make yourselves uncomfortable:
the use of strange narrative structure in mainstream cinema
As a rule of thumb, Hollywood-based cinema is incredibly formulaic, over-financed and creatively blinkered: an industry that seems quite willing to side-step the risk of potential critical acclaim for the profitable mores of box office success. These days, if a film is to be successful it must deliver the goods (name actresses/actors; excessive sets/pyrotechnics and the optimal use of CGI), must hit the (lowest) common denominator which satisfies the expectation of contemporary audiences and finally, must provide the financiers with the means to recoup their investment many times over (merchandising).
A conceptually unusual and/or challenging film that confounds this stereotype is a rara avis these days. Perhaps the best example of this recently is Being John Malkovich, a film whose subjective premise and narrative complexities – it could be argued – are probably for the greater part lost upon the average cinema-goer.
Occasionally, films do break free of such creative constraints not only furnish the audience with a challenging cinematic experience, but also the investors with their profit. Film-makers like the Cohen brothers have managed to do this to some degree, as has Tim Burton.
In Literature, the Russian Formalists believed that narrative could be split into two distinctive elements: fabula, the chronological order of the story (essentially the ‘plot’) and syuzhet, the telling of the events in a non-chronological order (how the narrative is represented to the reader). The same could be of course true of cinematic narrative. By playing with the narrative, the writer/director could then manipulate events, essentially controlling the actual process of storytelling to maximise effect.
The focus of this article is upon two films. Both experimented with narrative. Both had acclaimed directors. Both had stylistic and creative merit. Both were produced by Mario Kassar and Andrew Vajna. One of them fulfilled the above criteria and made everybody happy; the other was regarded more or less as a failure.
Although subjectively and stylistically quite different, I find these two films complement one another with their unusual structures. They offer a challenge, provide a puzzle: the audience must become detectives, piecing each narrative’s jigsaw of clues together until they arrive at the solution – one that coincides with each film’s temporal climax.
Set in 1955, New York, Alan Parker’s Angel Heart begins for all intents and purposes as an homage to the film noir of the late 30s and early 40s, visiting a territory that in the interim was unsuccessfully charted until Roman Polanski’s China Town. The film is based upon William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel, a deceptive, seemingly Chandleresque story that cleverly begins to subvert the genre of detective fiction through the medium of flashback.
Detective fiction is essentially a quest that provides layers of quandaries and ends in resolution, a conclusion to the involved mysteries. In Parker’s adaptation of the Hjortsberg novel, the protagonist, Harry Angel (portrayed by an out of shape and particularly seedy looking Mickey Rourke) is hired by the equivocal Mr. Cyphre (Robert Di Nero) to find a missing person. The absentee in question is a wartime crooner called Johnny Fortune, who is being sought by Cyphre in order to complete a contractual obligation.
As Angel’s search begins, the linear direction of the narrative (fabula) fragments into a series of flashbacks. Each lead in the investigation reveals the next in this puzzle, and each interviewee that Angel encounters ends up being murdered. His search leads him from an asylum to Harlem and eventually brings him to New Orleans. As the film progresses, Angel finds himself dragged into an almost hallucinatory mélange of disturbing flashback and Voodoo/occult rituals.
It is at this point that his role becomes all too apparent – he is a puppet, despite believing himself to have free will, he is actually following a pre-ordained path – itself a game that the audience slowly becomes aware of, and one which Cyphre has known about all along.
The missing Johnny Fortune, it is revealed, was a practitioner of the black arts and wished to cheat the devil out a very Faustian compact. As Angel’s sense of self-realisation begins, more information is presented: “. . . they found a young soldier, in Times Square . . . Johnny ate his heart . . . he had found the reference in some esoteric ritual . . .”
Coupled with this is Parker’s cinematography and use of lighting: ceiling fans and shadowy caged elevators become sinister, mundane objects suddenly become awash with symbolism.
As the location moves to New Orleans, Angel encounters Epiphany Proudfoot, daughter of one of Fortune’s loves, and begins a liaison. Here his visions/nightmares become far more intense, culminating in a disturbing scene where, as he makes love to Epiphany, the pair of them become drenched with blood. Also of note is the fact that all his interviewees are murdered in a highly ritualistic fashion (Fortune’s old society debutante girlfriend Margaret Cruzemark is found eviscerated after giving Angel an astrological reading; an old bluesman is found with a cut throat and his genitalia in his mouth).
