The Pseudo-iterative in Hollywood Classical Cinema
Although Genette's elaboration of the iterative is commonly assumed to be one of his most important contributions to narrative theory, there has been surprisingly little application of this concept to cinema. A notable exception is Brian Henderson's essay, "Tense, Mood, and Voice in Film (Notes After Genette)," in which he attempts to describe how the iterative functions in classical Hollywood cinema in contrast to classical literary narrative. After noting that "in classical cinema, as in the classical novel, the iterative nearly always has an information or background function subordinate to singulative scenes," Henderson perceptively observes that what is far more central to cinema than to literature is the "pseudo-iterative"—an unusual mode that Genette finds in Proust and that he defines as "scenes presented, particularly by their wording in the imperfect, as iterative, whereas their richness and precision of detail ensure that no reader can seriously believe they occur and reoccur in that manner, several times, without any variation" (Genette, p. 121). Henderson notes:
This happens occasionally in Proust; in cinema it is pervasive because "richness and precision of detail" seem to be inherent in photography and sound recording, at least in those practices of them engaged in by most films.
Pursuing his comparison of the ways the iterative functions in cinema as opposed to literature, Henderson describes the opening scene from How Green Was My Valley (1941), where Huw's voice-over first establishes the iterative mode through his description of a typical day and through his repeated use of the word "would" (e.g., "Someone would strike up a song and the valley would ring with the sound of many voices . . .") and then slips almost imperceptibly into the singulative ("It was on this afternoon that I first met Bron . . .").
Most interesting, theoretically, is how and why such a slippage is possible in cinematic iterative; it would not be in literary narrative. Are the images neutrally either iterative or singulative, depending upon a voice-
over to define their temporal status? If so, then the continuity of the images may sustain us through a shift in tense, while the changed verbal tense tells us how to read the images. (Henderson, pp. 11–12)
Genette interprets analogous slippages in Proust (i.e., when he "inadvertently lets a necessarily singulative passé simple into the middle of a scene presented as iterative") as "so many signs that the writer himself sometimes 'lives' such scenes with an intensity that makes him forget the distinction of aspects." Rather than seeing them as a conscious artistic strategy, Genette reads them as "confusions" that "reflect in Proust a sort of intoxication with the iterative " (p. 123)—an intoxication that presumably is transmitted to the reader. I would argue that the particular form of pseudo-iterative that operates in classical Hollywood cinema generates in the spectator an intoxication with the singulative —an intoxication which uses iterative implications to naturalize the singulative and which renders the slippage between the two aspects invisible.
But this explanation doesn't really address Henderson's question of why subtler slippages are possible in classical cinema in contrast to classical literature. One could argue that (even beyond the issue of fictional reference within the diegesis) the specific nature of the cinematic apparatus constructs an inevitable slippage between the singulative and the iterative, which are established and associated respectively with the stages of production and exhibition. That is, in front of the camera and microphone, the footage seemingly speaks in the singulative, either in the present tense or in the simple past by
capturing and embalming the present moment ("this event is happening now as it is being recorded," or "this event happened in front of the camera and microphone"). In the theater at the point of exhibition and reception (and even during the post-production stage, where a single utterance may be constructed out of multiple takes), the footage of images and sounds recorded in the past could be read as speaking in the iterative ("the event now being uttered/projected used to occur while this scene was being shot and in all previous projections"). In a discourse that tries to efface all traces of this dual system, such as Hollywood classical cinema, the emphasis is primarily on the singulative and on the illusory construction of a present tense; references to the past tend to be clearly marked out by voice-overs and/or flashbacks, as in the example Henderson cites from How Green Was My Valley .
One could also argue that the slippage into the iterative is more easily accomplished in cinema because, unlike the sentence, the film utterance is initially atemporal and its tense is therefore established contextually by discourse. That is, the film utterance is not required to have a tense and therefore (unlike the literary utterance) there is not always a clearly established tense for the iterative to suspend or displace. On the other hand, as Edward Branigan has pointed out, spatial relations in the film utterance must be clearly defined (that is, the camera must be somewhere ). This might suggest that in cinema there is a tendency to spatialize the iterative—i.e., to use spatial relations to generate iterative implications of frequency.
