Suspicious Paintings and Wind in Trees: An Image/Text Approach to Narrative Excess

I have a lot of issues with the idea of narrative excess. What does excess exactly mean? Isn’t the point of cinema to see “excess”? Anyways, this paper was written in my seminar on contemporary film theory last semester. It’s too sprawling to really have it published somewhere, but it does get to some of my core beliefs about the possibilities of cinema, cinephilia, post-60s film theory, digital indexicality, and more. Please note this is not for casual readers.

Wind in the Trees

A man climbs a ladder on the side of a building. He and another cop follow a criminal across the rooftops of San Francisco. The criminal aptly jumps from one building to the next. The cop follows and barely balances himself. The man attempts to do the same but slips, grabbing onto the ledge. The cop comes to help him back up, telling him, “Give me your hand!” but falls himself.  The man can only look down in horror.

Any person who knows the scene I have described from the opening to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) will immediately recognize this description as insufficient. What about the mood of the scene, with its stunning dark hues? How about the tense score created by Bernard Hermann? What about the presence given to Scottie by Jimmy Stewart, and all that seems indescribable in his piercing eyes? This all leads to the real question: is this a failure of my description or a case of narrative excess?

The concept of narrative excess—films that create something that exceeds the necessity of the story they are attempting to tell—has been frustratingly limited in recent discussions in contemporary film theory. It is often relegated to certain films and filmmakers: it exists in action films and musicals during their elongated sequences that “do nothing to push the narrative forward.” Art-house films, with their long tracking shots and characters without affect, are declared to have narrative excess. And one cannot forget experimental cinema, which has no narrative and must only be excess.

The debates surrounding narrative excess have always felt somewhat contrived: a categorization instead of a problematization. What does one achieve by defining a shot, a moment, a technique, or a style as excessive in its narrative? Where exactly can one draw clear lines between narrative and excess? If excess is defined when a cinematic element no longer serves a purpose for the narrative, what purpose does it serve? The film critic David Edelstein had a fantastic description of a moment in Tony Scott’s Domino (2005), a film that shouts “excess” at the top of its lungs:

Why film an action — say, the lighting of a cigarette — in one shot when you can do it in six? So you get match swipe, match flare, another angle (with a double exposure) on the flare, tip of cigarette burning, cigarette going between lips, character inhaling in close-up … And the film stock changes in each shot, one green, one black-and-white, one overexposed … And the sound of that flare is like a bomb going off … and the cigarette isn’t even a big deal.[i]

Surely this must be excess if the cigarette does not require it…or perhaps Domino, a film about excessive characters who indulge in excessive violence and mythologize their own excessive existence in the wake of reality television (the film’s tagline: “Based on a true story…sort of”) requires this stylistic attitude. Who is to say thatDomino is any more excessive to its narrative than a Dardennes Brothers film? What if the Belgian realists are actually the much more excessive filmmakers?

One can define narrative excess in cinema by examining whether everything contained within the frame absolutely necessary for the function of the narrative. But when have cinemagoers ever worried about narrative excess? Since cinema’s birth, spectators have always been interested in excess: Le Repas de Bébé (Lumière, 1895) became not about the child and his food but about the wind in the trees—everyone cared about what the director did not even realize he was filming! Narrative excess perhaps existed before narrative in cinema, which opens a whole new set of questions that have been yet to be theorized properly.

This paper is about narrative excess, but more than that, it is about the relationship between the images and the text of a film. I will appropriate the term “image/text,” theorized by the art critic W.J.T. Mitchell, to build a discourse between narrative and the images used to form narratives in film. My proposal is that images are necessarily excessive of their text—they propose a that-ness to the text’s the-ness. While many of the theorists and critics who have written on this issue in the past see this as a point of political discourse and ideological interpretation, my goal is to push this debate of narrative excess to the Bazianin tradition of “the real,” the ontological element that has necessarily been a part of cinema and continues to be one of the dominant factors of its attraction. I will finally stake the faith of the future of film studies not in the critic or academic, but the 21st-century cinephile: the one who searches for meaning in cigarette smoke instead of the tracking shot—the moments that expose the design of cinematic excess.

