Cinematic Discourse Notes 3:
The Nature & Limits of Narrative in Cinema

A) The human element

The human element in narrative is important (this is briefly discussed in NT, 1.11). As we can see in a great number of cinematic narratives, animals, especially if they play an important role in the narrative, are usually endowed with human qualities. This is especially the case in animation, where films of animals playing dominant roles, and in which they behave like human beings, are very common.

B) Causality

Another important element in narrative is causality (NT, 1.12, 5.5). As mentioned in NT (1.12), one suspects that what is important here is not causality per se, but the perception of causality. Very often, when viewing a film, we establish linkages based on the perception of causality, rather than actual evidence of a causal connection. Causality may be affected by the default assumptions of the appropriate schema activated during the response to the cinematic narrative. The fact that we may be influenced by the perception of causality rather than causality itself, may have a part to play in enhancing the viewing pleasure of a film: eg. false expectations, the creation of suspense, the assumption that someone else is culpable, etc.  In fact, many films work on the basis of incorrect or even false schema-initiated causal connections, and quite often, these increase rather than detract from the entertainment value of these films.

C) Difference with other narratives and the role of language

The visual element is very important in the analysis of cinematic discourse. This is one of the elements that make cinematic narratives different from linguistically encoded written narratives, such as novels or short stories. Linguistics, of course, can be used for the analysis of some aspects of linguistically-encoded narratives. As cinematic discourse is partially encoded in language, linguistics can of course be used for that part of cinematic discourse. However, it is difficult to apply linguistics to the visual element of film as well, even if it has been attempted by some scholars.

D) Early cinema, narrative and language

The association of film with narrative was there right at the time that film itself as a medium was introduced. But many of the narratives in early film were minimalist, and not fully-formed as narrative. However, it was only a matter of time before narrative was further developed in cinema.

As you know, early film was silent. It was only in the late 1920s that sound films were introduced. Thus spoken language in cinema began together with the introduction of sound. Although the inter-titles of silent movies do also indicate conversations between characters in a silent movie, they are not intended to be faithful transcripts of the conversations occurring in a film, and in some respects at least, are more inclined towards written language.

E) Narrative & non-narrative discourse and the documentary

Not all cinematic texts are narrative. Although many feature documentary films make use of narrative, and narrative plays an important part in some of them, this is not the case for all documentaries. Some documentaries are not narrative or are not wholly narrative. However, even if a film is not narrative, its cinematic discourse can still be analysed. Thus, the analysis of cinematic discourse is more inclusive than the analysis of cinematic narrative

F) Beginnings and ends of narrative and discourse

There are at least four issues in the discussion of the beginnings and ends of narrative and discourse in cinema:

  1. The importance of beginnings and ends to the study of cinematic discourse.
  2. The delineation of the cinematic text: its boundaries, as indicated by the beginning and end of the text
  3. The fact that beginnings and ends are not confined to discussions or analyses of narrative, but are also significant in discussions of discourse and the cinematic text
  4. The coincidence or lack of coincidence

The disjunction or conjunction between the discourse, text and narrative beginnings may be of significance in the analysis of cinema, as these different conceptions of the beginning delimit the possibilities of the film. One question that should be asked here is whether the title credits of a film form part of the beginning of the discourse, text or narrative of the film.

A related question has to do, of course, with the end. How important is the end to cinematic discourse? What happens if the discourse, text or narrative end coincides or does not coincide with each other? When someone says that the end of a film is not the end, for example, what is meant here? One of the ways to explain the statement that the end of the film is not the end, is to note that the end of the narrative or text is not the end of the discourse.

Related to the end – whether it be the end of the discourse, text or narrative is the idea of closure. Clearly, closure is not identical to the end. If, for example, the hero does not achieve his goal at the end of the cinematic discourse, is there closure? Is closure necessary to a film's discourse? Closure is a satisfying or comfortable wrapping up of the cinematic discourse. But films do not always finish this way. Some films finish off with some of its loose ends still hanging in the air. It can even be argued that closure is ideologically charged, as it leads to a situation that is quite often conservative and non-threatening.

Finally, we should ask whether the end matters in cinema. The obvious answer is that it does. But as can be seen in the brief discussion here, the end (or, for that matter, the beginning), is not as straightforward as seems to be the case, at least initially, and some thought needs to be put on what it means and how it affects cinematic discourse and our understanding of cinema in general.


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© 2010. Ismail S Talib. Last revised: 06 July 2011.