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Storytelling in Time and Space: Studies in the Chronotope and Narrative Logic on Screen

From: Journal of Narrative Theory
Volume 37, Number 1, Winter 2007
pp. 27-64 | 10.1353/jnt.2007.0014

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All great storytellers have in common the freedom with which they move up and down the rungs of their experience as on a ladder.

A ladder extending downwards the interior of the earth and disappearing in the clouds is the image for collective experience . . .

Walter Benjamin

I don't like people who have never fallen . . . Their virtue is lifeless . . . Life hasn't revealed its beauty to them.

Boris Pasternak

This paper is intended to contribute to the theoretical studies of two issues: chronotope, and narrative architectonics. It explores the narrative forms of the ritual journey, and expands the notion of the chronotope of ordeal, associated with a journey. A new type of chronotope, a derivative from the chronotope of ordeal proposed by Bakhtin, and yet a separate form of artistic time-space continuum—the chronotope of rise and fall—is introduced and explored in this paper. In narrative theory after Bakhtin and in film theory after Deleuze an interest in the exploration of fictional time-space continua, and the logic of narrative movement and change is a foreseeable development. New and newer forms of chronotopes are being proposed by the scholars of narrative systems and cinema studies. In emerging chronotope studies the researchers' goals come down to a) discovering and naming a new chronotope; b) describing it in detail using selected case studies, and c) theorizing it, by placing it in the contexts of narrative and critical theories, and in the case of film, also contemporary visual theory.

The second and interrelated topic of interest in the present article is narrative/visual architectonics, an area of inquiry first introduced by Sergei Eisenstein in a number of his works. Architectonics was emphasized in his pathos theory, which entails the integration of the forceful horizontal (forward) and vertical (upward) movements in creating the most artistically expressive or, as he put it, "ecstatic," composition. Following Eisenstein this paper goes beyond the questions of narrative structure, and enters the territory of visual storytelling. The essay addresses the poorly studied issue of how the elements of architecture become part of the narrative whole, or how a radically shaped spatial landscape affects the drama of the characters—their ordeals, physical/psychological movement, the meaning of the journey, and spiritual survival. Several foci of this article are mutually connected, and also inseparable from understanding content in its relation to form.

Human drama is unfolding in time and space. In the narratives of the journey, the rules of storytelling, and perhaps the author, who mount barriers and obstacles for the heroes, are preventing them from completing their goal—that of passing the test of symbolic ritual journey and achieving spiritual transformation. The heroes' ordeal intensifies when a landscape becomes a hazard, as well as when the thrills of height, and the mortal risks of fall become part of the journey. Another dynamic aspect of composition is associated with symmetry/asymmetry of the visual and narrative space of the journey, as manifest for example in several renowned European films. These symmetries appear to frame and facilitate the dramatization of narrative space. Symmetry was not a stabilizing factor: it concealed the anguish of displacement and contained hidden asymmetry of power, or the dynamic disequilibrium of movement. Symmetry paradoxically contributed to the heroes' shaky position between the dangerously towering spatial elements, which appear at the story's beginning and end, playing a crucial role in narrative development and resolution, as well as in the heroes' ordeal and survival.

My focus of discussion is the dialectics of ascent and descent, rise and fall, hope and despair, as represented by the relationships between heroes and architectural elements in visual storytelling. Case studies, serving the development of the above mentioned theoretical issues, include Federico Fellini's Night of Cabiria (Italy, 1957), Michelangelo Antonioni's Outcry (Italy, 1957) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Roublev (Russia, 1967). The three directors are among the most outstanding artists in the history of film, and the texts under discussion belong to the golden fund of world cinema. The stories of Roman prostitute Cabiria, a tragic family break-up in Outcry, and a search by Roublev, a Russian icon-painter, for the spiritual meaning of art are explored in a...



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