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A Narrative Analysis Of The Film, " Titanic "

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Parsa, A. F., “A Narrative Analysis of Film: Titanic”, Changing Tides – Selected Readings Edited By:
Robert E. Griffin, Jung Lee, Scott Chandler, (Hakemli - Senior Editor:Robert E. Griffin) - International Visual
Literacy Association Publication / CERMUSA - Saint Francis University, Loretto PA, 2004, s. 207-215.

A Narrative Analysis Of The Film, “Titanic”


Alev Fatoş Parsa

Abstract
This analysis is about “Titanic”, directed by James Cameron in 1997. As a formal system, film is a narrative and
uses some or all the principles of narrative construction borrowed from Propp‟s functions and categories of
personae. In this brief analysis, issues such as how the narrative in a movie is constructed and how the meaning is
built will be addressed via a structural analysis of the content and communication channels peculiar to the art of
cinema like sound and images.

Introduction Propp‟s narrative units and the syntagmatic formation


Narratives surround us. Narrative is a way of (edition) of “Titanic” (1997). Syntagmatic analysis
interpreting the world around us. In other words, it is a studies the surface structure of a text. We can explore
kind of “rewording of circumstances.” People are common elements of traditional fairy tales and
encircled by narrations in daily life. Children are character structure in the movie. A comparison
brought up with fairytales and legends. Principles of between fairy elements and filmic elements has been
narrative analysis were shown in Vladimir Propp‟s made according to structural narrative analysis
famous study, Morphology of the Folktales. In methods.
Morphology of the Folktales, first published in 1928, Many scholars have applied syntagmatic narrative
Vladimir Propp (1985) analyzed hundreds of Russian analysis patterns, first described by Propp, to films and
fairy folktales and then compiled a list of thirty-one television programs so far. For example, Arthur Asa
functions and seven categories of characters. He found Berger (1981) studied on a series “Prisoner” (In ed:
that these thirty-one functions of characters remained Adler, 1981), Roger Silverstone on “Intimate
unchanged in all folktales. While some tales contained Strangers” (1981), Peter Wollen on the movie “North
all these thirty-one functions, the others contained less. by Northwest” (1976) and Will Wright‟s work “Six
As the prominent technological developments of Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western”
the 20th century, television and cinema employ such a (1975).
narrative form to address common people. Films have
a visual language; they consist of images and include Methodology
many filmic elements that have also a narrative Structuralism as a methodology stresses that each
construction. Form and content of a film need to element within a cultural system derives its meaning
follow a very careful way in constructing expression. from its relations to every other element in the system.
Aesthetics film quality are created between the balance Narratology or narrative theory focuses on the
of content and formal construction of the film-story, structural units in any kind of visual or literal text.
because the basic building blocks‟ form and content Narrative analysis concentrates on the interaction
cannot be separated; they have to complete each other between the various strata of the narrative work. It
just like the two sides of a coin. Films, whether distinguishes structural elements as story outline and
fictional or documentary, are one of the principal plot structure, the spheres of action commanded by
storytelling forms in contemporary societies. Culture different characters, the way narrative information is
has a tradition evolving through centuries of channeled and controlled through point-of-view, and
storytelling. Have the basic units of traditional the relationship of the narrator to the inhabitants and
fairytales anything to do with recent high-tech movies? events of the story-world (Stam, Burgoyne, Flitterman-
Expressive visual language that is based on images Lewis 1992).
comes out with a narrative including many filmic According to narrative theory, every narrative can
elements. be divided into two parts: story, that is, „what happens
The case study is one of the most expensive to whom‟ and discourse, that is „how the story is told‟
Hollywood films, “Titanic” (1997) directed by James (Allen, 1992, p. 69). Story and discourse complete
Cameron. The motive was to find any relation between each other.
14. The hero uses the magical agent
Structural Units In Narrative 15. The hero is transferred to the general location of
Having analyzed hundreds of Russian folktales, the object of his mission/quest
Propp (1985) noted a similar narrative structure in all
Struggle
fairytales and inferenced other researchers by
supplying methodological categories and formulas. He 16. The hero and villain join in direct combat
described changed and unchanged values as the basic 17. The hero is branded
criteria in narrative structures. In other words, he 18. The villain is defeated
observed that although names of the heroes have 19. The initial misfortune or lack is set right
changed with time, their deeds, or functions, have
remained unchanged. Propp (1985) classified narrative Return
structures of fairy tales in six different subcategories, 20. The hero returns
which are preparation, conflict, transference, struggle, 21. The hero is pursued
return and recognition. Thus, he provided one of the
earliest examples of syntagmatic analysis as a 22. The hero is rescued from pursuit
structural narrative analysis. 23. The hero arrives home or elsewhere and is not
recognized
Functions 24. A false hero makes false claims
Propp (1985) described thirty-one narrative 25. A difficult task is set for the hero
functions, virtually unchanged in syntagmatic analysis 26. The task is accomplished
of fairy tales and scheduled them in six main categories
in Figure 1. Recognition
27. The hero is recognized
Figure 1 28. The false hero/villain is exposed
Narrative Functions (Propp, 1985; see also Fiske, 1987; 29. The false hero is transformed
Hansen, Cottle, Negrine, Newbold, 1998; Parsa & 30. The villain is punished
Parsa, 2002; Turner, 1993) 31. The hero is married and crowned

