Once upon a time, there lived a girl with a beautiful heart. Her father died when she was young, leaving her to her stepmother and two stepsisters. She was treated as a maid, growing up, and was dressed in rags tainted with cinder. One day, the king decided to throw a ball in order to find the most suitable bachelorette for his son to marry. The girl wanted to go very badly, but her stepmother would not allow her. So she wished with all her heart until her fairy godmother appeared and transformed her into a princess, worthy of a prince’s attention. The catch, though, is that she should be back home before midnight, as the magic will fade away. So she went to the ball, met her prince, and they danced and fell instantly in love. But she had to go, leaving nothing—not even a name, but just a fallen glass slipper. The prince searched the entire kingdom, ordering every maiden to fit the glass slipper, until he eventually found her. Finally, the shoe fits, and they get married and live happily ever after. But wait, what if the shoe didn’t fit? What if it gets broken before she has the chance to try it on? What if he never found her? What will happen next? A blockbuster flop, that’s what.
Film stories historically began with fragments of spectacles. People were gathered in a room to be shown bits and pieces of everyday life, because filmmaking’s initial goal was to experiment with the medium that stemmed from capturing still moments, to eventually being able to capture movement. Eventually, when the medium evolved, the discoverers realized that there’s so much more to just capturing reality. At this point, reality was subjected to alteration and change. Thus, began the emergence of cinema’s function of storytelling. In a capitalist perspective, people were able to make money out of freezing stills. They, then, made money by projecting moments and, now, they can capitalize on telling stories. For any business or idea to take off, there had to, of course, be a structure. As the principles for storytelling were developed, the classical narrative template stemmed out of it, proving to be the most effective and profit maximizing form of storytelling to come out of its time.
“Classical narrative retains the dominant form…this is largely the consequence of establishing a model of film-making which at one and the same time uses the variables of film language seemingly invisibly to prioritize the audience’s investment in the structural imperatives of understanding the narrative and the emotional intensity underpinning the characters and their relationships.”(Rowe & Wells, p.54, 2003)
The template of classical narrative begins with a protagonist, who automatically gains the viewer’s sympathy. S/he has a goal, which will soon be blocked by many obstacles that s/he will powerfully overcome. The story will follow a series of cause-and-effect events that will pave way for side characters to enter, bring about character development to the protagonist, as well as aid her/him in reaching both a dramatic pitfall and a climactic resurgence. All this will eventually end in an often positive resolution to the story, where all ends meet, and there exists a “happy ever after.” This structure is highly common, mostly because it is a sure win. It sets the viewers up for a journey, it thrills them and allows them to take part in a story that is beyond their world, and eventually, it satisfies their craving for a good ending. One can never go wrong with happy endings, made even larger by the difficulties preceding them, because people need to see and hear these kinds of stories. Given that the primary functions of film, in its early developmental stages, is for entertainment, the classical narrative did not fall short on providing just that. Another possible reason as to why the classical narrative has proven to be really effective is because it is logical. Human beings are natural storytellers and we are very much aware of the logic surrounding continuity of events. We always seek causal motivation, a connection of events brought about by cause-and-effect scenarios which are, primarily, what motivates and pushes a classical narrative forward. Of course, there are a lot of other reasons as to why the classical narrative structure makes sense. It is a well thought of and formulated structure, after all. But, given its dominance in the early beginnings and golden age of cinema, both in Hollywood and beyond, does it still have the same dominance today, in the age of contemporary cinema, more so in contemporary Philippine cinema?
“I assume that in any art, even those operating within a mass-production system, the art work can achieve value by modifying or skillfully obeying the premises of a dominant style.”(Bordwell, p.5, 1985)
Contemporary art, generally, is a mixture of postmodernism explorations, themes of feminism, expressionism, appropriation, and digital art, among others. One can derive from this that we have come to a full circle into a new age of exploration, where the new era of art is still formulating a dominant style. Film, being a form of art, follows somewhat the same evolution. In the context of Philippine Cinema, it began with exhibitionism and the cinema of spectacle back in the Spanish occupation, before Spanish narratives eventually came in. Further down the road, the studio system was developed during the American occupation, thereby welcoming the infiltration of the Hollywood classical narrative format. The 50s was the age of post war films and the booming classical narrative industry. When the studios failed in the 60s, “bomba” films were produced with little to no narratives, as they were focused on theme rather than content. When these were suppressed during the Martial law days, the classical narrative returned into the picture, only this time, it was more linked with what Rowe and Wells deem as “alternative narratives”. The era that came after this was the age of action films that followed no less than the classical narrative of, usually, a macho male protagonist who is in a quest to save a vulnerable damsel-in-distress. In the end, as expected given the format, they run off happily into the sunset.