As the narrative progresses, his relationship with Epiphany becomes significant and literally does become Oedipal in structure . . .
By the film’s end, the audience have realised that which Angel himself has only started to: he is actually Johnny Fortune, and as the flashbacks suggest, he has been the unrealised murderer from the outset.
Cinematically, Parker lets the camera speak volumes. His use of slow pans and long shots establish location – practically every frame is composed – is telling – adding visually to the narrative’s texture. Parker captures the seediness of film noir with his use of strongly contrasting light and shadow. The symbolism in this film is well placed too – the motif of the various forms of ceiling and wall mounted fan acts in symbiosis with the flashback sequences, as does the repeated image of the descending lift.
If this film was viewed purely as a sequence of chronological events, then there would be nothing to sustain the story: the conclusion would be understood by the viewer, if not by Angel/Fortune. By starting the narrative in medias res, it becomes a journey of discovery and self-realisation.
Angel Heart was a critical and box office success – two facets that strongly contrasted with Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder.
This film plays with the concept of reality, of how things are seen. Its narrative is a metafictional game.
A decidedly odd opening sequence of US troops in Vietnam introduces the film’s protagonist, Jacob Singer (Tim Robbins). The sound of helicopter blades underpin the Maurice Jarre score as the camera focuses in upon and follows a couple of Hueys across a dawn sky. This acts as an unusual auditory symbol which later becomes significant. As the snapshot of wartime cameraderie establishes itself, the scene suddenly erupts – and it is here that strangeness starts: the troops seem suddenly uncoordinated, and believe they have been drugged. Erratic hand-held camera shots spliced with graphic footage of injuries establish confusion – although one does become aware that there appears to be no enemy. Singer is suddenly badly wounded.
The narrative then cuts to him waking up with a start on a New York subway train, disoriented and feeling vaguely alienated. Small, odd and unsettling things begin to occur that suggest Singer’s perception of reality is starting to dissolve.
He is then sidetracked on his homeward journey, discovering that his way out of the station has been blocked, which on another level essentially reflects the film’s premise.
Singer’s reality begins to further fragment around him. His hallucinatory visions become increasingly vivid and disturbing, further unravelling the fabric of his reality. After falling sick at a party, he awakes from the previous ‘reality’ to find himself in another – the former he attributes to a dream.
Singer himself is the integral linking part – the film is about him, a very subjective focus. The experimental format is cut with further Vietnam flashbacks which when sequenced together form a parallel narrative.
Throughout this, Singer’s chiropractor – Louis – appears almost to watch over him, acting as a conduit between his realities: “Has anyone ever told you that you look like an angel?”
As these two ‘realities’ weave in and out of one another, it becomes apparent that one represents a possible ‘hell’, the other a possible ‘heaven’. We are then shown aspects of his life before the war – Singer the academic, father, husband and the loss of his youngest child.
The use of Old Testament names (Jacob, Jezebel, Caleb) throughout is no accident either. Each has a particular significance which adds to the sum of the whole. As the narrative alternation continues, a further element is introduced which serves to explain the opening sequence. It is revealed that Singer’s fellow survivors are being eliminated as they are a by-product of a field test – a drug experiment to increase aggression and therefore improve combat efficiency. This was apparently all too successful as they started to kill each other as well as the Viet Cong.
Here, Singer’s realities begin to oscillate wildly as his hellish, disturbing visions become balanced against their opposing images. These bifurcations represent possible futures and it is made apparent that the whole film is essentially a flash forward of possibility – had Singer lived. The film ends with Singer being symbolically led upstairs (brightly lit, yellowy light) by his dead son – finally he is at peace with himself.
If sequenced chronologically, Jacob’s Ladder would start with Singer at home (pre-Vietnam), then the death of his child, his time in Vietnam up to the drugged hallucinations, then offer the flash forward bifurcations of possibility and finally obtain a sense of closure through his death. The narrative would then not span the time covered by Singer’s wounding, airlift and death (in fact the film’s duration) – it would essentially start months, years before the end.
I am not sure why I find these films similar, beyond the use of atypical structure. Although produced by the same people and stylistically similar in places, they are quite diverse in content. It is actually the visual architecture and the narrative game playing that appeals.
So, why was this film deemed such a failure both financially and critically? It was due to a lack of understanding and inability to decipher a more complex form of plot sequencing.