The Challenge of Narrative:
|Blade Runner 2049|
Watching Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 in a cinema at the end of 2017, I was struck by a strange and very contemporary sensation: I felt as if I had just been binge-watching three episodes in a row, in my domestic lounge room, of an as-yet-imaginary Blade Runner TV series.
This is not a judgement, on my part, against Villeneuve’s film for being slow or, at times, not very involving. I offer it more as a telling and typical impression concerning the fluctuating state of audiovisual narrative in our time, as it navigates between the very different (and themselves mutating) formats of feature-length film and episodic, serial, long-form television.
Why did Blade Runner 2049 affect me in this way? It surely had something to do with how the story divided itself up, more or less, into large parts or segments – as many films do – and particularly that it appeared to linger in each part. It was as if each “episode” constituted a plateau, a terrain to be patiently explored, in terms of mood, atmosphere, details of landscape and décor. And then, at a certain moment, after a somewhat repetitive set of variations on each plateau, there would be a hook, turn or twist (as screenwriters like to say) – and a displacement would be engineered, a relocation to a new place, and a new or reconfigured set of character relationships. And at the end, it looked like many more such episodes could follow on …
Then again, is the sensation of an episodic narrative plateau a purely televisual phenomenon? Looked at from another angle, it’s a crucial, even integral feature of what we today call (a little crudely) art cinema, from Michelangelo Antonioni and Víctor Erice to Raúl Ruiz and Chantal Akerman. I am thinking of all those cinema stories in which there is a sudden, disconcerting break, often at the mid-way mark: the plot cleaves in two, on the basis of a sudden appearance (the wounded solider in Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, 1973) or disappearance (Antonioni’s L’avventura, 1960). Or the story is organised in clearly marked blocks, like in Vivre sa vie (1962) and One Plus One (aka Sympathy for the Devil, 1968) by Jean-Luc Godard.
Moreover, this sensation of a lingering narrative long ago left the strict confines (if those confines were ever strict) of art cinema. Robert Altman (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, 1971) and Alan Rudolph (The Moderns, 1988) both specialised in stories that ambiently drifted along in their fascinating little worlds until some new character – such as a hired killer or some more symbolic Angel of Death – arrived to complicate things and shift the interrelationships between everybody in sight. Stanley Kubrick regularly used a stark, plateau structure (as in Full Metal Jacket, 1987) and, among his loose family of disciples and imitators, Paul Thomas Anderson has stayed faithful to the procedure from his inaugural feature Hard Eight (1996) onwards.
How can we begin to grasp, describe, and account for the interrelation of cinema and TV today? I am as tired now of the snobbish talk of “cinematic TV” as I was, in past decades, of “novelistic films” – these sorts of cultural hierarchies no longer explain anything very well (if, indeed, they ever did). In sheer terms of career opportunity, the trend is perfectly clear: more and more film directors are accepting work offers from television (Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Amy Heckerling, Park Chan-wook, Jane Campion, Spike Lee, Gregg Araki, Jean-Marc Vallée, David Fincher), or seemingly relocating there entirely (as is the case with the talented Lodge Kerrigan, co-director with Amy Seimetz of The Girlfriend Experience in 2016 & 2017 [it returned under a new director in 2020] inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s 2009 movie of the same title – and vastly improving on its quality). Previously existing films – and sometimes not the most obvious or successful examples – are being resuscitated in inventive ways, as with the Australian low-budget movie The Magician (2005) reborn (and reinvigorated) as the series Mr Inbetween (2018–2021).
But there’s more going on here than simply industrial traffic, or the speedy recalibration of some filmmakers’ career priorities. We need to look at the current transformations of both cinema and TV in a new way. My focus in this piece is on storytelling, narrative forms and formats.
The current fascination amongst fans, critics and scholars of TV for the episodic and the serial aspects of the TV medium – and searching in these fields for something that is specifically televisual (just as theorists a century ago sought the specifically cinematic) – tends to overlook a few salient points. For not only has art cinema always fragmented and looped its storylines; it is also the case that some of the greatest auteurs including Maurice Pialat (in his brilliant 7-part series of 1971, La maison des bois), Ingmar Bergman (Fanny and Alexander, 1982), and Raúl Ruiz (Manoel on the Island of Marvels, 1984) enthusiastically embraced the episodic, week-by-week format long before the current TV “revolution” rolled in.
