David Denby asserts that
The cinema, in which actors appear to be moving in consecutive time through patches of genuine space, has always created a strong expectation of realistic narrative. But here’s the paradox: thanks to the mechanical nature of the recording medium (still photos, or digits, strung together in rapid succession), playing with sequence and representation is almost irresistible. As soon as film was invented, experimental film was invented. Some of the fooling around was just exuberant exploration of a fabulous new toy, but some of it arose from political or philosophical convictions, and was intended to turn us upside down.
In my previous post, I suggested that while fooling around with chronology is more or less identified as the one properly "experimental" mode of fiction writing, few critics and reviewers express much interest in, or tolerance for, other kinds of literary experiment. Here Denby also equates "experimental film" with "playing with sequence." He is discussing a cluster of recent films, such as Babel, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Memento (all of which in turn, claims Denby, are in a lineage that began with Pulp Fiction) that "disorder" time, and he ultimately questions the efficacy of such manipulations.
When himself casting back in time for "classic" precursors to today's fractured narratives, Denby offers Alain Resnais as an example:
Of all the highbrow directors of the late fifties and sixties, Alain Resnais, working with experimental writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and drawing on ideas developed by those writers in their fictions, played the most extreme (and infuriating) games with time and narrative. In “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” (1959), two lovers, one French, one Japanese, mainly lie in bed trying to retrieve their memories of the war. The movie ceases to move forward in any conventional sense; and the past, it turns out, becomes ungraspable, even irrecoverable, leaving us stranded in an elegant time warp. In Resnais’s “Muriel” (1963), a variety of distancing devices hold at arm’s length an unendurable recollection—a French soldier’s experience of torturing an Algerian girl. At the same time, the present-tense narrative is developed intermittently, and without the usual climaxes and tensions, so that the structure of the story’s emotions, rather than their power, becomes the subject of the film.
That Hiroshima, Mon Amour "ceases to move forward in any conventional sense" and that Muriel's "present tense narrative is developed intermittently, and without the usual climaxes and tensions" does not, it seems to me, make them the inspiration for the jumbled chronologies of current films. Resnais is looking for alternatives to the "power" of narrative; these films want to see if cinema can carry on without "story" in the Hollywood sense, not to find novel ways of presenting story that continue to convey its dramatic force. Films like Babel and Memento (and I actually like the latter film a great deal) do not focus on "the stucture of the story's emotions." They are all "climax and tension," if anything only reinforcing the importance of story: Reassembling the fragments of narrative we are given into a conventional story becomes perhaps our primary prerogative as viewers of such movies. Story remains all.
Part of the problem with Denby's formulation of "the new disorder" is that he opposes it to "realistic narrative." He confuses "realism" with conventional storytelling. Resnais's films are hyperrealistic, even while they do abandon story conventions. Indeed, "experiment" in film is more likely to move toward greater realism than toward ever more frenzied disruptions of narrative line, at least as long mainstream filmmaking continues to be focused on delivering greater and greater narrative punch. Efforts to achieve realism in either mainstream or independent filmmaking are more likely to draw out fresh and innovative approaches to the art of cinema than the admittedly exciting but finally story-bound "scrambling of time frames" that Denby describes. This is not to say that realism is preferable in cinema, just that what Denby calls realism is really just the use of storytelling strategies that don't call attention to themselves.
Denby concludes from the perceived failings of Babel that a return to tried-and-true storytelling techniques might be necessary, that they might lead to "the paradise of a morally complicated but flawlessly told story." I'm all for moral complication, but I don't see that this must be the Holy Grail of filmmaking. I don't see why experimenting with the possibilities of film can't be a sufficient justification for making one, just as similar experiment with literary form has often been for writing a poem or a novel. If Neal Gabler is right and "movies can no longer be the art of the middle," then all the more reason not to single-mindedly pursue the mass audience with more gaudy refinements of "plot." Or mollify them with a "flawlessly told story."