Deconstructing cinema one frame at a time

Stylish Excess in Cinematic Narration

David Fincher’s film, The Social Network (2010), can be usefully analyzed in relation to classical narration for a number of reasons.  In his book, Narration in the Fiction Film, David Bordwell adapts the Formalist approaches to narrative theory and proposes that films are seen through a process of organizing two events: the story that is narrated and its actual representation. [1] This cognitive process is described below:

“The fabula is thus a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, applying schema, framing and testing hypotheses…The syuzhet (usually translated as ‘plot’) is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It is not in the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of a story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the film could render it…Narration is the process whereby the film’s syuzhet and style interact in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator’s construction of the fabula.” [2]

Bordwell describes the viewer as an active mobiliser who constructs a hypothesis and then matches elements of a film (narrative events and style) to this hypothesis in order to create a film’s meaning.  In addition, the viewer draws on “everything from recognizing objects to comprehending the film’s overall story utilizing previous knowledge from other films.”[3] First, Bordwell assumes through a familiarity with classical narration (Hollywood cinema), stylistic patterns will enable the viewer to distinguish a causal shift by identifying spatiotemporal cues to complete a narrative’s textual meaning.  Identifying and recognizing stylistic elements in a narrative is what the viewer is trained to do.  Viewers can identify cowboys, gun shootouts, the O.K. Corral, etc., and assert it is a western, but they cannot as Bordwell suggests identify spatiotemporal cues.  And second, in addition to the three formal systems of narration—fabula, syuzhet, and style—Bordwell mentions another element or ‘fellow traveler’ of the story, excess, materials outside of a film’s form “which do not fit either narrative or stylistic patterns.”[4] Bordwell claims these unjustified elements call undue attention to the viewer, distracting them away from a film’s narrative. However, in analyzing a film like The Social Network, which intrinsically stacks layers upon layers of information: more facts, more details, more montage; to dismiss excessive materials as arbitrary devices is to miss the very aspect why these elements are significant to cinematic narration.

David Bordwell’s writing partner, Kristin Thompson, deploys a strong argument towards an analysis of film narration in her essay, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess” that examines what have been understood as the arbitrary elements in a narrative, sometimes referred to under the term ‘excess.’   Thompson analyzes excess in the context of form and material, insofar that she claims fictional “narratives are not logical in themselves; they only make use of logic;”[5] in that nothing can logically determine a narrative’s temporality or how long it will continue, and through delays in causality the narrative itself becomes arbitrary.  Thus, once the narrative structure is arbitrarily broken, the materiality of the film is logically exposed, the viewer’s perception is affected and they are free to question the film’s structure.  For Thompson, this free play allows the viewer to recognize a film’s form and its cinematic elements through the concept of ‘excess.’  Thompson adopts Roland Barthes idea from his essay, “The Third Meaning” in that the ‘materiality of an image goes beyond the narrative structure,’[6] and attaches Stephen Heath’s term “excess” to formulate her own definition in order to argue that when style becomes ‘foregrounded,’[7] and when artistic motivation fails, excess emerges.  Thompson’s choice to include style in her concept of excess raises some questions about the relationship between style and excess.  At one point, Thompson claims, “excess does not equal style, but the two are closely linked because they both involve the material aspects of the film.”[8] In fact, Thompson’s entire essay focuses on how stylistic patterns produce excess stating, “[style] techniques are foregrounded so the spectator will notice them…and a spectator’s attention to style might well lead to a noticing of excess as well.”[9] If Thompson and Bordwell agree that style is linked to the material aspects of a film and works to contain a film’s unity, and excess emerges from style, then style could also seek to distract our attention from excess.  In other words, if style can minimize excess to the point it is unnoticeable, could this excess contribute to a film’s narrative?  Bordwell would disagree, asserting that “perception of a film that includes its excess implies an awareness of the structures at work in the film.”[10] Thus, the viewer would be detached from the narrative and would be aware they are in fact watching a film.  Thompson’s essay focuses on excessive elements that are visible and emerge from style after a film’s narrative becomes arbitrary, however, she does not mention if excessive elements that are less noticeable act similarly.

