Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema

Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema

by Garrett Stewart

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Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni claimed, three decades ago, that different conceptions of time helped define the split in film between European humanism and American science fiction. And as Garrett Stewart argues here, this transatlantic division has persisted since cinema’s 1995 centenary, made more complex by the digital technology that has detached


Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni claimed, three decades ago, that different conceptions of time helped define the split in film between European humanism and American science fiction. And as Garrett Stewart argues here, this transatlantic division has persisted since cinema’s 1995 centenary, made more complex by the digital technology that has detached movies from their dependence on the sequential frames of the celluloid strip.
Brilliantly interpreting dozens of recent films—from Being John Malkovich, Donnie Darko, and The Sixth Sense to La mala educación and Caché —Stewart investigates how their treatments of time reflect the change in media from film’s original rolling reel to today’s digital pixel. He goes on to show—with 140 stills—how American and European narratives confront this shift differently: while Hollywood movies tend to revolve around ghostly afterlives, psychotic doubles, or violent time travel, their European counterparts more often feature second sight, erotic telepathy, or spectral memory. Stewart questions why these recent plots, in exploring temporality, gravitate toward either supernatural or uncanny apparitions rather than themes of digital simulation. In doing so, he provocatively continues the project he began with Between Film and Screen, breaking new ground in visual studies, cinema history, and media theory.

Editorial Reviews

New review of Film and Television Studies
An enjoyable and thought-provoking read thanks to its ambition and wide scope. By grounding an otherwise theoretical work in genuine . . . film analysis, Stewart also aims for the development of a bottom-up theory based upon a body of films.

— William Brown

Screening the Past
Framed Time remains compelling both as a study in a particular way of reading that may yet become influential, and a study of what cinema itself is becoming.

— Mike Lim

Fredric Jameson
“Garrett Stewart’s unique sensibility—which combines textual perception with a vigilant receptivity for variations in technology—here affords us rich insights into the ‘time image’ and in particular into the relationship between plot-formation and the digital.  This is wonderful reading and thinking!”

Laura Mulvey
“In this remarkable book, Garrett Stewart demonstrates convincingly that the encounter between the cinematic and the digital has produced a body of films that are emblematic of hybridity, confused temporality, and diminished narrative coherence and control.  Stewart’s innovative and imaginative concept of ‘narratography’ draws attention to those points at which both narrative and technological uncertainty erupt symptomatically into image and idea on the screen.”

D. N. Rodowick
“Imagining a retrospective glance from deeper into our new millennium, future scholars of the moving image may come to recognize Garrett Stewart’s Framed Time as provoking a decisive turning point. The object of theory no longer appears between film and screen, but rather between frame and pixel. In this exciting book, Stewart brilliantly pictures the transition where film has disappeared from American and European screens, while cinema has become something else—the expression of digitime as a new consciousness in and of images. The wild variety of how cinema imagines its new virtual life in the Silicon Era is vividly on display in this path-breaking book.”

Jerome Christensen
“In Framed Time Garrett Stewart applies a narratographic method to map the as yet incomplete transition from a filmic cinema timed by the moving frame to a digital cinema that ‘frames time in its change,’ from imprinted track to transformative array. In startling engagements with individual films Stewart analyzes the various means by which contemporary film narrates its own slow dying and figures what it may become. Audacious and convincing, Framed Time is exhilarating criticism.”

James Chandler
“Like all really fine critics, Stewart has an eye for the telling detail, and a way of registering how even the subtlest effects can be made to ramify in significant ways. The readings in this book constitute an extended analytic comparison of how recent American and European filmmakers address, or betray, a change in the way in which time is registered on screen—from the regime of the rolling film strip to the regime of the altering pixel.”—James Chandler, University of Chicago

Screening the Past - Mike Lim
"Framed Time remains compelling both as a study in a particular way of reading that may yet become influential, and a study of what cinema itself is becoming."
New review of Film and Television Studies - William Brown
"An enjoyable and thought-provoking read thanks to its ambition and wide scope. By grounding an otherwise theoretical work in genuine . . . film analysis, Stewart also aims for the development of a bottom-up theory based upon a body of films."

