C  I  N  E  M  A

i s   i t   a   b o o k ?



A little Something about dreams, memory, and the Movies.


"You should look straight at a film; that's the only way to see one. Film is not the art of scholars but of illiterates."

- Werner Herzog



This morning I woke up remembering a dream that was full of internal repetition. Events were re-played, slightly differently each time, and I knew much of what was coming -- as an actor in the story, as narrator, or as an observer. In this particular dream, the device of repetition was a movie. I was watching the same film over and over again, or living in it. Sometimes I was actually in the movie, sometimes I was in a theater watching it on a screen, and sometimes I was sort of on the set, or inside the screen, as the movie played. I commented on this repetition as part of my dream. "Did you notice that?," I asked my companion as we walked down the street and into the opening sequence of the film, "I've seen this [movie] ten times at least and never noticed it."

Dreams take place in the same places and situations again and again, but itís never quite the same. I have several "sets" for dreams that I use over and over. For example, I have been having dreams set in my two childhood homes, or variations of them, for my whole life. My mother has said she thinks of this phenomenon as a kind of rolodex of dreaming situations -- she feels that each night her mind flips through the different scenes or situations until it finds one that is useful for the moment, and then uses it for her dream.

It has always frustrated me that the dream sequences in movies are so often inept. Even the great cartoons of Warner Brothers didn't always capture the feeling or visuals of a dream. But recently, a friend encouraged me to go to a movie that was all dream. "It may make you a little sick to your stomach with the shaky-cam, but it's worth it," she said.

[actors Julie Delphi & Ethan Hawke, in Waking life]

Waking life (directed by Richard Linklater, 2001) was shot using live action on film, and the film stock was then used to create an animated movie (using a process called rotoscoping). The story jumps from place to place, repeats itself, and gets lost in tangents. It does not have a beginning, middle, and end, in the traditional sense. The protagonist wanders through some scenes, and is physically absent from others. Waking life employs several nonlinear techniques at once: the protagonist wakes each day and discovers that he is still dreaming (circular narrative); conversations or stories begun in one scene and then abandoned are taken up later with no connective thread or narrative explanation for the shift (delayed narrative); and story threads are told out of sequence (shuffled narrative).

There are a few feature-length films made without formal narrative structures at all, but which are instead combinations of image, sound, movement, music, conversation, or text. No doubt the most famous recent examples of completely non-narrative film are Godfrey Reggio's Qatsi trilogy: Koyaanisqatsi, or "life out of balance" (1983); Powaqqatsi, "life in transformation" (1988); and Naqoyqatsi, "life as war" (2002). Each film in the trilogy features images (live action, still, and animated) combined together with an imposing score by Philip Glass. The results are not stories or linear narratives, but something more like interpretations of the three concepts described in the films' titles; each is a kind of disjointed, spiral path through a sea of information.

The films in the Qatsi trilogy are dramatic examples of nonlinearity in film because they do not rely on the narrative storyline to provide a framework for their content. This shocking departure from the standards of the medium allows us to appreciate the sort of structureless-while-structured feel that the three films have. It is possible, of course to make a film that has no narrative and yet is very linear (think of a movie composed of images & sounds that reflect the linear order of an alphabet or a series of numbers, or images in motion along a strip of empty road). However, it is likely that many viewers would experience such a film in much the same way as they would one with a clearly nonlinear structure, simply because it would be out of the ordinary.

Many films employ nonlinearity in their structures in subtle ways that we hardly notice -- the flashback and voice-over techniques discussed below, for example, are very commonly used in all kinds of films. Films that employ nonlinearity consistently throughout their whole length, though, stand out. Some methods are more frequently, or more successfully employed than others. Circular narrative, for example, rarely makes it into mainstream movies -- perhaps because it doesn't often fit neatly into the sort of plot Hollywood is used to producing. One unusual example is Groundhog day (directed by Harold Ramis, 1993). The movie's protagonist, a cynical television reporter, wakes up each morning to face the same day, February 2nd, over and over. The reporter is able to predict the events that will take place throughout the day, and manipulate them slightly through his own behavior, but nothing seems to shake him from the time-loop in which he has become stuck.

