Monday, July 28, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

(500) Days and the Fractured Narrative

Jay, a reader, writes to complain about what he calls "chopped-up" movies and what I would call a "fractured narrative," you know, movies that have beginnings, middles and ends but not in that order. (Think Pulp Fiction and Memento.) For him, the latest offender is (500) Days of Summer. I very much enjoyed the film about an aspiring architect who begins the movie by telling us his relationship ended and that he doesn't know why, and then recalls, non-chronologically, the highs and lows of the affair the way one might recall it for a friend who wasn't around.

(500) Days and the Fractured Narrative

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel in (500) Days of Summer.

Jay, a reader, writes to complain about what he calls "chopped-up" movies and what I would call a "fractured narrative," you know, movies that have beginnings, middles and ends but not in that order. (Think Pulp Fiction and Memento.)  For him, the latest offender is (500) Days of Summer. I very much enjoyed the film about an aspiring architect who begins the movie by telling us his relationship ended and that he doesn't know why, and then recalls, non-chronologically, the highs and lows of the affair the way one might recall it for a friend who wasn't around.

For Jay, this is "a cheap attempt to create suspense where there shouldn't really be any. I also heard someone say that chopping the movie up keeps the viewer on his toes while watching it. But again, I just feel like this is a cheat, in that if the movie were interesting enough in the first place, the viewer wouldn't need a trick like that to stay involved." (My only issue with (500) Days is that I find the Zooey Deschanel character irritatingly self-conscious.)

The earliest case of a fractured narrative that I know of is The Power and the Glory, a 1933 Spencer Tracy film written by Preston Sturges about a rags-to-riches industrialist. The story is told in flashback, intercutting the industrialist's rise to power with his fall from grace, and many cite it as a precursor of Citizen Kane. For me, this structure mimics that of a mystery, where the viewer gets jigsaw pieces of information and tries to fit them together for the big picture.

I'm more an admirer than a fan of Pulp Fiction, so I might be inclined to agree with Jay that its structure is more gimmicky than not. But I'd be interested to know if other readers agree or disagree with him. Give examples of your most/least favorite fractured narrative.

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Consider our Movies blog your essential guide to new movies and classics, interviews with filmmakers and stars, news and views on the latest screen trends, reviews and the occasional rant.

Carrie Rickey Film Critic
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