Saturday, February 9, 2008

Poetic Logic vs. Narrative Logic - The "Sophie's Choice" of filmmaking

Poetic logic vs. Narrative Logic.

Maybe not as exciting as a WWF smack-down, but in some ways, profoundly more impactful, culturally. Not that poetic logic and narrative logic are mutually exclusive - in fact some of the best films integrate the two beautifully - but there are definitely times in these great films where the filmmaker has had to serve one over the other. And often, it is specifically that choice that has determined the greatness of the film.


Film is often spoken synonymously with story-telling. I agree with this whole-heartedly if the definition of story-telling includes poetic logic and dream logic. But typically, when people discuss story-telling, they are referring to rather straight-forward narrative construction. Yes, film is indeed a great medium for acting out straight-forward narratives. It takes a story that could be conveyed by someone just sitting and verbalizing it and applies the specific properties of cinema to give it depth and dimension. Good story-tellers are always compelling, but realizing a good story through the skillful application of the tools of cinema definitely takes story-telling to the next level.

But why is that the case? And what else should the properties of cinema be in service of if not the demands of straight-forward narrative construction? The answer to both questions is the same: Poetry/Dreams.

Story-telling affects us on a conscious level, and that can be compelling enough, indeed. But the properties of cinema take story-telling to the level of the the level of dreams, if you will. And that is why films can affect us so powerfully - because it can touch us in a really deep place, in ways beyond our awareness. A film only rises to the level of art when it can speak powerfully to the sub-conscious.

Poetic logic and Dream logic are ways of telling stories that acknowledge that practically everything in life or imagination is a symbol or metaphor. They are doorways to a deeper understanding of things or they are triggers for deeper emotions.

And that is done through sound, images and emotive energy, primarily. As well as the arrangement and juxtaposition of those elements. Rarely is our sub-conscious at all impacted by dialogue and plot, except as a framework for managing these other elements. You've probably heard it said that there are a finite number of stories to tell (in terms of story construction, not specific detail). Well, that's because what we can create or embrace from a conscious perspective is finite. What we can create or embrace in our sub-conscious/unconscious selves is infinite. Narrative convention is fraught with patterns and rules of construction. Poetry and dreams are like fingerprints. They constantly create new patterns, rather than being defined or constricted by them.

This is not to say that dialogue and plot are unimportant. They, too, can be created in a way that speaks directly to the sub-conscious. But sometimes they are simply important as a doorway to the sub-conscious. Meaning, some people will not let you speak to their sub-conscious if you don't speak to their conscious selves first. The people who don't get "arty" films and get annoyed with experimentalism often need the safety of narrative conventions before they can allow themselves to respond to anything deeper than that.

But as I said, there are times when we filmmakers have to make a choice about which of the two is the child we must keep. One is tried and true, safe and familiar. The other is deep and mysterious. One can be agonizingly predictable and uninspiring. The other can be maddeningly esoteric. One has clear rules to follow, the other has a logic that must be created by the filmmaker. It is a filmmaker's choice to make. However, I don't know of a great film - a film that truly stands as a work of art - that did not, in the end, serve poetry over narrative convention.


  1. In honor of the upcoming filmmakers forum and the discussion of "how to make a frightening horror film without gore," I'm going to suggest that poetic cinema is the answer.

    I'll argue at the forum that it is these very methods of irrational juxtaposition and dream logic (or nightmare logic) that make great horror films, and that this is why many popular movies in the genre make little narrative sense.

    It's no accident that most of the most famous cinema "poets," from Kubric (The Shining) to Bergman (Hour of the Wolf), Tarkovsky (Stalker)to Polanski(Repulsion), have all made horror movies.

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