Thomas Deane Tucker Assistant Professor of Humanities and Philosophy Chadron State College ©2000

“Running Out of Frames: Cinematic Excess in Run Lola Run” There are many debates on the subject of film narrativity, most of them revolving around the question of whether or not film narratives work through resources and principles which underlie all narrative mediums. Each of the various debates takes it for granted that narratives take place in time. But these debates offer only a glance, often uncritically, from a very wide scope of filmic temporality, and the role of presence is never brought into full view for questioning. The most specific debate in film narratology concerns the role of the spectator in narration and narrative construction, and the most influential approach to this problem is David Bordwell’s constructivist theory of cinematic narration. While there are alternatives to Bordwell’s views concerning film narrative—such as Bruce Kawin’s theory of mindscreen or first person film, Tom Gunning’s concept of narrativity, and Dudley Andrew’s work on figuration—they all in one way or another offer a false choice between a theory of cinema spectation based on the model of subject positioning and a model of narrative construction that is an implicit critique of such positioning. Each of these narratological theories share in common the practice of formulating, analyzing, and stressing certain narrative strategies deployed by the viewer and/or producer of filmic discourse to guarantee the smooth and stable conveyance of meaning throughout the entire apparatus of 1

She argues for the need to not only look beyond the classical system for objects of study.” Thompson argues that film studies shortchanges its critical enterprise when it dwells upon only the classical Hollywood narrative and is shortsighted when it views the role of the critic as being engaged solely in uncovering the intrinsic unifying structures at work in narrative systems. Kristen Thompson initiated one of these excursions with her concept of cinematic “excess. a low-level courier working for a violent crime boss. and the temporal complexities of representation seem to simply vanish from sight. A Derridean perspective might leave its greatest impression upon film theory as a strike against this depiction and the resulting belief in privileging the narration.cinema. or spectator as transcendental subjects. have been made into film narratology which take into account both the discontinuities of the film apparatus and how it addresses a disunified spectator. narrator. and all that was left to complete 2 . The object of our analysis will be Tom Twyker’s film Run Lola Run. Tom Twyker’s film Run Lola Run has an incredibly threadbare story with a simple premise: The film opens as Lola answers a phone call from her boyfriend Manni. A few narrow inroads. but for an entirely new look at the disunifying impulses at the heart of classical Hollywood narratives. For the most part. He had just concluded a routine pickup/drop off. however. narratological theorists depict these narrative strategies with the figure of presence in the foreground. We will take a short look at her theory as a crack in the narratological wall that can be more fully breached through the work of someone like Derrida. who calls her in an obvious panic from a payphone on a Berlin street.

in twenty minutes. to help her get the 100. his boss is on his way to pick up the money and Manni has only twenty minutes to replace the money or he will be killed. Lola tells him to wait at the phone booth.000 marks before the time runs out. Each alternate scenario is marked by seemingly trivial variations in Lola’s path toward Manni. Twyker shoots each of the 3 . that she will find the money for him and be there. down the stairs and down the street. The deadline for handing over the cash was noon. The film then focuses on Lola running against the clock and through a barrage of images and music. Manni accidentally leaves the bag of money in the subway car and it is immediately swiped away by a homeless vagrant.000 DM to him. Manni is not fully convinced and hedges his bet on Lola by persuading himself that the quickest way to get the money.the job was to wait for Lola to pick him up and drive him to the rendezvous site with his boss where he would then deliver 100. But in a stroke of bad luck. she arrives too late and Manni has already headed for the subway. In further experimentation with the presentation of narrative structure. attempting to get to Manni. and Twyker uses these to show how the destinies of various people are altered by their contact with Lola. Instead of showing us only one outcome of Lola’s hopeless mission. Twyker presents three different alternate realities and possibilities for Manni and Lola’s fate. is through an armed robbery of the supermarket across the street. who is in charge of a large bank. should she stand him up again. unpacks a narrative about the interplay of chance and destiny and the fine line between the two. Lola rushes out of her apartment. somehow. but when Lola’s moped is stolen. By the time Manni calls Lola. she hopes to convince her father. Along the way.