There was life – and experimentation – in this area well before The Sopranos began in 1999 – although to read many myopically USA-centred accounts of “innovative TV” now on the market, one might be hard-pressed to realise this fact. But even something we have come to regard as an extreme of radical cinema, Jacques Rivette’s Out 1 (1971) in its original, almost 13-hour form, was conceptualised in the form of an episodic TV series – albeit episodes of wildly uneven duration, which would still present a challenge to the reigning TV systems in the 2020s!
In an effort to cut across the usual territorial divisions between film and TV as media, I pose this specific question: what exactly is long-form narrative, either in TV or cinema? This ubiquitous term is bandied around, at present, without much precision. What I’ve already pointed to in the Blade Runner 2049 case – the plateau effect, and the descriptive idyll – are just two of the pertinent elements to be taken into consideration. When it comes to the presumed liberation offered to many filmmakers by TV, we particularly need to ask: is the long-form necessarily a blessing? Is it enough to make some weary appeal to the possibility of a “novelistic canvas” offered by multiple episodes, characters and plot threads? Is it purely a matter of “more time” to play with, extra hours to dally in? What potential problems, of both art and craft, does the long-form raise?
I believe we need to take a dual perspective when observing and analysing these issues as they play out in contemporary film and TV. On the one hand, we need to look at the possibilities of storytelling in a non-normative way; i.e., without holding narrative to any fixed, rigid, ultra-conventional understanding of how it works, and what it is.
along this non-normative line, we have to avoid repressing
opportunities for experimentation – and that means, for instance,
keeping ourselves wide open to the total tradition of art and
avant-garde cinema. But, by the same token, we have to also be ready
to give the classical narrative tradition the respect and acclaim it
deserves – particularly when audio-visual storytellers aim to
belong to that tradition, and meet its demands well.
Squeezing and Stretching
All narrative can be understood in terms of action and delay – and the particular tension generated by their interrelation. Although story structure is sometimes naively presented by various script-manual gurus as a relentless, linear unfolding of actions, delay is just as central to its mechanisms. This is true of not only, say, perfectly generic mystery-thrillers (for if we get the solution to the mystery immediately, there’s no story), but also the so-called slow cinema of many contemporary art-film makers.
Something needs to impede the flowing progression of the story, and of the characters’ goals, in order to fill out the time of the tale, and fully reveal its inner world. The waiting, the grinding repetitions, the seemingly pointless but absolutely necessary detours, the impasses, the unforeseen interruptions and complications – narrative (of many kinds) would be nothing without them.
Here, I take my cue not from theory but from an experimental filmmaker: Michael Snow, who introduced his magnum opus * Corpus Callosum (2002) to the world by describing it as an investigation into his twin, life-long obsessions with squeezing and stretching (he even appends, at the end of the film, his very first, youthful animation already playfully displaying these very same traits). Snow works on the squeezing and stretching of everything in his grasp as a filmmaker: line, shape, performance gesture, space, time, and so on.
Intriguingly, *Corpus Callosum is a work that (whether or not this intention was foremost in Snow’s mind) seems to pay special attention to several classically “televisual” formats, such as the office sit-com. Applying Snow’s terms specifically to narrative construction, we can see that plot action may be squeezed (condensed) or stretched (delayed). And this offers a novel way of studying and evaluating the tactics of today’s long-form stories.
Stretching is something that TV does a lot at present (squeezing, less so). This tendency particularly affects the process of adaptation: it is always fascinating to observe how a novel overflowing with plot action has first been squeezed into feature film format, and then re-stretched, perhaps beyond its original limits, for a TV series. Examples range from the mediocre (Agnieszka Holland’s flabby two-part rendition in 2014 of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby compared with Roman Polanski’s immortal 1968 film; or the bloated 2018 Australian TV series of Joan Lindsay’s Picnic at Hanging Rock compared with Peter Weir’s classic 1975 film, which had already been shortened rather than extended in the 1998 director’s cut), to the masterly (Park Chan-wook’s 2018 styling in four episodes of John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, far superior to George Roy Hill’s 1984 movie adaptation).