Preparation Propp (1985) called these thirty-one narrative


morphemes “functions” because he wanted to
1. A member of the family leaves home emphasize that what they do to advance the narrative is
2. A prohibition or rule is imposed on the hero more important than what they are.
3. This prohibition is broken
4. The villain makes an attempt at reconnaissance Characters
5. The villain learns something about his victim Propp (1985) located characters in fairy tales
6. The villain tries to deceive the victim to get according to their functional unity, not their
possession of him and his belongings psychological characteristics. The deeds of characters
7. The victim unknowingly helps the villain by (the donor or provider, the helper and the villain) are
being deceived or influenced by the villain naturally more important than their psychological
structures or psychological depths on the
Complication
personification level. Since Propp‟s (1985) analysis,
8a. The villain harms a member of the family similar problems about personae in narrative have been
8b. A member of the family lacks or desires modeled through structural narrative analysis.
something According to Propp (1985), not all narratives
9. This lack or misfortune is made known; the hero necessarily convey these functions, but if they do, they
is given a request or command and he goes or is are composed of those listed above. Those functions
sent on a mission/request can be combined with the roles below defined by Propp
10. The seeker (or the hero) plans action against the (1985) as well. Roles conveyed by the characters are
villain enlisted below:
1. the villain
Transference
2. the donor or provider
11. The hero leaves home 3. the helper
12. The hero is tested, interrogated, and as a result 4. the princess and her father
receives either a magical agent or a helper 5. the dispatcher
13. The hero reacts the actions of the future donor 6. the hero
7. the false hero. (Quoted in Hansen et. al. 1998, Figure 2
p. 149). Fairytale Heroes Described By Propp
Function and deed in a narrative is a suggestive (Fiske, 1987, p. 137)
action of a character in the course of events.
Organization of these events is crucially significant in
order to grasp the inherent meaning of the text. The Character Role Sphere of Action
roles of characters, their missions and their sphere of
action are defined in Figure 2. Villain Villainy, fighting, action

Donor Giving magical agent or helper


(Provider)