and gives them all totally distinct outcomes.” a term she borrows from Stephen Heath. Kristen Thompson has suggested that critics consider narrative structures such as the one found in Run Lola Run as emblematic of film’s capacity for “excess. out of image and sound it creates its structures. she argues. can be viewed as a “struggle between opposing forces.” and states that excess is created when the materiality of the filmic image outruns the narrative structures of unity in a film: A film depends on materiality for its existence. and thus they leave their potentially excessive elements more noticeable. which typically strives to minimize excess by a thoroughgoing motivation. Other films outside the tradition do not always try to provide an apparent motivation for everything in the film. The “excess” of a film are those “aspects of the work which are not contained by its unifying forces. especially those theorists who are accustomed to exclusively viewing and 4 .” some of which strive to unify the entire work and help to hold the work together for the spectator so he can understand the various structures of meaning put into play (Braudy 487).three versions in the “real time” of the twenty-minute plot time. A film.” and arises from the “conflict between the materiality of a film and the unifying structures within it” (Braudy 487-488). Thompson calls the effect of these unifying forces “homogeneity. but it can never make all the physical elements of the film part of its set of smooth perceptual cues…Heath is talking about the classical Hollywood film. (Braudy 487-488) Most film critics. Following Heath.

is the repeated use of cinematic devices and techniques in such a way that the viewer notices them and is able to understand the connections between their specific uses. To “point” out excess is different from “analyzing” style. But as Thompson 5 . This is partially due to the fact that classical narrative cinema is so adept at motivating the material aspects of a film that they seem unobtrusive even when placed alongside the narrative.analyzing classical narrative cinema. along with how a film works to resolve this tension. an off-screen sound. consider that their role is to focus on the tension between the cohesive elements of a film and its excess. But as Thompson shows. Thompson argues that in pointing out filmic excess. even though critics may often explain the narrative significance of a material detail such as a close-up. the narrative function still does not exhaust the material presence of that detail within the overall work (Braudy 490). or a cut. Style. Taking her cue from Barthes’ description of “the obtuse meaning” he analyzes in still photographs. Style lends itself to analysis as a means for uncovering and describing these relations. as we noted with Bordwell. These critics discount or outright ignore the ways in which the material aspects of a film are sometimes separated from and often undermine a film’s diegesis. Thompson believes it is the critic’s job to “point out” these material elements and their effects of excess as disunifying structures that “serve at once to contribute to the narrative and to distract our perception from it. the critic becomes attuned to the “effects of delaying devices in a narrative” and describes the “movement away from direct progression through an ‘economical’ structure” (Braudy 489).” even in classical Hollywood narratives (Braudy 490).

Although excess is not equal to style. we need to stop assuming that artistic motivation creates complete unity (or that its failure to do so somehow constitutes a fault). As she notes. First.shows. excess implies a gap or lack in motivation. The key to making the process of “pointing” as systematic as analysis is found in the concept of “motivation” as a critical utensil for exploring the excessive structures of a film: More precisely. Thompson examines the possibility that. (Braudy 491) Thompson posits four ways in which the material functions of a film can exceed narrative motivation. Even though the presence of a device may not be arbitrary. since analyzing style might lead the adroit critic to apprehend excess as well. although narrative function may well justify the presence of a particular device in a film. its motivation can never completely control our perception of the film as a material object…A film displays a struggle by the unifying structures to ‘contain’ the diverse elements that make up its whole system. it is not opposed to it either.” and therefore the critic must go beyond analysis of style as a tool for discovering excess (Braudy 491). At that point where motivation fails. excess begins. the analysis of style neither fully accounts for nor expends the material aspects of filmic techniques. it does not motivate the specific form it will 6 . “Excessive elements do not form relationships beyond those of coexistence. Motivation is the primary tool by which the work makes its own devices seem reasonable. To see it. We will briefly outline her argument and then discuss how it applies to Run Lola Run.

In another case. Second. An easily recognizable visible or audible device may linger on the screen long enough to exceed this recognition and the spectator may be “inclined to study or contemplate it apart from its narrative or compositional function” (Braudy 492). Third. cinematic devices exist through time. The repeated use of several different devices to serve the same narrative function begins to strip these devices of their narrative connotations and call attention to themselves primarily as stylistic techniques (Braudy 492). there is the way in which a single motivation is used to justify the repetition of a 7 . there is the redundant use of a single motivation to justify the use of multiple devices.take. the presence of the device works to undermine narrative progression. the device may be so arcane that it requires an extremely long process of reflection before the viewer can comprehend it. In other words. other devices could have been used to convey the same meaning. In this case. We might say the same for Welles’ use of extremely low angles in Citizen Kane to foreground Kane as a powerful figure. and motivation is “insufficient to determine how long a device needs to be on the screen in order to serve its purpose” (Braudy 492). its function need not always dictate an individual device’s form. Thompson uses as an example the range of camera placements available to Eisenstein for conveying the sense of Ivan’s impressive character in Ivan the Terrible. Thompson points out that there is no innate length of time determined by motivation to situate and allow for this type of perceptual activity by the viewer. Lastly. Many different framing options would have worked to perform the same function. even when they vary in form.