By working through these relationships between narrative and excess, text and image, “content” and “form,” is the possibility that if one begins to see every image that cinema conceives as a form of narrative excess, then one must also claim that there is no such thing as narrative excess—excess is simply the basis of cinema.

Narrative Excess and Its Discontents

What is a narrative in cinema? How does one conceive of narrative and what is its relation to the images it creates? To be reductive (but necessarily so), let us take David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s definition of narrative in Film Art: “We can consider a narrative to be a chain of events in cause—effect relationships occurring in time and space…A narrative begins with one situation; a series of changes occurs according to a pattern of cause and effect; finally, a new situation arises that brings about the end of the narrative.”[ii] Narrative form has been the dominant form of cinematic storytelling in cinema since 1907, and there is no reason to see cinema forgoing this function any time soon. In the latest poll by the film journal Sight & Sound on the greatest films of all time, only two films in the Top 50 could be considered “non-narrative:” Man With A Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929) and Historie(s) du Cinema (Godard, 1988-1998).[iii] Narrative is a form of storytelling; it is about the causal link (or non-link) between actions and events. As Peter Verstraten puts it, “A transition from one situation to another takes place, and that change is brought about by a (non-)act effect by someone or something,”[iv] Narrative can be non-linear, include ellipses and gaps, and feature characters with clear motivation or none at all. It simply needs to pose the possibility of causal relationships between its various elements (though not necessarily deliver on them).

So what is the difference between a narrative and a cinematic narrative? A better question to ask: what does a cinematic narrative look like without cinema? One might point to a screenplay: the physical object from which the narrative is “directed” from—it gives not only the dialogue of a film, but also the locations and gestures. Yet no screenplay is complete; it might not include a description of the background space or the costumes, or perhaps the dialogue itself has been improvised. What one must realize is that words, no matter how much detail, can never capture everything that is the film itself. Marie Clare-Ropars argues, “Film’s writing is defined by the montage of a plural apparatus.”[v] That is to say, film cannot be contained by words alone. Every Film School 101 class always includes the inevitable first rule of being a good filmmaker: “Show, don’t tell.”

Most would agree, however, that narrative and cinema work together—all of those cinematic devices are simply another way of expressing words. Bordwell has often argued that film “style” (that is, the material of film that cannot be expressed with words) is subservient to narrative function: “On the whole, classical narration treats film technique as a vehicle for the syuzhet’s transmission of fabula information.”[vi] One chooses Jimmy Stewart because he can best represent Scottie’s psychological obsessions, and one shoots in the fog-filled San Francisco because it is a very European city that has a ghostly presence. Every choice to create an image representation for the film is to use something that best demonstrates the narrative.

But as narrative excess theorists contend, certain moments, images, and elements of cinema cannot be justified by the narrative—they are not something the narrative “needs” in order to tell the story. Kristin Thompson provides the most comprehensive definition of this: “Films can be seen as a struggle of opposing forces. Some of these forces strive to unify the work, to hold it together sufficiently that we may perceive and follow its structures. Outside any such structures lie those aspects of the work which are not contained by its unifying forces—the ‘excess.’”[vii] Excess is what lies outside narrative—the thing that cannot “fit.” Thus, the most common examples of narrative excess are often in genre films like musicals and action films. Both genres include extended sequences where characters indulge in what is quite often a multitude of acrobatics to achieve a very simple goal. In The Band Wagon (Minnelli, 1953), two lovers dance at midnight in Central Park in an extended long take that lasts around four minutes. The first twenty-five minutes of Police Story (Chan, 1985) follows a cop who goes through a series of Keatonesque actions as he chases a criminal. One can argue these as excessive, but both sequences are necessarily tied to their narrative: the dance sequence in The Band Wagon allows the characters to spark their romance, and the chase in Police Story is what sets the cops and criminals plot in motion. While Verstraten argues, “[The musical’s] excessive stylistic elements are consistent with the representation of extravagant spectacle that is presented as separate from the actual plot,” I am inclined to disagree with him: almost every musical, especially those of the classical Hollywood system, justifies its sequence within some sort of boundary of how, what, and why the characters are singing and dancing.[viii] It is no more excessive than the witty banter in a screwball comedy, which perhaps does not need its punch lines to be that funny, but is often necessary to move the narrative forward.