Strong realistic or compositional motivation will tend to make excessive elements less noticeable. To a large extent, the spectator’s ability to notice excess is dependent upon his/her training in viewing films…We may notice a device immediately and be inclined to study it.  On the other hand, the device may be more obscure and require a longer process of interpretation to make sense.[11]

A filmmaker like David Fincher, whose hyper stylized movies contain fast rhythmic editing and strong compositional framing may support Thompson’s claim.  Because these excessive elements are less noticeable through a specific style, and they do not draw attention to the viewer, this latent excess can act as a part of the narrative and its unifying structure. For this reason, I have forged the term stylish excess.

The current study attempts to incorporate this critical concept.  Paying close attention to the construction and editing of specific images, I shall follow Thompson’s essay in proposing how excess through style merits critical analysis in narration.  With these characteristics of stylish excess in mind I will draw examples from The Social Network to challenge a few of Bordwell’s principles. And finally, I will suggest an alternative that may present how a critic can approach these aspects in further analyses.

The Latin phrase “omne trium perfectum” –everything that comes in threes is perfect—is an idea long adopted in literary narration as a device to create an important pattern of objects, phrases, words, persons, etc. to inform the reader of its importance. In film the Rule of 3s is used to exercise viewer identification; the first time an object, phrase, etc. is introduced is for the expert viewer, second time for the average, and the third time, for the neophyte in the back row.  In her essay, Thompson alludes to something similar to the Rule of 3s, categorizing three types of spectators:  the realist who approaches films with a sense of verisimilitude and who takes films to be ‘simple copies,’ the artist who dissects every shot in minute detail as conveying meaning, and the ‘empty formalist’ who favors free play of the aesthetic elements.[12]  I am only assuming when Bordwell says, “Whether we call it mainstream, dominant, or classical cinema, we intuitively recognize an ordinary, easily comprehensible movie when we see it,”[13] he is referring to the average moviegoer; Thompson’s ‘realist’ spectator.  When it comes to stylish excess, I am merely pointing out that classical narration tends to simplify narrative events for the viewer to understand, and not every viewer can perceptually distinguish excess from latent excess.  I believe to recognize excessive elements in a film like The Social Network, requires some level of training in viewing films to that of a skilled critic and experienced practitioner.  And as Thompson points out, “Repeated viewings of a film are likely to increase the excessive potentials of a scene’s components,”[14] and in multiple viewings of The Social Network, this latent excess becomes clear.

In this scene, I will explore the materiality of a window to demonstrate how stylish excess can impede a viewer’s cognitive process for identifying visible excess.  Mark Zuckerberg has just finished creating Facemash, a website that compares students to other students based on their attractiveness, but for the website to work properly Mark needs his roommate, Eduardo, to write an algorithm that will rank the girls by their hotness.  Here, David Fincher utilizes the repetition of a window beyond the Rule of 3s in flagrant fashion.  The window appears eight times in less than one minute, enough time for an average viewer to recognize it as an excessive element.  Utilizing spatial depth and the room’s converging architecture, Fincher places the characters and action in the middle, so that the viewer’s eyes converge on the central-most part of the frame.  This technique simplifies the viewer’s ability to adapt from shot to shot so they can interpret the juxtaposed images.  The window acts as a vehicle for the viewer to directly and transparently identify the real and immediacy of the event.

