The film narrator and the early American screenwriting manuals
Early Popular Visual Culture
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© 2019, © 2019 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group. Some of the most influential accounts of the transition from the cinema of attractions to narrative cinema have relied heavily on the figure of the film narrator. Tom Gunning, for instance, has explained D.W. Griffith’s innovations in terms of a Genettian extradiegetic narrator. André Gaudreault has argued that the filmic narrative agency predated such developments in editing by introducing the figure of the ‘monstrator’. This paper argues that early narrative cinema generally did not introduce such narrators. My argument is twofold. Firstly, I demonstrate that according to Gunning and Gaudreault film narrators are not merely theoretical abstractions but entities that populate fictional worlds much like fictional characters do. Yet the ontological aspects of their theories hinge on a formally invalid argument that can be tracked back to Christian Metz and Albert Laffay. Contrary to Metz’s and Laffay’s argument, the existence of a fictional narrative does not entail the existence of a fictional narrator. It is, however, still possible that some fictional narratives have fictional narrators. If narrative cinema introduced fictional narrators, then the best-case scenario in support of Gunning’s and Gaudreault’s view would be that these were so novel that they were identified by commentators writing during the transitional era. In the second part of the paper, therefore, I turn to historical data. I show that even the arguably most informed contemporary writings on the subject–screenwriting manuals–fail to identify any such entities. In fact, the manuals articulate how a fictional narrative can proceed without a fictional narrator.
- Film Studies