Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Amsterdam International Electronic Journal for Cultural Narratology (AJCN)

Beyond the spectre of postclassical cinema: Understanding the dynamics of Narration in Film

Nathalie Weidenfeld

The University of Munich


The spectre of the so called postclassical cinema has been haunting film studies for quite some time now challenging academics to grapple with this phenomenon of films which are told non-chronologically, possess an unrealiable narrator and which playfully mix genres. While David Bordwell has recently tried to calm the spirits by showing that firstly these kind of appearances can be found within films even of the classical age of filmmaking [1] and that secondly nonclassical cinema has in a way grown organically out of the „flexible system“ of classical film, scholars like Eleftheria Thanouli have insited on the fact that postclassical films do have a distinct aesthetics of their own, which is to be neatly separated from classcial filmmaking. I believe this dichotmy of classcial vs. postclassical to be misleading and would like to propose a transhistoric way of looking at cinematic narration and defend the idea that despite the fact that while undoubtedly films do have different narrative and visual tendencies we can indeed call „classical“ and „postclassical“ in the qualifying sense of an adjecticve, all narrative films have the same underlying structure with charcters operating by the same principle. In order to defend this thesis two steps are necessary. In section I I will put foward the theory that in every narration a character’s identity is always moving between two different ideal types, which I have termed the Agent and the Performer. To specify these two ideal types (Idealtypen) references to philosophical conceptions by Harry Frankfurt, Julian Nida-Rümelin and Judith Butler will be made. In section II I will introduce the concept of thedrama-model. This model is based on a revision of the formalist concept of suyzhet and fabula leading to the thesis that the fabula is dramatically structured itself. As a consequence I claim that all films have a three-act-structure- may it be implicitly or explicitly. In section III the model will be used for analyzing a film typically described as postclassical, namely Memento (USA 2002). By that I will show that the drama-model is a helpful tool for formulating and understanding the narration in film - be it described as classical or postclassical - the final conclusion of the essay.


Noel Carroll has proposed a view on narration, according to which film narration operates as a structure inviting spectators to formulate what he calls a „macro-question“ for the film’s action. He uses the example of Spielbergs blockbuster film Jaws. [2] The central question for the spectator is likely to be: „will the shark ever be discovered?“ I agree with Noel Caroll that for each film the spectator is able to formulate (at least) one central question. However I believe these questions to be inexorably tied to particular characters of the film. Actions are always to be understood in relation to a person doing it. So instead of formulating the central question in the way Carroll has, I would suggest the following re-formulation: „Will the new police officer Brody succeed in killing the shark?“

To follow a film’s action means to follow the characters’ actions. They are the ones which make the film’s story advance, they are the ones which implicate the spectator in the film’s story. I want to expand this to the following premise: whenever we see a narrative film, we follow its story because we want, or as some neuropsychologists suggest[3] even need to watch people acting, reacting and reflecting within a time-space-continuum. By acting, reacting and reflecting within a time-space-continuum characters in film reveal their identity. We can thus say that by watching a narrative film that we are concerned with the characters identities – which doesn’t imply that this concern is to be equated with identification[4]. Characters’ identities are always moving between two different ideal types, which I will call the types of the Agent and the Performer. At a film’s central turning points a character’s identity is challenged, leaving the character with the possibility of either changing from one state into another defending his current state. These challenges structure dramatic narration.

I will now beginn by explaining what I have in mind when I talk about the two ideal states of identity, that is the „Agent“ and the „Performer“.

The „Performer “

My concept of the Performer is a paradigmatic case of what Harry Frankfurt has named a „wanton“. A „wanton“ only has first order volitions - wishes, which he cannot control.

The essential characterisic of a wanton is that he does not care about his will. His desires move him to do certain things, without its being true of him either that he wants to be moved by those desires or that he prefers to be moved by other desires.[5]

The Performer does not only lack the ability of forming a consistent identity (such as the wanton), he is also unable to be receptive to good reasons and is dependent on inner or outer forces. Therfore his life is not lived but performed - in the sense that his actions are enacted – but without being the result of conscious deliberation. Furthermore, the Performer has no reliable access to epistemological knowledge. He cannot know the world and therefore act adequately. He is neither able to distance himself from himself, nor can he rationally weigh reasons against each other.

