One of the things that drew me to film studies was its tendency to reveal the complexities behind what seems to be self-explanatory. A large portion of our experience of film has become pretty well automatized. A great deal of the films we see follow the same narrative strategies, and unless we happen to come across something that proves especially memorable, each film, as Kristin Thompson argues, tends to get lumped into that “undifferentiated mass that we have come to think of as classical cinema.”
These films are “so numerous and so familiar, we tend to assume that they are simple in their formal strategies,” that we all understand how they’re put together. An average film seems too obvious to need consideration. We’ve all seen dozens of these types of films; we all get it. But average doesn’t necessarily mean simple, and even the most ordinary seeming film has its “own type of complexity.” In the case of an ordinary popular film this complexity arises partially from the very attempt to seem obvious, to offer us narratives that seem logical and unified.
Hollywood has developed a number of strategies to achieve the effect of what we often praise as a tightly woven plot, but because they have become automatized, most of the time these strategies go unnoticed and we’re left solely with the impression of a unified narrative. Despite the seeming simplicity that results from the familiarity of these strategies, however, the attempt to give us that impression doesn’t come without complications.
One of the ways Classical films ensure their narratives cohere is to carefully establish conditions or information that will prove important later on. David Bordwell cites Chekov’s famous declaration that “in a play the gun on the wall in Act I should go off in Act III,” but this techniques goes beyond making sure all the props necessary for the action to come are available early on. We may be told something about a character that helps motivate their actions later on, for example. Or maybe the villain reveals something about himself that helps the hero take him down. We likely need to know these types of things to follow the story, but controlling when and how information of this kind is delivered can help give the sense of a tightly woven story. Doing so, however, presents an interesting problem.
I have a pet theory which I call The Incongruity Thesis, which is essentially an overly pompous way of saying that if something seems out of place in a conventionally plotted film then it probably isn’t actually out of place at all, and that if that seemingly incongruous element isn’t integrated into the narrative skilfully it’s tantamount to having a giant neon yellow flashing arrow suddenly appear on screen with the words “this will be important for later” printed on it. This arrow in turn gets your audience thinking about how that element will be important for later, which not only turns attention away from the narrative and on to narration, away from the story and on to how the story is being told, but will likely result in a correct guess about the outcome of the plot at least 5 times out of 10.
Of course this puts filmmakers in a terrible bind, since they have to make us aware of and help us remember important narrative information, so that we understand the plot, and so that the narrative forms a coherent whole, and they have to do so without making us aware that the information is important, or else risk the terrible consequences of The Incongruity Thesis.
The inverse of The Incongruity Thesis is The Innocuity Paradigm, the ability to integrate something important into the unfolding narrative in such a way that it seems completely innocuous, or seems to serve an entirely innocuous purpose that completely explains its presence, so that when its true importance is revealed the audience is completely taken aback. Where The Incongruity Thesis makes a film look sloppy, the Innocuity Paradigm makes it look tremendously clever.
We usually think of this type of narrative structuring as the province of mysteries, which are generally concerned with giving the audience enough information so that the solution to the film’s central puzzle seems logical when it’s revealed, but not so much that the solution is obvious before the end of story. As Bordwell argues, the “fundamental narrational characteristic of the detective tale” is that certain events or information are withheld from the spectator. We gradually pick up information as the investigation into the central crime proceeds, but our knowledge is limited so that the solution doesn’t present itself before the end of the narrative.
Typically this is achieved by making us share in the experience of the investigator, “we learn what the detective learns, when she or he learns it,” so that our knowledge seems to accumulate logically with the advancement of the investigation. This allows mysteries to maintain a delicate balance between telling us enough so that, in the interest of “fair play,” we could conceivably discover the solution if we had the detective’s ability to make the right insights. Because we don’t have the detective’s skill, however, we usually don’t come to his or her solution before he or she announces it at the end of the film. But if that balance has been well struck the revelatory effect of the end of a mystery is enhanced by the realization that everything was carefully put in place to lead to that solution.
The attempt to illicit an “Oh, wow that totally makes sense” is largely governed by structuring techniques like planting information and dangling causes. In other words, it’s largely an issue of unity and the thrill of discovering how a narrative falls together.
We know this is how mysteries work so it’s often one of the main pleasures we’re looking for (whether knowingly or not) when we see one. And it’s often narrative structure that we wind up discussing after we see a mystery to try and figure out exactly how the filmmakers managed to tell us everything we needed to know without spoiling the mystery.
Mysteries are often used to illustrate principles of narrative unity in film studies because their use of particular narrational tactics is what differentiates the genre, because, as Bordwell argues, “such fictions depend almost completely on storytelling subterfuge” to trigger those pleasures. Mysteries are especially prone to The Incongruity Thesis because they have to convincingly trick an audience who, through familiarity with the genre, is looking for the significance in everything the narration reveals, who is trying to figure out how things cohere. The central problem of a mystery isn’t solving the crime, but how to tell the story of the crime in the right way. Mysteries, in other words, are largely about narration, and are therefore obvious targets for studying it.
