Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is narrative?

I don't know if this was intentional,* but Google's coffee-pot-and-test-tube graphic today reminded me of The Way Things Go. This is a 1987 short film by Peter Fischli and David Weiss, and Wikipedia describes it better than I can: "It documents a long causal chain assembled of everyday objects, resembling a Rube Goldberg machine."

It begins with a heavy bag hanging by a rope from the ceiling. The rope slowly unwinds, eventually lowering the bag sufficiently to start a tire rolling, which then upends a plank resting on a fulcrum, which flips to propel the tire further forward, causing a weighted ladder to inch down a ramp... You get the idea. The film contains no words. Yet it is amazingly suspenseful. Will the tire stay upright long enough to reach its destination? It has rhythm: some of the events are slow, to the point where you nearly give up on them, and others lightning fast. And although no human beings (or anything sentient) appears in the film, it has characters: the objects that are set in motion one by one, play their brief part in the "story," and then fall to the wayside (or burn).

It's remarkable to think that narrative can exist without human, or at least anthropomorphic, figures to drive it--not to mention without words themselves. There seems to be a deep, underlying flow to storytelling, into which characters and words are woven, and/or to which they contribute. You may have great characters and lovely words, but without this flow, you may not have a story--at least not the traditional page-turning, leaning-forward-to-hear-what-comes-next variety. Is this flow the same as plot? Maybe, but I think it's deeper. It's the conviction that all things in the story are connected, even if you can't exactly articulate how; that the things are there because they have to be. This might actually be a better, or at least a less intimidating way, to think of plot.

You can watch all three parts of the film on YouTube, apparently; too bad it's in separate sections. There are also edits in the film itself, as a commenter on YouTube points out, which suggests the machine's motion may not have been continuous for the full half hour, or that some of the events took too much time for viewers to sit through (like watching something dissolve in acid, for example). If your main concern is whether the machine really worked as shown, this is a problem.

*Oh. The graphic is to commemorate Robert Bunsen's 200th birthday. Guess if you click on the graphic it tells you that, too.

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