„Performativity“ has become a most fashionable term in the past decades. Although it was John Austins speech act theory [6] which popularised the term, in which performativity is understood as intentional acting, different thinkers have adapted this term and redefined it on their own terms. The most notable is Judith Butler who has uses the term of „performativity“ in order to show that gender is not something one is born with but the result of performing different acts.

Performativity understood in this way accentuates the act of performing itself while doing away with the notion of intentionality. It is in this way that I understand the Performer. He has no reference point outside his own lifeconditions, as he lacks a „disembodied agency“ which precedes and guides an „embodied exterior“ he cannot give reasons for his actions, he can solely perform them.

A  Performer-type protagonist corresponds perfectly to what Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush have described as being typical for the postclassical films’ protagonists, that is  passive, unreliable and ambivalent persons, possessing only a „reflexive agency“ (e.g. the ability to refelect on his situation but without being able to act upon it[7]). 


My concept of an Agent corresponds for the most part to Julian Nida-Rümelin’s concept of a „structurally rational agent“. While Harry Frankfurt defines a „person“ as someone who has „second order volitions“ – wishes regarding wishes that guide one’s own actions, Julian Nida-Rümelin asks where these second order volitions come from in the first place. If I have the second order volition of wanting to stop wanting to smoke (first order volition) it is likely that I do this because I have a good reason not to smoke (namely improve my health). In order to be able to have second order volitions one must be therefore cabable of reflecting on one’s wishes and desires, of valueing one’s own wishes. This requires some kind of distanciation which Nida-Rümelin describes as a „structural rationality“. „Structurally“ emphasizes the idea that rationality should not be merely understood as instrumental, but as the property of being able to embed singular actions within a larger, coherent and approved structure of actions, i.e. a form of life. The „structurally rational person cannot be reduced to his wishes. It is the fact that he or she can be affected by reasons which make him or her structurally rational. As a structurally rational agent is receptive to reasons, his life is oriented towards ethical and normative questions.

While ideal types may indeed be neatly separated within philosophical debate, in narrative fiction however, these two must always come together. A film’s protagonist who acts solely as Agent or as Performer would simply mean the end of the story. Julian Nida-Rümelin describes the „structurally rational“ sage – in our terminology the Agent – as a human being who has made only one decision which he consequently realizes without re-evaluating. Such a person cannot be shaken up in his identity. He needs no more insight and is therefore immune to change. Such a character can turn up in films (as for example the buddhist sage in Kim Ki Duks „Spring, Summer, Automn, Winter... and Spring“) but only in the form of a side character. Also, a pure Performer would mean the end of the story, as without the possibility of acting as an agent there would only be meaningless sequences of unintended acts, a plethora of pointwise goals, which couldn’t be taken seriously. In the cacophony of incoherent incidents every narrative dissolves.


Whereas the defenders of a disctinct postclasscial aesthetics have described postclassical narration as episodic, non-chronological, possessing either only two or even one act (Danyger, Rush)[8] and as self-conscious, simultanous, spliced and multiple (Thanoulie)[9], I now want to present a model which works by the premise that there is no fundamental difference between classical and postclassical narration as both work within the framework of a three-act structure of the two ideal types. The proposed model is based on the following assumptions:

1.Instead of structuring a film according to acts and plotpoints, it is the characters’ actions which structure acts and plotpoints.

