Up-and-coming YouTuber ‘quinn aitkenhead’, a film student who professes a reluctance to perpetuate stereotypes by exalting Citizen Kane (mission failed), has posted a wonderful look at the motivations behind some of cinema’s most famous remixed narratives.
He begins by discussing the Fabula and Syuzhet, two concepts we’ve explored before, in brief:
“Fabula equates to the content, the events of a story, everything that you know happens in your work of fiction. The Syuzhet is the structure or chronology, or in a film’s case, you might say the edit. The material (Fabula) and how it is shaped into what the viewer sees (Syuzhet). This distinction between the reality of events and how they are referred to is attuned to the nature of written literature, where the Fabula is basically the narrative while the order in which the narrative is presented (the chronology) is the Syuzhet, but these can be a useful distinction in the realm of screenwriting. In all cases, Fabula is told, Syuzhet is telling.”
Most often the Syuzhet and Fabula run parallel, it’s how people are used to hearing stories told, aka in ‘the right’ chronological order, but there are opportunities to radically enliven your film’s plot by tampering with this convention. One of the most common mixing and matching methods involves transposing the ending of a film to its beginning; the opening scene. Why would you do such a thing?
Well, after a little aside on the history of these terms, their origins in Soviet prose and entry into cinema, Quinn betrays himself by exploring Citizen Kane, which starts on its protagonist’s deathbed, before we jump back in flashbacks to witness episodes of his life, as recounted by those who knew him (or at least partially knew him). We don’t ask how his life’s story will end, but rather why it ended in the manner it did (a method of exposition that helps to make the story “much less boring”). The use of flashbacks keeps the narrative jumps from feeling too alienating as well; we, like the journalist investigating Kane’s personal life, are working to fit these glimpses, out of order and incomplete, together. It’s the mystery in Kane that keeps viewers involved. The more you learn, the less you can box him in.
Fight Club opens in medias res, at a key location in final moments of its story, where Tyler Durden is holding protagonist Jack at gunpoint. Jack’s narration orients us, but we begin to piece together the story as it unfolds when he begins to recount it from his preferred starting point. Instead of meeting Tyler Durden unceremoniously on a plane as Jack does, we meet him with full knowledge of his threatening potential.
Similarly, Goodfellas opens to one of the nastiest episodes in protagonist Henry’s life, colouring the retelling of his childhood admiration for gangsters which we cut to following the opening credits.
Beginning at the end can have a myriad benefits, only a few of which are explored in the video below, but this collection of astute observations is a fine point to start if you’d like to explore the subject.