favorite of ours. At about the same time I revisited the old stuff, like Cliff Sterritt. During the 90s and 00s, I tracked the emergence of Ware, Clowes, and other independents.

Somewhere in all this, Archie abides. I can’t remember when I started reading him, or when I stopped, but he was for me, as for many others, simply and permanently there. Only when I accidentally learned in 2009 that he was to marry Veronica did I go back to him. Finding an interesting variant of the three-roads motif of folklore, I whipped up a blog entry. I added some thoughts about the skillful graphic design of Bob Montana’s 40s work, but in the process I was too dismissive of the later decades chronicling life at Riverdale High.

I realize my error now thanks to Bart Beaty’s wonderful Twelve Cent Archie. It’s a critical and historical study of Archie’s world from December 1961 to July 1969, a period when the comics sold for a princely $.12. That’s also the period, Beaty maintains, when the books’ most skilful writers and artists were at work: Stan Lucey (the Archie titles), Dan DeCarlo (Betty and Veronica), and Samm Schwartz (Jughead). Beaty read every book in the nineteen series, over 900 volumes in all. This admirable undertaking yields funny and enlightening results. It’s one of the best books of comics criticism I’ve ever read.

 

The Archie Machine

For many of us, Archie is surpassed only by Nancy in the Bland Storytelling Sweepstakes. Archie is a freckle-faced guy on the make, rich girl Veronica alternately two-times him and flies into jealous rages, and Betty pines for Arch from afar. Archie’s rival Reggie tries to gum everything up, while Jughead watches with a mix of scorn and indifference. The plots are filled with deception, misunderstandings, horrible coincidences, and slapstick. Needless to say, the adults—teacher Miss Grundy, principal Mr. Weatherbee, Coach Kleats, Archie’s parents, Veronica’s dad Mr. Lodge—don’t have a clue.

The saga is so cut-and-dried that the makers could publish a story called “How to Write Comics” (1965), in which the moves are laid out with daunting clarity.

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These tips remain good advice for plot-making. Had Beaty done no more than unearth this tale, we’d owe him a lot. As ever in popular culture, though, things aren’t so simple. Beaty shows us why.

At one level he embraces the sheer repetitiveness of it all—what he calls the Archie Machine. Oddly, as he points out, Arch is, narratively speaking, null. He can be a good student or a poor one, a clever manipulator or a klutz. Only a few traits, such as his need for money and his innocent lust for vertiginous kisses, persist. Reacting to situations rather than creating them, neither hero nor antihero, he’s more of an unhero, “a blank space on which stories are written.” As a result, there’s little continuity in the stories. If the plot demands Archie to be good in French, he will be, even if previous stories have shown him to be linguistically inept. Besides, as Beaty asks, “Does Riverdale High even have a French teacher?”

The same goes for Riverdale, which despite its name, seems serenely indifferent to its river, which hardly ever appears. There are four seasons, but the topography is fluid, provided with mountains, beaches, forests, and farm fields as needed. This Borgesian landscape reminds you of the Simpsons’ Springfield, but that municipality has landmarks for ready reckoning. Homer always lives next door to Ned, Moe’s bar is always beside King Toot’s Music Store. Beaty points out that in Riverdale, we can’t say whether Veronica’s house is on Archie’s way to school: sometimes it is, sometimes not. “It depends on the needs of the story.” And unlike Springfield, Riverdale is forbiddingly WASP: “a wish-dream of white privilege and normative sexualities.”

Given this mixture of relentless monotony and casual vagueness, the challenge for the writers and artists was to make something interesting. Here’s where Beaty’s book pulls me in: Artists need to solve problems. He shows that his three main artisans created fun and cleverness out of nearly nothing.

I dimly remember thinking, as a kid, that there was more going on in those books than I could understand, but finally, sixty years later, I get a glimpse of it.

Take Betty. Betty isn’t just the lovelorn also-ran. She plots against “best friend” Veronica, pulls pranks to fool the hapless Arch, and generally acts, as Beaty notes, like a stalker. As for Veronica, she can be quite the schemer too. Pictorially, though, they might be twin sisters. “Betty = Veronica,” one of Beaty’s 100 (!) chapters, asks: “Why does Archie struggle to choose between Betty and Veronica when, for all intents and purposes, they are exactly the same person?” Okay, Betty has a ponytail (to which Beaty devotes another chapter), but you take his point. Even when the girls decide to change hairstyles, they wind up looking cloned.

