Classical narration refers to one dominant mode of narration in fictional filmmaking. It is defined as “a particular configuration of normalized options for representing the fabula and for manipulating the possibilities of syuzhet and style” (156). In classical Hollywood cinema, the narration follows paradigmatic building blocks as events, actors and agents, linear chains of cause and effect, primary and secondary story lines. Bordwell’s analysis is framed on Russian formalism; the concepts of fabula (the chronological order of the events contained in the story), and syuzhet (the narrative order of the events contained in the story) are in fact key to his analysis. In addition, Bordwell heavily relies on narrative theory. Film considered in the chapter arch from 1917 to 1960, the time span when “classical narration” was the standard in Hollywood. The classical narration mode has a significant impact on the viewer who is driven to focus on understanding the fabul (rather than questioning how the fabula is constructed as in the art-cinema narration).
Classical narration makes use of two distinguished segments. First of all, the montage sequence, a series of shots that compress different actions in time and space into a short sequence. The other one, the scene is instead a part of the story and it portrays a specific action occurring at a specific time in a specific place. The end of a scene is often made explicit in the unfolding of the syuzhet — by variations in time, space and action – and through editorial intervention — by standardized technical punctuations as use of the fade, sound bridge etc. Scenes tend to display distinct phases. At the beginning the scene presents the context (time, space and characters); then it portrays the characters operating toward their goal; and finally it either closes off or it leaves a space open for further development of the story. For this reason, classical Hollywood is often described as “linear.” The same trifold structure is at play at the level of the fabula. The narrative is indeed structured with a discernable beginning, middle, and end. However, linearity is not absolute. This becomes apparent when the epilogue shows some sort of tension between the preceding causality and the happy resolution or when the fate of secondary characters are left opened or only hinted at.
Bordwell argues that classical narration mode tends to be omniscient because the narration has almost complete knowledge about the events; highly communicative because most of what is necessary for reconstructing the fabula is explicitly shown; and only moderately self-conscious, because very rarely the film acknowledges directly its audience. Of course, these features are not absolute. For example, certain genres — as detective films — tend to conceal more details. In addition, the level of self-consciousness fluctuates within the same film, generally being at its apex in the opening and in the final scene. Furthermore, throughout the entire film, the spectator’s level of omniscience progressively grows until the end when he/she can finally grasp the entire fabula. The “happy ending” is a common form of resolution but it is not structurally necessary. In certain cases, the protagonist does not achieve his goal and the film ends with a defeat.
The world presented in the narration is inherently consistent. As consequence, characters — especially the protagonist(s) — are psychologically defined and they have a stable worldview. Not surprisingly, in the classic Hollywood stars system actors become roughly identified with a prototype character. In classical Hollywood film, the goal of the characters appears to be psychologically rather than socially motivated. Since both the filmic world and the characters’ essence do not go through any sort of transformation, the spectator is asked to interpret the fabula in a certain way. This is indeed the almost monolithic constant: the narrative provides a resolution that is limited to a single “legitimate” interpretation.
Causality is the glue of the story. A great majority of films have a “double causal structure.” On the one side the heterosexual romance, on the other side another sphere of personal relationships. These two lines are distinct and at the same time interdependent.
The plot can be further complicated by adding lines and subplots. One of the lines can be brought to end before, but more often they end together. In the narration, temporal and information gaps are rarely permanent. The viewer is generally spoon-fed all the necessary details through dialogues or a montage sequence. Often times, details are purposely redundant to make sure that the viewer can easily follow the syuzhet. Even when information gaps are imposed by the genre (as in detective film), soon or later the facts or the motivations are disclosed. In classic Hollywood film, the viewer is conceived as “ideal invisible observer” who always holds the optimal point of view.
In order to understand why the style of the classical Hollywood film appears to be self-concealing, Bordwell brings into the discussion the role of the spectator. He identifies three propositions. First of all, film technique serves as a vehicle for the unfolding of the story. Second, time and space are consistently presented through stylistic choices. For example, the camera makes abundant use of anticipatory movements to guide the spectator; generally, each shot follows logically the previous one. Exceptions, like discontinuous editing or hallucinatory sequences, are admissible only if they conform to a disorienting situation provided in the story. Third, a limited number of specific technical devices are deployed for specific communicative purposes. The result is that for each shoot there is a more likely set of “rules” that can be applied. The consistent use of these rules and the explicit orientation of the spectator in time and space make the style invisible to a general viewer.
Stagecoah (1939) offers, in many respects, an example of classical narration. It should be noted that narration modes are not absolute. Exceptions to the paradigm are indeed not infrequent. Browne examines a sequence from Stagecoach and challenges the conventional critical definition of classic film. Still, Stagecoach presents many features of the classical narration mode. In this section I discuss some elements at play in the film that are prominent in the classic narration mode. In order to highlight some features of the classical narration mode, I will bring into the discussion 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a film that belongs to a definitely different mode of narration. In Stagecoach, characters — even the secondary ones — are psychologically defined and their personality remains unvaried throughout the whole film. I find interesting how at the beginning of the film Dallas, the prostitute, is depicted in a sympathetic way. The narration achieves its intent by representing the members of “Law and Order League” who have driven Dallas out of town as unpleasant and overly conservatory. In the film, the cause-effect relations are straightforward and the narrative is clearly structured around a linear development: initially obstacles and difficulties are presented; then the situation evolves until a final (happy) resolution. Let’s take Ringo Kid, the protagonist, by way of illustration. Ringo breaks out of prison to avenge the murder of his brother and of his father. In the course of the action, Ringo runs into the east-bound stagecoach. There he meets Dallas and then asks for her hand in marriage. In the end, Ringo succeeds in killing the three Plummers and he “escapes” with Dallas on a calash. The couple is expected to get married and live a happy life. Clearly, the “double causal structure is at play in Stagecoach. The fabula interweaves a story of revenge with a story of heterosexual romance. Details are not concealed; the narration tends to be omniscient and highly communicative. For example, while riding in the stagecoach, it is Ringo to inform why he evaded from prison. The narration is also not very self-conscious: the audience is never directly acknowledged. The prominence of classic narration in Stagecoach becomes even more obvious when one compares other types of narration modes. For example, in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days the importance given to the characters is overturn. Ottilia who is aiding her friend Gabriela to have an abortion is the central focus of the narration. A number of details are purposefully hidden. The film directly acknowledges the spectator at the end of the film when Otilia looks directly at the camera (does she?) letting the audience guess what will happen between the two friends.
Summing up, Bordwell offers a compelling overview of the narrative at play in classical Hollywood film. From the limited research I have done on the subject, I assume that the adjective “classic” as an attribute to early Hollywood film is to be credited to Bordwell. This adjective confers to early Hollywood film a layer of aura. On the one hand, Bordwell claims that classical narration mode is only one of the narrative modes possible for realizing a film. On the other hand, he labels it “classic” and in so doing he confers a special value to mode. Many of the narrative features at play in classical film are style widely used in filmmaking not only in the US but all around the world. Beside the socio-economic influence of the U.S is there some inherent property about “classical narrative mode” that makes it so prominent? In addition, as we have glimpsed at, when narrative modes emerge they are not paradigmatic. How long does it take before a narrative mode gets crystalized? Where does the necessity to innovate or reject a mode and come up with a new one stems from?