As with Thompson’s example of Ivan the Terrible. style in Run Lola Run is so highly accentuated that one cannot help but notice the material aspects of the film. However. Twyker could have deployed any number of other techniques as a convention 8 . this device does not increase our range of story information. As Lola rushes past these characters. nor does it contribute to narrative progression by providing us with any hints as to how the narrative will end. a man pedaling a stolen bicycle. The narrative function of this device is to reiterate the “what-if?” theme of destiny which redounds throughout the film. middle-aged woman pushing a baby carriage. It is meant to show how Lola’s dash through Berlin affects the destinies of people with whom she comes into contact during her struggle to reach Manni before his twenty-minute deadline runs out. a snarling. Furthermore. Twyker flashes forward through a series of still photographic images into distinct futures for each character that are altered after each of their brushes with Lola. though the use of flash-forwards is itself fairly unconventional. As Lola races against the clock down the streets of Berlin. the device may far outweigh its original motivation and take on an importance greater than its narrative or compositional function would seem to warrant” (Braudy 492-493). and a sultry employee using the copy machine in her father’s bank. One of the most unique and innovative devices.single device: “By this repetition. she slams into various token passersby. the destiny of each person is again changed after running into Lola. and a prominent source of excess in the film. With each altered scenario. is the use of flashforwards.

using editing to provide the illustration of the temporal discrepancies between the two characters. Thus. First she screams and runs by him. that the prominence of these visual devices does contribute to narrative progression. there is a semblance of causal progression each time she passes a menacing neighbor and his dog. For example. and jump cuts. It is hard to deny. The flash-forwards are excessive in another way: they literally flash by the viewer like a music video. Another form of excess is the film’s repeated uses of an array of cinematographic tricks. he could have chosen to intersperse shots of the bank employee’s future with shots of Lola running in the present. from a narrative perspective. instant replays. we are left contemplating the arbitrariness of this alternative narrative. For example. slow motion. eating lunch with a nurse. utilizing the material form of still images to connote this sense of destiny is mostly unmotivated. There is no time for the viewer to contemplate the images in the photographs. then getting married. in the animated sequences of Lola running down the apartment building stairs. Even as Twyker cuts back to Lola racing over a bridge. during the first flash-forward into the bicycle thief’s future. and the third time she jumps over it.for the reordering of narrative events. the second time she trips over his leg. some of which are obscure and invite speculation. Narrative progression may 9 . The same is true for the slow motion split screen sequences of Manni getting ready to rob the grocery store as Lola rounds the corner screaming his name. however. For instance. The use of fast-motion photography might serve the same function just as well. including animation. All of this takes place in less than eight seconds. we see him getting beaten by thugs who steal his bike. being treated in a hospital.

also be cited as the motivation for the way jump cuts invite the viewer’s attention to the fast pace of Lola’s powerful stride in each of the running sequences. one of the oldest movie formats (and the most highly stylized. In her review of the film for the September 1999 issue of Film Comment. none of the three endings can be valorized over the others). The old and the new collide to create something that contains a little of both. à la Buster Keaton). like Lola. All of these elements contribute to the happy resolution of the plot at the end of the film (though the same cannot be said of the story. action. The way the film extra-narrationally references the conventions of other movies also has an excessive function. like men crossing the street with a pane of glass. gangster robberies. (4) 10 . But these cinematographic techniques also draw the audience’s attention towards their intrinsic formal properties. are made of movies…If Lola is a movie. as far as the storyline goes. layered over a foundation of cinematic reference. We. and for the slow motion replays of the red telephone receiver landing in its cradle. Twyker plays with action movie staples. since they go beyond the narrative to reference other media through their form. and most obviously. Of equal interest to the spectator are the comic book qualities of the animation or the degree to which the jump cuts and split screens resemble a video game or music video. Crissa-Jean Chappell notes the importance of this feature to the film’s overall style: We can’t deny we are watching a movie. The presence of these devices cannot be justified simply by their narrative function. lovers-on-the-run. His world has its own logic. which genre applies? It contains elements of road movies.