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University of Chicago Press
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Cinema and Modernity
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Copyright © 2007

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ISBN: 978-0-226-77416-9


In terms begin determinations. Yet in locating its distinction from traditional narratology, the suffix of my proposed method doesn't quite suffice without further explanation. As with the term medial, then, it's back to the dictionary, though this time with an overload of models and associations. It is one of those slippery and ultimately conceptual ambivalences inherent to English nominalization that graphy regularly faces two ways at once-and, in this case, with far from unwelcome results. For that suffix points to writing about something as well as to writing by means of it-as for instance, in the case of orthography, to both handwriting analysis and the script itself: designating, in that case, a potential discourse both on and in writing. the distinction applies as well in examples less strictly linguistic. Often, too, the bivalve reference is equally perfect and complete. A mapped region of the globe, for instance, may both have a geography and enlist its discipline, just as topography comprises both the features of such a locale and their description. Iconography, for another example, is both a system of images and their study as such.

The case may seem more complicated with the two syllables of narrat(e) as stem, perhaps because of the currency of that middle term narrativity, which is abstracted from any given inscription in order to evoke the structure of a telling. Here easy parallels desert us. Organic beings do boast an inherent biology even as they submit to its scientific precisions. But the narrativity endemic to any story doesn't have a narratology; it only invites one-just as thanatology is the study of death and dying rather than some mortal core an autopsy might reveal. Further, what if one wants to specify the procedures of that narrativity for a given text in a given medium? If this isolates the labor of narratography as inscriptive process-so the rules of word formation would readily allow-it also, and more pertinently here, indicates the field of narratography as the study of such mediation. In this book, then, it is the writing on narrative's graphic effects, either lexical or filmic or now electronic, their category of study (rather than the writing in and by them of screen effects), that the term narratography is meant to help focus.

This is not in the least to deny, however, that every gratification is taken in the closeness-at such a medial node-between theory and its object, between analysis and visual praxis. The method of narratography proposed and developed here for cinema is meant to evoke less the first-order operations of a term like cinematography than the plottings of cartography, even when the latter term is thought of more in connection with the making than the studying of maps. This is, simply enough, because the ground covered preexists the analysis-although it is certainly reimagined in the charting. Beyond all dictionary quibbles, we can phrase the difference in the most familiar of terms. However much style it may brandish, narrative doesn't manifest a stylistics. It only prompts one. Narratography is just such a medial specification of poetics for a given story text.

It offers, in turn, a mode of analysis inseparable from the material innovations of media history. In its concern with material inscription, such analysis is everywhere alert to the evolution (if that's the word) of one reigning graphic condition as it succeeds to another: letters through photograms to pixels, to name but three, each as constituent structural subunits of narrative representation. Yet each stage in this genealogy alters the ground of representation entirely. Narratology knows all this, of course. Narratography shows it in operation. Concerned in prose texts with the subtending enchainment-and potential surface tension-among letters, words, and syntax, or in other words the contributory give between signifiers and the larger patterns that render them the increments of narration, literary narratography is lexical and grammatical at base.

When turning to cinema, this level of attention turns instead, though comparably, on the filmic modules of advance and transition-and lately on the play of pixilation across the optic sector formerly reserved for photochemistry. After a shift in focus from literary prose to cinema, it is therefore the further shift, within screen projection, from the strictly filmic to the presumptively digital that the rest of this chapter will follow out across the metacinematic texture-and closing twist-of a filmed novel. But that's not the main connection between Henry James's prose and James Ivory's film practice that I am hoping to draw out here. Rather, concentrating on a "heritage" adaptation in the lately prevailing mode of self-conscious optical mediation allows us, from the retrospective vantage of the year 2000, not just to appreciate the ways in which optical recursions of the filmstrip within the image track have their equivalent effects in the sprocket noise and clutched advance of syntax itself. It also allows us to name narratography as a means for that appreciation.

Debate comes, of course, from the commentators who do not find any such subliminal microunits, either photograms or photon bundles, to be in fact signifying traces at all. Deleuze's emphasis on the "plane of immanence" rather than the generative track may stand in for a widespread discounting of the intermittent strip in any but the most aberrant screen practice (in Deleuze's case, the work of Dziga Vertov). But before the plane of immanence, there is the strip of imprint. One way or the other, whether we incline to a distant linguistic model or not, an important fact remains. By definition, the propellant cells of cinematic movement are processed in the frameline and disappear (but not always) into the projected image that they are recognized (and sometimes actually seen) to animate or transform. In even a loosely applied parallel to grammatical communication, syntax is to the syllabic and subsyllabic components of diction rather as dissolves or cuts are to the unbroken continuum of the shifting framed image. While attending to each separately, its interests now lexical, now cinematographic, still the work of narratography bears just this ratio in mind whenever crossmedial comparisons are invited.