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In scenes like this, you have to believe that the creators were having fun with the standard-issue look of our two heroines. Their cookie-cutter similarity allows for ingenious changes in posture, costume, and expression (see below), and can be a source of gags, as here–when their peekaboo hair styles keep them from seeing a pop star’s passing below them.

Silly dialogue that made me snicker still does. Reggie strolls along singing, “I love me, I think I’m grand. When I’m with me I hold my hand.” In the summer I graduated from high school, I don’t think I read the following exchange, but I would have mostly understood it.

Archie, at Betty’s door: “Howdy! I’m a mild mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper!”

Betty: “Come in, mild-mannered reporter! Do something super!”

Archie: “I’ll try!” (Kisses Betty off her feet)

Betty (staggered): “Whew! That’s what I call SUPER, man!”

Betty (recovered, ushering Archie to the door): “Let’s go! I’m not a good first violinist, but I can play second fiddle with the best!”

Archie (serious): “You wound me!”

You wound me?! Denying he’s grabbing Betty on the rebound is an act of supreme callousness. No Superman, Arch. Beaty credits some of the best lines to writer Frank Doyle, source of “I never snapped a whipper in my life.” I wonder if Doyle wrote the oft-reprinted Tiger (1961) with its memorable “A boiling, bubbling volcano flames behind this mild-mannered facade.”

 

Fun lovin’ 

Beaty offers so many ideas and observations that I can pause only on the major thing he convinced me of: the fine comic draftsmanship of Harry Lucey. Beaty waxes eloquent on Mr. Lodge’s anatomical twists and turns across a single page. That called my attention to the fact that Lucey drew funny, especially in scenes of manic action. It’s all in the legs and toes, kids.

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Who expects contrapposto in an Archie comic? But we get it when Betty goes bowling.

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At times we get the classic comic multiple-image stuff that not only cartoonists but animators like Disney and Bob Clampett used in movies. Archie has been spotted carrying his mother’s purse.

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As Beaty shows, Lucey excelled at calisthenic clinches and tornado-intensity smooches. When a character, even a dog, kisses another character, he/she/it sweeps the kissee off his/her feet, literally.

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Perhaps because the action is often so violent, Lucey can spare a panel that’s a virtual freeze-frame. Any other artist would have wrapped Mr. Weatherbee, plummeting out of his taffy shroud, in a flurry of speed lines, as above. The near-absence of those lines makes the poor man seem suspended forever before his fall.

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Actually there are speed lines, but they’re so slight and striated they might be creases in the brown suit. Only the sharpest eye will catch the ones around Mr. Weatherbee’s left wrist.

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Thanks to Lucey’s technique, in the same panel the hapless Riverdale principal both falls and hangs suspended.

Hergé likeds to keep his scene’s space clear and consistent, modifying it slightly with “cut-ins” and “pans.” Lucey, like other American comics artists, freely changes angle and even character arrangement to create variety and to point up dialogue. In one pair of panels, the change of angle is bold, slicing off half of Archie’s face to give greater emphasis to Betty’s angry arm-thrust and Ronnie’s reaction on the far right.

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A slight change of angle can accentuate background action–below, a flattened Archie raising his head. But Ronnie and Betty have already slid toward the foreground as well.

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Characters are freely shifted around the frame, usually in obedience to a left-to-right reading of the balloons. But across a page these spatial reorientations can create a vivacious pattern. Against the mild purple chair, for example, Betty’s scandalous polka-dot dress pops out in each panel while dominating the layout as a whole.

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Lucey could do detail too. In any given panel or set of panels, there are little touches that distinguish Betty from Veronica—typically, the lips. Here Betty’s mouth in the second panel seems to catch Veronica’s sideways twist in the first. By the third, Veronica’s mouth has straightened out a little.

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Like Archie comics or despise them, but don’t talk about Cathy or Dilbert in the same breath. If you’re a cartoonist, you should be able to draw. If you can infuse your drawing with vivacity, so much the better.

 

I’ve followed Beaty’s work since his magisterial series, “Eurocomics for Beginners” ran in The Comics Journal in the 1990s. His many books are major contributions to comics scholarship. For sheer pleasure, though, nothing of his I’ve read surpasses Twelve-Cent Archie. It’s at once personal–he recalls his childhood encounter with a cache of Archie books on summer vacation–and analytical in a sympathetic way. Like a lot of good criticism, it opens your eyes while making you smile.


Bart Beaty provides background on Twelve Cent Archie in this interview. A worthwhile review is in The Atlantic Monthly. Beaty talks with indefatigable media analyst and blogger Henry Jenkins at Confessions of an Aca-Fan.

