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The Velvet Light Trap 58.1 (2006) 4-15


Emotional Curves and Linear Narratives
Patrick Keating

In Fred Niblo's 1921 version of The Three Musketeers D'Artagnan, played by Douglas Fairbanks, first joins forces with the title characters during an extended fight scene. The scene is packed with gags and stunts as Fairbanks leaps around the set with knife and sword in hand. At one point he even throws his sword like a harpoon. While such moments of spectacle are common in Hollywood films, ranging from the gags of comedian comedy to the musical numbers of Busby Berkeley, historians have long argued about the best way to theorize Hollywood's strategies for combining narrative and other attractions.

We can usefully group the various theoretical models into three categories: a Classical model, which argues that a certain type of narrative operates as a dominant in relation to various subordinate systems; an Alternation model, which argues that the dominance of narrative alternates with the dominance of other systems; and an Affective model, which argues that linear narrative is itself subordinate to a more important goal, the production of emotion. After surveying these alternatives, I will propose my own version of the Affective model—a version that will, I hope, draw important insights from the other two models. My argument is that metaphors of "dominance" are not always helpful in understanding the relationship between narrative and other systems. Instead, narrative and other attractions can work together to produce an intensified emotional response. We can call this the Cooperation model, since the model explains how narrative and attractions can support each other. 1 Part 1 offers a brief summary of three existing models. Part 2 explains my proposal for a Cooperation model. Part 3 applies the model to a set of films that have long played a central role in debates about the status of narrative in Hollywood: the musicals of Busby Berkeley.

1. Three Models

The most complete presentation of the Classical model appears in The Classical Hollywood Cinema by David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The book places particular emphasis on the importance of linear narrative. Bordwell writes, "Here in brief is the premise of Hollywood story construction: causality, consequence, psychological motivations, the drive toward overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. Character-centered—i.e., personal or psychological—causality is the armature of the classical story" (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 13). This argument is supported by a mountain of evidence, from trade journals, how-to manuals, and one hundred randomly selected films, showing that these principles were operating in film after film.

Bordwell uses the Russian Formalist notion of the dominant to explain the relationship between the narrative and other systems. He writes, "This integrity deserves to be seen as a dynamic one, with the subordinated factors constantly pulling against the sway of the dominant. . . . These systems do not always rest quietly under the sway of narrative logic, but in general the causal dominant creates a marked hierarchy of systems in the classical film" (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson 12). If given the example from The Three Musketeers, Bordwell might agree that the gags and stunts have an appeal all their own while arguing that their appeal is ultimately subordinated to a larger system—the system of causal logic, in which a goal-oriented character (D'Artagnan) overcomes obstacles as the story takes another step toward closure.

While acknowledging the book's accomplishment, many theorists have criticized its arguments, including the argument that linear narrative operates as the dominant in the Hollywood system. Donald Crafton argues that the [End Page 4] Classical model does not apply to slapstick films, even when the films contain a certain amount of narrative integration. In "Pie and Chase" he writes:

I contend that it was never the aim of comic filmmakers to "integrate" the gag elements of their movies. I also doubt that viewers subordinated gags to narrative. In fact, the separation between the vertical domain of slapstick (the arena of spectacle I will represent by the metaphor of the thrown pie) and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1542-4251
Print ISSN
0149-1830
Pages
pp. 4-15
Launched on MUSE
2006-10-12
Open Access
No
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