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Filmic Multiple Reality Syndrome

The nonlinear narratives of such films as Mulholland Drive, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come into sharper focus in Matthew Campora’s newly released book Subjective Realist Cinema: From Expressionism to Inception. Following, the author introduces an excerpt to his book, tells the reader of his initial inspiration to write it, and gives insight into “multiform narrative.”




What follows is an excerpt from my book Subjective Realist Cinema. I have chosen to present it here because it contains some of the key ideas of the book, as well as a brief analysis of the film that inspired my interest in complex narrative cinema in the first place, Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Watching it teenager, I found Brazil confusing, even incomprehensible. However, I was also fascinated by it and suspected there was more to the film than I had grasped. When I returned to it years later and discovered that I was able to comprehend it in a way that had eluded me earlier, I was even more intrigued. How could I have NOT grasped what seemed so simple to me now? That the key to understanding the film lay in recognizing the shifts between Sam Lowry’s nightmarish waking world on the one hand, and his imagination, dreams, and hallucinations on the other. The lack of clearly marked shifts between the film’s different ontological levels had created a complexity that I was not accustomed to, and solving the puzzle the film posed had proven tremendously satisfying. I began seeking out similar films in order to understand how they created their effects and what follows is fragment of the work that has grown out of the years spent with these films.



Multiform Narrative

Multiform narratives are related to but distinct from multi-strand narratives. What relates them is the shared feature of two or more narrative strands, a similarity that has led critics such as Denby and scholars such as King to group the styles together. What the multiform as a category offers, however, is a way of conceptualizing and articulating their difference: the multiplicity of the multiform is not simply narratological but also ontological – it features parallel or alternate realities in one or more of its strands. Multiform narratives are common in science fiction, horror, and fantasy films with examples ranging from The Matrix to The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming 1939) to A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984). However, they have also been a mainstay of international art cinema where they have been used to represent the subjective perspectives of unstable characters for nearly a century. Examples from this stream include Robert Weine’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919), Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957) and Persona (1966), as well as Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1962), to name but a few. In Mulholland Drive, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine, multiform narratives are similarly employed to represent the subjective perspective of their central characters, where the alternate realities represented include, among other things, hallucinations, memories, dreams, and/or psychotic states. What I will do now is survey the extremely limited discourse around multiform cinema in order to, first, build a richer working definition of the term than has been provided thus far, and second, situate my argument in relation to this work.


The use of the term “multiform” to describe narratives with multiple ontological levels originates with Janet H. Murray, whose Hamlet On the Holodeck (1997) considers the roots of multiform narrative in literature, as well as exploring examples from film and television. She writes: “I am using the term multiform story to describe a written or dramatic narrative that presents a single situation or plotline in multiple versions, versions that would be mutually exclusive in our ordinary experience” (Murray 30). It is the “mutual exclusivity” of the versions that provides the key to Murray’s notion of the multiform and it is from this that I have derived my idea of multiple ontologies. Murray’s coining of “multiform narrative” seems to have resulted from the absence of a narratological vocabulary with which to articulate the types of narratives she has seen developing in the hyper-textual cyber-space stories her book focuses on. What Murray does not do, however, is argue that multiform narrative is a new phenomenon and her examples make this clear. She considers Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (1985), and Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day (1993) and shows that each features narrative strands that present mutually exclusive or alternate realities: the first supernatural, the next futuristic, and the last, unexplained – possibly supernatural, possibly delusional. The examples I have cited from European art cinema do not feature in Murray’s analysis, although she does consider the Japanese classic Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa 1950) in her analysis of a sub-type of the multiform that she calls the “violence-hub narrative” (Murray 135).


Violence-hub narratives, according to Murray, “place an account of a violent incident […] at the center of a web of narratives that explore it from multiple points of view” (137). [1] Rashomon serves as the quintessential cinematic example of the type.


These violence-hub stories do not have a single solution like the adventure maze or a refusal of solution like postmodern stories; instead, they combine a clear sense of story structure with a multiplicity of meaningful plots. The navigation of the labyrinth is like pacing the floor; a physical manifestation of the effort to come to terms with the trauma, it represents the mind’s repeated efforts to keep returning to a shocking event in an effort to absorb it and, finally, get past it. (Murray 135-136)


Violence-hub narratives also exploit the potential of the multiform to represent the pathological subjectivities that often result from trauma, a theme which will be considered further in Chapter Five. The violence-hub form of the multiform narrative is an important category here because it is the one most commonly used in the internal-subjective multiform cinema.


[1] What is notable about multiform narrative in contemporary cinema is not its novelty, then, but the frequency with which it is used: multiform narratives appear in science fiction and horror films on a regular basis; there have been a number of big budget Hollywood films that have used them; and, of course, they often appear in independent features. There is, consequently, a clear need for explorations of multiform films in these genres, and the type of analysis required is well beyond the scope of the dissertation. My choice of films from the American independent context is partially the result of personal taste; however, in tracing the origins of multiform cinema, it is clear that its roots are firmly in the art cinema tradition and the independent mode of filmmaking is often seen as an extension of that tradition.




Matthew Campora is a Lecturer at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. He holds an MPhil in literary studies and a PhD in film studies from the University of Queensland.