Fincher chooses to rack focus from Eduardo to Mark for two reasons:  first he is cueing the viewer of the window’s importance, and second, by staying outside the window he forces the viewer to experience what Mark and company have experienced their entire lives; social and cultural inequality. The transparency of windows from the perspective of a viewer, both inside and outside, is analogous to the distinct characteristics of a glass door Bernhard Siegert describes in his essay, “Doors: On the Materiality of the Symbolic.”  Siegert discusses these properties as, “Doors are operators of symbolic, epistemic, and social processes that, with help from the difference between inside and outside, generate spheres of law, secrecy, and privacy and thereby articulate space in such a way that it becomes a carrier of cultural codes.”[15] The image of the window presents a metonymic representation of the world as we know it; the characters, algorithm, and the window all partake in a physical rendering of reality.  Under the Constructivist theory of cognition, the viewer should be able to construct the window’s symbolism “to the extent that a film image can create equivalent cues for real-world stimuli, so that the sensory system infers a state of affairs automatically.”[16] Fincher does exactly this; his choice of framing and analytical editing provides the viewer with direct visual access to the window; it is there in the foreground, blatant and inconspicuous.  But ironically, the window becomes a visual metaphor like the glass door Siegert described earlier, only the social barriers never really come down, they become less transparent to the characters but not for the viewer; allowing those who are out to get a look in without ever actually making it in.

This is further illustrated through a montage in which the images are sequenced in an inside-outside-inside-outside pattern.

But as Thompson points out, “excessive elements do not form relationships, beyond those of coexistence.”[17] Fincher would disagree.  With the repetition of the window, there is clearly “excess,” something material on screen that is a part of both the narrative, and the viewer’s experience, and in fact mediates successfully between the two.

In a domain where social status is everything, the montage sequence analyzed here clearly delineates a situation of economic inequality. Individuals who are plugged into the elitist Final Club are treated differently than those who are not.  While it is Mark Zuckerberg’s ideological attempt to amalgamate the classes, it is Fincher’s style and rhythmic editing that facilitates this meaning.

At one point, David Fincher discretely pauses the montage and inserts four shots of students reacting to Facemash in real time, and in these shots, the window no longer exists.  Through visual exposition and his stylized editing, Fincher unobtrusively merges the social classes by assimilating three disparate groups—the entitled, the ordinary student, and the viewer.  However, the pace and rhythm of the scene is too fast for the viewer to grasp that the window is no longer present, and that they themselves are now part of the narrative.

Fincher changes the temporality in and between sequences so the viewer can play catch up. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Aaron Sorkin, the film’s screenwriter confirms this, “The worst crime you can commit with an audience is telling them something they already know. We were always running ahead.”[18] Fincher’s stylish excess of fast paced editing arranges the window intermittently throughout the montage which forces the viewer to simultaneously decipher the film’s material against the film’s narrative.  Thus, the visible excess seems rather minimal.

Adhering to the Constructivist Theory, Bordwell suggests “perception is an inferential process which reworks stimuli involving both bottom-up and top-down perceptual processes.”[19]  If Hollywood relies on viewers to actively construct a story based on prior knowledge, then by nature, Hollywood cinema is a practice of consumption whereby the viewer need not to be active, but passive. Thus, seeing is not an active absorption of stimuli.  How can you combine complex formal patterns of narration like those seen in The Social Network, and expect the viewer to access specific stimuli based on previous experiences and arrange the events coherently?  The answer is stylish excess.  Stylish excess can deceptively make visible excess in narratives like The Social Network less noticeable and despite an a priori of classical narration, a viewer’s perceptual process of understanding a film’s narrative goes well beyond learned conventions of representation.

In the following example, I will be analyzing frame composition to designate both subject matter and film style—and their interrelationship during the profilmic event. I am merely drawing attention to the design and filmic elements in the frame to distinguish and highlight how stylish excess transforms subject matter that can be noticeable or unnoticeable.

