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Rudimentary film narrative

by Michelle Langford

Q. Is this a narrative film? In order to ask this question we need to ask the following question: Does it present ‘a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space’ (Bordwell & Thompson)? Well, sort of. It is more of a series of tableaux that do not have a clear relationship to one another either in time or space. As with most films of the silent era, the film relies on the non-diegetic title cards to link the scenes together. These are the film’s primary means of narration. Throughout most of the film there is no logical progression from one scene to the next. There is not a clear cause/effect logic. We do not know how the different spaces are connected to one another. Each scene is independent of all the others and could easily exist as a separate short film on its own. We do not know if the events we see occurring happen in chronological succession, ie. unfolding as contiguous moments in time. One of the things that prevents this film from telling a story is that it is primarily made up of static shots (ie. no camera movement), in which the action plays out to the end. Ie. characters finish what they are doing or walk out of frame. There is also, for the most part a constancy of framing. • Most shots are medium-long shots. There is a very limited use of cinematic techniques to tell the story. Action just plays out in front of the camera. The viewers are constructed merely as observers of events that do not have a strong causal relationship to one another: their arrangement is fairly arbitrary. Slide 8 [Basic continuity editing] EXCEPT if we look more closely, we do see a couple of basic examples of what we call ‘continuity editing’ — that means that each scene or shot has a continuous (ie. causal) relationship to the next. There are two moments where we see this occur in The Dog and His Various Merits. • Between shots 1 and 2 of the film. After the dog hops into and begins turning the treadmill, the film cuts to a closer shot of the dog working the treadmill. Continuity of movement, space and time (dog and treadmill). We might even infer that he looks pretty happy. This is a VERY basic example of continuity editing. BUT, for the film to continue to tell a story about the woman and the dog, we might expect to have a reaction shot of the woman looking pleased with herself, possibly thinking about how much time she has saved by enslaving the poor dog! • The second attempt at continuity occurs between the second last and last shots of the film. The dog and man move out of frame, then enter the next shot suggesting continuity of space and time, (editing out the journey between the two houses.) We can easily assume that they have just left the first house and are now arriving at the next. The spectator can easily ‘fill in’ the journey implied to have taken place. • Plot = departure and arrival: we fill in the rest of the implied story in between. Although BETTER continuity would be achieved if they left and entered the frame moving in the same direction. (ie. exit screen right, enter screen left.)

The Dog and His Various Merits

An early short film in which we can see basic evidence of the use of shot choice and editing to tell a story.

from The Dog and His Various Merits/Les chiens et ses services (1908)
Creator: Charles Pathé
Posted by Michelle Langford