Verstraten also makes a case for excess in “art cinema,” using L’Avventura (Antonioni, 1960) and its gaps in classical narration and lack of motivation. He writes, “Antonioni’s meticulous style, with its stringently composed black-and-white shots and dead moments, focuses attention on itself to such an extent that L’Avventura now only seems to state its own unorthodox style.”[ix] Verstraten seems unable to even conceive that these stylistic notations are built into the way Antonioni’s characters move and talk, and his perception of “excess” is simply the film’s annunciation of its content. Even the elongated tracking shot through a futuristic city in Tarkovsky’sSolaris (1972) allows the spectator to feel time passing as Kris moves toward the space station. Often the bigger the excess, the easier it is to justify it as part of the film’s narrative: film noir’s expressive lighting, Nicolas Roeg’s unorthodox editing patterns, and contemporary Romanian cinema’s infinite long takes are all essential to their narratives, not working in spite of them.

Perhaps then, one should look for narrative excess not in the major but the minor—the accidental moment that cannot be explained by the narrative because it is what “slips through” onto the screen. Stephen Heath points to what will be the most essential image of narrative excess for this discussion: the Picasso-like painting in Suspicion(Hitchcock, 1941): “The play here is complex: this other painting has no reason, is ‘useless’ (isolated, without resonance over the film, marked off by the piano phrase and by the fact its link with [the policeman] Benson who remains more or less apart in the main substance of the scene, out of frame and with only one line of any significance) beyond the limits of the film.”[x] What is that painting doing there? How can we understand it? Heath goes on in his piece to discuss narrative space, but he has latched on to the key moment of excess in a classical Hollywood film: something that does not annunciate itself, but instead appears out of place against everything occurring within the narrative, sitting on the wall and almost taunting the spectator in its inexplicable presence.

If we thus really want to examine the relationship between narrative and excess, we have to stop thinking big and start thinking small. The more troubling versions of excess are those like Suspicion’s painting—the “forgotten” detail in the background. And perhaps if one cannot justify the forgotten detail, perhaps one cannot justify anything as essential to narrative. The image is always has more than the text.


Why does Jimmy Stewart play Scottie in Vertigo? The simple answer is because he can best embody the character of Scottie in a way no other actor could. But Stewart is not Scottie—he is Jimmy Stewart. He carries with him his own memories, his own motivations (“make art” or “make money”), and his own gestures that were not necessarily meant for Scottie. He is a living body, a person outside the diagesis of the film, operating on a film set that is always a film set, no matter what one “believes.” His presence is immediately excessive.

For this discussion, we must consider narrative as a pure element—something beyond the filmic reality presented on screen. A narrative is always first and foremost a text, though perhaps one that cannot be fully articulated by words. One cannot discuss a narrative as a concrete object—film is at least a series of tangible and viewable images. Narrative is an abstract proposal that relationships between objects can be causally explained. As discussed before, this is not the screenplay, but perhaps can be said to be a totality of the thoughts that went into the filmic translation. Thus, every film has a text that is the summation of narrative elements present in the film. Cinema can be seen as the process of text to image—consider it along the lines of the famous Stanley Kubrick quote: “If it can be thought (text), it can be filmed (image).” Going from text to image causes two things to happen: there are a plurality ideas that become one image, which then creates a new plurality of interpretations.

