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Classical Hollywood Cinema and Beyond: What is its Relationship with Narrative Form?

The concept of narrative form extends beyond several mediums, including literature, film, and television. For humans to make sense of the world, we often turn to the narrative for help with this process. Focusing on cinema, while the form is most commonly seen in fictional films, it can also appear in other types, such as documentaries. The remainder of this piece will introduce narrative and explore its meaning, as well as its relationship with storytelling, plot, and Classical Hollywood Cinema.

As a formal system, narrative can be described as “a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space”, according to York University professor Zaira Zarza. It might make use of parallelism as well, which is understood as the similarity among different elements in this context. The term also refers to a process in which the viewer is encouraged by a film to compare the distinct elements using a highlighted similarity. The narrative form ensures that a story is being told, and its format relies on the audience to take note of cues, anticipate the action, and remember information.

All of the events in a narrative, both explicitly and implicitly presented, make up the story of a particular work. Diegesis is an important component of storytelling and encompasses each characteristic that is assumed to exist in the world of a film for instance. Non-diegetic factors, as well as visibly and audibly presented material, fall under the heading of the plot. In other words, the story links with the key emotional connections and conflicts between characters while various goals are pursued, and can be boiled down to the question “what is the film about?”. Furthermore, the plot ties in with the means to tell the story, whether small-scale, epic, linear, with flashbacks, and so on. It aims to navigate the potentially rocky terrains of a story and when faced with a number of branching possibilities, it chooses a certain path. All in all, the plot is the filmmaker’s choice of events in time.

The topic of Classical Hollywood Cinema is a broad but exciting one. Historically, individual characters have served as causal agents in order for action to be initiated. This exists in fiction filmmaking. Within the Hollywood narrative, time usually holds a supporting position to cause and effect, while the form is often objective in nature and involves closure. It took shape between the 1900s to 1960s, and many films can fit into this category or have taken inspiration from its design and style.

Surrounding characters that belong in the Classical Hollywood realm, a few features allow them to be identifiable. Firstly, one aspect that distinguishes “good” and “bad” individuals in a film is their opposite goals. In most cases, these characters are also defined by a limited but consistent grouping of traits. The actor portraying such a role helps form it as well, such as whether the performer is playing with “type”, against “type”, or growing into “type”. Lastly, the traits that are connected to a character of this kind are manifested in their actions and behaviour.

An example of objective, highly-restricted narration used in a Classical Hollywood film can be found with The Big Sleep. Howard Hawks, the director, was 50 years of age at the time of its release in 1946. The main character in the film, Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart, shares a first-person limited point of view with the audience. This means that, during an investigation that he leads, the viewer discovers information at the same time the detective does. The Big Sleep also features an example of diegetic music, originating from an activity developed on screen. Lauren Bacall’s character, Vivian Rutledge, performs in front of a small gathering of people inside a home, singing And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine. This would be in contrast to non-diegetic additions, such as titles or credits. Of course, these are all decisions that the filmmaker has control over, and throughout his career, Hawks has released a collection of popular works with some notable commonalities among them. He directed His Girl Friday as well, which premiered in 1940, a well-regarded film from the Classical Hollywood Cinema era.

Outside of this historical period for the film world, ones appearing in later decades made their own impact on how narrative is told. For instance, Cleo from 5 to 7 is a French piece that premiered in 1962 and offers a special combination of choices to depict the story. It begins with an opening scene in colour, however, the remainder of the film is in black and white. There is also a shift between objective and subjective narration, Cleo’s point of view shots being placed in the second box. The timing of what occurs in the film can be considered as well, as it introduces various characters on a gradual basis and intertitles are supplied to support the narrative. The director of Cleo from 5 to 7, Agnès Varda, continued her influential career well past 80 years of age.

Looking to dive deeper into the Classical Hollywood Cinema? Below is a list of films that can be watched (and where to access them) for further exploration of this area:

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