Traversing Narrative Space in Hollywood Films [1]

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 James E. Cutting
Cornell University

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 My goal is to offer a new way to map narrative space across the scenes of a film. I will do this for two quite different Hollywood films – in detail for All About Eve (Mankiewitz, 1950), a crisp studio-era drama, and more briefly for What Women Want (Meyers, 2005), a rather typical modern comedy.[2] My abstract suggested I would also do this for Inception (Nolan, 2010), but alas I likely won’t have time.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 There are a number of reasons why my approach is different. First, I really do mean maps – concrete two-dimensional graphic representations of relations among main characters across the course of a film. Also, my maps have nothing to do with the physical spaces that are portrayed in films. And oddly, I ignore entirely the textual content of the film – screenplay, dialog, plotline. In addition, my maps are objective; they are generated by computer algorithms from inputs based on the visual presentation of the characters as they co-occur within scenes and shots, and accumulate over portions of film. They are also holistic; they consider relations among all major characters simultaneously, not just a selected few. And finally, I create maps multiple times across the length of the film, which can reveal some dynamic narrative structure. All of this may sound rather wooden and arcane, but bear with me. I believe that these maps can show the close relationship between how filmmakers compose shots and how the textual content of the narrative unfolds – or not.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 How might one objectively construct maps of characters in movies? Let me start with real maps. The essence of any map is that it presents distances between things in a continuous space. Consider a concrete example. The top left panel of Figure 1 shows a schematic map of six major cities in Western Europe – Berlin, Geneva, London, Madrid, Paris, and Rome – with the air distances among them. If these fifteen numbers are entered into a multidimensional scaling algorithm, one can reconstruct the array of cities, shown in the top right panel – a map.
Figure 1: The creation of three maps through metric and nonmetric multidimensional scaling. The top panels use the distances in kilometers among Western European cities; the middle panels use the ranked order of distances among them; and the bottom panels use round trip flight costs in US dollars from 2002. Reworked from Cutting (2006).