Thus, I would argue that it is not only voice-overs that can redefine the aspect of frequency of any cinematic image or scene, especially those involving spatial relations and representations of typicality, but also other stylistic operations within a narrative. In classical Hollywood cinema, it's the iterative aspect that tends to remain hidden; and that's why, as Henderson observes, when the iterative aspect is acknowledged, it is nearly always subordinated as mere descriptive background to what appear to be singulative events, whose distinguishing details are frequently accentuated by close-ups, editing codes of continuity (such as shot/reverse shot), or foregrounding of linear plot structure. This emphasis is hardly surprising since, as Genette observes, the singulative form of narrative is "so common, and apparently considered so 'normal' that it bears no name" (p. 114); that's why he coins the neologism singulative . Thus, it's the singulative nature of cinema that always tends to be foregrounded in classical cinema, even when those singular events take on what I would call an "iterative implication." This implication suggests that this particular narrative is a single telling of a class of events that habitually or typically occur in this set of circumstances, period, or culture—a dimension that is consistent with Aristotelian norms of probability and strongly reinforced by the normative power of popular Hollywood gen-
res. Yet because this iterative aspect is only implicit (and somewhat analogical rather than strictly grammatical) and the precision of rich detail literally foregrounded, "some [as Henderson cautiously observes] might take an ultra-literal position and say that this makes the iterative impossible in cinema; its images and sounds are always singulative" (p. 12).
I am arguing precisely the opposite position: namely, that the iterative is inherent in cinema, either through the pseudo-iterative (as defined by Genette and modified by Henderson, where there is an explicit acknowledgement that the event is presented in the iterative aspect despite the rich perceptual detail in the image), or through the iterative implication (where the acknowledgement of the iterative repetition is only implicit and positioned within a scene presented as singulative). One might reasonably object at this point that my usage of the term iterative may have moved too far away from its strictly grammatical usage in Narrative Discourse , yet Genette himself acknowledges that his grammatical terms "are merely borrowed" and that he makes "no pretense of basing them on rigorous homologies" (p. 32).
Genette confines the iterative to temporal relations and to utterances about past events. Yet by acknowledging that iterative repetition depends on the mental construction of a class (or paradigm) of similar instances, he opens a space within the iterative for the issue of typicality. Since temporality, as we have seen, is not foregrounded in film the way it is in literature, I am arguing that it is this issue of typicality that is usually foregrounded by the iterative in cinema. Within Hollywood classical cinema, the combination of rich perceptual detail and strong emphasis on genre not only generates iterative implications, but also uses them to naturalize the singulative event. The combination suggests that this particular narrative utterance is realistic or truthful in the sense of being habitual, typical, or inevitable, while the determination (the diachronic limits of the series) and the specification (of how frequently it occurs) are significantly left indefinite. Often a classical film will begin with scenes depicting normal, typical actions, from which the singulative narrative will soon deviate; though such scenes are technically presented in the singulative, they carry iterative implications (particularly through spatial relations) that are extended to the singulative plot.
Two brief examples should suffice. Duel in the Sun (1946) opens with an extravagant prologue, in which a lushly colored landscape and overblown literary voice-over boldly place the story of Pearl Chavez in the mythic past. Although we are told that this legend and the figurative stone that commemorates it have withstood the test of time, it's the dramatic setting (rather than the particular moment) that is truly singular. Pearl's uniqueness is explicitly symbolized by a rare cactus flower that blooms every year, but only here in this unique space
where she and her lover died. Though clearly presented as extraordinary, this opening supposedly depicts what happened many times (the blooming of the flower, the survival of the stone, the telling of her story). Yet, this prologue arouses our curiosity not about these repetitions (which are only the background), but about the dramatic climax—the death of "the wild young lovers"—which already occurred in the past, but toward which the singulative narrative will inevitably be moving.