Helper Moves the hero, makes good a


lack, rescues from pursuit, solves
difficult tasks, and transforms the
hero

The Princess & A sought-after person: assigns


Her Father difficult tasks, brands, exposes,
recognizes, punishes

The Dispatcher Sends hero on quest/mission

The Hero Departs on search, reacts to donor,


and attempts difficult tasks,
marriage

The False Hero Unfounded claims to hero‟s sphere


of action

Story, Plot And Narrative In Film


The most important concepts in a narrative analysis
are story, plot and narrative. They are also complicated.
All the events in a narrative, both illustrated and told,
directly refer to the story. Story in a narrative is a
chronological sequence of a plot. Here, events are
described as changing incidents from one situation to
another. In real life, events take place quite
coincidentally. However, in a narrative, they are based
on personal choices rather than coincidences. For
example, event X is followed by event Y. The plot
may be considered as a part of narrative and the
essence of a story told with an audio-visual
presentation, and some other elements such as music,
graphics and credits might be included as well. The
plot in a narrative has a multifaceted structure
suggesting incomprehensible changes in space and
time. Analyzing how the plot and other elements of the
story get together in the narrative structure comprises
the essence of narrative analysis. According to
Bordwell, “a narrative is a chain of evens in cause-
effect relationship occurring in time and space.”
(Bordwell and Thompson, 1986, p. 83). “If we begin
by understanding the narrative as a relationship of
cause and effect, forming a plot which occurs in the
moving image‟s construction of time and space, then
we can start to identify and examine the dynamics of molded in harmony with the rules of the capitalist
narrative and the structure of the narrative. That is, the system.
events that combine to create the direction that the In the classical filmic narrative, action is the crucial
story-telling takes.” (Hansen et. al., 1998, p. 143). principle and what sets the action in motion is plot.
The action starts with an introduction, rises up with
Film And Narrative points of tension (difficulties and conflicts) and reaches
While the first discussions of narrative structure in a peak with the climax. Climax in a film is at the same
film were conducted by Russian Formalists in late time the turning point of the plot. Afterwards, the
1920‟s, two most important influences on the action slows down and the narrative rapidly ends.
development of film narrative analysis in 1970‟s were Thus, while the traditional filmic narrative is
the structuralist theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) formulated within an introduction-development-
and the folklore studies of Vladimir Propp (Stam et.al., conclusion pattern, it also follows a sequential course.
1992, p. 76). In fact, narrative serves as a mechanism An event, or an action, in the introduction may appear
generating meaning in two dimensions. Narrative in the conclusion with a new emphasis; such as
analyses investigate not only inherent meanings of the flashback, flash-forward or linear may possibly be
texts but also the ways ideological influences interact chosen.
through the same narrative structure. Narrative Ellis (1982) lists the characteristics of filmic
analyses stem from two sources: narrative as:
 “The Syntagmatic Approach, is based in the  “Cinema proposes an image that is perfection
formalist work of Vladimir Propp and examines of the photographic. It provides an image that is large.
the sequential development of narrative plot.  It also provides a particular set of
 The Paradigmatic Approach, emerges from the circumstances for watching this image; the audience is
structuralist work of Claude Lévi-Strauss (1966) seated in rows, separated from each other to some
and considers the patterns of oppositions that exist degree and the image is projected in near-darkness.
within the narrative and how they contribute to the  This induces a particular kind of mental state
development of the story.” (Hansen et. al. 1998, p. in the commercial cinema viewer: a concentration of
142). psychic activity into a state of hyper-receptivity.
Analysis of the correlation among technical and  The image is larger than the spectator; the
symbolical elements, codes and nominal, which are sounds are loud and usually well-balanced. The
present in the narrative structure, will certainly help to spectator looks up towards the image: image dominates
reveal the meaning of the text. Because the plot the proceedings (Ellis, 1982, p. 40-41)”.
inextricably intertwines with the sequential
development of the story, these terms need to be Narrative Analysis Of “TITANIC”
explicated in advance. Narrative Phases Of “Titanic”
“Titanic” (James Cameron, 1997) basically follows
two different story lines. One of them is the frame Every narrative includes five different phases
story line. Frame stories build up a short and (Kıran & Kıran, 2003, p. 21-22). Here are those phases
informative structural frame within the narrative and as employed in the movie.
they unfold the rest of story by using several flashbacks 1. The Outset: It is the part when the characters,
(Miller, 1993, p. 56). The latter is the main story line, space and time are introduced just before the
which takes up most of the movie. The main story line disturbance of the established setting (Kıran &
is based on two main characters, Rose (Kate Winslet) Kıran, 2003). This opening sequence
