Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations: A Response to David Bordwell's "Film Futures"
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SubStance 31.1 (2002) 105-114



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Nearly True: Forking Plots, Forking Interpretations
A Response to David Bordwell's "Film Futures"

Edward Branigan


I would like to examine what is "nearly true." This phrase is not meant to characterize David Bordwell's exceptional essay, "Film Futures," which I would summarize with Orson Welles's film title, It's All True. However, since Welles never quite finished that film, perhaps I might supplement Bordwell's argument with a few thoughts about the matter of interpreting film, specifically, about interpreting what is "nearly true" in a plot. I believe that what is "nearly true" is an important kind of "fork" in a plot and has an impact on a film's future, that is, how a film acquires value after having been seen.

Bordwell demonstrates that what he calls "forking-path" plots in such films as Sliding Doors and Run Lola Run have certain fundamental properties that are quite familiar to us from classical narratives. For example, forking-path plots are well-marked, linear, developed, cohesive, unified with one another, ordered sequentially to make the final path a climax, and designed to pinpoint clear, contrasting parallels (e.g., the parallels among the three different women in the three lives of the protagonist of Blind Chance). One might say that "chance" is anything but "blind" in forking-path narratives. The river of time may have divided two or three times (so that a person may step into the same river more than once) but otherwise this most familiar sort of time just flows on--on course. Wittgenstein, Lakoff and Johnson, and others have analyzed this folk psychological concept of the river of time. 1 In the present context, I want to emphasize that the river flows in those channels that have been dug out and excavated by both a filmmaker and spectator as well as constructed through, shall we say, a history of filmmaking and interpreting. 2 As Bordwell shows, narrative is not built on principles of physics or philosophy, but with the use of folk psychology. The screen is not blank before a film begins: a spectator does not watch with no preconceptions, memories, or reasoning strategies. Hence in comprehending a narrative we normally reason from a single case using [End Page 105] an enormous variety of judgment heuristics (which also generate appearance/reality motifs); we focus on first impressions using stereotypes and prototypes; we rely on shortcuts, templates, and schemata; and, in general, we cheerfully risk faulty inferences and erroneous conclusions. We do this because it is efficient and adaptive to our everyday environment. I am not forgetting that our environment is always ideologically charged, for a social setting provides one of the major shaping influences on folk psychology. 3

Filmmakers employ the psychology of the everyday in order to aid spectators in comprehending a narrative. Filmmakers also employ this psychology against spectators when it is important that something not be seen or fully understood during the telling of a story (e.g., to create mystery or surprise), or when the spectator must understand in a new way (e.g., in a metaphorical way or through a sudden revelation), or when something disturbing or traumatic must be reconfigured by the text or repressed. As spectators, we make mistakes in making inferences because we are systematic in drawing inferences, and authors count on that.

Bordwell's detailed analyses of our thought processes while watching a forking-path narrative is reminiscent of Daniel Dennett's argument for a "multiple drafts" model of consciousness as opposed to the traditional notion of a "Cartesian theater." (Indeed, at the conclusion of his essay Bordwell renames the forking-path narratives as "multiple-draft" narratives.) Dennett speaks of consciousness not as located in some special place like a movie theater in the mind, but instead as a series of "distributed" internal states, a series of disparate "causal trains." "At any point in time," Dennett says of the stream of consciousness, "there are multiple drafts of narrative fragments at various stages of editing in various places in...