Once inside the story, we are immediately confronted with the same conflation of the habitual action with the extraordinary singulative event. We move directly to a close shot of the young Pearl as she dances seductively for a group of youngsters outside the Presidio, and then inside where her mother is doing a similar dance for scores of men and where her father is losing at cards ("broke again?") and being humiliated by the other players ("he's not so fancy about his wife"). By being introduced to these characters through these actions, we assume that they perform them every night, yet simultaneously we realize that this night will lead to a singulative climax. Both dancers are approached by a man who makes the iterative trace between them explicit (telling Pearl, "like mother, like daughter") and who triggers the slippage into the singulative (by kissing Pearl's mother in front of her husband and by taking her off to make love). While implying the previous series, this single utterance explicitly depicts only the final humiliation, which leads Pearl's father to shoot his wife and her lover as Pearl and we look on, intoxicated with the singulative. Yet the prologue enables us to see the iterative implications in this action: to realize that Pearl met a fate similar to her mother's, and to read both of these framing melodramatic climaxes as probable, inevitable, foretold.
A Place in the Sun (1951) opens with a long shot of a hitchhiker with a suitcase trying to thumb a ride from a passing car on a curved highway. It's a familiar image we all recognize, although the time, place, and character are ambiguous. At first we can't see him very well because he has his back to the camera and his body is partially covered by the opening titles which appear over this scene. But, because of his suitcase, we assume he has hitchhiked a long way, and that this filmic utterance is meant to depict an action that has been repeated along many different stretches of highway. Gradually, as the titles conclude, he backs toward the camera in the foreground. As soon as he turns around, this image ceases to function as background and slips into the singulative: for we recognize the extraordinary face of the young Montgomery Clift and the camera moves in for a tight, fully lit close-up of his half smile as something unusual captures his attention. Then there's a cut to the object of his gaze—an outdoor poster of a glamour girl, with the headline "It's an Eastman." At that very moment a horn from a passing car draws his attention back to the road just in time to see Elizabeth Taylor (who turns out to be his rich cousin, an Eastman) driving
by in a Cadillac convertible. The contrived convergence of image, name, and vehicle prefigure the inevitable conclusion toward which the singulative linear narrative will be driving. Like the roadside collision of Oedipus and Laius, this coincidence appears to be predestined. It expresses the young man's intoxication with the singulative assumptions of romance: the belief that she's the love of his life, his single chance for happiness, his missed opportunity—a belief that will lead him to consider murder. But now this elusive object of desire drives out of sight and, as if awakened from his revery, he goes over to the dilapidated truck that has stopped to give him a ride. In this opening, the contrast between typicality and singulative romance is figured as a choice between two narrative vehicles (the truck that could have driven out of Grapes of Wrath and the glamorous convertible that belongs to bourgeois melodrama) and between the long shot and the large facial close-up. The narrative will constantly maneuver between these two modes, using the iterative traces of drab typicality to intensify the desirability of the singulative romance.
Although (unlike How Green Was My Valley ) neither of these openings uses the pseudo-iterative, they still use iterative implications to naturalize the linear drive of the narrative and to intensify the intoxication with the singulative. Yet the slippage between the iterative and the singulative remains barely visible.
But if the iterative implications and the slippage between the two aspects were ever foregrounded, then they would potentially call attention to the process of naturalizing ideology through the reading of singulative events of fiction as universal truth, a reading that reinforces the dominant cultural paradigms and genres. This is precisely what happens in a wide range of films where the narrative experimentation is designed to make a sharp break from the prevailing conventions of narrative discourse.
In the rest of this essay, I will explore a few examples of how such foregrounding functions in two quite different filmic contexts: Italian neorealism, where narrative discourse was intentionally distinguished from the dominant practice of Hollywood classical cinema; and the radical feminist avant-garde of the late 1970s and 80s, where one of the primary goals of narrative experimentation was to subvert the sadistic drive of the oedipal plot, that key master narrative of Western patriarchal culture. I will argue that, despite the striking differences in the historical, cultural, and stylistic contexts of these two kinds of subversive film practice, the specific texts under analysis all use the foregrounded slippage between iterative and singulative to undermine the linear drive of the narrative and to retrain the spectator for a more attentive, speculative reading of richly detailed images and sounds. In these analyses, I do not mean to exaggerate the stylistic unity of these two contexts or to suggest that either of them functions as a monolithic entity; rather, I merely want to sketch some broad stylistic tendencies in their usage and signalling of the iterative aspect of narrative.