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 So far, so good, but surely this doesn’t seem very impressive. One inputs distances and gets back the map from which one had obtained the distances. But there are other ways to scale data, and these are more interesting. Rather than mark intercity distances, one might simply rank them from closest to farthest. This is done in the middle left panel of Figure 1. Here, London and Paris are ranked the closest, Paris and Geneva second, and so forth, with Madrid and Berlin the farthest apart. Using nonmetric multidimensional scaling, which uses only such ranks as input, I can create a new map, shown in the middle right panel of Figure 1. This scaling result is almost the same as before.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 One quickly realizes that aerial distances are not the only thing that might be considered. The lower panels of Figure 1 show inputs to the creation of yet another of map: the US-dollar costs to fly round trip between the same fifteen pairs of cities in 2002. These data are old but instructive, and all seasoned travelers will be familiar with such results. Notice that it was cheaper to fly from Paris to London to Berlin and back by that triangle route than to fly round trip between Paris and Berlin directly. Moreover, it was almost the same price to fly through London to most other cities from most other cities. This is a peculiarity of air hubs and the economics of routing. With the flight cost data, however, I can create a new map of Western Europe, the results of which are shown in the lower right panel of Figure 1. This map shows why, in terms of monetary cost – although not total trip time or connection aggravations – London was on the way from Paris to Berlin, and London was between Geneva and Madrid.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Many different kinds of information that can be used as “distances.” One is the relative co-occurrence of characters across the scenes of a film. For two-dozen films I recorded each character that appeared in each scene, entering a value of one for each into a large matrix. All major characters not shown in that scene were given a value of zero. I then used this matrix is to create an array of correlations among all possible characters across all scenes in the film. From these values I then generated a nonmetric scaling solution in two dimensions, which I call the base map to use as a backdrop against which to compare other maps. Next, I computed four new maps independently, one for each act of a film (Thompson, 1999), and then cross-registered them to gain insight into character relations as they might change across the film. Consider two films as examples.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 All About Eve presents the story of a small cross-section of mid-20th-century New York City theater society, taking place mostly within a flashback. The core of the story pits an established actress, Margo Channing, against newcomer Eve Harrington. It also involves Margo’s partner, Bill Simpson, a playwright and screen writer; another couple, Margo’s director Lloyd Richards and his wife Karen; a theater critic, Addison DeWitt; and a few minor characters.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 Following Thompson (1999), the first act is called the setup. It introduces the characters at a banquet in honor of Eve, and then flashes back to Eve lurking in an alley after a play that Margo stars in. Karen meets Eve in the alley, invites her in, and introduces Eve to the theater crowd. Eve charms them with her fictitious personal story, moves in with Margo, and becomes her personal assistant. The second act is the complication. Margo grows fed up with Eve, as Eve insinuates herself into all matters of the theater production that Bill, Lloyd, and Margo are involved in. In the third act, the development, Margo is surprised to learn that Eve is her understudy in a new play. Karen arranges that Margo miss a performance, Eve performs well, and Addison writes a glowing review. Finally, in the climax the two couples reflect warmly on changing lives at a restaurant and, after an opening of a new play in New Haven and a behind-the-scenes tussle between Addison and Eve, the narration eventually flashes forward to the banquet that opened the film, celebrating Eve’s success to the consternation of those who now know her best. Then, in what may be one of the best epilogs in American film, an aspiring young actress, Phoebe, has talked her way into Eve’s empty hotel room and, after Eve arrives, sets herself up to become a new Eve – basking in endless narcissistic reflection wearing Eve’s robe and holding her trophy.
Figure 2: Four maps showing the trajectories of characters in a narrative space across the four acts of All About Eve (Mankiewitz, 1950). Different colored dots represent the characters in the different acts. The layouts are based on the co-occurrences of characters in scenes with those values multidimensionally scaled and brought into register by Procrustes analyses.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The four panels of Figure 2 lay out the scaled relations of the players across the four acts of the film, with the different colors distinguishing them. Directions in these spaces are arbitrary: distances up the map are no different than distances to the right. Figure 2a represents the relations of Eve and Margo, to each other and to the rest of the company. Their extensive movement suggests that they change most across the course of the film. Notice that initially Margo is in the center of the space; Eve is an outsider. During the second act, however, Eve insinuates herself into the center of the space and Margo is ejected. Margo is in crisis as she begins to realize, across this act and the next, that she is no longer suited to playing the roles of younger women. Note the great distance between Eve and Margo. Finally, some of the tension — at least for Margo — is relaxed in the last act. This is, in large part, due to improved relations with Bill.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 The Margo-Bill relations are shown in Figure 2b. Initially, the two are quite close in space, and quite close in their relationship. As Eve drives Margo into crisis, however, the distance between Bill and Margo increases. Indeed, Margo throws a party in which sparks fly in all directions. Memorably she warns: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.” In the last act Bill and Margo are inseparable. Indeed, they occupy the same spot in the map. Bill is going to marry Margo, and Margo has accepted her inappropriateness for ingénue parts. Figure 2c shows the anchoring role of Lloyd and Karen. They too end in the same spot, and in close proximity to Bill and Margo, but they have never moved much throughout the film. Figure 2d shows the co-occurrence mappings of Addison and Eve. Addison is initially at some distance from Eve, tracks and then helps her progress in the theatre, and both are increasingly separated from Margo and the other characters.[3] Finally, and in the same panel, Phoebe arrives in the epilog, a young outsider eager to climb the ladder of success, much like Eve at the beginning of the story.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 The spatial layouts of each of the four panels make sense in terms of the narrative in All About Eve. Remember: these panels were constructed without consideration of any textual content within the film. They were compiled only on the basis of visual appearance in the scenes of the film, and my major point is that the visual narrative of the co-occurrences of characters can map well onto the textual narrative.
Figure 3: The mapping of the visual narrative in What Women Want (Meyers, 2000) using the same technique as for All About Eve in Figure 2. The import here is that the textual narrative proclaims great change in the character of Nick Marshall, but this map based on the visual narrative suggest that most all of the change is done by the women around Nick.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 However, in my many analyses of various films, I have found that a parallel between the maps from the visual narrative and the gist of the real story do not always occur. Consider What Women Want (2000), a Mel Gibson vehicle that purportedly tracks the character Nick Marshall from being a man completely insensitive to women to one who has completely re-evaluated himself and understands “what women want.” The combined maps of this film and the movements of the characters are shown in Figure 3.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 If, as it did in All About Eve, movement through narrative space is to represent change – perhaps character development – Nick doesn’t do it. Instead, it is the women around him that do the changing: Darcy Maguire, his superior and later love interest re-evaluates her career; Lola, the barista and one-time fling struggles through understanding men; Alex, his daughter, barely survives her prom night; Erin, the office worker, no longer flirts with suicide; and Annie, the Ivy-League underling, stands her ground with her Israeli boyfriend.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 My point is that the textual narrative is devoted to Nick’s change, but the visual narrative suggests his constancy throughout the change of others. One of the perhaps numerous reasons that What Women Want is not a particularly good film is the disjunction between what the words say and what the accumulated visual co-occurrences of the characters “say.” These two cases show that maps of the visual narrative can both corroborate the textual narrative as in All About Eve or they can disjunctively contrast with it as in What Women Want.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 What is the overall import of my approach to mapping narratives? Consider three possible gains. First, in reading the wider literature, I have found previous notions of narrative space in films and novels to be vague and incompletely helpful. Some are tied to an analogy between linear perspective in Renaissance art, others with an appeal to cognitive maps. Such accounts seem static and overly tied to physical space. My first contribution, I believe, allows such spaces to be objective, abstract, explicitly mapped, freed from physical space, and dynamic. Second, I can show a coupling or decoupling of changes in the visual content of the film with its text. That is, my methods demonstrate that filmmakers sometimes sculpt the presentation of characters in a way that comports amicably with the textual narrative, sometimes not. Third, and most important, the human mind, among its many other attributes, is an engine driven by associations. Indeed, the mind can be described, in part, as a Humean machine (after David Hume); it builds up knowledge through associations among things as they co-occur in the world. This is not the only means to knowledge gain but it is a very powerful one. From basic neurophysiological processes to the attainment of knowledge and culture, our brains and minds follow associative mechanisms.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 As filmgoers I claim that part of our comprehension process over the course of a film is to build up representations of the relations among the characters. Understanding how this is done is important to cognitive film theory. I make no claim that the maps shown in my figures are actually “in the head” of a viewer. These diagrams are representations of the character relations in the films. Nonetheless, my data demonstrate that character co-occurrences by themselves can yield narrative insights, a fact heretofore not known or at least underappreciated. But I do claim that these maps should bear some recognizable similarity to the relations among characters in the minds of viewers, and by themselves can guide some coarse understanding of the film without a necessary comprehension of textual events.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 Notes
[1]. This talk is based, in part, on Cutting, Iricinschi, and Brunick (in press).
[2]. Previously, the notion of narrative space has taken many forms. In film studies Heath (1976) described its creation through camera work, and Cooper (2002) extended this idea. Zoran (1984) discussed several types of narrative space, including one representing both space and time within a film. Similarly in literary studies, Bjornson (1981, p. 59) suggested that narrative spaces are created through a “piece-by-piece construction of an image which maps the imaginary space described in the text,” and Ryan (2003) discussed cognitive maps that are built up over the course of a story. O’Toole (1980) came closest to my approach, using two-dimensional matrices to depict relationships among characters in episodes of stories but he never attempted further statistical analysis.
[3]. The climax representations in Figure 2 of the two heterosexual couples – Margo and Bill, and Karen and Lloyd – contrast with Eve and Addison. It is worth reconsidering an argument concerning this film and classical Hollywood’s treatment of homosexuality. White (1999) and Corber (2005), for example, proposed that Eve and Addison, and particularly Eve, are portrayed as characters of diminished fulfillment and happiness because of their homosexuality. Most provocatively in one short scene, Eve enlists a female companion to assist her with a phone call in a plot concerning Lloyd. After that call, she and Eve walk up a staircase in bathrobes, arms around each other’s waists. Thus, a lesbian reading seems not inappropriate. Nonetheless, it is worth noting that Eve also tries to seduce all three male leads in the film, and late in the film Addison confronts her with her past, which involved a relationship with married man and a quick, paid departure from her hometown. I think that Eve is essentially omnivorous, rather than just lesbian or bisexual. In addition, Addison seems asexual rather than homosexual. He asserts to Eve in a climactic scene: “After tonight you will belong to me …”, we both “have a contempt for humanity, an inability to love and be loved… We deserve each other.”

