I’ve been struck in attempting to teach something of the three act narrative structure just how dry and lacking in punch this is without setting a context.
Indeed, I remember thinking to myself, So what! when I first learned about it back in the day. As a concept this silly formalist approach to film only began to make sense when my attention was drawn to a way it could be used as a critical tool for reading films in a cultural context. So here are a couple of issues as it relates to media in general, and film in particular.
- firstly, that while this structure applies equally to different narrative forms, it operates differently through film, by virtue of its nature as a visual medium. Film makers can apply visual emphasis to important incident or event, thus out of place or non-ubiquitous framing, lighting, editing, blocking, sound or mise-en-scène emphasis can be drawn. As students of film our interest should be piqued by this, as it is an invitation to look closely at film technique, to store as part of our film making vocabulary, and perhaps to be recycled in our own efforts. As Picasso said good artists borrow, great artists steal (I’m paraphrasing the old cat burglar here).
- Secondly, set the three structure of many films into their broader cultural context and the idea of resolution bears much closer examination, I remember back in the early 90’s, reading Stuart Prices excellent media studies textbook, I was struck by the way that he extrapolated interesting analytical technique from this issue.
- His point of departure was Todorov’s equilibrium, disruption, new equilibrium/resolution, and if I remember correctly his example was a story about an industrial dispute (he used the 1984/5 miner’s strike in the UK) in that the initial equilibrium was the state of affairs before the strike, the strike itself was the disruption and the failure of the strike, the new equilibrium. The point here was that the idea of equilibrium here is not value free, and to suggest that the failure of industrial action is a new equilibrium or resolution is only the case from a particular ideological perspective.
- This was not an example that I felt would work particularly well with teenagers from fairly privileged backgrounds so I explored it in the context of Clueless (Amy Heckerling USA 1995). a modern adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. The main theme is the enlightenment of the main character Cher, who is characterised in the exposition phase as over-privileged and unaware of anything outside hers or her peer’s petty concerns. The resolution ie; the new equilibrium is where Cher has the realisation that she is in love her step-brother and forms a relationship with him. To make a critique of this on the basis of the three act narrative structure, one might suggest that she remains as shallow and largely unaware by the story’s resolution as she did at the beginning of the film and that the extent of her enlightenment is confined to finding a boy-friend, not a particularly cool message to be sending the pre-teen audience of girls in 1995,
What I believe we as film and media educators should be involved in when we draw our student’s attention to concept like the three act narrative structure is not merely restating the formal components of the concept but showing how it helps us to understand a text in it’s broader cultural context. To provide critical tools by which they can understand films as cultural artefacts.