Modern Philippine cinema at least, at the beginning of the millennium, is characterized by the domination of the Hollywood films being screened. Only a few dozen local movies are being screened annually, and only the mainstream ones generate enough revenue to be exhibited longer. As with the template narrative of the action films, the romantic dramas and comedies also followed the same classical narrative, but with different themes. What this new era paved way to, on a positive note, was the rise of alternative and independent cinema, largely enabled by the platforms provided by the digital age. These contain what is classified as “art cinema”, deviating away from the classical narrative format. A decade later from the new millenium, the country is still infiltrated with the colonial mindset and the template Hollywood narratives, but the new generations are starting to be formed in a way that they are open to new forms of storytelling beyond the usual narrative. Contemporary cinema, as exploratory as contemporary art, is demanding a search for a new identity and a movement towards an innovation of storytelling. But how come?
“The closer we are able to fit the individual film into our existing templates, the easier it is for us to understand…Narrative analysis is concerned with the extent to which those things that we see make sense. It is assumed that those elements that we see cohere in some way, that they are part of a whole.”(Rowe & Wells, p.79, 2003)
As previously mentioned, viewers from different generations have been fed the same stories over and over again, being told with only a variation of artists and the rise of the newly innovated filmmaking techniques brought about by different generation’s technological advances. The previous generations have been more accepting towards this type of cinema because of an escapist tendency, having been living in ages of colonization, war, and dictatorship. It was easy, logical, and familiar, therefore, effective and profitable. However, we are now at the age of digitization, where countless platforms are provided for anything and everything. Anyone and everyone can make art, and seldom are there limitations to those who can access these works. Since the platforms are countless, art has often been reduced to “content”, thereby implying a primary purpose of being sellable or generating enough revenue. To add to this, the audience’s attention span is decreasing, such that a two-hour film is already deemed long. Now is the age of short digital content that can capture a story, provide meaning, talk about an issue, or show an event within the smallest possible amount of time. It’s as pressuring as telling someone to change another person’s life in a minute. As such, there is a drive to change the format of storytelling and make it marketable in the quickest manner possible.
“The avant-garde has no monopoly on quality, and violating a norm is not the only way to achieve aesthetic value.”(Bordwell, p.5, 1985)
All stories have been told already. What differs them from one another is the way that they are told. From the industry perspective, the main questions are: What would get people hooked in an age of media as a principal commodity? What does it take to be unpredictable and innovative nowadays? A common answer to these questions, of course, is the deviation from the norm and, in the case of cinema, this pertains to the classical narrative. Art is exploring a new identity, and so is cinema. Alternative cinema with the least conventional ways of storytelling are coming into a boom in the next decade. There is a gigantic call for inclusivity in the industry, thereby triggering films to tell diverse stories in diverse ways. There are stories being retold in the female perspective, in the perspective of the victim or the criminal, in the least expected character’s point of view, etc. There is seldom room for happy endings because there is a resurgence of the craving for realism in cinema. At one side, reality has become so bitter that people crave for stories they can relate to. They do not crave for boy-meets-girl and happy ever after, at least, not as much as they used to. They crave for films that talk about change, inclusion, peace, death, and injustice, no matter how gruesome the endings are. This is just a movement, of course. People are still captivated by the mainstream narratives and the shallow template stories. The difference is that they are more open now to stories being told in less conventional ways, with less conventional characters, and actual human character development and resolutions. The capitalist side is also driving towards this, with its insistence on Hollywood remakes. They, not only change the cast, but they also retell the story in different ways and perspectives, perhaps more stylish and deviant, therefore, more innovative.
So in what direction will all this take cinema? There are countless possibilities with this kind of openness in the new generation. Maybe, with the current generation’s attention span, we will come to a full circle with a new found appreciation on the cinema of spectacle. Maybe, given the expansion of technology, cinema can take the road of being just a virtual experience rather than having a narrative. Maybe, storytelling will not be limited as a task of the filmmaker, but also, interactively, the task of the viewer. Ultimately, perhaps, today, Cinderella does not have to meet her prince to be redeemed. In fact, maybe there is no prince and magic. The story of the girl covered in rags and cinder may end with her facing her own challenges and either failing or emerging triumphant, depending on the decisions she makes. Whether her story ends as a tragedy or a story of redemption won’t really matter. What matters is the refreshing way that this old tale will be retold because, at the end of the day, there is no more demand for an overrated concise happy ending, only a relatable one.
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