Like my post a while ago about time travel stories here, the idea isn’t to list the ten greatest non-linear stories. Who could claim such a thing? Especially when I’ve never even seen Rashomon, or Pulp Fiction? But I’m interested in film and storytelling, and recently I’ve been pondering a bit about the idea of non-linear storytelling. This is a phrase that has a broad range of meaning and an equally diverse selection of potential examples.
Image courtesy of posterize / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Actually, almost every film is non-linear, in the sense that they don’t take place in a continuous uninterrupted flow of time and space. If we take that a super-strict definition, than you have to go to something like Rope (presented in what is supposedly in one continuous take) or High Noon (which has edits, but takes place in real time) to find something that’s not non-linear.
But usually, that’s not what we mean. We mean that the film has story elements which are not presented in chronological order, not in the order they are meant to have taken place. And actually, this is pretty common as well. Does the movie have any flashbacks in it? Non-linear! A framing device at the start? Non-linear! Does the movie have two scenes that are meant to be occurring simultaneously, but are shown one after the other? Non-linear! In fact, I have an old list that I made of 100 favorite films (which is now outdated), of which at least 25% (off the top of my head, without reviewing anything) qualify.
Some people might look at any time-travel movie as being non-linear, but this is not necessarily the case. Sure, it might be non-linear as involves “real” chronology, but a lot of them are perfectly linear according to the perspective of the protagonist character. So a movie like Looper, for example, is non-linear (although not on this list, because I don’t like it), another film like Back to the Future is basically a linear film from the point of view of lead character Marty McFly.
But then there are films that are more deliberately non-linear, that purposely reveal narrative beats out of straightforward order in order to set up a dramatic reveal or to create a specific sort of effect. Some of the famous ones are the ones that I mentioned – Pulp Fiction, or Rashomon, or Intolerance – none of which I’ve seen.
Another famous one that I have seen is Memento, and generally speaking, everyone would expect Memento, directed by Christopher Nolan, to be on a list of great Non-Linear Movies, but I’m telling you up front here that it’s not showing up today. Memento is interesting, but just not one that I love. Incidentally, Memento is not a film that tells its story back to front, as is often popularly mentioned, but rather goes back and forth between telling its story forwards and (sort of) backwards, working its way ultimately toward the middle. So, a unique approach, potentially, but far too gimmicky I think to hold up as a great movie. That said, another less likely film from the same director does show up on the list.
Also not showing up today, mostly because I don’t like them all that much: 500 Days of Summer (nice film, but not sure what the point of the non-linear approach was), Vantage Point (overwrought and a bit silly), Courage Under Fire (not a bad movie, but I can’t bring myself to include it when I haven’t seen and can’t include its stylistic antecedent, Rashomon) or Summer Time Machine Blues (which I do like, but because it’s also a time travel movie, and I don’t want to confuse the issue).
10. Mission Impossible III (2006)
Director: J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams feature film directorial debut is a remarkably assured film, and far and away the best of the Mission Impossible movies. For the most part, it’s tautly but standardly presented spy flick. The exception is the beginning, where Abrams used a simple technique that he’d previously employed in about every forth episode of Alias: beginning the story in media res. This is a Latin term that literally means, apparently, “in the midst of things.” In this case, it meant taking the most brutal and horrifying scene out of the end of Act II of the story, and sticking right at the start.
So the result is an opening in which we watch our hero bound and distraught, helpless to act as his loved one is apparently brutally murdered in front of him. Then, we go back to the start of the story, as we see the same two people happily celebrating at their engagement party, and we proceed from there. But all the way along, that cold-open hangs over our heads with a sense of dread as we come to better understand the circumstances that led to the characters being in that dilemma. It adds an extra layer of tension to an already well-told action thriller.
9. Batman Begins (2005)
Director: Christopher Nolan
The first hour or so of Batman Begins tells two separate but equally important aspects of the origin of Batman side by side. One of them is the story of everything that happened to young Bruce Wayne in the past, starting when he is a young boy falling into what will later become the Batcave, including the death of his parents, and culminating in him leaving Gotham as a young man. The other is the story in the present, showing us Bruce’s journeys starting with his imprisonment in a jail in China, and leading to his training by Ducard, his return to Gotham City, and his taking up of the cape & cowl of the Dark Knight and to defeat Carmine Falcone.