Another rarely used technique is that of "branching paths," in which more than one ending to the story is provided, sometimes depending on the circumstances of a particular screening of the film (similar in format to the Choose your own adventure books discussed in our Literature section). One well-known example of this technique is Clue, a film based on the popular murder mystery board game of the same name. Three endings were made, and different versions were shown at different screenings. When the video was released it was cut with all three endings after the main body of the film. Clue was somewhat of a commercial flop (quite deservedly, many would argue), and the technique has largely been ignored by mainstream filmmakers.

Delayed and shuffled narrative are evident in countless other films. Some tell two stories, beginning to end, with the scenes from the two story lines shuffled together but still in chronological order. Others tell one story in linear time, with another unfolding out of chronological sequence. Some are simply one linear story with flashback scenes to another story or time. Still others show elements of several stories at once, in an order created more for narrative coherence than as a reflection of the passage of time. A few good examples are: The conversation (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1974), The French lieutenant's woman (directed by Karel Reisz, 1981), Tampopo (directed by Juzo Itami, 1987), Jacob's ladder (directed by Adrian Lyne, 1990), Pulp fiction (directed by Quentin Tarantino, 1994), Lone star (directed by John Sayles, 1996), Out of sight (directed by Steven Soderbergh, 1998), and Thirteen conversations about one thing (directed by Jill Sprecher, 2001).

[actors Orson Welles & Rita Hayworth, in The lady from Shanghai]

One widely employed mechanism for shuffled narrative is the voice-over, in which a voice emanating from off screen narrates part of the story, bridging the gaps between one part of the narrative and another. This connective thread is always invested with perspective of the character who narrates -- often this provides an ironic, fatalistic, or sorrowful angle on the story. Voice-overs are often used to link flashback scenes to the rest of the story line, and the two are often used in combination (particularly in film noir).

Much of the time, this combination is very subtle -- The lady from Shanghai (Orson Welles, 1948), for example, begins with a scene in which we see the main character, Mike O'Hara, walking through Central Park in New York City. As he walks through the park and meets a beautiful woman, O'Hara's disembodied voice explains that the world of trouble he's got himself into started here, seeing this woman for the first time. The narrative thread begun in Central Park continues on screen. Occasional commentary by O'Hara, in voice-over from off screen, makes up a second narrative thread; the two together give us the whole story.

Occasionally, the combination of voice-over and flashback is very complex. The usual suspects (directed by Brian Singer, 1995) opens with the explosion of a small freighter docked in harbor, and then, over a black screen the voice of Roger "Verbal" Kint begins to describe the hijacking of a truck full of gun parts in New York, six weeks before the ship explosion. The story of the hijacking and related events unfolds on screen, interspersed with voice-overs of Verbal tidying up the bits of the story neatly. Eventually, Verbal is shown in a police station interview during the investigation of the ship explosion, still describing events leading from the hijacking to the explosion.

Throughout the film, the scenes flash back and forth, showing short pieces of Verbal's story, occasional deep background as he explains complicated situations, and eventually, brief scenes of Verbal being interviewed. The tale of theft, drug smuggling, police corruption, and international criminal intrigue is intricate and difficult to follow, but we are lead easily through the mess because Verbal takes us by the hand with his narrative. In fact, the flashback scenes are very much Verbal's own story, told with his unique perspective, motives, and understanding. In contrast, the scenes in the police station where he is being interviewed are shown from a "third person" sort of perspective. If we can take it as given that what we see in the police station is objective fact, the rest is merely the unreliable story of a criminal under pressure. The double narrative is thus emphasized both by the content of the story and by the method in which it is told.

Some other examples of films using these two techniques together are: Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Double indemnity (directed by Billy Wilder, 1944), The postman always rings twice (directed by Tay Garnett, 1946), All about Eve (directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), Sunset Boulevard (directed by Billy Wilder, 1950).

Interestingly, flashback techniques are completely conventional in documentary filmmaking. In the standard format, the narrator talks in voice-over while images of the final result of the story flash across the screen, and then we are brought back through time to the story's roots with documentary footage, stills, or re-created footage. Often an expert provides scientific, intellectual, or political analysis of the subject of the film (usually from an official-looking location, like a book-lined office), with the visuals occasionally switching back to the chronological beginning of the story. I don't even need to provide you with examples to make this point -- we've all seen these techniques in action.

