My Favourite Film of 1932.

Film As anyone who's read my Love Actually evisceration will know, my dissertation, completed nearly ten years ago this month, was about hyperlink cinema, films with lots of characters, storylines and locales so called because of their similarity to how the web is structured. The question I asked myself was whether this constituted a genre or narrative form.  I concluded then that I didn't know.  Now I'm sure it's both. The second chapter which considered their narrative properties began by summarising their antecedents, the key influences and it's in this area as I was writing somewhere in mid-July that I realised that I'd made the error of selecting a PHd topic for my MA dissertation and that there was clearly thousands of words which could be written about this. So I wrote thousands of words, many of which then had to be trimmed before the handing in date leaving that second chapter as a summary of what I would have written, lots of phrases like "space does not allow for the presentation of a detailed analysis of literary history" that sort of thing. Since my favourite film of 1932, Grand Hotel, would also spark the cycle of that sort of film and was arguably the key influence on what went later, I thought I'd offer a mild rewrite of that portion of my dissertation.

After some preamble explaining the point, I went straight into literature and the shop floor with Shakespeare, who, despite having been influenced by earlier sources, was arguably the key ancestor of the cross cutting storyline structure (not counting the Bible). Both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Measure for Measure, for example, share similarities particularly in relation to the depiction of different classes and geographic locations and with storylines that are only connected during the main body of each play by a single character – Puck in the former, Lucio in the latter with all of the characters and some of the stories dovetailing together in Act Five (Shakespeare, 1964; Shakespeare, 1979). Tolstoy’s War & Peace (1865-9) relates the stories of a variety of families over an eight year period reacting to the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, introduced together in the reception given by Anna Pavlovna Scherer at the opening of the novel (Various, 2006). The novels of Charles Dickens are famous for their digressive narratives, with Bleak House (1852-3) in particular featuring storylines that are only connect through chance (despite the utilisation in places of the orphan, Esther as a first person narrator) (Allan, 2004: 101). In Our Mutual Friend (1864-5) too, the storylines of Boffin and Wrayburn are only connected through the waterside murders (Hayward, 1997: 41).

Some works also feature a map of the location to help orientate the reader, in the following cases a township and train carriages. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) is a novelistic anthology with a narrative that flits back and forth amongst townspeople each with their own stories connected through George Willard the author’s autobiographical presence within the town. As Malcom Cowley indicates the author ‘would have liked to tell the stories of all the faces he had ever seen’ (Anderson, 1967: 5) and all of these short tales contributes narrative details to the others (Anderson, 1967: 13). Geoff Ryman’s 253: The Print Remix (1998), covers a seven and a half minute commuter journey between two London underground tube stations which ends with a crash, the reader being presented with descriptions of travellers and how their actions, however small, effect one another. Ryman’s book, which began as a website, is somewhat interactive in that the reader can ‘visit’ each of the characters in any order – however if read from cover to cover in the traditional way, like Anderson’s book, the effect is cumulative, some details only becoming illuminated as the reader’s knowledge of events increases (Ryman, 1998: 2).

Intolerance appears to be the first film that consciously exploits a multi-strand narrative structure, intercutting between four very distinct storylines (the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion, the Edict of Toleration which led to the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and a contemporary story about a young Irish Catholic boy), although as David Bordwell notes the film eschews ‘causal connections’ (Bordwell, 2006: 93), with instead the thematic link of social injustice. The process of watching the film is still very similar to that of hyperlink cinema since it requires the spectator to absorb a group of parallel storylines refocusing their attention with each shift in timeframe. The next film that visibly demonstrates the structure of ‘a cross-section of life, taking it and leaving it where you found it – a story without a beginning and with no ending’ (Anonymous, 1982: 156) was Grand Hotel (1932) which also contained four or five distinct stories none of which have primacy and the inferred main protagonist, The Baron certainly does not receive narrative closure; the critic of Grand Hotel quoted above hints at a weakness of the format that will be considered later: ‘a more careful scrutiny might reveal that the interwoven plots seem to fall somewhat short of building suspensefully to clearly defined climaxes’ (Ibid., 1982: 156).

The film would spark a production cycle of works that featured a large cast of stars in cross-connected storylines, although the majority would be far less experimental in their plotting; with the exception of Dinner At Eight (1933) all deferred to a ‘one locale’ setting -- ‘Columbia’s American Madness (1932), which is set in a bank, Warner’s Employee’s Entrance (1933), which is set in a department store, and Paramount’s The Big Broadcast (1932), which is set in a radio station’ (Balio, 1995: 101). The reticence towards using a spread of locations, with the need for a more complicated shooting and editing style may have been a production decision, but it could also be proposed that more locales would lead to even greater amount of the exposition that was presumed needed at the time to keep the narratives coherent. It could also be inferred that these films would notionally influence the development of television soap operas, which also have surface similarities to hyperlink cinema. As Nick Lacey suggests, these ‘do not centre their narratives on one, or two, main characters; instead they follow the lives of several characters in a particular setting with a multi-stranded narrative structure’ (Lacey, 2000: 38). It could also be argued that soap operas as well as television drama series such as The West Wing (1999-2006), Desperate Housewives (2004-) and The Sopranos (1999-) are even more complex because they require the viewer to follow these causal narratives from week to week over many years, with the expectation that the audience will retain enough character information to sustain the resonance of the drama.

The Grand Hotel cycle might equally be considered the first in a group of what are described as ‘ensemble films’, which according to Linda Cowgill are ‘essentially subplots which have to be connected without the benefit of a main plot to hold them together’ (Cowgill, 2005). Understandably hyperlink cinema is usually assumed to be part of this group and indeed when a survey of recommendations was published in the Summer 2006 issue of DVD Review magazine, Magnolia (1999) and Short Cuts (1993) featured alongside The Big Chill (1983) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) (Bainbridge, 2006: 34). Cowgill suggests films as diverse as The Great Escape (1963), Independence Day (1996), Twenty Bucks (1993), The Right Stuff (1983) and Diner (1982) (Cowgill, 2005). Many ensemble films link their characters together by having them meeting periodically – in Late Night Shopping (2001), four twentysomethings share insights on their own stories at an all-night café during their break from work. Mallrats (1995) continues the MGM tradition by setting its stories largely inside a giant shopping centre. Others utilise what Cowgill describes as a ‘story frame’ – a main narrative that either sparks or binds all of the storylines together (Cowgill, 2005). In A Bridge Too Far (1977), although there are many separate plotlines featuring both officers and civilians, they are all a reaction to the war and in particular Operation Market Garden the failed Allied attempt to bring a decisive victory against Germany in World War II. The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) despite having qualities similar to hyperlink cinema, a story frame is created by the war of Middle Earth, the ring quest and the two films that book end this central film of a trilogy. But a story frame can be much simpler than that – stories detailing the final night of a school year (American Graffiti (1973), Dazed and Confused (1993)) or a wedding (Diner (1982), A Wedding (1978)).


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