Monday, October 31, 2011

Visual Narratives

The Concepts of Syntagm & Paradigm in Contemporary Cinema.

The reel world is definitely the real place to be in for a cineaste like me. Being an avid reader who loves fictional screenplays, I’m attracted foremost by narrative and plot structures. Last year, I managed to watch a total of 60 films with a broad range of storytelling styles, notably Inception and Enter The Void, two movies that employ different set of narrative configurations to allure the imagination of the audience: Inception was narrated in a linear fashion but stylized its device with multiple layers of dream sequences, while Enter The Void brought us into the central character’s memory through flashbacks and flashforwards, often with abrupt jumpcut dispositions.

The one thread that ties them together is the concept of non-linear narratives, wherein events are portrayed out of chronological order. It is often used to depict recollections of human memory or imagination. Non-linears are very complex formations that have become the norm in modern cinema, and they are prevalent in many of the Hollywood movies. Some of the films that utilize this increasingly popular mode in past years are Pulp Fiction (intersecting storylines), 500 Days of Summer (disjointed) and Memento (reverse linear). When the subject of signs was brought up during the lecture on Communication As Text, I recognized that one of the unique elements in such filmic narratives might involve the interplay of syntagms and paradigms, which are used to produce contrastive set of perceptions (usually for different results) on the viewers’ part. Most of the films that contained these elements frequently involved the protagonist encountering a problem that needs to be resolved in the shortest possible time.

In the structuring of signs (or communicative texts) syntagmatic structure is the mode of time-awareness in which the listeners are placed, such as narrative, epic or lyrical.* It has also been defined as a systematic collection of statements. Paradigmatic structure, on the other hand, is a set of forms containing a certain element, especially based on a singular theme within that same database of texts. Recalling it in the simplest form, we can then present syntagms and paradigms as axes or planes, where the horizontal axis is the syntagmatic structure and the vertical axis is the paradigmatic structure. The syntagm plane is the parallel sequence of 'this and this and this', and it usually forms a meaning within a text, whilst the paradigm plane is that of the selection or replaceable options, meaning 'this or this or this'.

Filmic syntagms are not confined to temporal syntagms (the shots sequence) but also include the spatial syntagms found in stills (the mise-en-scène, which is the composition of individual frames)**.

As I soaked myself with the theories of signs and structures, a favourite piece of film came to mind instantly, and it’s none other than the famous German crime thriller of 1998 entitled Run Lola Run. This live-action foreign film uses the idea of reconstruction and repetition to produce varying end results (cause & effect) - a brilliant example in showing the concepts of syntagms & paradigms through cinematic storytelling.

Run Lola Run is an unconventional film (some argued that it’s an MTV in long form!) that covers the same 20 minutes plot three times, each differing in small but stark details that in turn lead the story to radically different conclusion. The script follows a spiral structure as visual motifs and employs the multiple lives concept of video games. The basic set-up involves 2 main characters: Lola and his boyfriend Manni, a criminal who had just lost 100,000 marks that belongs to his boss. Manni calls Lola, telling her of his predicament before deciding to rob a nearby supermarket in order to replace the cash. Here we are first introduced to the limitation of the film: Manni has to get the cash within 20 minutes or else he’ll be gunned down. Lola then urges Manni to hold on as she plans to gather the money, by firstly asking her father, a bank manager.

The film is then divided into three 20-minutes "run” sequences. Each run starts from the same situation but develops differently for three contrasting outcomes. The film, with its clever and artful play on the relativity of time, not only tells the story visually with differentiation in key scenes, but it provides different filmic transitions to convey different forms of expressions (such as animation and still images). When one sequence fails, Lola is transported back to the beginning with a chance to redeem her mistakes and tries an entirely different route (substitutes or paradigms) for the same purpose (the ideological message). Lola’s repeated actions thus act as a form of anchorage for the film, something the audience can identify with, without any additional explanations.

We can regard the key scenes as syntagm, in which the storyline adds up to form an ideological conclusion. Conversely, the various actions that Lola did in each run can be labeled as paradigms (or options) based on the same set of situation. One can conclusively view the structure of Run Lola Run akin to the RPG video game scenarios, where avatars have the ability to revive themselves, follow new paths based on past mistakes, press through new and perhaps much less difficult obstacles, and progress to the end point. Each new path is the paradigms that the avatars can choose in order to reach the desired ending. By identifying distinctive signifiers and define their significance in relation to the overall arc or the bigger picture, the hero orchestrates his journey one after another. With semiology and the theory of signs in mind, we can then break down the key scenes of Run Lola Run as such: click here.

Written for Theories of Communication & Persuasion In Television, Films & Advertising; March 2011 • Online References: * • **

Monday, October 24, 2011

Ghost Of Distant Past

Tumbling. Moving ever so slowly. The legs seem to be in tandem with the classic metronome of the heart, yet there’s something quite unsettling in the way they moved. I can’t pinpoint the exact problem. My efforts to resist the temptation of correcting my ways failed the moment my mind swayed, and right on cue, almost immediately, I began to think of you.

Right then you appeared. Reappeared.
Then disappeared.

The ghost of distant past.

It seems obvious that I have no will to discontinue these mind games. But who am I to judge? I can only conjure up the most impossible list of things that best describe my interests and feelings. And I might as well include one entitled: 10 Parts To My Character:~

• Sui Generis
• Carte Blanche
• Éminence Grise
• Stereo Chroma
• Alter Ego
• Lapsus Memoriae
• Terra Incognita
• Enfant Terrible
• Semper Fidelis
• Fata Morgana

That sums it all up. Almost.

Now, no matter how hard I try, I can’t describe you in three sentences or less. You are simply, indescribable. And that has been bothering me the whole week, while Igor Stravinsky's’ Trois Mouvements de Petrouchka aired in full volume like a serenade rigged with cardinal memorandums, full of diabolical agendas (with a little mi contra fa) meant to dislodge me from my far-fetched dreams.

I am, if I wish to soundly conclude, a flyspeck.

Deep rest must come after some lighthearted hand jives and flamencos of the keystrokes.