What is the role of rhythm, order and unity in tandem narrative films?
I have selected a range of texts to further my area of enquiry. The first three texts examine the role of tandem narratives in cinema and their connection with the Russian formalist theory ‘fabula and syuzhet’. The middle three texts investigate the role of poetry and its integration into tandem narratives. Lastly, the concluding text reflects on the creative process of an established screenwriter and unearths his techniques for achieving rhythm, order and unity within his work.
Azcona, M. (2010). The Multi-Protagonist Film. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.
This text was written by María del Mar Azcona as an introduction to multi-protagonist stories. Her research contributes to an ongoing conversation about ensemble film. It was clear that Azcona wanted to coin a new term for the growing phenomenon previously referred to as mosaic films (Tröhler, 2007), tandem narratives (Aronson, 2000) or network narratives (Bordwell, 2006). Azcona explores how Hollywood films like Magnolia (1999) and Traffic (2000) rose to fame with their unusual structure: a tapestry of thematically unified, individual character threads. I was curious to understand why these types of films resonated with audiences at the turn of the 20th century. In the text, Azcona explains that the development of the Internet meant that audiences were hungry for interconnected stories that would resonate with their newly interconnected world.
This text provided a credible grounding into the genre of multi-protagonist stories and helped further my research. It shone a light on the zeitgeist of the time and explained why ensemble films received critical acclaim between 1995 and 2005.
Camboni, M. (2012). Parallel Lives: Tandem Narratives in Film. Melbourne: RMIT University.
Thanks to Azcona’s (2010) background on multi-protagonist stories, I was introduced to the notion of tandem narratives. This text was written by Australian author, Miranda Camboni two years after Azcona’s book was published. It is clear Camboni has been greatly influenced by Azcona’s work. However, she makes one crucial distinction: multi-protagonist narratives focus on a group of characters achieving a unified goal (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine, 2006) whereas tandem narratives focus on individual characters that happen to be unified by a coincidence or event (e.g. Lantana, 2001). It is my opinion that tandem narratives are more relevant in 2018 based on the current zeitgeist: in a world where we are so connected, we have never felt so alone.
One of Camboni’s ideas that positively influenced my research was the notion of mastering the ‘flow’ of interchanging stories. Camboni summarises this ‘flow’ or ‘rhythm’ can be achieved by strategically jumping between character threads. Camboni also claims that ‘flow’ typically emerges in the editing room (e.g. Love Actually, 2003). However, drawing on my playwriting background, I believe the writer has significant control of the ‘flow’. Proof of this dates back to the writing of Shakespeare and his multi-plot stories (e.g. A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1959). Although I disagree with Camboni, it was useful to see another way the ‘flow’ of tandem narratives can form.
Tomashevsky, B. (1931). Theory of Literature: Poetics. Moscow: Government Literature Publishing House.
Borris Tomashevsky was a respected theorist of poetry and historian of Russian literature. His major work contributed to what we know today as Russian formalist theory. In the text, his main argument discusses how writers could advance the meaning of literature by jumping back and forward in time between character threads. This is achieved by dividing plot (the syuzhet) and story (the fabula). Tomashevsky’s observations were highly influential. The text’s credibility is noted via the work of later theorist. For example, Bordwell leveraged Tomashevsky literature theory and viewed it through a cinematic lens stating, “The fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occurring within a given duration and a spatial field… The syuzhet is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film” (Bordwell, 1985, p. 3).
By combining the idea of ‘flow’ from Camboni (2012), with the notion of fabula and syuzhet, it is clear that tandem narratives naturally have a unique rhythm when jumping between character threads. What caught my attention while reading Tomashevsky’s theory was the idea that the duration and order of scenes in a script could have a greater poetic quality. A quality I was keen to investigate further.
Under Milk Wood (1972). [Motion Picture]. Sinclair, A. (Director).
The next step was to synthesis examples of tandem narrative films that explored the poetic qualities of rhythm, order and unity as outlined in my research question. My first piece was Under Milk Wood, a radio play written by Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas in the late 1950s. Under Milk Wood is an absurdist drama that explores the forgotten characters of a small Welsh fishing village - often compared to Samuel Beckett’s, Endgame (1958). As one of Wales’s greatest creative feats, it was only a matter of time before the poem transitioned to cinema. The director took the ‘play of voices’ and adapted it into a tandem narrative film in 1972 by the same name.
