P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Where's the story?
Notes on telling stories cinematically

Edvin Vestergaard Kau

The meaning of a film is incorporated into its rhythm just as the meaning of a gesture may immediately be read in that gesture.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Cinema is a temporal art - its elements appear sequentially in time.
Gerald Mast

39 steps - and back again
Viewing two very special films crystallized the following reflections on certain elements of cinematic storytelling. Although The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935; 87 min.) is a feature film, and Remembrance (Stephanie Morgenstern, 2001; 19 min., see articles and facts in POV 15) is a short fiction film, they have some things in common in the way they present their story as a kind of journey that circles back upon itself to connect ending and beginning. What I am interested in is how they are tell portions of their story through their use of time. Or, as I prefer to put it, how they orchestrate time.

In The 39 Steps, the character Mr. Memory has memorized information about a new weapon to be used by the RAF, and enemy spies are about to take this memory artist out of the country. However, this plan is not disclosed until a point near the end of the film, even though Mr. Memory is presented in the very first scene, at a moment when the hero, Robert Hannay, is in the audience of a music hall performance. In this way, Hitchcock opens a string of events leading towards the end without giving the viewer much information: Hannah is watching the "memory show", quarrel and fighting breaks out among the audience, and trying to get out he is contacted by a woman, "Miss Anabella Smith" (who in fact is an agent working for the British intelligence service). Next, she fires a gun to "create a diversion", invites herself home with Hannay, tells him a few details about her activities, a spy cell in Scotland - and is murdered by foreign agents. Hannay finds himself chased by both the police (for the murder) and the spies (he knows too much). But in a way, his reason for setting out on the journey through Hitchcock's diversions is that he knows too little. So do we, the viewers; with almost every scene and every incident Hitchcock leaves the audience mystified as to story solutions and with few or no clues as to how incidents may contribute to the understanding of the story's logic, or what may or may not happen next during any given scene. For example, many times Hannay thinks that other people (even the heroine, Pamela) will help him, just to find out that they won't, or he thinks he is safe with the police who then turn him over to Scotland Yard as a man wanted for murder.

This puzzle is greatly entertaining to follow. Scene after scene offers little surprises; Hannay is trapped or caught by the police, but no he's not. He is free, and then he's not. The story and solutions in the end almost lose their importance. What is interesting here is a special mechanism in Hitchcock's storytelling practice: steps in the final explanations are continually postponed, and developments in so-called plot logic are turned upside down. Constantly we find that hesitation and delay are major principles in Hitchcock's storytelling practice. Every scene in every new environment during Hannay's hunt for explanations and solutions in Scotland, is used as a means for orchestrating a hesitation and a certain slowness - keeping the audience waiting for the ending in an entertaining way. The 39 Steps literally uses cinematic time-space patterns to keep the viewer suspended between the opening and closing of the film.

Finally, in the end we return to the London Palladium, where Mr. Memory is giving his usual performance. On stage he is provoked by Hannay to disclose that The 39 Steps is an organisation of spies working for a foreign power. The circle is complete, and in a way - between beginning and end there is nothing. That is, nothing but time - in which the viewer has had the opportunity to experience the pleasure and excitement of being led back to the starting point of the story. Thus the key elements amount to the very mechanism of change (rather than precise events or things actually shown), the inventive fantasy making us "believe" in this unreal tale.

Remembering in Remembrance
Returning to the same, or staying in the same moment actually is done more radically in the short fiction film Remembrance. Like The 39 Steps it is about a memory artist, Alfred. In a way his story might be seen as a chance to get a glimpse of the possible fate of a person like Mr. Memory. But unlike Mr. Memory, Alfred has not trained himself to remember things. On the contrary, he is unable to forget, and the reason he remembers literally everything, is because he is a synesthete. This means that he hears the sounds of colours, sees the colours of music, he can't hear anything without seeing it, and so on. All his senses are actually a single sense. In this way he combines and remembers everything. As he says: "I can't imagine forgetting. I've tried everything. How do you… how do you stop knowing something you know?" A person like Alfred could be of great importance to the intelligence service of the Allied countries, and the woman, Aurora, who contacts him after the show is working for one such service. Alfred and Aurora are falling in love, and in fact this apparently is the only thing that can "save" him from the chaos of sensations (shown through fading sounds when they have locked eyes or dance together), but it also leaves him in a dilemma: is she just working, or are her feelings genuine, and is he able to balance his growing feelings for her with the commitment to the cause and the intelligence work?

The very first shot shows Alfred on a train station platform, remembering flashes of what the film is going to show. And the last scene shows the same situation, with Alfred also this time closing his eyes and thinking back, deciding what to do. Turning around he, and we, see himself and Aurora entering the platform in the background of the picture. Past and present are on the screen at the same time. They sit down, and she tells him about her job and her dilemma between duty and personal feelings. Then, after this, their last talk, Aurora, the intelligence woman, leaves him; he closes his eyes and is back remembering their quiet dance. Making his decision he turns and starts walking back along the platform toward the background of the picture, where Aurora disappeared, when she left to go to her hotel.