2. Characters always move between the ideal types of the Performer and the Agent. Plotpoints mark the changes between these states, or the challenges to them

3. Every film can be analyzed with the three-act-model, as every film either explicitly or implicitly contains a three act- structure be it in its minimal (status quo ante, plotpoint 1, plotpoint 2 and status quo post) or maximal form (status quo ante, plotpoint 1, midpoint, plotpoint 2, third act climax and status quo post).

english model

While film studies in general do not question that while classical films may well be analyzed with the help of a three-act-model, it almost seems heretical to claim that postclassical can too. I thereby need to explain very carefully why I believe that it can be done nevertheless. In order to do so I will try to reformulate the formalist conception of fabula and suyzeht, which David Bordwell has explained as follows:

The imaginary construct we create, progressively and retroactively, was termed by Formalists the fabula (sometimes translated as „story“). More specifically, the fabula embodies the action as a chronological, cause-and-effect chain of events occuring within a given duration an a spatial field. [...] The fabula is thus a pattern which perceivers create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative clues, applying schemata, framing and testing hypotheses. Ideally, the fabula can be embodied in a verbal synopsis, as general or as detailed as circumstances require.

While the fabula is the sum of all events the viewer is invited to reconstruct on the basis of the information given by the film:

The syuzhet  (usually translated as „plot“) is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film. It s not the text in toto. It is a more abstract construct, the patterning of the story as a blow-by-blow recounting of the story events and states of affairs – according to the specific prinicples.

Bordwell names three aspects that relate the suyzhet to the fabula: narrative logic, time and space. While reconstructing the fabula the spectator is thus restricted to building a story where all events are causually linked („narrative logic“), and happen within the time frame and the spatial frame infered by the suyzhet.

This, however seems insufficient to me. That there is more to a film than just its visible parts seem evident. If one was to reconstruct a fabula according to these principles – what shape would such a fabula have? Theoretically – even given a certain spatial and temporal frame –the fabula could be endless.  An endless fabula however neither reflects the reality of the reconstructive work done by the spectator nor the constructive work done by the screenwriter. When going about imagining the story the screenwriter will not imagine all details possible concerning the character’s life, but only those events and states which are of essential, that is of dramaturgical importance. Even if he decides to tell his story in a fragmented, non-chronological way leaving many gaps open – he will need the rest of the story in order to make the gaps function.

What is true for the constructive work on the part of the screenwriter is also true for reconstructive work on part of the spectator: Whenever a spectator thinks about, emotionally participates or tries to evaluate or interprete a film it will be by focusing on the characters and the development of their identity within the film. He is unlikely to spend his time imagining a myriad of actions and events without structuring them within a meaningful whole - at least if he or she is serious about understanding the film adequatly. Or to put it bluntly: a spectator of Star Wars is highly unlikely to wonder what Luke Skywalker had for breakfast when he was a child or which school he went to when he was a teenager for the simple reaons that it just doesn’t matter in terms of understanding Luke nor the film. He will fill in the gaps, take the cues and reconstruct the film’s story in terms of a story about the protagonists’ identities consisting of at least two plotpoints. 

A coherent fabula is nothing else but a dramaturgically structured fabula. Each unique suyzhet refers to a specific unique fabula, which stands in dramaturgical continuation of the suyzhet. The fabula represents a meaningful completion of the suyzhet , which cannot be separated from its dramatic structure in order to form a solely causually connected sequence of episodes.

On this basis I would like to describe the differences between classical and postclassical films as follows: While classical films tend to tell a story in such way to make all plotpoints visible, postclassical films have their plotpoints often only implicitly present.