and Jack (Leonardo Di Caprio), while the frame story manifesting the characters and the setting lasts
line is built upon old Rose (Gloria Stuart) and the 18 minutes in the movie. The movie begins
treasure hunter, Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton). with Brock Lovett‟s (Bill Paxton) story 84
Cinematic stories are also based on certain years after the transatlantic ship Titanic struck
formulas, but narrative styles of films are different. an iceberg in the Atlantic Ocean and sank. He
Coexistence of a story does not suffice to construct a searches for a brilliant necklace once said to be
narrative; presence of a narrator and an audience is worn by Louis XVI and expects to find it in the
necessary. wreck. Rose (Gloria Stuart), a 101 year old
Filmic narrative has very powerful inner dynamics. woman, view Lovett on TV and calls him to
Commercial entertainment cinema is a means of talk about the necklace. Thereafter, she visits
fictional narrative. The art of cinema has exhibited an the ship and tells him about the maiden voyage,
astounding development in company with the what had happened during the journey, and the
technological innovations and rising of consumer fate of the necklace with a flashback. In the
culture in the 20th century. The film industry has been second sequence, we are introduced to the
main characters. We meet Jack Dawson dissolved, which implies the deciding point.
(Leonardo Di Caprio) who catches the cruise The characters strive to survive despite all
just in time and subsequently class distinctions predicaments. Nevertheless, Jack Dawson,
are highlighted. whose social and national ties remain unknown
2. Transforming Element: All of a sudden, for the audience dies, whereas Rose goes on
something disturbs or overturns the initial living as a middle-class American.
setting (Kıran & Kıran, 2003). As a 5. Conclusion: It all turns back to the initial
preparation for this element, in the third setting or completely new setting appears
sequence, at the first class restaurant of the (Kıran & Kıran, 2003). In this phase, things
transatlantic ship, the glamour and luxury of are counterbalanced, crises are dissolved and
the transatlantic and Rose‟s (Kate Winslet) there are no open-ended crises at the end of the
discontent about her life, her mother, and her film. Rose returns the necklace, which is given
fiancé are underscored. Audience‟s attention is in the first sequence, and around which all the
drawn to the story and an upcoming conflict is story is woven, where it actually belongs, into
foreshadowed. A transforming element of this the ocean. She dies in her bed at the age of 101
narrative is the suicide scene where young and reunites with her lover, Jack, as well as
Rose attempts to commit suicide by throwing with the other passengers died at the
herself into the deep ocean but is rescued by transatlantic ship.
the hero.
3. Set of Actions: Things develop quickly (Kıran The Syntagmatic Approach And Narrative
& Kıran, 2003). A progressing set of action Functions In “Titanic”
forms the actions part that serves as the Function and deed in a narrative is a suggestive
development part connecting the introduction action of a character in the course of events.
and the conclusion. Meanwhile, some other Organization of these events is crucially significant in
crises are involved which come out as conflicts order to grasp the inherent meaning of the text. The
between the hero and himself, the hero and functions of characters, their missions and their range
another group, the hero and a natural force or of operation are confined. Propp (1985) depicted 31
the hero and social values (Miller, 1993). Such basic functions, virtually unchanged in syntagmatic
crises and conflicts use in the development part analysis of fairytales and scheduled them in six main
of the film quite frequently. Rose‟s categories in Figure 1. According to Propp (1985), not
disagreement with her mother and her fiancé all narratives necessarily convey these functions, but if
Cal, crises caused by the class distinction they do, they are composed of those listed in Figure 1.
between she and her lover Jack, Jack‟s being These narrative functions have yielded the results
arrested for theft and Cal‟s attempts to kill below when applied to our case study, “Titanic.”
them even when the Titanic is actually sinking 0. Function: This function is the outset of the
may be examples of these conflicts. movie. The characters and the set of circumstances are
Throughout the movie, the bow and the stern of introduced and then the main story line is presented
the transatlantic ship are used symbolically with a flashback.
during the crises intentionally created by the 1. Function: Departure function, illustrating
director. The front part represents a new life that Jack Dawson departs his living place and
and order, while the back part symbolizes acquaintances after winning a 3rd class ticket in
setting oneself from self-identity and social gambling.
values. 2. and 3. Function: Prohibitions and violation
4. Balancing and Organizing Elements: The of prohibitions functions; Jack wanders around first
event that ends the set of circumstances and class deck and rescues Rose who has just attempted to
balancing the setting occurs (Kıran & Kıran, commit suicide due to the distresses and identity crises
2003). The Titanic strikes the iceberg and she has been suffering. Creating such a setting serves
begins sinking. The turning point where the to get two characters together. Later, we get to know
conflict dissolves commences. Seeing that the Rose‟s fiancé Cal Hockley, the aggressive villain of the