It’s not like any of this was a massive innovation in storytelling, but Batman Begins handles the challenges of parallel storytelling deftly, giving Batman’s history more depth and richness that it has had in pretty much any other iteration.
8. JFK (1991)
Director: Oliver Stone
When famed critic Roger Ebert reviewed this movie on TV when it first came out, he pointed out how skillfully the film mixed together genuine historical footage, simulated historical footage, flashback footage, and “normal” dramatic film footage. And he’s right. I’m not the biggest fan of JFK, but I remember it as being one of the most impressively edited films I’d ever seen – and film editing was one of the two Oscars the movie actually won. Watching the movie is sort of like dreaming – a stream of consciousness of dialogue scenes, speculations, flashbacks, and imaginations which somehow still all makes sense. Even though what is being discussed and researched is utterly bewildering, the viewer never finds himself lost in the midst of it all.
The film’s Wikipedia page quotes an interview from Oliver Stone by Gary Crowdus from the May 1992 Cineaste, entitled,. “Clarifying the Conspiracy: An Interview with Oliver Stone” in which the director said that he “wanted to do the film on two or three levels – sound and picture would take us back, and we’d go from one flashback to another, and then that flashback would go inside another flashback…I wanted multiple layers because reading the Warren Commission Report is like drowning.” Quite a feat, really.
7. The Usual Suspects (1995)
Director: Bryan Singer
The Usual Suspects appears at first to be a fairly routine example of storytelling via flashback, using a police interrogation as a framing device. But it takes on a whole other level of complexity when you understand that our narrator is not only unreliable, but in fact out and out deceptive. Suddenly we go from a story that is merely non-linear – which already requires the audience to work a bit harder to get the full picture – to but completely suspicious and untrustworthy. This twist, revealed in the film’s closing moments, force us to re-examine everything we’ve just seen, to put together any sort of coherent picture of what’s happened. So, non-linear on a bit of a meta-level, as well as in the film itself.
6. Run Lola Run (1993)
Director: Tom Tykwer
Unlike everything else on this list, the approach of Run Lola Run toward its non-linear storytelling isn’t built off of any traditional narrative framing device, the use of flashbacks, or a choice to tell its story in an unusual order. Instead, it opts to tell its story (about a a women desperately looking for some money to get her idiot boyfriend out of trouble with some shady characters) three separate times – with the protagonist interacting with the people and world around her in slightly different ways each time. The best comparison is like a video game, where the outcome of the story depends on just how deftly the player can navigate the different obstacles, and in which repeated game play leads to improved performance. Alternating with each “take” we get a short disconnected thematic/character-focused scene between the main characters.
In a subtle and indirect way, Lola’s experiences in one version of things seems to inform her choices in the next, and we get to see how her varying actions impact the people around her differently. As far as film structure is concerned, it’s one of those interesting experiments that you wouldn’t really wanted repeated any time, but in this one case makes for a fascinating experience.
5. Speed Racer (2008)
Director: The Wachowski Brothers
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, Speed Racer is possibly the worst movie that I’ve every thoroughly enjoyed. It’s a high-octane piece of techno-fluff based on the imported-from-Japan cartoon from the 1960’s. I honestly don’t remember much about the movie anymore, but one scene stands out in my memory: the race that young Speed Racer takes part in near the movie’s opening. Through frenetic visuals and slick editing, we see both Speed’s current Race, and his older brother Rex’s record setting race from years ago. And we see that Speed is not just racing his current opponents, whom he determined to beat – he is also racing the legacy of his brother, whom he is determined to not outpace. It’s another moment, like much of JFK, that stands out because it should be completely confusing but is somehow entirely clear.
4. Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
Director: Danny Boyle (Co-Directed by Loveleen Tandan)
Slumdog Millionaire uses more-or-less the same structure to tell its story that we got in The Usual Suspects, except that the narrator is not a psychotic crime-lord. Jamal instead is an orphan growing up on the streets of Mumbai who winds up as a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – and so astounds everyone with his correct answers that he is actually arrested and interrogated for cheating. This provides the framework for Jamal to tell the tale of his extraordinary life, with each question answered connecting in to an episode of his own story.
There are actually three time frames in the movie – Jamal’s interrogation and its results, Jamal’s participation in the game show immediately before hand, and then the main business of Jamal’s growing up. They are skillfully interwoven to create a single engaging, transporting narrative.
