M. Khan Husseini
Recently I come across a debate about the latest release Afghan/French film The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi 2012) between two friends ( Naji and Hatif) each analysed and offered their opinion of the film (although not an academic debate or analysis but rather a personal take of the film). Which has led to this short discussion. I do not attempt to analyse any specific film in depth, however I will look into a few films that has succeeded tremendously in terms of both blockbuster hit and academic awards. I will discuss the elements that have contributed to their success and offer my opinions for the cinema or cinematic language in general. I will skip some crucial and in depth knowledge, which make up the essence of cinema for this discussion. Thus I shall focus on some basics, which we are all familiar with such as order, time, frequency and duration.
How does cinema or film in general tell a story? One of the difference between cinema and novel is that cinema has its own form which is made up of; order, frequency and duration. I shall discuss each of them but firstly the order. Order; is one of the way in which cinema manipulates the time and specifically manipulates the story events by its plots, perhaps one of the most characteristic way in which film manipulate the story. This happens more often in the crime films. An obvious example of such manipulation of order would be the famous TV serious of The murder she wrote or CSI. Such films quite often shows a murder has happened, then followed by the story of what led to the murder as the detectives begin their investigation. This is the most common manipulation of story order which cinema uses for narration. Other tools that cinema uses to present a story is the frequency.
Frequency: is the repetition of an event within the story by the plot, for example, we might see the same event being repeated through different point of view if the event is to be an importance of the story. This can happen in different film depends on it’s story. But mainly frequency is being used for flashbacks, flash-forward or imagination. For example, a detective is investigating a crime scene, he/she imagines how the crime might have happened (usually flash forward) and later on we see the same event that has taken place through the suspect’s confession.
David Bordwell in his book Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) argues, “like order and frequency, duration is strictly governed by the conditions of normal viewing, we cannot control how long the narration takes to unfold. This is of capital importance for filmic construction and comprehension” (p.80). Which means if we are seated in a dark cinema we can not control the story presented to us, in fact we can not control anything but rather we just forget everything else around us and go into the world of the film for the duration. Duration: can be used in different aspect of film form i.e. screen duration, in which we watch a film and see the story unfolds, the story duration; where and how the story has taken place, sometimes we see a character from his/her childhood to their grownups, The kite Runner (M. Forster 2007,USA) for example. We see Amir and Hassan as a kid, few minutes later he is grown up through ellipses, in this case we do not need to see how he has grown up but we just make that connection using our imagination. This might happen in a flash back or through ellipses which cinema uses to manipulate the time via its plots. Bordwell calls it “fabula duration” in which the story action has taken place from a decade to month or weeks but the film may present it within 120 minutes of its running time. Or indeed sometimes we see slowing down or speeding up of an event(s), Matrix (A, Wachowski, 1999, USA) is one example of this type of event manipulation, when the gun is being fired we see the event being slowed down to the point where we can see the bullet travels, cueing the importance of the event.
“In normal circumstances, the duration of a single shot is assumed to be equivalent to the duration of the action it represent” (Bordwell,p.80).
Afghan/French film The Patience Stone (Atiq Rahimi 2012)
An example of this kind of circumstances is the week –end (Jean- Luca Godard. 1967). Where we see a car trying to get passed the traffic the shot continues for the whole duration of that sequence as the traffic slowly moves. This sequence represent the action duration in screen duration, this sort of duration within cinema is what Bordwell call “Syuzhet” duration which is very rare in mainstream narrative films. The mainstream cinema manipulates the action duration with ellipses. For example we would see that 10 minutes long action duration in perhaps 2 minutes or less, just the same way as we see the years and months of a story duration in less than 2 hours of its running time. Slumdog Millionaire (D, Boyle, 2008,UK) is an example of mainstream narrative film and how cinema manipulates time and order.
“Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik (Patel), an 18 year-old orphan from the slums of Mumbai, who is about to experience the biggest day of his life. With the whole nation watching, he is just one question away from winning a staggering 20 million rupees on India¹s “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?” But when the show breaks for the night, police arrest him on suspicion of cheating; how could a street kid know so much? Desperate to prove his innocence, Jamal tells the story of his life in the slum where he and his brother grew up, of their adventures together on the road, of vicious encounters with local gangs, and of Latika (Pinto), the girl he loved and lost. Each chapter of his story reveals the key to the answer to one of the game show¹s questions” (imdbcom).
This film is the type of usual mainstream narrative films where the film manipulates time, order, frequency and duration; for example we see Jamal Malik is seated on the chair when he is being asked a question then there is a flashback, taking the story a few years earlier as he remember the events which helps him find answers to the question. His life story begins as a childhood but we see it in reverse by flashbacks, which is one of the most common way that cinema manipulates time by order, frequency and duration. Perhaps we could argue that cinema does works as a time machine, as the evidence suggests, we see a story of over a decade being unfold in 120 minutes by chopping out the story with ellipses. Secondly; the cinema has trained us over our life time to read those temporal aspects i.e. flashbacks and flash forward, and thirdly; it disciplines us yet again to seat and watch the story for 2 hours of its running time. Now that we have established how order, frequency and time manipulate the narrative, It is clear that The Patience Stone is lucking all of these cinematic elements. Another important elements, perhaps the most important element which can be defined as the essence of cinema is to show but don’t tell, and yet, in the patience stone we hear a lot of telling but not so much showing. I conclude that from the above evidence is the failure of the director and not the story or form of The Patience Stone.
David, Bordwell. Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) Cornell University Press