The distortion of classical narrative techniques in modern film using the example of Vanilla Sky

Term Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject

2. The story of the film

3. Anti-Narrative techniques
3.1. Distortion of Story-time
3.2. The Dis-Notion of Place
3.3. Diegetic form vrs. Non-diegetic form
3.4. The Misrepresentation of Characters

4. Overall anti-narrative effect on the viewer and examples from other modern movies

5. Conclusion

1. Introduction and thoughts about the subject

For a long time, most Hollywood directors stuck to a certain kind of narrative strategies to convey their view of the world to the recipient. Movie-conventions were therefore set from the beginning of profitable movie making and were fastened by the rise of big movie studios.

In recent modern movies however, some directors have laid extreme interest on not sticking to the conventions and established a kind of non-narrative technique. As a result some of the most astonishing movies of the 90ies and the new millennium were created. The success of some of these movies can be explained by two facts. First of all, the abolishing of movie conventions resulted in the filmic reproduction of stories that had before been said to be unfit for filmic expression.

Secondly the movies created drew their fascination from a non-understanding. With no classical movie conventions aligned, these movies seemed disturbing and frightening but it is also this disturbance that mesmerizes the viewer.

In this essay I will try to outline in which way narrative conventions are abolished in modern productions and what effect this has on the spectator. To reduce the amount of information and to exemplify certain points I will stick to Cameron Crowe’s movie Vanilla Sky (2001) which is based on the motion picture Arbre los Ojos (1997) by Alejandro Amenabar. The choice is justified by a rather confusing structure of the film which corresponds perfectly to the new way of moviemaking and also by the roots of the motion picture in an Off-Hollywood production area. These roots show that, although many non-classical movies have earned a lot of reputation, most moviemakers stick to conventions and that inventions are still entrenched in alternative cinema.

2. The story of the Film

David Aames (Tom Cruise) is the boss of a very successful, globally acting company and he is very handsome. He has an affair with Julianna Giani (Cameron Diaz) but finds himself in love with Sofia Serrano (Penelope Cruz) whom he meets on a party one night. As Juliana finds out about this, she tries to kill him and herself but David survives, his face being brutally distorted. As we find out at the end of the film, David decides to die and live on in a “lucid dream”, a kind of coma in which he himself decides about the dreams he has and that is from then on presented as the reality of the film. But something goes wrong and the dreams he has turn into nightmares. In the end, David has to decide if he wants to re-enter the restored lucid dream or if he wants to live again in a world, in which Sofia has died a long time ago, which he does.

3. Anti-Narrative strategies

The problems we have in describing the story of the film also foreshadow the problems we will have in analysing the movie itself. As I will point out, the use of modern anti-narrative strategies makes it rather impossible to get one coherent meaning out of this movie and out of other movies.

3.1 The Distortion of Story-time

The notion of time has been a traditional value in classic Hollywood moviemaking. A film has to have a beginning, a middle part and an ending and they follow each other in a logical pattern. Episodic filming or the new Hollywood school of the sixties tried to surmount these patterns but were still deeply concerned about the reception of the viewer. A movie could not be successful at the box office, if the viewer could not easily understand the time structure that was the base for the plot. Same holds truth, as I will point out, for characters, place, and plot.

Vanilla Sky however, does not provide us with a coherent time scale. In fact the notion of story-time is purposely distorted to prevent the reader from having an easy access to the film. The film features a kind of break point. That point at which David’s real life ends and the lucid dream starts. However, this break is not visible to the viewer. Following gestalt-theories[i], the spectator is made to believe, that the scenes in picture 1 and 2 directly follow one another and are therefore connected. Surely this is logical for the story world, as David himself is made to believe that his life has never ended and he is still living on without the lucid dream. But, as an outcome, it becomes very hard for the viewer to identify the break point and the border between reality and dream until he gets informed by the story world.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Pic. 1 and 2: David breaks down in the street and wakes up the other morning. The point in his life he chose for the beginning of his lucid dream and (though not visible for the spectator) the break point of the movie. Source: Vanilla Sky DVD

