Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative: 21 Grams and Irreversible
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The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006) 65-78


Contingency, Order, and the Modular Narrative:
21 Grams and Irreversible

A number of contemporary "modular narrative" films display, as a central stylistic and thematic concern, a fraught relationship between contingency and narrative order. This tendency finds particularly strong expression in two recent examples: 21 Grams (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2003) and Irreversible (Gaspar Noé, 2002). "Modular narrative" and "database narrative" are terms applicable to narratives that foreground the relationship between the temporality of the story and the order of its telling. For Marsha Kinder, "database narrative refers to narratives whose structure exposes or thematizes the dual processes of selection and combination that lie at the heart of all stories" (6). In its cinematic form, database or modular narrative goes beyond the classical deployment of flashback, offering a series of disarticulated narrative pieces, often arranged in radically achronological ways via flashforwards, overt repetition, or a destabilization of the relationship between present and past. The past fifteen years have seen a resurgence in this type of formal experimentation, within both mainstream and independent cinema. Although there are clear differences among these cinemas, the trend toward modularity has traversed industrial boundaries. These films do not, however, constitute a new norm in narrative cinema. On the contrary, it would seem that the majority of (both Hollywood and international) films follow a narrative structure that is largely traditional and tends toward the chronological. However, the relative popularity of films such as Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) and Memento (Christopher Nolan, 2000) suggests that audiences are now acclimatized to radically achronological narrative structures.

The most common type of modular narrative is the anachronic modular narrative, which modifies classical flashback structure so that the traditional hierarchy of narrative temporality is undermined. 1 As described by narratologist Gérard Genette, anachrony involves a departure from the "first" temporality of the narrative, a departure that establishes the analepsis (flashback) or prolepsis (flashforward) as "subordinate" to it (48). However, recent modular narratives deliberately create uncertainty regarding the primacy of one narrative temporality over another. For example, Memento organizes a series of analepses in reverse chronological order to tell the story of a man with short-term memory loss who is trying to track down his wife's murderer. In a sense, these analepses are the inverse of a classical flashback—rather than showing us what the character remembers, they progressively reveal what he is unable to remember. Interpolated between these "flashbacks" are scenes presented in black and white. These appear to be in linear order, and we later discover that they lead up to the final scene of the film (in terms of the story, this is in fact the earliest of the scenes presented in color). Yet for most of the film it is unclear when these scenes are set and how they relate to the other (color) scenes. For these reasons, the black-and-white scenes cannot be considered a "first" narrative. In fact, Memento's disorienting effect depends upon this temporal instability. A similar breakdown in narrative hierarchy is evident in other "reversed" narratives such as Irreversible and Peppermint Candy (Lee Chang-Dong, 2000), as well as in the shuffled narrative structures of Pulp Fiction and 21 Grams.

Although the pleasure of navigating the narrative structures of these films is undoubtedly central to their appeal, modular narratives also evoke a mood of temporal crisis by formally enacting a breakdown in narrative order. This mood of crisis is not simply a response to the mediating role of digital technology in contemporary society or the rise of the database as a cultural model. 2 It draws upon [End Page 65] these elements but also serves as one of the most recent extensions of a modern and postmodern discourse that continues to rethink the human experience of time in relation to science, technology, and social and industrial organization. 3 Accordingly, the relationships among past, present, and future form a central concern of cinematic modular narratives. Certain modular narratives connect database...