But other genres inflect the problems inherent in The Incongruity Thesis in equally specific ways. Mysteries are not the only films that have to deal with the difficulties that arise from a specialized audience. Children’s films make the difficulty of revealing information without signposting it as being important especially difficult due to the assumption (rightly or wrongly) that children need to be helped along to understand a film’s story more than their accompanying adults do, but if the narration is made too obvious you risk creating a film full of flashing yellow arrows for those adults. Many family films strive for a culminating sense of unity, but the difficulty becomes how to lay the groundwork for a unified narrative in a way that is both obvious and yet not overly so.
When a film is especially good at creating this effect I nod my head approvingly and declare “tight as a drum,” and then go into protracted explanations about narrative unity if my designated movie companion makes the mistake of indulging me. I have a blog for that now.
The perceived need to tell an easily comprehended story means that children’s films often rely heavily on Classical techniques for creating unity, but because these films are directed at children those techniques tend to be rendered innocuous in particular ways. The job of revealing important information early in the narrative, for example, is often given to scenes which seem primarily concerned with play, with having fun with the premise of the film.
Cloudy with the Chance of Meatballs is chock full of unifying devices and motifs that all pivot around the film’s central theme and therefore seem entirely natural. And they’re all established within the first 10 minutes. [Spoilers ahead]
The film focuses on young Flint Lockwood, who has always dreamed of being a successful inventor, but because he thinks so differently from everyone around him, not only does he not fit in very well at school or at home, his inventions tend to be a little too out there to be of any real use. The film opens with a voiceover from Flint describing what it feels like to both have something different to offer the world and to be overlooked. The following scene shows us a young Flint experiencing that simultaneous originality and rejection as he presents his latest invention, “Spray on Shoes,” to his class during show and tell, only to be relentlessly teased when they prove impossible to take off.
After a short montage of increasingly ridiculous failed attempts to remove the shoes, Flint is encouraged to keep inventing by his mother, who reminds him of the value of originality, a goal that will drive him throughout the narrative. Another montage then shows Flint growing up through a series of increasingly absurd and imaginative inventions. Each seems both inherently useless and fundamentally flawed, to the point that they each comically turn on Flint and those around him: Flint’s version of remote control television is a set with robotic legs so it can come to you, but the TV promptly crashes through the front door and escapes; a baldness cure instantaneously covers his father’s entire head and face in brown fur; Flint’s flying car fails to even make it off the ground; a monkey thought translator reveals only that Flint’s pet is hungry; hybridised “Ratbirds” escape and wreak havoc on the town.
Flint’s failures make him a bit of town joke and create tension with his father, who wants him to quit inventing and has trouble communicating with his son in anything but fishing metaphors which Flint doesn’t understand. But when Flint successfully creates a machine that can turn water into food he becomes the most popular man in a community previously relegated to eating nothing but sardines. Launched into the atmosphere, the machine generates food weather, raining delicious meals down on the town. Like the early scenes that explored the comedic potential of Flint’s failures, the middle portion of the film is largely taken up with having fun with his success, as the town is peppered with pepperoni pizza slices and blanketed in a blizzard of ice cream.
Finally accepted by the town, Flint is riding high, but his machine soon starts to go the way of all his other inventions – the wrong way – and begins dropping monstrously overgrown food. Soon a giant food storm threatens to destroy the town, and Flint is faced with having to destroy the machine that finally gave him everything he wanted, success and acceptance from everyone save, of course, his father. To destroy the machine means to destroy the original contribution his mother promised he would make to the world.
But the climactic sequence in which Flint tries to save the town from the food Apocalypse he created winds up depending on the very inventions that seemed like utter failures at the beginning of the narrative: a newly redesigned flying car gets Flint and his friends to the machine floating above the town; when Flint can’t turn off the machine using an electronic kill code it is his Spray on Shoes that save the day, clogging the machine until it overloads and explodes; Flint is only saved from death after the machine is destroyed by a flock of Ratbirds who return him safely to the town. Back on the ground, it is the monkey thought translator that finally reconciles Flint with his father, since the device also proves capable of translating his fishing metaphors into the expressions of love and acceptance they were meant to convey.
What initially seemed relatively unimportant, motivated by an attempt to create laughs or play with the basic theme of originality and difference, turns out to be crucial to the culmination of the narrative. The effects aren’t all that different from those created by the finales of mysteries, which often hinge on revealing the hidden importance of something that seemed innocuous. In films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs the effects caused by carefully manipulating narrative unity tend to go unnoticed or to be relegated to the need to make the story easy for children to understand. But the need to play to a younger audience doesn’t mean that these films don’t make clever use of narrative conventions, or that they can’t be just as tight.
David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985).
—. “Anatomy of the Action Picture,” David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema, January 2007, http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/anatomy.php.
—. “Gone Grrrl,” Observations on Film Art, October 21, 2014, http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/10/21/gone-grrrl/
Kristin Thompson, Breaking the Glass Armor: Neoformalist Film Analysis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).