Sometimes, however, stretching in a TV series can provide a way of inventively altering the standard format of a movie genre, redefining its shape and typical proportions. This is the case in GLOW (2017–2020), short for “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” – an affectionate recreation of the events behind a pop-culture sports-TV sensation of the 1980s. Its chief creators/showrunners, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, adopt the standard plot formula of a typical film about a sporting team – in which, usually, the first quarter of the story is devoted to assembling and training the group. But they took a bold risk by stretching that conventional first act of a movie into the entire arc of their first, 10-episode season.
In this case, the risk paid off handsomely, as this idling in the exposition phase allowed a descriptive richness – an insight into the characters and their social milieu – that reminded me of the best films of Altman or Michael Ritchie from the 1970s.
By contrast, perhaps the most depressing example of narrative stretching in TV is offered by the 13 Reasons Why phenomenon. Adapted from Jay Asher’s wildly successful 2007 novel for the Young Adult market, it was originally slated as a feature film vehicle for singer Selena Gomez, before being reconceived as a TV series (with Gomez now serving as Executive Producer) released in 2017. So, in a single stroke, what might have been a 2-hour narrative was stretched to almost 13.
Why is this a problem? The plot of 13 Reasons Why hinges on a box of audiocassettes left behind by teenage Hannah (Katherine Langford), who has committed suicide. The central character, Clay (Dylan Minnette), has to somehow not listen to these recordings in their entirety all in one go (as any normally curious person would) – because then there would be no suspense, no mystery, and no unfolding story.
So the machinery of delay is duly wheeled in, in the clunkiest ways imaginable: Clay keeps freaking out at the slightest sound of Hannah’s voice, or being interrupted by his parents, or … But the nightmare doesn’t end there: heading into season 2 (a courtroom revisitation of the events of season 1), amnesia becomes a new delaying device, with the character of Alex (Miles Heizer), who has also attempted suicide, having forgotten what was on the tapes! And then there was a third season in 2019 and a fourth in 2020, still basically churning over the same set of events from various points-of-view …
13 Reasons Why, like many TV series present and past, begs an inevitable but crucial question of narrative craft: how far can a story’s central premise or motor be pushed to continue in the same way, with elementary variations? In practice, it either has to reinvent itself, or drain away.
It might be countered that this point is truer of drama than comedy; after all, TV situation comedies (of the Cheers or Taxi type) have often managed very well with a theme-and-endless-variations format. This validly raises the speculation that there are some familiar aspects of narrative that may be handled better by TV – particularly in light of the long duration possible across a serial format.
Let’s take, for instance, the popular storytelling technique of what is variously known as the network, mosaic or prismatic narrative: a story with multiple characters and threads, perhaps arranged non-chronologically, and told (with frequent “replays”, literally mocked-up as 1980s-style “VHS rewinds” in Park’s The Little Drummer Girl) from various, shifting points-of-view. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, 1994), Brian De Palma (Snake Eyes, 1998), John McNaughton (Wild Things, 1998) and many others have done this in the feature film format, with even veteran Jerzy Skolimowski getting in on the flashy act in his dazzling and underrated 11 Minutes (2015).
TV, however, can achieve something with this tricky format that no film can do – especially when there is an enforced pause between episodes, as a series is gradually “rolled out” over a period of time rather than released all at once for the binge-consumers. From La maison des bois to the steely German mystery/thriller/sci-fi series Dark (2017–2020), there is no thrill quite as awesome as the sudden plunge, at the start of an episode, into an entirely different, unforeseen point in story-time (earlier or later) or story-space, implicitly demanding that we catch up however we can.
The remarkable series The OA (2016-2019), created by Zal Batmanglij and lead actor Brit Marling, kicked off its second season with a disconcerting backward step from the cliff-hanger that ended season 1 – exactly “7 hours 46 minutes earlier”, as an informative intertitle states – and then provides instant immersion into the daily rounds of a character, Karim (Kingsley Ben-Adir), we have never met before!
Or consider a more local, punctual device that has become de rigueur in any multi-strand audiovisual narrative: the moment in which, usually to the accompaniment of a song, we witness the dexterous comparison of the story’s diverse characters, each in their own piece of the plot, as they mull over their lives or approach some moral-ethical crucible … In a feature film, you can really only do this type of orgasmic montage once, to insure maximum pathos-impact, as P.T. Anderson did in Magnolia (1999). In a series like the political thriller The Americans (2013-2018), however, it can happen repeatedly, in many episodes, without losing its effectiveness. David Simon’s and George Pelecanos’ The Deuce (2017– 2019) ended its second season with an especially fine instance of this technique, set to all 5 minutes and 25 seconds of The Pretenders’ “Mystery Achievement”.