To better understand this concept, take another example from Vertigo. In the film’s second half, Scottie spends much of the narrative attempting to re-create Madeline though Judy: She must wear the gray skirt with the blonde hair with the swirl. But in a parallel universe, there is perhaps another version of Vertigo: she wears a luscious yellow dress, her hair is auburn, and it is in a ponytail. Or one can image a number of variations on gray suits and blonde hair and swirls. But Vertigo must be that gray skirt, that blonde hair, and that swirl because that is what obsesses Scottie. One cannot say for sure what another version of Vertigo would look like without what is there in the image—and even the imagined versions will always fail, as it is impossible to “un-see” Vertigo. The point of the exercise is that in the creation of the “film text” is that there are always infinite possibilities, but the image has only a singular “reality.” It is no longer the gray suit but that gray suit.

In creating the singular reality, a new plurality begins. What does that gray suit mean? The gray suit itself might be essential to the narrative, but only the “thought” of the gray suit is what is essential. The actual suit itself can inspire a whole set of questions and speculations of the suit’s actual purpose that is no longer linked to narrative causality. Roland Barthes discusses this phenomenon in literature, but it becomes even more essential in film:

This new operation is interpretation…To interpret a text is not give it a (more or less justified, more or less free) meaning, but on the contrary to appreciate what plural constitutes it….In this ideal text, the network are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifies, not a structure of signifieds.[xi]

To many, this no longer sounds like a theory of narrative excess, as every film has these types of functions. But this is part of what I would like to argue: filming reality necessarily creates excess. To connect that gray dress to the narrative and make it “the” is to always leave something out of the suit’s that-ness. The object’s tangible reality, just like Stewart’s bodily and human presence, always carries something beyond the pureness of the text. In cinema, it is never the, always that. And that requires a plurality of readings. As Barthes writes, “The systems of meaning can take over this absolutely plural text, but their number is never closed, based as it is on the infinity of language.”[xii] One can never finalize the meaning of the image in cinema when it contains a reality beyond its intention in the narrative.

Cinema thus necessarily has a relationship that can be called image/text. What is image/text? I have noted that I am taking the term from Mitchell, but my definition builds on his use of the term. For Mitchell, it is what is being seen against what is being spoken. As he writes, “With [moving image] media, one encounters a concrete set of empirical givens, an image-text structure responsive to prevailing conventions (or resistance to conventions) governing the relation of visual and verbal experience.”[xiii] For Mitchell, the visual dimension of media can clue us to another meaning the dialogue cannot. To give an easy example, in The Red Shoes (Powell and Pressburger, 1948), Lermontov continually states that his interest in the beautiful Vicky is her artistry, but viewing Anton Walbrook’s performance and the suggestive nature of his eyes, the spectator becomes aware that he is actually in love with her. While this is an important relationship, this is not the definition of image/text important for this discussion. Instead, we should think about what is conceived contrasted to what is actualized.

Mitchell, however, provides some interesting material that will prove useful in thinking through our conception of narrative excess in relation to image/text. Firstly, he makes perhaps the strongest case for why to write image/text with a slash, as it suggests “a problematic gap, cleavage, or rupture in representation. The term ‘imagetext’ designates composite, synthetic works (or concepts) that combine image and text.”[xiv] Certainly, my theory of image/text is built on the disjuncture between what is thought and what is seen, which can never be the same. The image creates a singularized version of the text with a whole new set of pluralities. Secondly, I am struck by Mitchell’s discussion of Art Spiegelman’sMaus (1991), a graphic novel in which the author tells the story of the Holocaust but represents it through cartoon characters of cats as Nazis and mice as Jews. That is to say, there is a clear disruption between the text Spiegelman uses, his father’s memories of the events, and the drawn images, which represent the story in a very different conception while still relaying the various causal elements of the text. Mitchell argues, “The effect of Spiegelman’s brilliant animal caricatures is, of course, more complex than a simple ‘veiling’ of the human form. The reduction of the Holocaust to a ‘Tom and Jerry’ iconography is at once shocking in its violation of decorum and absolutely right in its revelation of a fitness and figural realism in the animal imagery.”[xv] This is a perfect conception of how one can think one thing and see another; the memories recalled by Spielgelman’s father are told in one form, but to give them a visual function changes the relationship of the words as a pure text. Spiegelman’s audacious move is to highlight this disjuncture; if he drew human characters or even filmed them, there would always be a gap. The image/text—the relationship between storytelling and the images used to represent them—must always have this gap. The images are only an attempt to represent the text, but they are never the text itself.