Thanks to Hank Luttrell of 20th Century Books and Bruce Ayers of Capital City Comics for help in finding some Archie stories. Thanks as well to Jim Danky for many long lunches about comics, film, and less important things.

The Archie-marries-Veronica issue I wrote about in 2009 was but the beginning of a long parallel-universe cycle. For a list of the many other revisions in the Archie-verse, see this article. Then there are the Betty and Veronica reboots. The horror cycle, Afterlife with Archie, went in another direction. (And you thought the original kids were zombified.) It’s been a big success. Urk!

In timely fashion, Mad City Movie Guy Gerald Peary has come out with his own contribution, a documentary called Archie’s Betty. He too has reviewed Beaty’s book for The Arts Fuse.

P. S. 23 January 2017: Here’s some fascinating backstory on the “reimagining” or “rebooting” or “reinvention” of the Archie saga. Turns out Forking-Path Archie, which got my attention, was a turning point for the company as well as its protagonist.

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Poets’ summer: PATERSON, A QUIET PASSION

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A Quiet Passion (Terence Davies, 2016).

So I write—Poets—All—

Their Summer—lasts a Solid Year—
They can afford a Sun
The East—would deem extravagant—

Emily Dickinson, “I Reckon–when I count it all,” no. 569

DB here:

From the Vancouver International Film Festival, I write on two new films you should see as soon as you can.

How to make a film respecting the power of poetry? More basically: What is that power? Does it lie in the fact that poetry can be a part of ordinary life? This seems to me the angle taken in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Or does poetry’s power arise as an alternative to mundane intercourse, a realm in which we test thoughts and feelings beyond the flow of daily life? I think this is the angle taken in Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion.

 

The secret notebook

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Paterson drives a bus in Paterson. The bus’s destination display bears not a street name but rather the word “Paterson.” Such playful quirks, long a part of the American indie game, is as inoffensive as the film’s title (Paterson, of course). The milieu looks prosaic enough, with quasi-documentary shots of streets and the Great Falls. But Paterson owns a bungalow on a bus-driver’s salary, catches a 1930s horror film at a local theatre, and drops in at a saloon where a barkeep named Doc plays chess with himself. The town has more than its share of twins too.

In this slightly off-track version of a city, the protagonist’s Iranian-American wife Laura paints fabrics, bakes designer cupcakes, and wants to be a country singer. Meanwhile, Paterson has creative impulses of his own. He writes poetry.

Paterson is a quiet, genial fellow to whom you’d happily entrust your morning commute. His poems (written by New York School poet Ron Padgett) are conversational; the first one we hear begins: “We have plenty of matches in our house.” The poems are given their force by their homely details and the repetition of simple declarative phrases.

Repetition is built into the film’s block construction: A Week in the Life. Waking up, having breakfast, walking to the bus terminal, jotting down some verse before beginning his routes, lunch and more jotting, walking home, eating dinner, and visiting the bar—Paterson ‘s routines create a rhythmic matrix that we quickly learn. That the film’s structure is built around work routines makes sense. In America, a poet might be your bus driver, your doctor (William Carlos Williams), your insurance executive (Wallace Stevens), the farmer down the road (Robert Frost), or your teacher in business school (Marianne Moore).

As for poetic texture, the routines get treated in small-scale variations. Take the opening bed shot, an overhead view of the couple that announces a new day. One morning Laura isn’t there. Sometimes we don’t get a shot of Paterson checking his wristwatch. The weekend mornings lack the daily written title that the workdays get. A poetic principle of verse and refrain gets built into the film’s structure.

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Finer-grain texture comes in the recitation of the verses as Paterson writes them into his scruffy notebook. We see the lines form on the surface of the screen, in freehand script, while montages of driving surge underneath them–as if these were coming to life in the course of the day. The fate of the secret notebook is probably the biggest dramatic twist in the film, but even that becomes part of a larger pattern after a melancholy Sunday walk.

And drama? There are moments of tension. Paterson is unenthusiastic about Laura’s buying a guitar, and an habitué of the bar seems to create a life-or-death crisis. Yet these and other problems slide away quickly. When Saturday night comes around, a kind of climax occurs. It tails off, subsumed in the playing out of motifs that were installed early on—rhymes, we might say.

As you’d expect in a film living under the aegis of Williams (author, of course, of Paterson the book of verse), it’s all about the discrimination of detail. “No ideas but in things” is the motto. The emblem becomes the Ohio Blue Tip Matches described in Padgett’s poem and shown to us in close-up. Laura reveals her poetic acumen when she asks if Paterson’s verse mentions the megaphone skew of the label’s lettering.

