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Complex narratives, an introduction.

Several weeks after the first drafts of the essays for this special issue of Film Criticism were accepted, I received David Bordwell's latest book, The Way Hollywood Tells It. As usual, Bordwell provides an extremely intelligent argument about both the continuities and changes in the classical Hollywood cinema. Among the features he discusses is what this special issue addresses: the surge of complex narratives, particularly after the wide popular success of Pulp Fiction (1994). Bordwell notes that twice previously Hollywood displayed such a phenomenon: between 1940 and 1955 and from the mid 1960s to early 1970s. The recent flood he attributes to product differentiation for independent filmmakers; a generation familiar with experiments in storytelling, especially innovations motivated via "fantasy and science fiction" conventions; the technological innovation of VCRs and DVD players, which permit easy study of special clues directors leave for fans; the privileged flamboyant auteurs and art-film directors to whom contemporary moviemakers look for modeling; and narrative form as a productive site for competitive showing-off (72-75).

The essays gathered here both complement and extend Bordwell's argument. In what I think will become a massively referenced and reproduced essay, Charles Ramirez Berg adds to the possible reasons for the torrent of complex narratives. Moreover, he carves out twelve different formal structures common to these stories, noting their systems of tackling time, space, and causality. Likewise, Elliot Panek looks at one sort of complex narrative--the psychological puzzle film--to consider not only the structures common to such movies but also their narrational strategies.

In his contribution, Michael Z. Newman distinguishes between plot and character complexity using a comparison of 21 Games and Passion Fish. While the call for this issue specified that what was being sought were studies of complicated plot and story relations, Newman's intervention reminds us that complexity needs careful definition and that complexity in one area does not necessarily produce overall textual difficulty or sophistication.

Following these three textual studies are two analyses that foreground ideological implications of the formal features of these narratives. Focusing on "multi-track" or "ensemble" plots, Walter Metz and Hsuan L. Hsu consider how films structured this way often raise important arguments about contemporary matters. While Metz finds success in the formal strategy for Storytelling and Melinda and Melinda, Hsu is unimpressed with Crash, arguing that the method only appears to provide narrational omniscience. On the contrary, the film's reduction of race to personal features of the individuals tracked in the narrative lines ultimately does not address the larger concerns of community and racism.

Complex narratives are not restricted to Hollywood. The final essay in this issue considers three recent popular Japanese contributions to the category: Battle Royale, Suicide Club, and Mohou ban. Robert Davis and Riccardo de los Rios contend that these films extend expected features of narrative complexity without insuring coherency in storytelling or rationale in high-energy spectacle. Thus, the films reflect not only anti-traditional Hollywood storytelling but also may be potentially extending Hollywood's complex narratives to the edge of the form's tolerance.

An audience seems to exist for these complicated narratives. Many of the films considered here had top box office, and, amongst others, Donnie Darko has achieved a major cult following. What should we make of this hunger for narrative complexity? The answer is unknown, but the vogue does not yet seem played out. Although these six essays are not the last word on the recent fashion of complex narratives, they all provide significant contributions to explaining the causes for this trend and to appreciating what might be taken into account in their on-going examination.

Works Cited

Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells It. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
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Author:Staiger, Janet
Publication:Film Criticism
Article Type:Editorial
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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