One might be skeptical how this truly relates to narrative excess, which seems to operate in a different realm, but I cannot help but think about the painting inSuspicion. It is not necessary to the text, but there it is in the image. And perhaps the painting is not part of necessary to the text, what is necessary? The actors to deliver dialogue? The articulation of voice? All of these elements will necessarily add a new dimension beyond what is implied by the text itself. Stephen Heath, in his canonical examination of Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958), argues, “Just as narrative never exhaust the image, homogeneity is always an effect of the film and not the filmic system, which is precisely the production of that homogeneity…narrative can never contain the whole film which permanently exceeds its fictions.”[xvi] And Kristin Thompson admits this as well, “A film depends on materiality for its existence; out of image and sound it creates structures, but it can never make all the physical elements of the film part of its set of smooth perceptual cues.”[xvii] A film is always excessive of narrative—films simply attempt to hide this!

Perhaps the best filmmaker to represent this dichotomy and attempt to work through the problem of text and image is Robert Bresson. Bresson’s films have been described as eliminating excessive images into only what is necessary for the narrative. In his own words, Bresson says his hope was to create “Not beautiful photography, not beautiful images, but necessary images and photography.”[xviii] Additionally, he always referred to actors as models, forcing them to repeat a line over and over until any “emotion” or unnecessary affect was removed from it: “Right innotations when your model exercises no control over them.”[xix] In a way, Bresson’s concern is not using cinema to represent a text, but allowing the image to form the text for him, eliminating or often highlighting the disjuncture. A filmmaker should not use an image to represent a text, but instead capture the image itself. He argues, “Let images and sounds present themselves spontaneously to your eyes and ears as words do the spirit of a creative writer.” [xx] So Bresson’s “plan,” so to say, is the eliminate image/text in favor of imagetext, where the text and image are one because the text only exists as part of the image.

In Au Hasard Balthazar(1966), Bresson gives us a character who has no voice itself—an animal that cannot be “narrativized,” yet is constantly being subscribed a voice by others. He is given a name and baptized—a text is forced onto the image! And yet, Bresson gives us moments where he makes us realize the spectator does this as well. The titular donkey is taken to a carnival and Bresson shows a sequence in which the animals “communicate” to each other. What they articulate to each other is impossible to say (if we even agree they are communicating)—the “narrative” cannot exist except for the one the spectator interprets out of the images. It is not a product of the text, but of the spectator reading the image. This recalls another essential line from Barthes about finding elements out of place in the image: “The obtuse meaning is clearly counternarrative itself. Diffused, reversible, caught up in its own time; it can, if one follows it, establish only another script that is distinct from the shots, sequences, stygmas…You will have another temporality, neither diegetic nor oneric, you will have another film.”[xxi] The image necessarily bares a new meaning—something that is read out of the image that was not necessarily intended. In photography, Barthes refers to this as the punctum of the image: “The detail that interests me is not, or at least is not strictly, intentional…it says only that the photographer was there, or else, still more simply, that he could not not photograph the partial object at the same time as the total object.”[xxii] The punctum thus breaks the continuity of the image as a pure text so to say, and gives it something beyond its intention. Bresson makes this clear in Balthazar—we can read things out of the donkey that are not necessarily part of the text; they only come from reading the image itself.