One might argue that Lola’s hair color is motivated by her character’s role as a fastpaced postmodern woman living amidst the bustling hyperrealist setting of modern-day Berlin. On the other hand. Yet another site of excess that stands out more for its perceptual qualities than the advancement of narrative is the redundant appearance of the color red. In every scene. the red grocery bag. This awareness contributes little to an understanding of the plot. and the red tint over the death scenes. Finally. the blood seeping from Manni’s mouth. The only real function the song has in relation to the image track is the way Lola almost seems to run in time to the music. there is the dialogue. As Manni frantically pleads with Lola for help from the phone booth. it would be difficult to find anything other than a tangential motivation for the repeated use of the color red as a narrative motif in the film. each utterance shot from a different 11 . she shatters glass.Here again. From Lola’s flaming red hair and lipstick to the bright red telephone. As the most wholly non-diegetic element in the film. the electronic score almost overwhelms the narrative. the motif of red is accentuated and repeated far beyond any narrative utility. but much to an understanding of the whole film beyond just its unifying structures. it is a matter of the audience being aware of the cinematic conventions which Twyker references. there is the music. the candy apple red ambulance. On the one hand. Other than the blood and perhaps the ambulance. In fact. it is not really realistically motivated. excess is present in the soundtrack. Lola repeatedly screams at such a high pitch. it is perhaps the most excessive. the two of them repeat the phrase “the bag” eleven times. The most notable example is the same hypnotic song which throbs repeatedly throughout each running sequence.

more and more delays could prolong the chains of cause and effect indefinitely. The advantage to Thompson’s model is that it recognizes the unnecessary binds narrational beliefs such as Bordwell or Chatman’s place upon film viewing. 12 . there is nothing which logically determines how long the narrative will continue. And when such a narratological perspective is adapted. the narrative world requires one initial cause which itself has no cause. but both limit spectatorial participation of a film to either constructing or interpreting/understanding only casual chains of action. Also. trying to ‘correct’ conclusions. This kind of repetition focuses attention as much on the sound and rhythm of the words as it does on the importance of the lost bag to the plot. Bordwell equates film with the process of narration and Chatman to an unfolding of narrative. Thus the initiation. but has no context in which to place that understanding. A narrative is a chain of causes and effects. there are consequences for the act viewing: The viewer may be capable of understanding the narrative. but. once the hermeneutical and proairetic codes are open in a narrative. The choice of this initial cause is one source of the arbitrariness of narrative. in this belief system the viewer “goes along a preordained path.angle. As we noted earlier. unlike the real world.” and that skillful spectatorship consists of “being able to anticipate plot events before they occur” (Braudy 496). the underlying arbitrariness of the narrative is hidden by structures of motivation and naturalization. As Thompson states.

Aristotle’s analysis of time posits a “now” of the present as an absolute point of reference from which one is able to gain a perspective on an event which unfolds in chronological succession.progression.” and one of the ways we can view this excess is through Jean Lyotard’s concept of “rewriting. The narrative structure authorizes none of the three endings. This means that even solely at the level of narrative. the norm of narrative cinema. This means that it is not possible to determine the difference between the anterior and ulterior dimensions within the temporal flux of an event without situating the 13 . that is. and the viewer has no means of valorizing one over the other. The most excessive intrinsic element in Lola’s narrative structure is “time. convention of cinema (Braudy 497-498). and closure of fictional narratives is largely arbitrary. rather than logical or essential.” Most conventional Hollywood films. But the repetitive plot structure of Lola and its radical nonlinear reorganization of story events mean that Lola’s overall narrational system lacks a unified structure which can be communicated wholly to an audience. are constructed around an Aristotelean narrative framework and therefore have a linear temporal structure. (Braudy 497) Comprehension of the narrative plot of a film is only a small part of spectatorship. one that offers a limited understanding of just one of the multifarious levels of discourse found in a cinematic text. And as the viewer puts into play the excessive elements of a film—those aspects which escape the impulse toward functional unity and are beyond yet intertwined with the levels of conventional narrative—he will recognize narrative as an arbitrary. Lola is excessive.