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Works Cited
Bjornson, Robert. 1981. “Cognitive Mapping and the Understanding of Literature.” SubStance 10(1): 51-62. Print.
Cooper, Mark Garrett. 2002. “Narrative Spaces.” Screen 43(2): 139-157. doi: 10.1093/screen/43.2.139. Internet.
Corber, Robert J. (2005). Cold War Femme: Lesbian Visibility in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 11(1): 1-22. Print.
Cutting, J. E. (2006). Impressionism and its canon. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. Print.
Cutting, J E., Iricinschi, C., & Brunick, K. L. (in press). Mapping narrative space in Hollywood film. Projections: The journal for movies and mind, 7. Print.
Heath, Stephen. 1976. “Narrative Space.” Screen 17(3): 19-75. Print.
Mankiewitz, J. L., director. (1950). All About Eve. USA: Twentieth Century Fox. Film.
Meyers, N. director. (2000). What Women Want. USA: Paramount Pictures. Film.
Nolan, Christopher. (2010). Inception. USA/UK: Warner Brothers. Film.
O’Toole, Lawrence. 1980. “Dimensions of Semiotic Space in the Narrative.” Poetics Today 1(4): 135-149. Print.
Ryan, Marie-Laure. 2003. “Cognitive Maps and the Construction of Narrative Space.” pp. 214-242 in Narrative Theory and the Cognitive Sciences, ed. David Herman. Stanford, CA: Publications of the Center for the Study of Language and Information. Print.
Thompson, Kristen. 1999. The Way Hollywood Tells It. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Print.
White, Patricia (1999). The Uninvited: Classical Hollywood Cinema and Lesbian Representability. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press. Print.
Zoran, Gabriel. 1984. “Towards a Theory of Space in Narrative.” Poetics Today 5(2): 309-335. Print.

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