Image/text is thus a new approach to narrative excess that argues that the image itself is what is excessive in cinema. The next step for many writers (Barthes, Clare-Ropars, Deborah Linderman) is to take apart the image and find the ideological content that is revealed through excess. As Linderman suggests, “Foreign simulacra, multiple filaments of meaning, multiple embeddings, all hint at preemptive ideological content.”[xxiii] However, I would argue that such an approach ignores something even more essential to be discussed: narrative excess reveals cinema’s index.

The Index and the Salvation of Cinephilia

Where is the excessive ­that-ness in an animated image? Nothing. There is no extra material that is meant to go beyond the text that is not purposefully there. In animation, there is no “that,” only “the.” The images are all determined by the text, as nothing can spontaneously appear that was not determined to be necessary by the creators. Animation cannot have its “wind in the trees,” something outside of its intention.

Narrative excess exists because the image is never just a text and thus produces multiple meanings. But the most essential one of those meanings is cinema’s that-ness. That thing existed there. For it to be there is important for the narrative—it creates narrative’s space-time function that moves linear action—but it also has the fact that the spectator recognizes that was there, cinema’s indexical nature. Thus, we must read narrative excess as a form of Bazinian realism as the first step to searching for new meaning. Cinema has become a narrative device, but that is not inherent to the medium, as any series of actualities or avant-garde works can demonstrate. Cinema’s original function is that of photographic recording. As Bazin argues,

The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discolored, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.[xxiv]

One cannot ignore the cinematic that-ness that develops out of seeing “the model” to use Bazin’s words. Beyond an ideological framework for what develops from beyond the meaning of the text, the image is first and foremost a recording of what was. When the gray suit in Vertigo becomes excessive, it is because it is that gray suit as opposed to the gray suit: it was worn by Kim Novak on the set of a film in 1958. The suit’s that-ness is beyond the meaning of the narrative—the index causes new meanings not inherent to the text.

The that-ness of the index is a much more intoxicating idea than Barthes’s political interpretation of the image-text relationship. Barthes searches for the punctum that breaks the text—that which could not help but be captured by the camera. This necessarily suggests that there are parts of any image that Barthes must ignore (what he calls the studium, the parts that still adhere to the ideological framework he wishes to reject). But the index need not discriminate—the existence of the image itself is what is beyond the text. The index necessarily creates a new text already. The text creates the; the index creates that. And that is always excess.

This comes closer to why viewers of cinema have always, in some way, cared more about “the wind in the trees” and the love of so-called “realism” as a cinematic goal. Siegfried Kracauer praises cinema’s ability to capture material that has not be staged: “Film…gravitates toward unstaged reality…Staging is aesthetically legitimate to the extent that it evokes the illusion of actuality…by the same token anything stagy is uncinematic if it passes over the basic properties of the medium.”[xxv] Kracauer theorizes cinema’s goal as an attempt to cause the viewer to “experience physical reality,” which suggests something beyond narrative.[xxvi] If we return to the idea of the text as abstract—as thought rather than written—it already suggests a break with reality: it is something artificial. The image, however, must be more than the text, and that excess is reality itself. This is not to say cinema must record reality and focus on the unstaged in order to be cinema, but that excess, seen as a problem for narrative, is itself a basis for cinema. Cinema cannot exist without having an image that is in excess of any narrative because it is also something real and beyond its narrative.

If cinema is born in the unstaged—if narrative excess begins with that which appears out of place—then this is perhaps why the contemporary cinephile can lead cinema into reclaiming this paradigm. Narrative excess has been usually discussed in terms of filmmakers who are actively doing too much—too much color in the shot, too much movement in the camera, too many edits. But as I have argued, the break into excess is not the grand gesture but the accidental moment: all elements of cinema exist in excess, but it is the accidental moment that exposes the design—the painting inSuspicion that opens up readings beyond the intention of the narrative. The contemporary cinephile—the 21st Century blogger—has always focused on the image and the backgrounds that make up “excess.” The influential blogger and film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has theorized this history:

The theories that form the foundation of both filmmaking and film criticism concern themselves not with small or subjective properties, but with grand designs: montage, mise-en-scene, camera movement, framing. All of these things could be called the “obvious properties of style.” Cinephilia set itself aside from mere film-buffery by becoming the hunt for small moments and small films, things that appeared to exist outside the realm of obvious gesture. Criticism sought to explain the tracking shot; cinephilia looked for the meanings of drifting cigarette smoke, stray glances and apparent accidents, and to divine the patterns of hats, cars and donkeys.[xxvii]

The accidents that Vishnevetsky discusses are perhaps those most essential to narrative excess, or at least those most prone to the cinephile’s investigation. While this again suggests a similarity to Barthes’s punctum—searching for what does not fit—the cinephile’s sees this unstaged as part of the system that expands alongside the grand gesture, not against it. Suspicion’s painting, after all, is no accident—Hitchcock certainly planned it there, even if it has no causal relationship with the narrative. Its stance apart from the grand gesture is not one of an accident as Barthes would suggest, but one that works with it—the cinephile simply is more attuned to search there for meaning. Because of the index present in all of this, the grand gesture matters as much as the small moment, but I am arguing that the cinephile begins with the small moment before moving into how it relates to grand gestures. Seeing the index allows one to break from what is the causal design, and thus search to new systems of meaning proposed by that-ness.

These searches have taken on new purpose in cinema’s digital landscape: the pause button has allowed the cinephile to reclaim the image instead of sit subservient to it. The ability to stop an image, see something that feels out of place that is perhaps there only for a second, has become one of the defining traits of contemporary cinephilia. Consider a sequence out of Room 237 (Ascher, 2012), a documentary about cinephiles who have crafted wild theories about Kubrick’sThe Shining (1980). At one moment, a cinephile describes how the typewriter Jack uses has a symbol on it that directly ties it tits origin to the typewriters used by the Third Reich, and thus the film must be about the trauma of the Holocaust. Because Ascher is able to pause and zoom on the image, one certainly recognizes that the detail is in fact there, though whether this confirms the cinephile’s theory or not is specious at best.

While Room 237 might not be the most ideal version of searching for narrative excess, it certainly points toward the new tendency that is being led by contemporary cinephilia. Andrew Klevan and Stanley Cavell have also discussed how small moments that are perhaps accidents can change and open up a new film beyond the narrative. In a discussion between the two, Klevan postulates, “Why did they think to execute it like that…I didn’t only think the shots were unusual, or striking, I thought they were gently mysterious, and that they were significant. They asked questions of me…My intuition was that because the shots were like that they might give me a key to the whole film, and open it up in new and rewarding ways.”[xxviii] The cinephile has always been attuned to look for the mundane, the tiny, and the small moments of cinema—the moments where narrative excess truly begins. The digital era has only increased this possibility to pour over every screen grab possible in search of excess, the thing that does not fit within the text but is there in the image. The cinephile will lead the search for perhaps what was unstaged and discover, as Barthes suggested, “another film.”

Closings and Openings

I asked a question at the beginning of this investigation: how can one say a Dardennes film has less narrative excess than a Tony Scott film?  Scott blows up a moment into something huge and jarring, but the Dardennes often appear to be recording reality that just happens to have a narrative in it. Perhaps, the Dardennes are truly more excessive then, as they work within the unstaged, while Scott’s films are carefully calculated in not just every shot but every frame. The Dardennes constantly expose moments in their films in which we realize there is a world beyond the frame—their cameras are capturing something beyond simply their narratives. They break our sense of narrative as a contained substance, and suggest numerous possibilities in the image.