But I have an especially well-crafted example in mind: The thin blue line (directed by Errol Morris, 1988). The movie tells the story of Randall Adams, on death row for murdering a Dallas police officer. The story Morris presents, through interviews with the prisoner, witnesses, and police investigators, is illustrated with re-created footage of the events in the case, told over and over with details and conclusions provided by each person interviewed. (Amazingly, the film's argument that the evidence against Adams was thin and entirely circumstantial was so successful that he was later released.)

Stories told literally backwards provide a particularly bizarre experience for the uninitiated moviegoer. Memento (directed by Christopher Nolan, 2000) is the story of a man who has lost his short-term memory and who lives only in the moment, but who is obsessed with finding his wife's killer. The movie begins with the chronological end of the story and progresses backwards in chunks of a few scenes at a time, with occasional flashbacks to earlier chronologies. Harold Pinter's play Betrayal (made into a movie in 1983, directed by David Hugh Jones), uses a similar mechanism to tell the story of an extra-marital affair, only backwards, from the break-up to the first attraction a few years earlier.

Each of these films takes a familiar story (man loses his wife, searches for her killer and seeks revenge; man has an affair with his best friend's wife) and literally turns it upside down. Betrayal's narrative turns a sad story into a relatively happy one. The ending (the lovers break up bitterly) is at the beginning. And the first days of the affair, in which the excitement of a forbidden attraction blocks out any feelings of guilt or betrayal, are placed at the end of the movie, leaving viewers happy for the lovers but shaking their heads about the inevitable sad ending to the affair.

[actors Carrie-Anne Moss & Guy Pearse, in Memento]

Memento is a mystery story, but because the clues are scattered through the story backwards (for the most part), unraveling the mystery is confusing. In a sense, though, Memento is no different from any classic murder mystery -- the narrative begins with a dead body, and progresses back along the trail of clues to the murder itself. The big difference is that in this movie, the narrative literally reverses time. The protagonist's memory loss creates for him a unique world, in which nothing lasts for more than a few minutes, and a new reality can be created in a single stroke.

The film's backwards linear sequence yanks the viewer into the past (though it feels like the future while watching the film), each segment overlapping a little with the next as the movie progresses backwards in time. Intermittent flashback scenes are peppered through the story -- the majority are in black-and-white and are narrated. Their story progresses forward chronologically as the movie progresses. There are other flashback scenes which appear in no discernable order, confusing things further. Together, these pieces form a complex, fragmented structure that simulates the disconnected world of the protagonist.

Memory is somewhat of an obvious theme for such a clearly nonlinear story as Memento, but the film uses it in an unusual way. The illustration of memory is one of the most common incidences of nonlinear narrative and structure in film, usually in the flashback sequence (Citizen Kane, All about Eve, Lone star and The thin blue line use this mechanism extensively). Memento is all flashback, since the story progresses from present backwards into past (which then becomes present, making the beginning of the film seem more like future). But since Memento's protagonist does not have the ability to create new memories for himself, the jumps backwards are not reportage of his memories of his own experience. Instead, they are sections of his life, doled out to the viewer in a manner that gives us a sense of his experience of the world. (Interestingly, a later DVD release of the film includes a function which allows it to be viewed in standard chronological order.)

Memories are obviously nonlinear in structure -- we can't remember an event until after it's happened, which means our memories are always out of linear sequence. They are also somewhat fictional -- memories of an event contain only those elements of the original event that seem relevant or important to the person remembering. My memory of the dream I discussed at the beginning of this essay, for example, is limited to the pieces that seemed most compelling to me when I woke up. And because dreams are so thoroughly unlike the experiences we have while we're awake, I had to give my dream a structure to support its different pieces when I woke up and tried to tell myself the story of my dream. The closest approximation I could manage was a circular narrative. I'm left wondering if my interpretation of the dream would have been different if I lived in a different cultural context -- with more, or fewer, examples of nonlinear stories.


-- written by Emily-Jane Dawson, 2002


The cinema section of our Bibliography includes complete citations for the films discussed in this essay, as well for other films that employ nonlinearity (though it is by no means a complete list). It also lists books, articles, and websites that touch on nonlinearity in film or discuss movies mentioned here.



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