The film had all the ingredients for success but was considered a box office failure. The primary criticism was its monotone nature. Although the prose itself had great tempo, the syuzhet (as defined by Tomashevsky’s and Bordwell) felt very one-dimensional. The jumps between character threads were evenly paced and slow, which made it difficult to build a dynamic collision of subplots at the inciting incident, climax and denouement. However, this film was valuable to my research as it highlighted the importance of implementing rhythm, order and unity between scenes to maintain audience interest.
Bovell, A. (2009). When the Rain Stops Falling. Sydney: Currency Press.
To continue my investigation of tandem narratives and the way writers can develop rhythm, I turned to the world of theatre. As plays have been using ensemble stories centuries before film, it only makes sense that some of the most successful tandem narratives are plays. Andrew Bovell is a celebrated Australian writer who created the groundbreaking, When The Rain Stops Falling (2009). Set on an overcast day, a fish falls out of the sky and lands at the feet of Gabriel York, kick-starting seven interwoven storylines across two continents about fish soup.
This script was a great example of rhythm, order and unity. Bovell’s scenes are different lengths, set in various locations and time zones; yet, are united by colliding plot point. Bovell’s disorder of the Tomashevsky’s syuzhet is a very effective method to challenge the audience to recreate the fabula (a comprehensive macrostory) in their own mind.
For my research question, it was useful to compare the scripts of Thomas and Bovell. Thomas speaks a poetic form in his dialogue, but Bovell manages to speak a poetic form in his the syuzhet. The latter is what catches my ears as a filmmaker.
Bloom, H. (1973). The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press.
This text was written by Harold Bloom, an American literary critic, practising poet and one of the highest ranked academics at Yale University. He is a master of tempo, emphasis and repetition. But even as a master poet, Bloom writes about his insecurities. The primary argument presented in the text explores the poet's struggle to create their own vision without being overcome by the influence of the previous poets - especially those who inspired one to write in the first place. The reception of this book into Yale and broader studies of romantic poetry were revolutionary in 1973. Bloom concludes the text with an interesting thought about the death of poetry. He quotes, “When it dies, it will be self-slain, murdered by its own past strength” (Bloom, 1973, p. 10).
So, almost 30 years on, does Bloom think poetry is dead? Does he think poetry has a role in cinematic narratives? Bloom argues that poetry has been given new life via film. He writes, “Listening to speech (including such things as cadence, rhythm and intonation) is more spontaneously comprehensible and linked to emotional brain centres —hence more evocative and natural” (Colapinto, 2012). Bloom’s observations helped me understand the power of the spoken word.
Bovell, A. (2017). Putting Words Into Their Mouths: The playwright and screenwriter at work. Sydney: Currency House.
The final text is a quarterly essay written by Andrew Bovell. In this text, Bovell examines his diverse body of work as a screenwriter and playwright - from the film Lantana (2001) to play Things I Know To Be True (2017). In reflection, the text was short and shallow. Unfortunately, this limitation meant it did not have the depth or breadth I was seeking. However, it did offer many exciting ideas. For example, Bovell credits his superb rhythm and timing to his creative workshopping process. Bovell iterates that every rough draft of the script is workshopped and improvised with actors to ensure each scene reaches its fullest potential. This technique has allowed Bovell to master the syuzhet and hear his scripts as a whole, not just as individual scenes; giving him an edge over other screenwriters. Although unusual, this process seems logical when reflecting on Bloom’s theory of emotional resonance when listening to prose out loud.
Bovell’s essay was perfect to capstone my research. He is one of my greatest screenwriting inspirations, and I am thankful to have absorbed a range of texts in order to comprehend the effectiveness of his process. In summary, this text has expanded my knowledge and opened up new doors to continue my exploration of rhythm, order and unity in tandem narrative films.
In this essay, I argued that tandem narratives provide unique control over the fabula and syuzhet, ultimately giving audiences a greater understanding of the storyworld. To demonstrate this hypothesis, I explored the scriptwriting tools of symbolism, characterisation and scene transitions in the writing of my Australian feature film script Heaven Hotline.