This is not to say that TV always pulls off its jazzy mosaic effects with equal success. The third, comeback season in 2019 of True Detective (after a disastrous, vaguely Twin Peaks-ish second season in 2015) has many qualities of mood, performance and characterisation. But its elaborate, scaffolding structure (plots moving forward simultaneously in three separate periods, 1980, 1990 and the present) sets itself an almost insoluble craft problem: no character in the latter two time-zones can simply utter whatever facts they have come to know about the central abduction and murder mystery during the intervening years. That’s an awfully big lacuna to maintain over eight episodes.
Patrick Somerville’s mini-series Maniac (2018) lost me as a viewer at the close of episode 3, after already
piling up too many prismatic, one-step-forward-two-steps-back games:
first the story told from the viewpoint of Owen (Jonah Hill) and then
again, differently, of Annie (Emma Stone); a character-defining
flashback from Annie, and then another (this one self-invented) from
Owen … and so on. Those three episodes certainly constituted an
initial narrative plateau, before launching off into an entirely
other, simulated fantasy-land situation – but, to my taste, the
idling went on too long, and revealed little except its own grinding
Those verdicts on True Detective and Maniac are my personal opinion on two particular series but, in a more general way, we should inquire: what is the state of criticism in relation to these types of ongoing metamorphoses in storytelling across film and TV?
Not surprisingly, one strong response has been to react against the potentially infinite long-form, and to advocate a return to (or at least a re-evaluation of) classical narrative structure as honed within the feature-film format.
At stake here, especially, is the status of narrative closure – a story’s definite end-point. In a 2017 interview with poet Peter Gizzi, the American critic-turned-filmmaker Kent Jones (the underrated Diane, 2018) has stressed that a good movie is one in which, at every moment of its running time, all the elements are being shaped toward, and structured in the light of, its foreseen conclusion: only at the end of a rich movie will we, as spectators, be able to “read back” and see why everything happened as it did, and why all the particular stylistic choices had been made by the director. It’s what literary theorists have long called the “sense of an ending” – the aura of an inexorable, unfolding destiny, justifying all the points of the journey along the way.
For Jones – and he has a powerful cinema history to back him up on this – cinema is all about “concision, compression, and stylistic choices made as responses to the moment in relation to the motivating force that started it in the first place by one individual”, i.e., the writer-director or auteur, that person who has the best and deepest apprehension of the whole work and its total form.
In Jones’ opinion, current serial TV has wielded “a horrible influence on movies”. Films are becoming looser, less organised. Their makers are drawn to emulate the type of televisual storytelling that is “overextended” because it is “constantly elbowing in and out of tangents and thus creating the impression of vast amounts of territory”. (Better Call Saul [2015–2021], the “spin-off” from Breaking Bad [2008-2013], represents the intriguing case of a narrative concept that both generously expands elements of the original, but is also inevitably constrained, by its structure, to eventually lock onto the start and end of Breaking Bad’s story, thus forming a coherent saga.)
Jones is pointing to the way that digressions – and the plateaux they help conjure – can become more alluring to filmmakers than the straight-lines of classical narration, Howard Hawks, Ida Lupino or John Carpenter style. An example of this influence of TV on cinema can be found in the sequel to an earlier Denis Villeneuve film, the drug-thriller Sicario (2015). In Sicario: Day of the Soldado (2018), directed by Stefano Sollima (a veteran of Italian TV crime series including Gomorrah [2014– 2021]), large, separate pieces of the overall plot float until they finally intersect, very like in a TV series. The effect is odd and not entirely satisfying – although, naturally, space is thereby elbowed for a further sequel or two, reportedly in development!
In a similar vein to Jones, the Italian scholar-critics Luca Bandirali and Enrico Terrone have argued that, in an age of supersize (their word for long-form) stories, when narrative closure is suspended, the less clearly defined middle section or second act of any story can be indefinitely expanded. This possibility, they propose, offers an alluring freedom, the freedom of the potentially “neverending story” – but that freedom is also a trap or a problem, in direct violation of what they hold to be the most basic principles of the Aristotelian theory of drama. (When in doubt, call on Aristotle!) Once more, the appeal to classicism by these critics calls for the sense of an ending as the most crucial part of any narrative.