Narrative excess has been theorized as a problem for the cinema, but it is really an opportunity. Thompson argues that once one begins to work through issues of narrative excess, “The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as the solution to a sort of puzzle which has a right answer…Such an approach to viewing films can allow us to look further into a film, renewing its ability to intrigue us by its strangeness.”[xxix] However, while she searches in the grand gesture, I have proposed to begin with the wind in the trees. Identifying excess always exposes that there is more to a film than simply the narrative. Cinema has a reality, and we can see it in the flows of cigarette smoke and background paintings. Narrative excess is essential to talk about, because as I have argued, it is what forms the basis of cinema. Cinema began by recording reality, and while there is now so much more to cinema, its attraction is still the ability to capture that-ness. As cinema moves into the digital, which as Lev Manovich suggested, indexical cinema will perhaps become only a small part of the greater history of animation, and the unstaged itself will no longer exist. Image/text becomes imagetext, and the gap is closed. And yet, the greatest achievement of Avatar (Cameron, 2009) was its ability to translate the faces of the real onto the digital creations—the ability to see a that-ness in what was otherwise a the-ness. The index continues, and thus excess continues as well. Additionally, more and more films seem concerned with presenting “open” narratives in which excess exists simply in the text itself. Films like Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Weerasethakul, 2011), The Tree of Life (Malick, 2011), and Margaret (Lonergan, 2011) all build narratives around moments that cannot fit into any sense of narrative causality and thus open themselves up to new interpretations and criticism. While I would admit some lamentation for what seems like the fading appreciation for the perfection of “closed” films, I welcome films that are willing to truly make their text as excessive as their image.

The concept of narrative excess, of something beyond the text, has been crucial since even before narrative became the popular form of cinema. Cinephiles will continue to find what images tell us beyond narrative—not what the text wants to tell us, but what we discover from the image, even if it is simply our own past existence. The text will always inspire filmmakers, but it is the image that keeps cinema alive.


[i] David Edelstein, “Sons and Muggers,” Slate.Com, October 13, 2005,

[ii] David Bordwell, and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Eighth Edition), (McGraw Hill: New York, 2008), 85.

[iii] “The Top 100 Films.” Sight & Sound. no. 9 (2012): 56.

[iv] Peter Verstraten, “Between Attraction and Story: Rethinking Narrativity in Cinema,” Narratology in the Age of Cross-Disciplinary Narrative Research, ed. Sandra Heinen and Roy Sommer (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009), 156.

[v] Marie-Claire Ropars, “Film Reader of the Text,” Diacritics, 15. no. 1 (1985), 18.

[vi] David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 162.

[vii] Kristin Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 130.

[viii] Verstraten, “Between Attraction and Story,” 165.

[ix] Ibid., 164.

[x] Stephen Heath, “Narrative Space,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 382-383.

[xi] Roland Barthes, S/Z, (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5.

[xii] Barthes, S/Z, 6.

[xiii] W.J.T. Mitchell, Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 90.

[xiv] Mitchell, Picture Theory, 90.

[xv] Ibid., 93.

[xvi] Stephen Heath, “Film and System: Terms of Analysis Part I,” Screen, 16, no. 1 (1975): 10.

[xvii] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” 131.

[xviii] Robert Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, (New York: Quartet Books, 1986), 82.

[xix] Bresson, Notes on the Cinematographer, 74.

[xx] Ibid., 64.

[xxi] Roland Barthes, “The Third Meaning,” Artforum, 11, no. 5 (1974): 49.

[xxii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, (New York: Macmillan, 1981), 47.

[xxiii] Deborah Linderman, “Uncoded Images in the Heterogeneous Text,” Narrative, Apparatus, Ideology, ed. Philip Rosen (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 144.

[xxiv] Andre Bazin, What is Cinema?, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 14.

[xxv] Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960), 60.

[xxvi] Kracauer, Theory of Film, 300.

[xxvii] Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, “Scott’s Metaphysical Romances, Pt. 1,” Sounds, Images (blog), Dec 3, 2010,

[xxviii] Quoted in Girish Shambu, “Small, Striking Moments,” Girish (blog), April 2, 2010,

[xxix] Thompson, “The Concept of Cinematic Excess,” 141.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s