The fabula being understood as more as just the sum of all singular actions, but more as an ordered whole, can in that way also be described as a sort of  dramatic gestalt. The term „gestalt“ orignates from the discipline of Gestalt psychology which was created in the 1920ies by Kurt Koffka, Wolfgang Köhler and Max Wertheimer. Gestalt-psychology’s basic belief is that reception is more than the sum of other sub-processes – according to the Aristotelean premise: the whole is more than the sum of its parts. Gestalt Psychology defines insight as a sudden perception of particular relations between parts of a situation. Transposed onto a narrative this means: a fabula as we understand it is more than just the sum of singular events. If one is to understand a narrative film as a meaningful whole, one must recognize the implicit dramatic structures. These run along lines beyond suyzhet - limits. The dramatic structure functions like language which obviously works even if one is not consciously aware of its grammatical rules and cannot even name them. As Wolfgang Iser has laid out one of the fundamental way of implicating the reader with the text, engaging his participation is to invite him to fill out „gaps“, or „blanks“. (Leerstelle). Their function is to interrupt the readings process   - may it be because the perspective within a text changes or may it be  because there is a leap in time or place. This prinicple applies to films as well. Films will always leave out more or less information, either concerning a character’s action or even concerning whole acts. Each gap is a challenge for the reader to make the text or film coherent. The fabula is nothing else but a suyzhet plus the filled up gaps forming a meaningful coherent dramatic gestalt. Indeed Iser himself used the term of gestalt when trying to explain what is going on during a reading process:

As meaning is not manifested in words, and the reading process therefore cannot be mere identification of individual linguistic signs, it follows that apprehension of the text is dependent on gestalt groupings.[10]

If the narrative structure of a film has a dramatic gestalt  the drama-model is a representation of this gestalt. It is now time to put this drama-model to the test.


Christopher Nolan’s Memento (USA 2002) makes it quite hard for the spectator to reconstruct the fabula. Just as the story’s protagonist – a traumatised man with a memory problem – the spectator too, is made to feel powerless. First of all the story is told backwards, secondly the protagonist is an unreliable narrator and thirdly when the film begins, the spectator is about to witness the second plotpoint of the protagonist’s identity drama  - thereby making most of his drama invisible for the spectator. More so, the confusing p.o.v shots, the many close-up shots of body parts and the lack of establishing shots enhance the feeling of powerlessness. This aligns the spectator with the protagonist, himself a powerless man who has lost the overview of his life. However after having carefully watched the whole film, the spectator will be able to reconstruct the following drama:

Memento-II 1 englis

The Status Quo Ante can be described in the following way: since the rape of his wife, the former assurance agent Leonard Shelby suffers from a so called „anterograde amnesia“, a memory disorder which makes it impossible for him to store new memories. Leonard, who was once an expert in covering up truth, is now unable to do so. Due to his amnesia he cannnot evaluate people and their actions adequately. He is completely dependent on his wife, who cares for him lovingly, but who is slowly getting impatient with his condition and angry at his helplessness which she suspects may be fake. In the plotpoint 1– which the spectator finds out about only half way into the film – his wife tries to force him into assuming the identity of an Agent by playing a terrible trick on him: being a diabetic, she asks him to give her an injection, which he then does. After a while, however, she asks him again. Instead of remembering he has just given her an injection he gives her another injection and she dies Plotpoint 1 is twofold: in the first part the protagonist fails the challenge of acting like an Agent. In the second part however, he recognizes that he is responsable for his wife’s death and supresses this knowledge by imagining that it was the rapist who killed his wife. This, however, enables him to make the decision of taking his life into his own hands, in order to prove to his wife that he can indeed act as an Agent. In order to do this he sets himself a precise goal: he wants to kill the murderer of his wife. From this moment on Leonard is obsessed by the idea of leading a structurally rational life, dedicated to the goal of avenging  his wife. As he tells the spectators: „Just because I don’t remember, it doesn’t mean my actions are meaningless“. In order to fight against the meaningless of his identity as a Performer, her tries to organize his life with the help of polaroid pictures, notes and even tattoos, where he inscribes information he has judged to be of importance. The search for meaningful past events becomes an end in itself. He turns into a memory-fetishist who keeps a very tight grip on his memories. As he says at the beginning of the film:

You really need a system if you’ re gonna make it work. You kind of learn to trust your own handwriting. That becomes an important part of your life. You write yourself notes and where you put your notes, that also becomes really important. You need like a jacket that’s got like six pockets in it. Particular pockets for particular things. You just kind of learn to know where things go and how the system works. And you have to be weary of other people writing stuff for you that is not gonna make sense or lead you astray.