Bordwell argues that  “using conventional schemata to produce and test hypotheses about a string of shots, the viewer often knows each shot’s salient spatial information before it happens.”[20] That is, the viewer can extrapolate what actions and views are likely to follow current ones in a shot sequence (i.e. shot-reverse shot, match cut).  Likewise, in his 1985 essay “The Power of Movies,” Noël Carroll suggests that popular cinema and its global consumption made it easier for audiences to engage with a narrative.  Because many of the film images typically convey a sense of realism that, according to Carroll, “keys to our perceptual systems; even children swiftly learn to recognize pictures.”[21] Simply, Hollywood movies are narratives designed for easy understanding.  Of course, there is a fine line between understanding and comprehension, which I will address later.  I agree with both Carroll and Bordwell that Hollywood has in a sense trained the viewer’s cognitive ability to anticipate images and scenes. However, I would point out that filmmakers are like intuitive psychologists, and a filmmaker like David Fincher designs his shots detailing specifics, but through stylish excess he can send false cues to the viewer who may or may not notice the excessive elements. To illustrate this, I will analyze two distinct styles from two separate filmmakers.

Take for example this scene from Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2012), who stylistically imbues excess through unconventional framing and eyeline.  Eyeline matching is a fundamental technique of continuity editing that defines spatial relationships wherein an on-screen character looks in a specific direction before the film cuts or pans to what is being looked at. Match on action, shot-reverse shots, editing, etc., are all narrative cues Bordwell associates with a film’s style. In the following shot (Fig. 13), Bertie is framed left looking to his right; in film production, or as part of the pre-production planning and storyboarding, we call this shot, short-side framing.

Bertie framed left

Figure 13

 

Bordwell would propose that the viewer comes to the image already “tuned,” prepared to test spatial, temporal, and logical schemata against what the shot presents, and thus would cue on  Bertie’s eyeline.  However, when we cut to Lionel Logue, Bertie’s speech therapist, he appears frame right, the complete opposite direction to where classical narration would typically have us expect him to be.

Lionel framed right

Figure 14

Again, Hooper has stylistically short-sided his subject; Lionel is framed right, looking left (Fig. 14). In a conventional shot-reverse shot, Bertie would be looking frame right and Lionel would be looking frame left to create depth and a sense of space, so when the cut occurs, the relationship between the characters remains intact. When this simple technique is handled poorly, the style can disorient the viewer’s activity, ultimately causing a suspension in their participation in or comprehension of the narration. With Bertie previously short-sided on the left, and Lionel short-sided on the right, the eyelines draw too much attention to the spatial arrangement. The following sequence of images further illustrates this.

At this point, the cuts between shots are randomized, the eyelines are disjointed, the sudden emergence of a Wright Brothers airplane frame left behind Bertie somehow signifies the antiquated shot design belongs in a museum, and it is hard to concretize who is where in the space in such a way that we are often left wondering if Bertie and Lionel are in the same room, much less the same building.  In this scene, the viewer must actively and self-consciously assert where the subject will be.  By short siding a character the rest of the image composes an empty frame in which the negative space impedes the viewer’s ability to suture the sequence. With each new shot, each framed slightly differently, the viewer now has the responsibility to traverse through dead space to anticipate the cuts. That is, the viewer is consciously choosing where to focus his or her attention; on new subjects or the negative space in the frame.  In this scene, The King’s Speech, becomes a form of Brechtian theater; it draws attention to the very fact that it is a film, that it is a structure of cause and effect that the viewers either give into willingly, or strive to attentively recognize its formative structure.   For Thompson, this is precisely what viewers should look for and succumb to, “The Hollywood norm has accustomed us to clear, seamless space.  If the spectator consciously notices the [cuts], he/she may indeed be drawn aside from smoother structures to notice more and more instances of this spatial instability.”[22]  In this case, the viewers should be inclined to study and contemplate the compositional meaning.  In addition, Thompson reminds us, “The minute a viewer begins to notice style for its own sake, excess comes forward and must affect narrative meaning.”[23]  Beyond Hooper’s frequent use of unorthodox framing and spatial arrangement, Thompson’s statement convinces; there is an affective meaning, but not as she would suggest.  And for Bordwell, he may agree the framing and eyeline are mild cases of excess, but he would argue that once the viewer is distracted from the film’s narrative, “he/she would choose not to construct a story and instead would savor random colors or gestures.”[25] However, if excess is part of a film’s form and invites the viewer to call into question a device’s function beyond its perceptual play, is it possible that a film’s narrative is sometimes designed to seem arbitrary, so in this free play the viewer identifies the meaning of the device and attributes it back to the narrative? In the images by Hooper, the viewer is actively engaged to the materiality of the film, albeit anticipating cuts, traversing through space, and disorientation; anything but the context of the narrative, however, the frustration felt by Bertie as he strives to overcome his speech impediment is felt and seen by the viewer through his framing.

