This week I’d like to talk a little about multiform narrative drawn from my Ph.D thesis: Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema.
What is Multiform narrative?
Multiform narrative attempts to deal with the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life, (as does multistrand narrative, discussed in another post). But whereas multi-strand stories achieve that through multiple strands featuring multiple protagonists who are not tied to a single plot, multiform narrative comprises of stories featuring a protagonist who inhabits separate realities in an existential and ontological sense.
This necessarily means that the protagonist splits up into several copies of himself, each occupying a different realm – whether it is the multiple universes of Donnie Darko, or the illusionary realities of dream and memory in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or the virtual reality inside of The Matrix.
“Multiform narrative encodes in its very structure the bewildering simultaneity, frenzy, and moral befuddlement of modern life.”
Open multiform narratives, such as Donnie Darko, stubbornly refuse to cue the viewer as to the preferential reality of the story. Donnie, for example, ostensibly appears to be both alive and dead in the movie, since the beginning shows him coming home from having slept the night on the golf course, only to discover that a jet engine has smashed into his bedroom.
But the end of the film replays the incident only this time Donnie sleeps in his bedroom and is killed by the jet engine.
Both incidents can’t be right in a single spatiotemporal framework. They present us with a paradox that can only be resolved if we place the two events in separate realities. In one universe, Donnie dies. In the other he lives.
Closed multiform narratives such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Matrix, by contrast, differ from their cousins in the open multiform category in that they announce which world is real and which illusionary. Here, the filmmakers are at pains to show us Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, et al., entering and exiting the matrix through telephone lines, while Lacuna’s memory-erasing procedure cues and orientates us in a similar way.
Open multiform stories, then, tend to be more subjective and bewildering, whilst closed multiform narratives offer a helping hand through well-placed cues.
Both categories, however, succeed in reflecting the multiplicity and uncertainty inherent in lives littered with smart phones, video games, and multiple apps open on multiple screens – lives from which that much-needed sense of solitude and aloneness seems forever banished.
Multiform narratives encode the bewildering complexity of modern life by showcasing multiple realities featuring copies of a single protagonist.