Bullet in the Brain (David Von Ancken, 2001) is an exceptional example of the art of short-form filmmaking. Von Ancken's film is not only a good film, it's a good short film in that it uses the inherent qualities of the form in a very appropriate way. With Von Ancken's short I'd like to draw attention to one narrative technique in particular: the use of voice-over narration. The way Von Ancken's film uses an off-screen, omnipotent narrative voice not only works in this piece, it does so in such a way that helps define the practice of short-form filmmaking. In other words, Von Ancken used narration in a way that is suited for short-form filmmaking practice and what would have been less so for long-form, or "feature length," moviemaking practice. At the same time, asking questions about the effects of screen duration on motion picture form can help us explain why the particular use of narration in Bullet, a stylistic choice, works to define the piece as a pure example of live-action, short-form storytelling.
To help analyze the narrative voice in Bullet it's revealing to ask what formal and stylistic demands an audience would place upon Von Ancken's shoulders if he were to have made a feature length movie about the same story instead? At first glance, the obvious answer that jumps to mind is that the movie would need to be longer. Technically, this is an observation on the movie's screen duration - the time based measurement of all the diegetic and non-diegetic elements in sum. Another technical term for this measurement is also the Total Running Time of a piece. If Bullet were longer, say, over an hour long, would the director's use of narrative voice change? And if indeed it were to change, what then can we say about the effects of screen duration upon motion picture style?
I would argue that as screen duration decreases, the heavy use of a narrator's voice in place of plot action is aesthetically acceptable, and, at best, is enjoyable and entertaining. Bullet defies the popular conventions of classical screenwriting in the same sense writer/filmmaker Charlie Kaufman does in his screenplay for the film Adaptation (Spike Jonze, 2002). In Adaptation the main character is also the off-screen narrator. In the last moments of the movie the narrator's voice vocally disregards the oftentimes criticized practice of gratuitously disclosing key story/plot information when he directly relates to the audience the psychological thought processes going on inside the fictional main character's mind. He even, ironically enough, admits how the aesthetic rule he's rebelliously ignoring is being broken. Most literature and teachings on visual storytelling declare the best method for communicating story information to the viewer is by way of showing the audience important plot points through on-screen events and actions. "Show me, don't tell me" as goes the old visual medium adage. But I've just assumed that classical, more than likely Hollywood, screenwriting technique also instructs short-form screenwriting.
Von Ancken's movie should prove to us this is not the case. Just past the midway point of the plot there is a climactic release wherein the bank robber, played by Dean Winters, discharges his revolver's ammo into the brain of our tragic, midlife crisis hero, Prof. Anders, played by Tom Noonan. Forthwith, the audience hears the narrator's voice begin speaking for the first time. It continues, diving into an epilogue that recounts Prof. Ander's life, or, more particularly, the key events of his life that start flashing before his eyes.
Now then, Bullet is not long, its screen duration is just under fourteen minutes; and a little after seven and a half minutes into the movie the narrator begins the verbose exposé that continues for the remaining five minutes of the movie. Yet at the end of the piece we feel satisfied and touched, as though we've just seen a complete biographical motion picture as in-depth and revealing as Gandhi. Ultimately, we allow the director to get away with this all knowing narrator whose knowledge about the doomed professor seems utterly unrestricted. The audio-visual montage the audience experiences during the five minute voiceover can be described as the visual form of poetry - "visual poetry" to define the term. Perhaps "narrated montage" fits as an appropriate observation of the stylistic technique as well.
David Bordwell can shed light on why this stylistic choice - a five minute narrated montage - helps Bullet work as a short-form motion picture. In his book Narration in the Fiction Film (1987) , Bordwell discusses screen duration, editing and the cognitive experience of watching time-based art:
Cognitive psychologists have suggested that the mind's induction operations can be limited by the speed at which the environment demands decisions. Our anticipatory schemata are ready to pick up certain kinds of data, and the rate at which the information is presented can affect how we develop hypotheses... Meir Sternberg shows that such features depend on the "qualitative indicator, " the sense that the syuzhet span devoted to a fabula event lies in proportion to the event's contextual importance...the viewer must readjust his or her expectation, reset the scale or significance to be applied to the syuzhet, and perhaps play with a more open set of alternative schemata. Rhythm in narrative cinema comes down to this: by forcing the spectator to make inferences at a certain rate, the narration governs what and how we infer. (76)
If this cognitive theory is true, can I not apply this concept to the example I raise with Bullet? Based on this idea, I would argue that the audience expectation, and the mental faculties involved in the process of meaning making, adjust and allow short-form to work as its plot (syuzhet) collapses story (fabula) time down into a restricted screen duration. This is one characteristic, of many, that sets narration based short-form apart from long-form motion pictures. In the case of Bullet in the Brain, the viewer doesn't mind the fact that Prof. Ander's knowledge and life experience (a fifty plus decade fabula) can be summed up in five minutes (syuzhet) by the anonymous narrator's monologue. The experience of a fourteen minute story, i.e. "the speed at which the environment demands decisions," allow it to exist in this way, i.e. let's the audience "play with a more open set of alternative schemata" -- a much different stylistic expectation then if Bullet were feature length (Bordwell, 76).
All live-action motion picture forms have their preoccupied mode: persuasion as we'd see in a commercial, journalism as in a documentary, complex subplots as in a feature film, the coolness of a rock band as in a music video, or taking a seven minute sponsor break as in a network series. The experience of restricted screen duration affords us the simple sweetness of a song and dance (Ari Sandel's West Bank Story, 2005), the frame reordering of a non-narrative project (Martin Arnold's Cinemnesis, 1989-98), or a poem dedicated to the last thoughts of a murdered man as a bullet traverses his skull. And that's not to place short-form above the others. They each have their stylistic boundaries and when directors understand the differences inherent to the respective forms, audiences are treated to aesthetically pure media experiences such as Von Ancken's Bullet in the Brain.
Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. New York: Routledge, 1987.
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