Let’s try to look at this in another way. In the industry of TV production, such acts of suspension and expansion are, of course, not just a question of aesthetic theory. If the decision from network executives is to continue or renew a series – or, conversely, if it is to be abruptly discontinued, because of low or disappointing ratings, mid-flight – then the ending (if one has even been yet imagined or sketched out) must be either postponed, or lost forever.
This latter fate, to take only one especially sad example, befell the brilliant series created by Laura Dern and Mike White, Enlightened (2011-2013, with episodes directed by Todd Haynes and Jonathan Demme), the third and final season of which never materialised. The same thing happened with Soderbergh’s absorbing The Knick (2014-2015), Gregg Araki’s ultra-zany Now Apocalypse (2019) and Alan Ball’s adventurous Here and Now (2018), the latter two only lasting a single season each. And the most perplexing sudden-death interruption of all remains that of The OA at the high point of its unravelling meta-enigma, and despite its enormous cult fan-base.
What sort of critical system or method might be able to best deal with this present-day, fluctuating situation of the long-form narrative? David Auerbach, one of the outstanding modern commentators on TV, has suggested a useful model. Like Jones, Auerbach happily asserts that what is referred to as a “mythology” or “cosmology” in TV narrative – a coherent universe in which a story (however fantastic) unfolds – is usually teleological, i.e., shaped with a view toward its concluding, final point. This is how, for instance, the Lord of the Rings cycle is built in literature and cinema.
However, not all audiovisual narratives behave in this way. Some mythological universes have more surreal premises – they change the rules as they proceed, or perhaps completely reboot the basic premises. This is the case, for example, with George Miller’s Mad Max film series – the fictional world it creates is never the same from movie to movie!
Auerbach non-judgementally recognises the range of storytelling options that TV offers. There are, in his schema, three main possibilities or models: he calls them steady-state, expansionary and big crunch.
First: a steady-state TV series is flexible and aimless, episodic and modular. The only fixed elements are the characters (always the same, never changing), and perhaps a regular setting, such as the bar in Cheers. Soap operas and situation comedies work this way; so do police shows and hospital dramas. In contrast to the traditional believability or verisimilitude scale of drama, steady-state comedies are frequently weightless, unreal – and this is a key part of their appeal.
The steady-state format has certainly influenced cinema: the lighter comedies of Woody Allen, for instance, owe a great deal to it. The ultimate ending of a long, steady-state TV series can be abrupt, even completely silly or nonsensical, because an end-point means little in itself: the bizarre Australian soap opera Chances, for instance, ended in 1992 with a completely unmotivated global apocalypse! And we should never underestimate the potentially subversive value of what American poet and activist Franklin Rosemont once dubbed such “popular accomplices” of surrealism.
Next in Auerbach’s schema, the expansionary model, represented by series such as Lost (2004-2010) and The X-Files (began in 1993, it finally halted its expansion with the 11th season in 2018). Here, elements are continually added to the initial premise, problems are varied and repeated, some change occurs, but there is “no end in sight” – as long as the series remains popular and the network keeps giving the go-ahead for it to continue.
The high-tech-action series Blindspot (2015–2020) began from an idea – every time a tattoo on the body of the central character is decoded, a new adventure with a tight deadline is triggered – that is clearly designed to stretch as far into the future as it possibly can. And, if not, there will always be a sudden revelation, switch-around, or turning of the tables, where one character assumed to be good will be uncovered as evil, or another character presumed dead is discovered to be really alive … and so on. Classical narrative it ain’t – but, once again, it does share a certain surrealistic merriment with many illustrious B movie forms of yesteryear, such as Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945).
Lastly, the big crunch model tries to play a mid-way game between the steady-state and expansionary formats. From the very beginning, it seems to promise a big ending (a crunch), and it keeps planting clues that point paths toward this conclusion. Breaking Bad grappled with this problem, as it stretched itself out over five seasons in six years (which is much longer than the single year that the plot itself actually covers!). It all hinged on a coming catastrophe: when would Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his many crimes be uncovered, and what would be the result of that exposé?