An excess with respect to what? To the intention to identify the project of seizing and identifying an ‘entity’ that would. the ‘too early’ an excess in advent. The Inhuman 25). the course of life. (The Inhuman 25) Lyotard is talking about the problem of situating the ‘post’ of the term “postmodernism” as a historical entity in relation to “modernism.” Lyotard places the most emphasis on the substitution of “re-” for 14 . of things. but also by an obsession with the concept of periodization.” But as Lyotard points out. Lyotard goes on to say: So that it is too soon and too late to grasp anything like a ‘now’ in an identifiable way. this “now” itself is impossible to grasp.flux in respect to a “now. The ‘too late’ signifies an excess in the ‘going away.” The prefix “re-” replaces “post-” and “writing” is meant as a substitute for “modernism. Lyotard argues therefore that the real opposition to modernism is not postmodernism but the classical age. and proposes that the term postmodernism be replaced by the phrase “rewriting modernity.’ disappearing. ‘here and now. since they both share the same form of temporality which is comprised by an “impulsion to exceed itself into a state other than itself” (Lyotard. Our inability to lay hold of the “now” is both a consequential and constituent element of our subjectivity. of events” (The Inhuman 24-25). dragged away by “the flow of consciousness. because it always vanishes just beyond our reach.’ be the thing itself.” He argues that postmodernism is always circumscribed by modernism. the marking of the end of one period and the beginning of another. Modern temporality is characterized not only by the promise of its own overcoming.

wiping the slate clean. the gesture which inaugurates in one go the beginning of the new age and the new periodization.” and believes such emphasis indicates two essential aspects of the concept of rewriting. such as when the calendar was turned back to year one with the advent of Christianity: “Rewriting can consist in the gesture…of starting the clock again from zero.e. a working attached to a thought of what is constitutively hidden from us in the event and the meaning of the event…Freud distinguishes repetition. more subjective feature to rewriting which Lyotard extracts from Freud’s method of psychoanalysis: Essentially linked with writing in this sense. Freud repositioned the relationship between patient and analyst as the practice of working through the analysand’s neuroses. proffered by the patient. i. no matter how small. remembering. This is the objective sense of “rewriting. and working through…Contrary to remembering. (The Inhuman 26-30) Abandoning his search for a terminable origin of neurosis.’ Durcharbeitung. the ‘re-’ in no way signifies a return to the beginning but rather what Freud called a ‘working through. This means that the analyst must suspend judgment.“post-. The use of the ‘re-’ means a return to the starting point…” (The Inhuman 26). 15 .” But there is a second. The first is the idea of inauguration by way of return. that he listen attentively to every fragment of speech and sentence. On the side of the patient. working through would be defined as a work without end and therefore without will: without end in the sense in which it is not guided by the concept of an end— but not without finality.

’ and ‘now’” (Lyotard.’ ‘no longer. One only knows that a scene “refers to some past…both one’s own past and others’ past ” as a lost time and that this lost time is not represented like a picture but is itself that which “presents the elements of a picture. The Inhuman 30-31). and without understanding the source or aim of what one is saying (Lyotard. a scrap of information. Every time Lola makes 16 .” and immediately linking it with another fragment or unit to describe a “scene. a word.” to give voice to everything that comes to mind without regard for the logical or ethical value of what links one sentence with another.the rules of working through implies an attitude of “free association. but is subject instead to a “technique” (techne) of reorganizing (rather than defining) the forms of the past. a technique which demands “the deployment of time between ‘not yet. But by staging the “scene. Thus. Lyotard goes on to appropriate the model of “working through” for his own practice of rewriting.” In this sense. Working through proceeds by taking a “fragment of a sentence. rewriting is the process of “registering these elements” and allowing this picture to be drawn or depicted.” rewriting is not subject to simply remembering or repeating the past.” Like working through. the process of “rewriting” in Lola is enunciated on both sides of the screen. The Inhuman 31-35). The spectator must work through each narrative fragment of Lola’s titular run just as Lola must work through the life altering consequences of even the tiniest choices. one never describes a whole scene and therefore never understands a scene in its entirety.

The spectator must allow this scene to be staged. what narrative in which to invest his interest. but of framing judgments around open and unfettered narrative structures. but only to be rewritten. 17 . A new scene is staged. but is free to choose which of the stages to enter. This is not a matter of subject positioning or of narrative construction.another decision she concocts a new destiny and the old narrative is lost.

1999. “Movie Maid. 1989. Braudy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. and David Wills. of Run Lola Run. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Crissa-Jean. Trans. Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema.” Rev. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Princeton: Princeton University Press. by Tom Twyker. 1988.Works Cited Bordwell. Jean-Francois. Chappell. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. 35. Stanford. Chatman. 5th ed. 18 . Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby. Seymour. 1978.5 (September-October 1999): 4. eds. and Marshall Cohen. 1988. The Inhuman: Reflections on Time. Screen/Play. CA: Stanford University Press. Lyotard. David. Film Comment. dir. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Leo. Brunette. Peter.

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