The result is that everything we see and hear in the film is Alfred's memory. Once it is in there, it can't disappear. He is standing on the platform, while he is memorizing, reflecting, and making his decision. Then he turns around and walks into the depth of the picture. Everything is a presentation of his state of mind, and this means that he is in a condition (as a synesthete and mnemonist) where everything is accumulated in his mind, in a permanent now. Interestingly, it follows from this that cuts to earlier situations are not really traditional flashbacks, but presentations of elements always remaining in his present consciousness. Changes along the narrative succession of scenes aren't so much changing things as presenting elements in Alfred's state of mind. The narrator is constructing a picture of Alfred's story, and this story is a vision of one (and every) moment in Alfred's life and mind.

Changing nothing says a lot
The narrative structure with a final return to key elements of the beginning becomes more radical in Remembrance than in The 39 Steps, because the former literally stays in one and the same moment, in Alfred's mind; his all-encompassing now. In both films' endings we return to the starting point. Of course, Hitchcock has transported Hannay from London to the Scottish Highlands and back again and taken him and the heroine Pamela through a number of dramatic events, but the solution has remained on stage with Mr. Memory all the time. Remembrance tells the viewer about a series of experiences during an evening in Alfred's life, but in fact it never moves of out of his head. In this way both films have stayed in the same place; nothing has happened, and this nothing has been turned into good stories! In different ways this non-movement is the result of very interesting storytelling practices. I shall maintain this as a point in relation to a cinematic poetics: What has happened in both cases really is: the telling of cinematic stories. Often, the patterns and mechanisms of cinematic storytelling are more important for the experience and the viewer's attention than the story itself as anecdote.

In the Hitchcock film, the presentation of characters and events catches the viewer's attention, mainly because it opens the door to: mystery. What is promised is that an exiting game of cinematic construction is in play. What counts is not information and facts, or specific events and connections as much as the very dynamics of change: uncertainties and accidental relations between things are more important. The narrative authority (sometimes called the narrator), with a clear distance to both story and characters, can play with a lot of "as ifs" and concentrate on ways to keep changes coming. (As the master of ceremonies at Club Silencio in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) comments, when the connections between sound and movement are shown to be illusions: "It's all recorded".) Once Hannay is introduced and sent on his way through the maze of mystery, we have at the center of interest: modification, development, diversion - of (almost) nothing. The pure change and movement over time rather than facts and logic becomes essential to the storytelling as a mechanism of cinematic poetics.

The importance of a clear narrative authority, the definition of the cinematic meaning structure as an "as if", and change as orchestrated time patterns in relation to traditional cinematic poesis, self-reflexive films, and meta-cinema, can be detected in films such as Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), Vampyr (Dreyer, 1932), and Lost Highway (Lynch, 1997). Other examples come to mind as well: Funny Games (Haneken, 1998), Memento (Nolan, 2001), Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, 1994), One Hour Photo (Romanek, 2002), Magnolia (Anderson, 2000). Fargo (Coen Bros., 1996) makes an almost demonstrative point of this "as if-strategy": "This is a true story". Perhaps more story than true? In films such as these the viewer's experience is deeply dependent upon not just plot logic and story material as such, but more particularly on patterns creating meaning in time and space.

Seeing changing time and space at a distance
The examples analysed above may provoke reflections in other directions than traditional descriptions of narration in fiction films, plot structure, and the like. The three following characteristics are worth considering in this perspective:


Pure change. Telling a story is basically changing things/ elements and phases/stages of development. It is also focusing the viewer's attention, and re-focusing this focus on new elements; not necessarily on certain things or specific facts - but on the very mechanism or dynamic of change. The challenge and attractive quality in story building is its element of time and the viewer's experience of emerging and shifting (patterns of) meaning.


To tell a story, you have to operate in an as if mode. Story is structuring raw material; and "storying" as practice is essentially the same whether the product is fiction or documentary. If we have these elements: characters, situations, settings, etc., and if we let them do this or that, or something happens to them, what may develop and become elements of a story? To create or practice a story of something - or about something - you have to have a certain distance to what is told. You don't tell a soccer match, you play it (even though it is of course quite possible to tell about it or about one's experience of it - afterwards). The told story is not reality, but structured, mediated reality, shaped by the medium. Screen reality is always presented as an "as if". When you tell something, (either fictitious or something that actually happened to you), the events - and your story - are in another place in time and space than the time and space of reality.


Finally, it is important to keep in mind a specific variety of the above-mentioned distance: that between characters and storyteller. The characters are told as parts of the story, as it were, while the storyteller is in the process of doing this piece of work (telling about them). This may sound trivial, but it is nevertheless crucial to distinguish between the narrator and the characters of his or her story, between teller and tale.

This is the story?
All stories are the same, or at least all traditional narration is. You begin your story, develop complications in the initial situation, develop things further through events, create obstacles and opponents, explain and present solutions, and show the ending. From Aristotle to Hollywood, the sequence of events has traditionally been generalized into this pattern: beginning - middle - end. Count to three, make it a little difficult to do so, and the audience is happy to reach the opportune solution in the end.

As we have seen, storytelling involves not only the story, but also the act of telling: shaping the meaning-developing structure of time and space. In this game, uncertainty is an important element in telling as a driving or dynamic force, as demonstrated by Hitchcock (and not just in his and others' definition of suspense: possible dangers known to the viewer, but not the characters). Hesitation, and slowness (and on the part of the viewer: patience!), not speed, is of great importance. One doesn't always want to race ahead toward solutions. Just ask the expert audience: children. Excitement and suspense also means: waiting in a playful engagement between the audience and the presentational, aesthetic practice of the movie. That is, the viewer's experience of how the film is telling its story. Watching a (good) film also is: waiting full of attention!

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