3. The Railway Man (2013)
Director: Jonathan Teplitzky
If you didn’t know better, you could easily think at the beginning of The Railway Man that the film was a subdued romantic comedy, or a light-hearted romantic drama. We see quiet, middle-aged Eric Lomax having a chance meeting with a beautiful woman on a train, and then using his knowledge of railway time tables to impress her by turning up at the right time days later to meet her again. But after they get married, the new bride, Patti, discovers that her husband still lives with trauma left over from his experiences in World War II. Seeking to understand his unstable behavior, she begins to investigate what took place, and then the movie takes us back to all that happened to Lomax and his friends as they were imprisoned in a camp by the Japanese. The movie goes back and forth between Eric’s story in the past and Patti’s attempts to help him in the present, unfolding a story of just how deep emotional scars can run.
But the movie takes the non-linear aspects of things a step further in the film’s final act. Lomax, in the present, has the opportunity to confront one of his torturers. Holding the man, who is already tormented at the memories of what he did, is entirely at his mercy, and the movie holds back at first from revealing how their encounter ends. There are a few suggestive shots – Lomax picking up his knife, Lomax walking across a railway bridge – but we don’t actually know. Then just a bit later, a reflective Lomax thinks back and the movie fills in the gaps: Lomax set his prisoner free, Lomax drops his knife into the river. The simple act of just withholding a little bit of information until the right moment makes the ending that much more effective and meaningful.
2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Director: Michel Gondry
For my money, this is the Crown Prince of non-linear films, certainly from my generation. The story plays with time by having much of the screen filled with the dynamic of main character racing backwards through a pastiche of his own memories, as he changes his mind about undertaking a procedure in which all his memories of a failed romance will be removed. The film is a bit of a masterpiece of practical effects and unusual camera angles and storytelling techniques which take us on a dizzying whirlwind journey through Joel & Clementine’s relationship, keeping us off guard but still grounded enough to know what is going on.
That’s all very interesting but what takes this movie to the next level is the way it structures the story around Joel’s whole ordeal. At the beginning of the movie, we see Joel and Clementine meeting for the first time, but the details don’t seem to gibe with what we later see in Joel’s memory. It’s not until toward the end that we discover the truth: what we saw at the start wasn’t the couple’s first meeting, but their second – which has taken place after both characters have had their memories of each other erased. Joel and Clementine soon realize this as well, and have to deal with the awkwardness of discovering that they are just beginning a romance that has already failed. It’s a complex story without any easy answers.
1. Citizen Kane (1941)
Director: Orson Welles
While Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the golden boy of the non-linear film, Citizen Kane is aged but revered King. Considered by many to be one of the very greatest American films ever made, the movie helped to codify a lot of the language of the very young art of cinema. It brought together pretty much all of the developments in cinematography, sound design, and editing that we’d come up with up to that point and stuck them under one title.
The plot is classic non-linear storytelling. It opens with the death of the title character – the only moment of Charles Foster Kane’s turbulent life that we see unfiltered through a narrator. Then it cuts to a very dry run-through of his life, in the form of a newsreel obituary. The editor of the news rightly states that the newsreel gives us the facts, but fail to help us understand the man. And so a young reporter named Thompson begins a journey to try to find out what made Kane tick by seeking out the meaning of his last spoken word: “Rosebud”.
This takes him to the journals of the man who raised Kane, and to interviews with his ex-wife, his former friend, his loyal employee, and ultimately his butler, all to plumb the secrets that lie behind this final utterance. Each narrator then relates his or her personal experiences with Kane. But the movies eschews the obvious discrepancies that any of the countless Rashomon-imitators have highlighted (you know, where multiple narrators talk about different perspectives of the same event), and instead gives us subtle differences, not in the recounting of events (few of the actual events are seen more than once) but in the nuances of Kane’s personality. So after the survey of his life that we are exposed to, we see Kane the child, Kane the crusader, Kane the dilettante, Kane the vigorous entrepreneur, Kane the lover, Kane the fool, Kane the bitter old man, disconnected with the world.
Which of these guys is the real Charles Foster Kane? Again, there is no easy answer. The movie highlights how a man’s life does not lend itself to simple definitions, and it makes beautiful use of its non-linear format to highlight this.