Leonard may be obsessed by the fact of achieving authorship – writing onto his own body is a nice metaphor for this – but he does not truly achieve it. As he does not trust his surrounding nor his past, he cannot in a pragmatic sense of the word get in touch with reality. He can neither evaluate actions adequately nor discuss and adjust his perception with the perception of others. Therefore it is impossible for him to gain an objective view of the world.  A person, who solely trusts his own handwriting – so the film tells us -  ends up with a life reducible to pointless and meaningless actions. His discipine is not his saviour - it is his doom. It fixates hin in his obsessions. Instead of evolving within his identity, his identity splits up in several non-compatible „I’s“. During the course of the film, the spectator gets to know some of these: there is the cautious, success-driven insurance agent, there is the traumatised, helpless man who is completely dependent on his wife, there is the merciless killer and there is the man who is determined to live his life autonomously.

His identity as an Agent does not exist and he is simply putting it on. In order to do so he invents an Alter Ego, on which he has projected his own identity as a Performer: Sammy Jenkins. In his fantasy it is Sammy Jenkins and not himself who killed his wife with an overdose of insulin. Leonard needs Sammy Jenkins in order to construct a version of his identity which is to be seen in contrast to Sammy Jenkin’s identity. Whereas Sammy is a helpless Perfomer, Leonard is an autonomous Agent who controls his life thanks to discipline and obedience to his own system.

The central dramatic question which rules the second act can be formulated as follows: will Leonard find the murderer of his wife, kill him and thus prove to her – even if it is only post mortem - that he is indeed a structural rational Agent? Leonard is aided by Teddy, a former police officer, who used to be in charge of his wife’s rape case and who now wants to help Leonard. In plotpoint 2* they find the rapist and Leonard kills him. But as Leonard immediately forgets what he has done, the search starts again. He remains stuck with the loop between plotpoint 1 and forever new plotpoints 2. Teddy does not interfere as he begins to use Leonard to his advantage by getting him to kill drug dealers, before stealing their drugs.

When the spectator begins watching the film, Leonard has already killed several men he believed to be his wife’s murderer. Leonard is caught in a loop between the plotpoint 1 and plotpoint 2. Instead of accepting the reality of plotpoint 2 (the first killing) he negates it in order to beginn the story of his revenge anew. A true Agent is able to be guided by reason. He is able to gain knowledge about what happens around him and can thus adequately evaluate actions and events. Leonard, however, is unable to do so as he only accepts the world he has constructed for himself. But this however does not make him free. On the contrary: he becomes a plaything for Teddy.

When the film begins, we see what chronologically comes at the end: We see plotpoint 2 (the one of many plotpoints, where Leonard has killed a supposed murderer of his wife). In this one however Teddy tells Leonards he has killed his wife’s rapist long ago and since then many other men. He also tells him that it was not the rapist but Leonard himself who killed his wife with an overdose.  Leonard now has the chance of finally assuming the identity of an Agent; he can liberate himself from the loop between first and second plotpoint and move into a liberating third act. Indeed this is a moment of rare clarity and insight: when Teddy tries to persuade Leonard that it makes no difference if he killed the wrong men, as all that counts is his believing that they where the right men. Leonard does not agree with Teddy’s subjectivism. Now that he knows that what he believed to be reasons were not reasons at all, he knows that it does indeed make a difference. This insight however now puts him in a doublebind: if he is to remain an Agent he needs to take responsibilty for his past actions – those concerning the murder of his wife as well as those of innocent men. But as Leonard cannot bear the thought of being responsible for his wife’s death, he makes the conscious decision to propulse himself back into the dreamland of his life as a Perfomer performing the identity of an Agent. In order to do so he needs to kill Teddy. If Teddy is no more, there is no one left to tell him the truth about his life, thus negating any dramatic development. He thus decides not only to forget and propulse himself back again to plotpoint 1 one but also to plan to kill Teddy and thereby depraving himself of the only chance to find out the truth about himself again.