In contrast, here is an example of how David Fincher uses short-side framing as a motivational tool without drawing attention to the materiality of the film’s form.  In this scene, Mark is alone at the office, while the rest of his team is out celebrating Facebook’s millionth member milestone.  Mark (Fig. 19) receives a phone call from Sean Parker, his business partner, who has just been arrested for possession of cocaine.

Mark establishing shot

Figure 19

Unlike Hooper, Fincher establishes his compositional frame in precise detail utilizing depth of space and other filmic elements to create a realistic environment.  He crowds the scene with information, making excess less noticeable for the viewer.  When we cut, Fincher reestablishes his composition by matching spatial depth to keep Sean (below) isolated in the foreground. In film, when a character moves in a left to right direction in the frame, the movement suggests progression.  However, in this shot, Sean moves from right to left in the frame which indicates not only a sense of regression or going backwards, but also figuratively, a slide back through time.

Again, Fincher emphasizes a window to repeat a visual metaphor as another social barrier, this time it generates a sphere of law, separating good from bad.  It is as if Fincher is also telling the viewer, “If you haven’t noticed the repetition of the window by now, then you haven’t noticed it all.”

Fincher quietly cuts from a medium shot of Mark (Fig.19 to medium close-up, below Fig. 22) without jarring the sequence or the viewer’s cognition.

Mark framed right

Figure 22

Fincher recognizes the key to suspense is to contain the action in a static shot and not spread it over various cuts that would affect the temporality.  Fincher’s style of analytical editing operates in a manner “similar to opera glasses at a play. The viewer is provided a full view and then a bit of action is extracted for closer examination.” [26] Fincher follows Andre Bazin’s notion in this composition by doing two things:  the close-up on Mark’s face emphasizes power and his dominance over Sean in the scene, and two, he discretely rearranges the characters in the frame through movement which also reorients time. Sean has moved to frame left (below) and Mark to frame right (above Fig. 22); a progression through space. In addition, the spatial separation between the two characters generates a tactile tension. Through the dialogue we hear Sean’s nervousness and in Mark, an icy cold regret.  Sean then crosses from frame left to frame right (below); back to the present, so to speak.  Instead of the materiality of a window, the phone unifies the scene; it motivates the characters to move freely within the frame.

When we cut back to Mark, he has returned to the same position at the beginning of the scene—isolated.  With Sean (above) and Mark (below) back to their original positions frame right and frame left respectively, Fincher has reestablished time and space in a filmic continuum. This subtle movement creates emotion, which can clearly be seen on Mark’s face.  Even the ‘causal lines’ Thompson eludes to in Barthes’ ‘third’ meaning can be seen through the perpendicular light fixtures that converge on Mark.  His increasing awareness of the wide-ranging ramifications of destroying Eduardo in a prior scene has him suddenly contemplating whether or not he has ended up on the losing side in this battle between frenemies.

When Bordwell claims that in classical narration, a la Hollywood film, a viewer brings a perceptual awareness that will mobilize his/her cognitive processes for identifying spatiotemporal cues, I think he places too much trust in the viewer’s perception.  Fincher establishes affect using movement and stylish excess between his characters without drawing attention to the space or details, that is, the intricacies of compositional framing do not present the viewer with an illusion of choice. I would argue that the average moviegoer would not notice the visible excess, nor could he/she identify the spatiotemporal cues as outlined by Bordwell’s concept of cognitive theory.