In addition, as we find out at the end of the film, the time that has passed throughout the second half of the movie was neither narrated time nor narration time. David lay in the lucid dream as long as it took for the company to invent a method to resurrect him. We have no notion of the scale of time except for the fact that everybody that David knew is long dead. In addition, this information is only given at the end of the movie so, for a long time, the viewer finds himself wondering which scene comes before or after which other scene. With the information given, that Julie died in the car-accident in the first half of the film, it would be impossible for her to return to David in the second part in any other way than a flashback or a dream sequence, at least in a classical movie. Vanilla Sky however provides us with a scene in which David has sex with a woman that is first Sofia, then Julie and then again Sofia. A consistent interpretation of this scene is not possible for the viewer until he gets the information that the second part of the movie really only represents David’s self-chosen but irregular lucid dream. And even then, a viewer that is used to classical Hollywood conventions will have problems in reconstruction the film which makes it rather frightening in its inconsistency.

3.2 The Dis-Notion of Place

A realistic film happens in a place that is either familiar to us or that we can recreate in our minds by our (cultural) knowledge and experiences. This notion of place again allows the viewer an easy access to the diegetic[ii] world of a movie. A director that depends on not allowing easy diegetic access to his movie in order to convey a certain message has to find a way to separate the viewer from the notion of place that is presented.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Pic. 3: Tom Cruise on the lonely Time Square – a sublime sight.

Source: Vanilla Sky DVD

In Vanilla Sky David has a dream in which he stands on the Times Square in New York. This would not be very dramatic as this place has been starring in hundreds of films and is therefore familiar to the viewer even if he has not been there in person. The distracting element here is that the Time Square is completely empty. David is the only person walking along the street (Picture 3). For any place in the world, the notion of emptiness would be ok but for this place it is highly frightening. The viewer is used to see the Time Square as one of the most crowded places on earth. Therefore he can not connect to this image, he blocks, feels as terrified as David is himself. The picture looks sublime[iii]. Identification with the place-world of the movie is thus not possible. And this problem becomes more and more relevant as the second half of the movie does not take place anywhere. If one was to construct a diegetic Vanilla Sky world that avoids dream sequences, the second half of the movie would only be presenting a shot of David lying in a cryogenic container because the only place that, following the logic of the movie, is relevant is David’s mind of which the viewer has no conception. Everything happens there and any place represented by the images in the movie is only a construction of David’s dreams. But as I will point out in the next chapter, this corresponds to the construction of the movie itself by the viewer’s mind.

3.3 Diegetic vs. Non-diegetic form

A classical Hollywood movie depends on a distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic world. This means a viewer is to believe in a borderline between the world on the screen and the world he himself lives in. Additionally, the screen world has to make sense, it has to be logical in itself and characters on the screen should have no knowledge of spectators. An explicit violation of this rule, meaning a crossing of the borderline, would be if a diegetic character would look straight into the camera or address the viewer. The spectator would become aware of the camera and would therefore doubt the validation of the story world.

However in Vanilla Sky we have no explicit crossing but rather something that I will call an implicit crossing of diegetic and non-diegetic form. This technique is used rather frequently. I will exemplify it by using a certain scene of the movie.


[i] See: Hamlyn, David W. The Psychology of Perception. London: Routledge and Paul, 1979.

[ii] For information about the notion of diegesis see: Bordwell, David. Narration and fiction Film. London: Methuen, 1985.

[iii] For the notion of the sublime see: Poenicke, Klaus. The Dark sublime. Heidelberg: Winter, 1972.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


The distortion of classical narrative techniques in modern film using the example of Vanilla Sky
University of Siegen  (Forschungskolleg 615)
Narration and Film
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ISBN (Book)
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Die Arbeit zeigt eine neue Art der Erzählstruktur in Hollywoodfilmen der späten neunziger und des neuen Jahrtausends. Hauptaugenmerke werden dabei auf diegetische Brüche, Zeitschienen, Raumrepräsentation und Charakterpräsentation gelegt. Neben Vanilla Sky werden auch Beispiele aus Fight Club, Memento, The Sixth Sense und Identity gebraucht.
Vanilla, Narration, Film
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Christian Schlütter (Author), 2005, The distortion of classical narrative techniques in modern film using the example of Vanilla Sky, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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