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September 2001, Week 3


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Tue, 18 Sep 2001 10:45:45 -0400
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The DVD for "Memento" has an IFC interview where Christopher Nolan says that the film is not non-linear but that it is in fact "rigorously" linear.  He's right since except for the flashbacks (& possible fantasy shots) the story itself proceeds in a very straight and undeviating manner, it's just presented in an unusual method.

Which got me wondering about the conception of "non-linear."  How do most of you use it?  Is there a purpose to distinguishing in however tentative a way between linear and non-linear?  There's a common (but not consistent or commonly accepted) distinction between narrative (as presentation) and plot (as the underlying story) in which case "Memento" would be a non-linear narrative but a linear plot.  What exactly would be linear anyway?  The only purely linear narratives would be real-time films like "Rope" or "Nick of Time" but clearly the idea is generally extended to those where events occur without obvious (ie unconventional) breaks or ellipses.  (Some critics have pointed out how mystery novels/films are about creating linear stories from non-linear elements.  I'm also reminded of Dryden rewriting some Shakespeare plays so that they fit what he considered the proper dramatic unities.)

Non-linear examples might be "Pulp Fiction" (and its love child "Go"), "Tristram Shandy" (& piles of later metafiction, my favorites being "Mulligan Stew," "If On a Winter's Night a Traveller," "At Swim-Two-Birds" and most of Borges), fiction based on non-fiction genres like "Pale Fire" or "Dictionary of the Khazars" (most fiction films done in documentary style tend to be quite linear), "Rashomon," dense ghost tales with multiple story layers like "Turn of the Screw" or "Celine & Julie Go Boating."  Some theorists are fascinated by hypertext works but the ones I've encountered have been little more than experiments.  Perhaps more interesting are some computer games (and paper RPGs) that allow a wide degree of narrative flexibility for the player/protagonist though perhaps these aren't actually non-linear.

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