Bordwell’s failure to acknowledge excess as a narrative system is rather odd; he adheres to Russian Formalists, who for the most part, have implied through montage and ‘staircase construction’ (effects of delaying devices of a narrative), that excessive elements invite the viewer to linger over the materiality of form which provides the occasion for perceptual play in the spectator’s consciousness.  Ideally, a film should shape all types of viewers’ experiences, and in theory, all should come to similar analyses of a film’s content.  However, a director like David Fincher, has the elements and tools necessary to craft stories not by “what,” but “how” events are presented, which dictates how films are understood, but not how they are comprehended.  Unless you press pause, and look at these elements in retrospect, it is hard to conceptualize these events at any level of comprehension.

Our awareness of stylish excess can challenge the expert viewer to look further into a film.  In her book, Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey talks about how a spectator’s ability to perceptually identify a narrative’s meaning depends on training.  She refers to a ‘pensive spectator’[27] who stops a film and reflects on the cinematic image through a renegotiation of textual meaning between time and space. Both Mulvey and Thompson agree that out of a cinematic delay or through excess and style, the structures of a narrative can generate new modes of spectatorship.  Each film is inherently dictated by a filmmaker’s style and it is the critic’s task to ask not what happened, not what is happening, but what did I miss?  Such an approach to viewing films can teach us how stylish excess can improve our attention to detail, and that nothing that ends up on the screen is accidental or arbitrary; every frame is dissected and decided upon. In my opinion, it is through this type of analysis that allows us to see the filmmaker’s intent and how it shapes our perception of a narrative.

 

Bibliography

Bazin, André, and Bert Cardullo. Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties. Routledge, 2014.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Routledge, 2013.

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells it: Story and Style in Modern Movies. Univ of California Press, 2006.

Carroll, Noël. Theorizing the Moving Image. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Grosz, Christy. The Hollywood Reporter. Inside Aaron Sorkin’s Writing Process, 2010

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Reaktion Books, 2006.

Siegert, Bernhard, and Translated by John Durham Peters. “Doors: on the Materiality of the Symbolic.” Grey Room 47 (2012): 6-23.

Sorkin, Aaron. The Social Network. 2010

Thompson, Kristin. “The Concept of Cinematic Excess.” This article was published as chapter 9 from “Eisenstein’s “Ivan the Terrible”:  A Neoformalist Analysis (1986).

 

Footnotes

[1] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Routledge, 2013), 49.

[2] Bordwell, Narration, 50-53.

[3] Ibid., 33.

[4] Ibid., 53.

[5] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” 140.

[6] Thompson, “Concept,” 131.

[7] Ibid., 132.

[8] Ibid., 132.

[9] Ibid., 132

[10] Bordwell, Narration, 53.

[11] Thompson, “Concept,” 134.

[12] Thompson, “Concept,” 134.

[13] Bordwell, Narration, 156.

[14] Thompson, “Concept,” 135.

[15] Bernard Siegert, Doors: On the Materiality of the Symbolic, 9.

[16] Bordwell, Narration, 100.

[17] Thompson, “Concept,” 132.

[18] Christy Grosz, The Hollywood Reporter 2011

[19] Bordwell, Narration, 33.

[20] Ibid., 112.

[21] Noël Carroll. Theorizing the Moving Image. Cambridge University Press, 64.

[22] Thompson, “Concept,” 139.

[23] Ibid., 132.

[24] Tom Hooper, The King’s Speech (2011), DVD director’s commentary.

[25] Bordwell, Narration, 53.

[26] Andre Bazin, Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews From the Forties and Fifties. University of California Press, 18. 1967

[27] Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image. Reaktion Books, 2006, 133.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: