panel 5a | 11.11.2011 | 15:30-17:00 | room 1 | english

MIKLÓS KISS (Groningen)
Navigation and Puzzle Films: Real-life Embodied Experiences Underlying Narrative Categorization

David Bordwell ponders upon questions of cinematic understanding based on real-life experiences the following way: "Recognizing the contents of realistic images (...) depends heavily upon our everyday perceptual abilities. Similarly, filmic storytelling relies upon cognitive dispositions and habits we've developed in a real-world context" (2011).
My presentation aims at dealing with these "cognitive dispositions", based on embodied experiences we bring into our film-viewing. Within that I highlight our real-life skills of orientation and navigation, and their consequences on our evaluations and categorizations of different storytelling experiences. Consequently my talk consists of two parts.
(I.) Providing a theoretical frame, first I update the approach of embodied experientiality in narrative mapping, claiming a key role for skills of orientation and navigation as ecological foundations of elementary "source-path-goal" schemata (Lakoff 1987, Johnson 1990, Fauconnier & Turner 2002, Gallese & Lakoff 2005, Slors 1998, Menary 2008).
(II.) Secondly I bring this explanation of cognitive dispositions into the field of narrative categorization: Once the overlap is established between skills of orientation and navigation used in real-life environments and narrative structures, one can make the explanations useful for contributing to the vague, still continuous debates on the categorization of narrative complexity (Buckland 2009 vs. Bordwell 2006, Grodal 2009).


Leaving the Narrative Maze. The Plot Twist as a Device of Re-orientation

One of the more common ways to lure an audience into the narrative maze of a film, factually unreliable narration has become more and more prevalent in the last two decades as a narrative device and as a topic of research for film scholars. However, most of the scientific attention has been focused on how unreliability is created. Its resolution, which usually occurs shortly before the end of a film, has been analyzed considerably less. This resolution is usually called a plot twist even though one might argue that the term epistemological twist is more exact.
Obviously, the plot twist designates a key moment in the narrative maze of unreliable narration. In its most common form, it offers a way out of the narrative maze that has been constructed up to that point. The mysterious and confusing events that have been presented so far are explained and henceforth the film usually follows a very classical pattern of narration, which can be likened to a straight line rather than a maze.
In order to achieve re-orientation, the plot twist can employ a variety of strategies and storytelling devices which a) underline its importance for the overall film and b) establish what "really" happened, at least to a certain extent. The aim of this presentation is to analyze how these devices are put to use and how their use changes with when the overall complexity of the unreliable narration increases.


Order from Chaos – Re-orientation in Complex Cinema

As the complexity of the globalized world is rapidly increasing, cinema itself shows numerous signs of growing complexity over the past 15 years. Respective phenomena have attracted scholarly attention, be it under the label of "puzzle film" (Buckland), "modular narrative" (Cameron), "mind game film" (Elsaesser), "network narrative" (Bordwell) or "database narrative" (Kinder, Manovich) among others.
One of the many aspects of complexity in contemporary cinema can be found in episodic films "that critically weaken or disable the causal connections of classical narrative" (Cameron) and lack a central perspective (Treber), thus rejecting the very means that usually provide orientation in classical narrative.
In this paper, I will argue that we have to leave behind our accustomed ways of looking for orientation in narrative as suggested by traditional narrative theory and that insights into "other ways of sequencing and 'linking' data, than that of the story" (Elsaesser) may be provided by complex systems theory. The cross-disciplinary theories of complex systems have been developed to understand and deal with the specific logic of complex systems. As such, I will suggest, they offer bountiful concepts that can help to better understand the peculiarities of complex cinema.
By taking a close look on three episodic films, Crash (Paul Haggis 2004), Traffic (Steven Soderbergh 2000) and Babel (Alejandro González Inárritu 2006), I will explore how these films provide orientation and create meaning. I intend to show that the complex systems approach with concepts such as "patterns which connect" (Bateson) and "order from noise" (von Foerster) provides means of understanding the connections of the filmic elements that are fundamentally different from the linear approach of narratology that always manages to finally reassemble a fragmented plot into a linear story. In these films, I will argue, the lack of traditional means of orientation does not lead into chaos, but sharpens the senses to perceive different means of orientation that seem to be more appropriate to navigate a complex (film-)world.