The Deuce, in contrast, sustains its intrigues more loosely, so that it can float more easily: situations develop (women increasingly assert themselves as active “agents” in the pornography industry), criminal involvements intensify, the AIDS epidemic spreads, politicians move in with their programs of social reform, and (more generally) the “times they are a’changin’” (as in a Martin Scorsese or P.T. Anderson film) as the decades transit from the 1970s to the 1980s.
the third and final season of The Deuce,
there are certainly some high-dramatic events (such as murder) and
ethical crucibles, but the ultimate, final gesture is the sudden leap
to a coda set in contemporary times, deftly avoiding the need to
deliver a big narrative crunch.
In my opinion, the critique of TV needs, ultimately, to look beyond the rolling arguments (however valuable they can be) over whether the medium is sufficiently classical (or not) in its storytelling. There is an elephant in the room here, and it relates to that other great cinematic tradition: its avant-garde.
Apart from the welcome glimmers of pop surrealism, are we yet seeing truly widespread, experimental TV anywhere in the world? Showrunners experiment, certainly, but always within the limits of an ultimately teleological narrative framework. Natasha Lyonne’s lively Russian Doll (2019) resurrects the Groundhog Day (1993) idea of a single span of time lived over and over every day – in this case, terminated each time by a banal or gruesome death, just as in the horror film cycle of Christopher Landon’s Happy Death Day (2017), Happy Death Day 2U (2019), and its “not very likely but not impossible” future third instalment (according to its producer Jason Blum).
Let’s look back, briefly, on what was, not long ago, touted as the great revolutionary event of mainstream TV: David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). While taking nothing away from Lynch’s extraordinary artistic achievement in that ever-surprising third series of Twin Peaks, unveiled 26 years after the show’s prior cancellation, we can note what has fast become its legacy within the contemporary TV industry: a packaging (and thus, to some extent, a taming) of every kind of narrative weirdness within an all-encompassing fantasia of multiverses, alternative or parallel timelines. The second season of The OA, too, plunged into this New Age-y realm of rebooted realities – which one character describes, in perfectly Aristotelian terms, as “the science of destiny”.
We should remind ourselves, though, of how utterly befuddling (in the best possible way!) it was to watch Twin Peaks: The Return from week to week in 2017. Plot events flared up and went nowhere (my personal favourite: Charlyne Yi in episode 15, crawling along the floor of the Roadhouse club and screaming her lungs out); events took place in uncertainly located spaces and times (poor, troubled Audrey [Sherilyn Fenn] zoning in and out of reality); inexplicable sights and sounds regularly appeared (such as mirror or window reflections differing from the real bodies in front of them). And then there was the immortal eighth episode, yanking us without warning into an “origin story” of cosmic and cataclysmic proportions. All very unsettling and adventurous, as well as superbly Lynchian – but also, to a large extent, all sewn up by the end, like a typical puzzle or mind-game narrative film.
Destiny, cosmology, and a plot that is finally explicable (even if, as in Lynch’s case, it takes some time and argument to figure where and how every detail falls into place): all these terms fit together and resonate. But there is also an entirely different type of narrative, and it is one that cinema – the cinema of Alain Resnais, Angela Schanelec, Tsai Ming-liang and many others – has long investigated.
The best account of this radical form of narrative has been offered by the Australian-Russian theorist, Julia Vassilieva. In a superb essay (“Beyond Poetics: Raúl Ruiz’s Rethinking of Narrative”, Critical Arts, Vol. 31 No. 5, 2017) on the full, 6-part TV series version of Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), she draws upon the work of literary scholar Gary Saul Morson to suggest that the majority of TV culture (both in production and in critique) is today still imprisoned by those basic, Aristotelian principles of narrative structure (i.e., poetics), while ignoring everything in the viewing experience of its process that can be construed differently, as “eventness” or tempics.
The distinction at play here might sound abstruse, but is actually quite straightforward. The classical structure of a narrative is its closed, logical, holistic form – even if it is arranged in a non-chronological, non-linear way (the prismatic “Tarantino effect” mentioned above). This standard form of narrative, according to Morson, is finally all about “fatalism, determinism, closed time” – magnificently embodied by, for example, Breaking Bad.
