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The Narration of Beginnings in Classical Cinema


This dissertation is about how the beginnings of films tell stories. Beginnings are extremely important for narratives, more so than has been previously acknowledged, both because beginnings are carefully designed to introduce story information in specific ways, and because viewers perceive, comprehend, and respond to information in the beginning differently than they do later in the narrative. Two primary questions guide its approach: What sort of storytelling principles are normally found in the beginnings of films? What sort of cognitive processes do viewers bring to films that make the beginning important for understanding entire narratives? I focus on classical beginnings in the American tradition, where "classical" refers to the mode of narration normatively employed by mainstream films, which strive for ease of comprehension and the concealment of artifice, and attempts to solicit easily accessible and precise aesthetic, cognitive, and emotional responses from viewers.

I argue that the normative, formal properties of classical beginnings include the establishment of characters, the introduction of exposition, and the setting up of conditions that are causally necessary for later events. In accounting for why these formal properties are normative for classical beginnings, this dissertation considers the cognitive processes viewers use to understand stories, including: how expectations about the narrative's direction change as the narrative progresses; the organization of new information into abstract, preexisting mental categories; the influence of first impressions, and the assumptions inherent in identifying something as a "beginning." Finally, it also examines how classical beginnings can mislead viewers by deviating from these norms.

Ultimately, this dissertation makes the case that the answers to its primary questions are interrelated: A beginning's form strongly influences how viewers understand a film's narrative, while simultaneously, the cognitive processes viewers use to process narratives often inform why a beginning is designed the way it is. Films manipulate and distribute information to viewers, but viewers simultaneously perform mental activities on narratives. By combining both formal properties and cognitive processes, this dissertation achieves new insights and a fuller understanding of the function of narrative beginnings.

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