Thursday, November 13, 2008

'Cause what you see you might not get

Today's topic: lessons in narrative swiped from Russian formalism -- the syuzhet and the fabula.

So have you guys seen this movie Primer? Excuse the language, but it is a mindfuck. The main characters, engineers working on potentially patentable projects in their garage as a side business, discover that they've created a time machine. They use it at first to get rich daytrading, but then one of them gets involved in re-engineering social situations (in particular an incident with a gun at a party). Subsequently, both try to prevent each other, or other versions of themselves from completing certain actions, sometimes taking the place of themselves in conversations they previously experienced and reciting their earlier lines from recordings or notes they've made, sometimes taking an extra time machine inside the time machine to make loops within loops, and so on. On top of all of that, the movie portrays these events in both non-chronological and non-sequential order. Good God.

I saw this movie on DVD a few years ago, and liked it, even though it made my head spin. My head didn't spin for the reason it might watching a movie like Mulholland Dr. (a favorite of mine) or some other Lynch flick that's mindbending for being oblique. Rather, it's mindbending because it's complicated. It's smartly written by guys with backgrounds in math, physics and engineering, so the jargon is convincing. And it doesn't hold your hand to explain anything, even as the plot seems to quintuple back on itself and pile paradoxes upon paradoxes.

A current or recent Grinnell College student who I do not know recently posted on her Plan (text-only blog accessible to people in the larger Grinnell community) her intention to rewatch the movie until it all made sense. She posted a link to this paper (spoilers!) by one Jason Gendler that analyzes the film and attempts to iron out its narrative. The paper repeatedly, and centrally, uses two words with which I was not familiar, fabula and syuzhet. Context suggested that each were somehow components of narrative structure, but to really understand what Gendler was writing, I did some digging.

Neither term had a or wikipedia entry, though they were mentioned in the article on Russian formalism, from which the terms originate. Google brought me to a helpful table from a Penn State comparative lit course that explained them well: the syuzhet is what is presented by the creator of a narrative, what you perceive directly by watching or reading; the fabula is your interpretation of the actual story, of what happened, which may expand beyond what you are told or shown. Here's the table, which is great...

Fabula Syuzhet
  • Story
  • Plot
  • Constructed by Reader/Viewer
  • Constructed by Writer/Teller
  • Chronological Order
  • Order of Recounting
  • What we interpret
  • What we perceive
  • As many different ones as there are readers
  • Generally only one, agreed upon by all
  • Mental
  • Perceptible

And some examples off the top of my head (spoilers abound!):

Star Wars: In the syuzhet, Greedo tells Han Solo that Jabba doesn't take kindly to smugglers who dump their cargo at the first sign of an Imperial patrol. Han responds that even he gets boarded sometimes. In the fabula, the viewer imagines further the incident described.

The Searchers: In the syuzhet, Ethan Edwards grabs his left arm as he walks out a silhouetted doorway. In the fabula of certain viewers, Edwards is having a heart attack.

The Sopranos (NELS, SKIP THIS ONE!): In the syuzhet, in the final moment of the show, as "Don't Stop Believing" plays on the jukebox, Tony Soprano looks up in response to the dinging bell at the front door of the diner where he and his family are eating. The screen and music cut abruptly to black silence. In MY fabula, Tony has just been shot to death by the guy in the Members' Only Jacket who went into the bathroom moments before.

Memento: In the syuzhet, at the end of the film, Leonard has been looking for the man he says raped and murdered his wife. He has been telling the story of Sammy Jankis, a man who like him, suffered from a loss of any short-term memory. A man who claims to be acting as an ally, but who Leonard killed at the beginning of the film (which comes chronologically last), accuses Leonard of lying to himself, that Sammy was a con-man. In a montage of shots playing under the audio of this conversation, Leonard is shown giving his wife insulin shots, something Sammy did in the earlier stories. In the fabula, it is up to the viewer to decide whether Leonard killed his wife by unintentional insulin overdose, whether he had in fact already had his revenge, whether Sammy was a con-man, and indeed, whether Leonard was what he claimed.

I find these concepts very intriguing and potentially useful for understanding and discussing films. It draws a bright line between what you saw when you watched the movie, and what the film was "supposed" to be about. Thus, David Lynch isn't being an ass when he refuses to explain what the hell was happening in one of his movies. He's just letting the syuzhet speak for itself and leaving the fabula to the viewer. They also help explain my reaction to Oliver Stone's JFK, which Melissa and I watched a couple weeks ago. I find the film's syuzhet masterful: it's well-plotted, scripted, cast, acted, shot & edited. But my version of the fabula is somewhat different from the one Stone presents through the author's voice character of Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner). Granted, this is based on the intrusion of the real world into my interpretation of the narrative, but there it is.

Thanks, Russian formalism!


Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I had not heard those terms, but they delineate some helpful concepts. Thanks!

Jen said...

Fred - - I loved this blog. I read it this morning. It made me feel smart. You have taught me, dear sir. Thank you. :)