Paterson may write alongside a waterfall like a classic poet inspired by nature’s sublimity. But in tuning his ear to his passengers’ conversations and by finding epiphanies in mass-manufactured objects, he’s in the American grain.

 

Night thoughts

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Paterson is so unassuming in his creativity that his film might have been called A Quiet Passion. That, though, is the title of Terence Davies’ tribute to Emily Dickinson. But not much about her is presented as quiet. The film starts with the tart young Emily declining to accept a place in Mt. Holyoke’s pious “ark of safety.” She prefers the soaring rapture of Bellini’s “Come per me sereno,” a bride’s thank-you to guests at her wedding. While her family listens politely in their concert-theatre box, she sways in sympathy with the singer. The scene seals her pledge to art.

Any biopic of the Belle of Amherst faces the problem of characterizing her through talk and action. One option is to make her meek and introspective. Another is to make her conversation as diffuse, oblique, and staccato as her verse. Davies has boldly tried another tack. He has made her one of a trio of eloquent women who swap epigrams as swiftly as if they were in an opera or an Oscar Wilde play. Davies seems to be suggesting that worldly (and wordy) banter with her kindly sister Lavinia and racier friend Miss Buffam gave Emily a sense of the blunt force of language.

Paterson is laconic and ruminative, like his verses, but Emily is a parlor dialectician. She hammers fierce comebacks at her father, at her brother (especially when he takes a mistress), and even at the devoted Vinnie. What authority she gains in her closed society emerges mostly from her wit and tongue. (Though she can calmly smash a plate too.) At the same time, Emily knows her words can wound. She’s miserable after snapping at the family servants, and after a volatile exchange with Vinnie she despairs of ever being a good person.

Here is a woman who feels the power and pain of language. Once we understand that, we’re better prepared to understand the inward turn of her verse. Unlike her dueling conversations, her poems are skewed and slanted, with unexpected jumps at every line, or dash. They twist nursery-rhyme cadences and simple vocabulary into Donne-like knots of phrasing. The film’s voice-over recitations make the verse even more elusive than on the page, but I don’t know how else Davies could have handled them. Even showing the lines as they emerge, as Paterson does with superimposed writing, wouldn’t fully satisfy. We need time to ponder the impacted syntax on display. I suspect that instead of trying to translate the perplexing force of Dickinson’s verse, Davies’ film exists as a parallel text, a supplement urging viewers to return to the poems after witnessing Emily’s socializing and suffering.

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Familiar Davies themes emerge. Fiery spirituality clashes with hypocritical churchifying; family ties are fulfilling but also suffocating; a single room can enclose peace or stabbing pain. There’s the power of women’s friendships, alliances against a world bent on cutting them down. Davies reminds us that “women’s art” often involves handicraft. Emily is not only writer but book-maker, trimming and stitching little pages together into secular devotionals. These mini-books recall and mock those pious guides for meditation that could be tucked into purses and waistcoats.

Paterson writes in the daytime, while waiting to pull the bus out of the garage or on his lunch hour or even while driving. Emily, once her father gives his permission, writes from 3 AM into the morning. Accordingly, the bus driver’s poems, like those of Williams, have the evenly-lit clarity, if not the compression, of a haiku, while Emily’s verses, haltingly phrased, move in a hallucinatory blur. Jarmusch’s no-fuss staging and editing suit the unassertive texture of the verse and the driver’s days, while Davies, himself something of a chamber artist and a master of the musicalized image, scans his parlor tableaux with lush gravity.

 

Two films, each one both light and grave, adroit and solemn, though in different registers. Whatever cinematic poetry is, they aspire to it.


Michael Koresky has a superb discussion of Paterson at Reverse Shot, the Museum of the Moving Image site.

Note for the theoretically inclined: Paterson‘s structured routines and substitution-slots interestingly conform to Roman Jakobson’s dictum that the poetic function consists of the projection of the paradigmatic axis of language (alternative lexical items) onto the syntagmatic axis (the linear flow) of a text. See his “Closing Statement: Linguistics and Poetics.”

Another entry on this site considers Davies’ Sunset Song and his other films. As Moonrise Kingdom is one of our blog’s favorite recent films, it’s a pleasure to glimpse Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward as kids bringing anarchy to Paterson, N. J.

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Paterson (Jim Jarmusch, 2016).

David Bordwell
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