A tempic story, on the other hand, is about moment-to-moment possibility: what might happen, could happen, what did not happen, at any given juncture-point in time and/or space. We might call it “conditional” or speculative narrative. In place of an ultimate, locked-in destiny, we are confronted with what Vassilieva calls the realm of the “unstable, unpredictable, unfinished, and unresolved” – which is, for her, a species of freedom, allowing room to move for both fictive characters and real spectators, not to mention audiovisual creators. Recall how Rainer Werner Fassbinder concluded his TV series Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980), in a gesture of sovereign liberty – with a feature-length “epilogue” episode billed as “My Dream of the Dream of Franz Biberkopf by Alfred Döblin”.
Ruiz himself said it well in his press kit statement: the central attraction for him of Camilo Castelo Branco’s melodramatic 1854 novel Mysteries of Lisbon as source material was that its various plot events and threads “spill over, they exceed the limits established by related events by awakening other latent fictions that were sleeping in the shadow of the romantic fact”. Or, to use a still intellectually fashionable term, the narrative is as much the record of what is virtual (possible, imaginable, able to be generated) as of what is “actual”, real, or believable in it – a “narrative cloud”, as Vassilieva describes it in terms suitable for our digital era.
The various and increasingly popular narrative conceits of time-on-a-loop and multiverses give us a tantalising, flirtatious glimpse of that cloud, but then brutally limit the potential range of its freedom – this is true even of Twin Peaks: The Return. And the many multi-strand network-plots that have ruled the roost for some time now, whatever their undoubted qualities, fall short of the open path of narrative as (as Vassilieva puts it) “a motor, a machine for generating multiple stories and multiple temporalities”.
In most TV production, even now, this realm of the virtual or the tempic is only ever approached at the extreme limit of wacky, pastiche-laden, deliriously “meta” comedies such as Rachel Bloom’s and Aline Brosh McKenna’s sublime Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-2019). What J. Hoberman once identified and praised as the vulgar modernism of Frank Tashlin films, Mad magazine and Ernie Kovacs’ TV specials has become, at best, the vulgar postmodernism of such zany comedy.
In this televisual format, departures from verisimilitude – such as an entire episode revealed only at the end to be the dream of a character – may be finally “explained”, but the explanation itself is perfunctory, a mere alibi for play, just another self-referential joke. It’s something to celebrate, but it is still not the full-on TV revolution of which some of us dream.
Allow me to end on what may at first seem to be an oblique reference. Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (2018) is a very peculiarly placed object within the context of our contemporary media sphere. It is most certainly a film – and, of course, was conceived, shot and partly edited by Welles as such – but the only manner in which it could have ultimately made its way to a public in 2018 is as, in a certain sense, a “TV event”, a digital reconstruction underwritten, presented and distributed by Netflix.
The result of this reconstructive experiment is fascinating and I, like many cinephiles, am eternally grateful that it now exists (even if, in late 2023, it still lacks a DVD/Blu-ray release). But, without demeaning the insightful labour of all those who heroically contributed to finishing The Other Side of the Wind after Welles’ death, I wonder if its finished form cleaves a little too much toward a certain, tidy containment – and away from a more tempic possibility.
The crux of this matter is the relation between the framing story of Jake Hannaford (John Huston) and the framed or embedded story, the film-within-the-film featuring Oja Kodar. Out of the potentially many possible versions of Welles’ footage, the reconstructors have erred on the side of dovetailing the latter inside the former in order to create a clear hierarchy of levels – a very “classical” decision, taken for what is not (in my opinion) an entirely classical project.
Could we imagine a version in which the two “films” that comprise The Other Side of the Wind stood more as equals, or fought each other for supremacy more openly? After all, as Cyril Béghin has perceptively suggested in Cahiers du cinéma (“L’hypothèse d’un film”, no. 751, January 2019), the profound, underlying theme of Welles’ raw material may be exactly the idea that was allegorised in his earlier The Immortal Story (1968): living, carnal flesh (as so vividly embodied and stylised in the Kodar scenes) will always rise up to trump, overwhelm and even destroy the neat narration that seeks to control and contain it.
Here – to appropriate and revive some long-lost buzzwords of 1970s film theory – the tendency of television to professionally homogenise, to smooth out and make conventional sense of its product, wins out over the subversive possibilities of a richer and more eventful heterogeneity. And that is not only an argument internal to Welles’ career; it can also serve as one, provisional allegory of the relations between TV and cinema in our time.
© Adrian Martin July 2020 (updated October 2023)