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5 for the Day: Contrapuntal Narration

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5 for the Day: Contrapuntal Narration

On this blog I will periodically offer lists on particular topics under the heading, “5 for the Day.” Here is the first entry. The subject: “The 5 Greatest Uses of Contrapuntal Narration,” inspired by Hiroshima Mon Amour, which I’m introducing today at the Museum of the Moving Image.

First, a note on terminology: contrapuntal narration is a specific type of narration that is not merely decorative or functional (i.e., giving the audience a bit of extra exposition, papering over plot holes, or even establishing a mood—as in most Raymond Chandler-derived, hardboiled movies). It is, rather, narration which functions in counterpoint to the action; narration which undermines, contradicts or otherwise pushes against the images; active narration that defines an internal, personal world, a world that exists apart from (or parallel to) the world depicted onscreen.

A music dictionary defines contrapuntal narration as:

1. Melodic material that is added above or below an existing melody.

2. The technique of combining two or more melodic lines in such a way that they establish a harmonic relationship while retaining their linear individuality.

3. A composition or piece that incorporates or consists of contrapuntal writing.

4. A contrasting but parallel element, item, or theme.

Definitions 2 and 4 are my favorites. They describe the sort of narration I think is most active, most justifiable, most aesthetically interesting. I am talking about narration that does not tell in lieu of (or in addition to) showing, but rather, narration that describes a somewhat different reality than the one depicted in the images.

Here, then, is The House Next Door’s very first “5 for the Day”:

1. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959): Originally envisioned as a documentary about the aftermath of Hiroshima, this film became something else once the young novelist Marguerite Duras got involved: not so much a story as a mental and emotional experience, one which simultaneously unfolds along parallel, coexisting but forever disconnected tracks. Two lovers, two marriages, two cities, two theaters of war, two traumas, and last but not least, two different planes of existence. Resnais and Duras distinguish between the transformatively powerful pasts that the French heroine wishes to imagine (her Japanese lover’s and the city of Hiroshima’s) or re-experience (her own past; specifically a doomed love between her and a German soldier) and the cool, jagged fragments of memory and empathy that she is actually able to conjure up. “Hiroshima,” critic Barry Forshaw writes, shows us “…how history and the past are always seen through present eyes; and likewise the writing of history-as-narrative is wrought with the imperfections of language, memory and history itself.”

2. Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987): To be able to eavesdrop on people’s thoughts is to be like God, or an angel, or a moviegoer. But the hero, eavesdropping angel Damiel (Bruno Ganz) becomes mortal. He loses his ability to gaze into the souls of mortals, but gains the chance to woo a onetime object of his eavesdropping, a beautiful trapeze artist (Solvieg Dommartin) who wears fake angel’s wings and flies on wires. While Damiel is ethereal, he hears (narrated, fragmented) thoughts that run the gamut from mundane to amusing to deeply moving. But although he can imprint some good feelings on his mortal subjects, he can’t make their lives tangibly better. Descending from heaven to earth, he trades detachment for immersion, omniscence for subjectivity. None of this could be communicated without the narration. The screenplay, narration included, was written by Wenders and poet Peter Handke, and draws on images and themes from Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry.

3. Days of Heaven (Terrence Malick, 1978): Malick’s World War I Texas Panhandle drama—about a love triangle between a young, rich, sickly landowner (Sam Shepard), a beautiful young immigrant worker (Brooke Adams) and the lover who pretends to be her brother (Richard Gere)—juxtaposes innocent-to-banal narration by an ex-street urchin (12-year-old Linda Manz) against luminous images of an endless grass sea. The contrast between the girl’s understanding of life and life itself is the film’s aesthetic backbone; the tension between the girl’s casually affected wisdom and the actuality of her life is sad, funny and mysterious. The narration, which talks of heaven and hell, sin and apocalypse, runs parallel to Malick’s images of rare frolics and idylls, much toil and accidental death, real pestilence and fire. The girl’s perceptions never really intersect with, much less engage with, the world. Yet she is still a part of it. (What I say here goes for Badlands as well.)

4. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998): Like Days of Heaven times ten, writer-director Malick’s adaptation of James Jones’ novel about the war in the Pacific emulates the techniques of a truly omniscent novel. The storyteller feels free to dip into the consciousness of any character that strikes his fancy, for as long or as short a period as he thinks necessary, while reserving the right to occasionally step outside of (or perhaps rise above) the characters’ heads, and take a panoramic view of armies, nations, species. Then, moving up one plane in perspective, Malick contrasts warring human armies against documentary-styled images of plants and animals, fixing the difference between humanity’s self-importance and nature’s utter indifference. (What I say here goes for The New World as well.)

5. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976): War vet turned cabbie Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) preaches the values of fitness and military discipline, but smokes, pops pills, stays out all night and softens his breakfast cereal with Thunderbird. He bemoans society’s decline, declares that all the animals come out at night and says he wishes a real rain would come and wash all the scum off the streets, but he’s a sociopathic, combative loner who’s so comfortable in hardcore porn theaters that he takes his dream girl there on their first and last date, then channels his wounded anger into “protecting” a child prostitute and stalking a presidential candidate. The difference between Travis and Travis’ self-perception is is the true subject of this movie. Written by Paul Schrader, Taxi Driver, like all great contrapuntally narrated films, exposes the gulf between our sense of our own importance and our actual importance, between what we think we know about ourselves and the truth of the matter. And it shows us, though both narration and subjectively distorted imagery, how feelings warp our sense of life. Scorsese’s film is all tension, no closure; all schism, no merger. The blowout finale solves everything and nothing. The hero is a lunatic. The lunatic is a hero. A core of mystery is preserved.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.