Killing Teddy at the plotpoint 2*** gives a paradoxical  answer to the question asked in plotpoint 1. At the precise moment that Leonard accepts the truth about himself , he has proven his wife to his wife that he is able to act as a structural rational being. At the same time however, he robs himself of the possibility to remain that way. Leonard remains a prisoner of his own fabricated story, which will now forever take the shape of a loop, as he will keep on searching for his wife’s murderer and start the search again and again. He has thus given up the chance of being an Agent.

The film gives a clear answer to the question of the relationship between freedom, responsibilty and knowledge. The protagonist in Memento is not a free person; he is easy to manipulate, a slave to his own fantasies, and living as an animal hunting blindly for its prey. A person who refuses to take over responsibilty for his actions and willingly takes on the identity of a Performer, robs himself of the freedom to gain true knowledge, and subsequently ends up in a dramaturgical loop representing a timeless and insane world.


If my argument is right, the narrative of a film we watch refers to a fabula which is structured according the dramaturgical rules, forming thus a dramatic gestalt of a three-act structure, involving at least two plotpoints. This gestalt can be described by the drama-model, which is a helpful tool for grasping the drama of identity unfolding in a filmnarrative in a more precise and adequate way. I have tried to show that the plotpoints of this gestalt can be described as crucial moments in the story where the protagonist’s identity either moves from one type of identity to another or this identity serverly challenged. The identity of the protagonists within a filmnarrative always unfold between two types of identity: the Performer and the Agent. On a narrative level being classical or postclassical would boil down to a difference of visibility: While classical film narratives show as many plotpoints as possible postclasscial films as many as possible invisible and implicitly present. Despite all other stylistic differences, both operate by these narratological principles and in the end always tell the same story: Man or Woman moving between two basic identities – one allowing freedom and knowledge, the other not.


Austin, John. How to do things with words. Cambridge. MA.: Harvard University Press, 1975.

Butler, Judith. „Performative Acts and Gender Consitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory“ in Case, Sue-Ellen, ed.. Performing Feminism. Feminist Critical Theory and Theatre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

Carroll, Noel. Mystifying Movies. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Carroll, Noel. The Philosophy of Motion Pictures. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2007.

Chatman, Seymour. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990.

Dancyger, Ken. Rush. Jeff. Alternative Scripwriting. Oxford: Elsevier, 2007.

Frankfurt, Harry. „Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person“ in Journal of Philosophy, vol 1, 14. Januar, 1974, S. 5-20.

Iser, Wolfgang. The act of reading. London: Routledge, 1978.

Nida-Rümelin, Julian. Strukturelle Rationalität. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2001.

Nida-Rümelin, Julian. Über menschliche Freiheit. Stuttgart: Reclam, 2005.

Thanouli, Eleftheria. Post-Classical Cinema. London, Wallflower Press, 2009.

Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.


[1] See Bordwell, David. The Way Hollywood Tells it (2006).

[2] See Carroll, Noel. Mystifying Movies (1988), 147-170

[3] Neuropsychologists like Mark Turner (The Literary Mind, 1996) believe that humans’ capability to tell and understand stories is of immense importance for human evolution. Without it, so his argument goes. people would not only be unable to live together and develop compassion but also store a lot of information which is in his view stored in form of stories.

[4]   In his precise and illuminating work on films and emotions Noel Carroll has convincingly deconstructed the notion that plain identitfication with a film’ s characters is the base for our emotional involvement with it. See his chapter „Affect and the Moving Pictures“ in The Philosophy of The Moving Pictures (2008).

[5] Harry. „Freedom of Will and the Concept of a Person“ in Journal of Philosophy (1974), 11.

[6] Austin, John. How to do things with words. (1975).

[7] Dancyger, Ken. Rush, Jeff. Alternative Scriptwriting (2007).248.

[8] Ibid.38-48.

[9] Thanoulie, Eleftheria. Post-classical Cinema (2009), 173-205.

[10] Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading (1978), 80.