Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Discursive Mode

Exemplary artists include:

Eric Rohmer

Marx Bros.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder

Chris Marker

Howard Hawks

Ingmar Bergman

Frank Capra

Akira Kurosawa

Frederick Wiseman

Truth is disclosed in the story if not necessarily in the words spoken by the characters.   The discursive mode will manifest in different ways from Kurosawa to Wiseman.  The spoken word is often very important, but the word “discursive” primarily refers to telling a story or making an argument.

Sometimes the point is made explicit by dialog, or story-telling mise-en-scene. If this sounds intuitive or familiar, it is because mainstream film operates almost exclusively in this mode, hence the inclusion of the classic American directors, Capra and Hawks; the progenitors of the American comedy film as we know it, the Marx Bros; and the single greatest influence on the action/adventure genre, Akira Kurosawa.

Most films that are representative of the discursive mode tend to be driven by dialog, but copious talking alone is not the distinguishing element of style.  It is also a matter of what is talked about.  The conspicuous trait of the discursive film is that the characters talk about the subject of the film.

Usually, the development of meaning is in the hands of viewer who has to negotiate the words of different characters.  It is not usually a matter of figuring out whom to believe, but finding the ground between the stated positions of the principle characters.

Each of Rohmer’s moral tales are about a man who finds himself forced to choose between two women as the object of his attention, and this is what the characters often discuss.  If they do not, then first-person voiceover provides the internal argument.

This mode is more or less free of an inherent hierarchy of values.  In other words, to call a movie discursive is not to judge to be either good or bad.  It is important to note, however, that other mitigating factors must be considered in order to understand how Kurosawa makes it in our canon and Spielberg does not; why Rohmer is in and Woody Allen is not; why we include Chris Marker, but not Hitchcock.

There are myriad reasons, but all of them would fall under the general dual heading of complexity and subtlety.  To put it rather bluntly, discursive filmmakers do something similar to mainstream filmmakers; they just do it better. Hawks, Capra and Kurosawa tell stories, and mainstream storytellers admire them.  The difference is that they do not explicitly narrate the actions and ideas they want to convey.  They leave it to the viewer to interpret.

For Fassbinder, Rohmer and Bergman it is the constant failure of the characters to make all their words matter.  The same holds true for Wiseman even if not a single spoken word in his films is a scripted line.  Wiseman still puts his films together with words.  He arranges the words of his subjects into such an order that they communicate specific meanings.

There is a bit of this quality to the Marx Bros. as well (hence the very existence of the character of Harpo), but there is also a musicality to their language whether improvised or scripted.  Marker goes even further conceptually; he elevates the words to a level of complexity and self-reflexivity otherwise unknown to cinema.



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