That such comparisons are possible shouldn't deter conviction, I hope, in regard to my claim that the narratographic method is in fact more medium specific than traditional narratologies, whose "ology" is by nature global, transtextual, intermedial, pansemiotic. Take the leading film exemplar of historical narratology. In good formalist fashion, David Bordwell puts structure (plot sequence, or syuzhet) before content (story events, or fabula) by discovering the latter as in fact manufactured and assembled (rather than just reshaped or interpreted) by the former. In fine-tuning the "discourse" versus "story" duality that colors the thinking of everyone from Gérard Genette to Seymour Chatman, Bordwell's viewer-response approach suggests that narration stands forth as "the process whereby the film's syuzhet and style interact in the course of cueing and channeling the spectator's construction of the fabula." This is the most general and content neutral of definitions, and it seems loosely complemented by Tzvetan Todorov's earlier stress, in The Poetics of Prose (1972), on the way narrative begins in a disequilibrium that must be set right in the end, when story events have fully conformed to the structuring dynamic of plotting. Hence the prototypical role, for Todorov, of detection plots and their spur of mystery, where there is a presumed but occluded story that can be found out by plot only by being (re)constructed. Such instigating disequilibrium is specified in turn, for a single related genre, by Todorov's own separate narratological study of the fantastic a year later, where the advent of the inexplicable, either uncanny or supernatural, is the most salient mode of disruption. The initial and structuring discomfiture, at the launch of plot itself, is one with which story is always trying to catch up, until at the end stasis and explanation coincide. Or, say that syuzhet constructs from the start what style alone (more below) may help us decide upon in the end as the real cause of such an "unsettling" fabula, whether uncanny or marvelous.

Following upon Todorov's prose poetics, Michael Riffaterre's Fictional Truth goes on to subdivide the maneuvers by which such disequilibrium is set right. Textual progress is mapped from an initial model of instability or semiotic deviance that he calls "ungrammaticality"-though its markers are mostly figurative in their signifying slips, rather than strictly grammatical. This founding detour proceeds across a plot-long subtext on the way to resolution. Thus is fashioned an atemporal semiotic pattern (or transformative infrastructure) beneath the flow of plot: a pattern made present to us in various signals (Riffaterre is at his most psychoanalytic in comparing them to neurotic symptoms) that surface at intervals on the way to resolution. One readily notes that the place of such a subtext (not so called) in Peter Brooks's Reading for the Plot is taken by an even more explicitly Freudian sense of the textual unconscious, one that troubles events at the first stage of disturbance in the psychoeconomy of narrative-and that comes round to explain it in the end. Casting Brooks's terms in the most schematic fashion, Eros triggers the disequilibrium that the death drive, or Thanatos, will foreclose.

Bordwell's highly generalized account aside, these other narratologies are deeply teleological. As modes of an engineering science, they seem concerned in good part with the light at the end of the tunnels girded by plot. In Bordwell's terms, though, and whether triggered by the inexplicable (as in the genre of fantasy this book will concentrate on) or some lesser cognitive upset, the onset of syuzhet always offers the first disequilibrating model-the first uncertain thrust-in the working up of a fabula. Other narratologies converge to explain the rest: how, for instance, narrative is organized from there on by repeated incursions of structure into story, or subtext into event, until petering out into a new stability at the end. This is the destined end of every plot tendency, where all is rendered quiescent again by marriage, by death, or by some other closural trope. In the genre of fantasy, this involves the prolonged (and only at the last minute resolved) tension between events amenable to psychological explanation and those that retain the weight-or weightlessness-of the supernatural.

From the most general to the most specific of the narratological analyses (say, from Todorov's foundational prose poetics to his particularized genre demarcations), one tendency stands out. What is consistently downplayed in the overall formulations of these approaches, if not always in their analytic practice, is the matter of style or technique. For Bordwell, one recalls, narrative takes shape, and definition, from the way "syuzhet and style interact in the ... construction of the fabula." Despite the correlative grammar of his formulation, style (acting style, editing style, caméro-stylo) is for Bordwell mostly a bonus, an add-on, an adjunct to structure. Even if intrinsic to narration, style is not internal to its shaping logic. For Bordwell, two distinct levels or aspects of form in film (structure on the one hand, as interacting with its local visual or dramaturgical cues on the other) converge to generate on-screen content-and do so by guiding cognition. But think again-or differently. What if style in the cinematographic sense were not secondary or complementary so much as constitutive, more an internal supplement than a "plus"? What if the surface of the medium, with all its textual inflections (and deflections), were the only way in which the abstraction of syuzhet could make itself fully felt in the first place? Who, in fact, can really doubt this? If style or technique, broadly speaking, were acknowledged to be all we see of abstract structure on-screen, even in its formation of narrative content, the picture would look a little different, would need perhaps a tighter focus in analysis. And if, in turn, that stylistic stratum-tracing, so to speak, the very stylus of imprint and impression-were reconceived to be something like the interface between form and content, or, say, the structuring mode of content, then the need for a more closely graphic (rather than a broadly schematic) mapping would be all the more obvious.

In that case, one might wish to back up Bordwell's definition to the textual level so as to say that "technique is the manifestation of syuzhet in its structuring of fabula." This would not, in any sense, be to collapse all of Bordwell's pertinent distinctions into the dichotomy of discourse versus story, losing all detectable sense of structuration in the process. It would only be to appreciate discursive technique (or style in this sense) as the mode of apprehension for a plot's operational work. This, then, would certainly still allow "reading for the plot" in Brooks's fashion, reading for syuzhet, where the chain of metonymy across narrative time is regularly "bound" by its conversion into metaphor, into symmetries and equivalences. Moreover, this view of technique as the legible face of structure in the latter's mapping of story over time would obviously align itself with "the discourse of the fantastic" in Todorov. This would include his sense of a distended periodic syntax of events slung suspended between undecidables. Such a revised stylistic paradigm also lines up neatly with the variables of grammar and agrammaticality in Riffaterre, as these are paced incrementally, in the form of a subtext, toward a return in closure to the matrix of unspoken thematic generation.

To recenter cinematographic style or technique in this way, as more like a definitive medial function, is thus to suggest the narratographic purchase within narratology-and, once again, to tap the medium-specific precisions associated with a given disciplinary object. Cinematography, inscription, textuality: these are what manifest in process the work of discourse as storytelling, with a narrativity that must-it can be said without theoretical tendentiousness or fanfare-be read even when viewed. These graphic practices are what narratography must engage. The need is mutually reinforcing. Narratography without narratology may well be "mere" stylistics. Narratology without narratography is barely reading at all.

Let me head off at least one potential misperception. In its terminological ambitions, narratography is not specific to photography and its mobilizations. The term derives, as we've seen, more from the generalized graphics of representation (etymologically: graphein, "to write") than from any inferences of photochemical imprint. Be it conveyed by the writer's pencil, by William Henry Fox Talbot's "pencil of nature" as the first master trope of photography, by Alexandre Astruc's caméra-stylo (camera-pen) as a definition of cinematic art, or by the letterpress form of the literary artifact, at one level it hardly matters. Narrative process is, for the purposes of narratography, as graphic in fiction as it is in film. By contrast, narratology is about the transtextual function of narrative, its abstractable superstructures: how it is and moves-and, in the process, moves from one medium to another. Further, narratology is usually about the being-toward-death of narrative, its closural impetus.

If narratology appears in this sense a matter of vectoral engineering, narratography emerges, by way of distinction, as a seismic metering in process. It graphs the tensions and contradictory force fields along the armatures of plot in a specific mode of textuality, whether visual or verbal: the seams and junctures, the rifts and transferred pressures, the folds, overlaps, and undermines of sequencing itself. With narratology equipped to analyze the underlying (or overarching) structure of storytelling, narratography is then given to engage the surface tension of its materials. Narratology tells us what narrative does. In a given medial appearance, narratography shows us where. And that "where" may well hover at play in the border region between textual wrinkle-or warp-and its estimated intertextual, cultural, or intermedial resonance. The second half of this chapter will, for instance, track moments of optical distortion and photogrammatic impaction in a given film-twisted mirroring, phantasmal match cuts, superimpositions, hallucinatory animation effects performed upon diegetic photographs, and so forth. It will do so by way of noting how a single filmic text about aesthetic collecting and the photographic dossiers that abet it-in its own fetishizing optical dynamic on-screen-gets referred away to the very history of modern mediation and its commodified visual pleasures.


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Meet the Author

Garrett Stewart is the James O. Freedman Professor of Letters in the English Department at the University of Iowa. He is the author of several books, including Between Film and Screen, and most recently, The Look of Reading, both published by the University of Chicago Press.

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