Titanic splits in half and goes down to the story. The poor hero Jack has grown up in a small
bottom of the ocean and finally the main town. He violates various prohibitions by intruding
characters‟ coming to the surface after a into the community of first class deck where class
struggle with waves provides the audience with discrimination and different social values are apparent,
a kind of catharsis, in other words, declining of and by getting closer to Rose.
rising dramatic curve rooted in Aristotle. All
the crises in the development part start to be
4. Function: Hero under investigation function. arrested and he gets into a difficult position in a sinking
Rose‟s fiancé Cal accomplishes this function with the transatlantic ship.
help of his servant who is the old police chief. 22. Function: Rose rejects getting in the lifeboats
5. Function: Gathering information function; and rescues the hero from where he is captured.
Rose‟s fiancé Cal invites Jack to a dinner at the first 23. Function: According to Propp (1985), in this
class restaurant and gathers information about the function the hero arrives home or elsewhere. This
personality of the hero. function does not exist.
6. Function: The villain of the story Cal and 24. Function: According to Propp (1985), a false
Rose‟s mother attempt to scorn Jack and make him fall hero makes false claims. This function does not exist.
out of favor. 25. Function: The hero takes on a hard mission.
7. Function: Complicity function cannot be Cal tries to kill them even when the transatlantic is
found in the film. sinking little by little. He and Rose manage to flee and
8. and 8a- Function: According to Propp come to the surface. Young lovers who cannot get in
(1985), a fairytale is stirred up after this function. Cal the lifeboat struggle to survive in the cold ocean. The
beats Rose and he wants her to act like a woman about hero dies, and he wants Rose to go on living at any
to get married and prohibits her from seeing Jack. cost, thus burdening her with a hard mission.
However, Rose disobeys him because; she feels if she 26. Function: The mission is accomplished as
obeys him, she is not living her life her own way. She Rose lives as a middle-class American until the age of
breaks the barriers and wishes to experience love 101. It becomes evident that although she keeps the
freely. necklace in her possession, she prefers to live an
9. Function: Mediation or transition function; ordinary life. Then, she throws the necklace into the
this function appears as Jack‟s passionate love for ocean, where the narrative suggests it actually belongs.
Rose, who dispatches him on a mission, is revealed. 27. Function: Unlisted in the passenger list, Jack
10. Function: Jack talks to Rose. He says he has Dawson is now a well-known hero thanks to Rose.
nothing but his love to give her and persuades her. 28. Function: The villainy of Rose‟s fiancé, Cal,
Afterward, the counteraction starts. is apparent from the beginning.
11. - 12. - 13. - 14. - and 15. Functions: Propp 29. Function: That reformation function does not
(1985) underlines the hero being supplied with a exist.
magical object and his being dispatched to the mission. 30. Function: Rose is rescued and though she has
In the film, spatial changes, or transference, do not seen her fiancé rescued, she never returns to him. She
exist as the hero is cruising on a transatlantic ship. The punishes him by making a new life. Later on,
helper offering the magical object is presented when bankrupted and ruined Cal commits suicide, which
Molly Brown, a newly-rich woman, gives Jack a implies that director James Cameron also punished the
swallow-tailed coat. With that costume, Jack turns into villain by terminating him.
a handsome gentleman that night, and he is invited to
31. Function: That function is a sign of a happy
dinner. Here, the lineage of functions has changed but
conclusion. Older Rose returns to her bed after having
this is what Propp already predict (1985, p. 112).
thrown the necklace into the ocean and dies in peace.
16. Function: The hero encounters the villain.
She reunites with her lover, Jack, as well as with the
While drawing a portrait of Rose, Jack is seen by Cal‟s
other passengers who died at the transatlantic ship
servant. A chasing scene follows while we are shown
wreck.
the laborers working at the lower levels of the ship.
17. Function: In this function, the hero is given a
special sign. Rose sleeps with Jack. The Paradigmatic Approach Of “Titanic”
18. and 19. Function: Victory and completing The paradigmatic approach is rooted in Claude
lack function; Rose leaves her family and her fiancé Lévi-Strauss‟ structuralist (1966) works and analyses
and decides to live with Jack, which is an obvious sign binary oppositions included in the narrative and their
of Jack‟s victory. Rose breaks the barriers and she contributions to the development of the story. Lévi-
makes her free choice to live with Jack and thus Strauss (1966) was mainly interested in the relation
completes the lack in 8a function. Meanwhile, the between myths and society. For Lévi-Strauss (1966),
Titanic strikes the iceberg and it is severely damaged. myths are coded messages that societies produce for
20. Function: Jack and Rose turn back to inform their members, which exist in the deep structure of
others that the transatlantic ship is badly damaged and narratives. It is the job of the researcher to unpack or
the threat is grave. However, a spatial change is not reveal these messages hidden in deep structure (Hansen
under consideration. et. al., 1998). Such a listing contributes to the analysis
21. Function: Cal cannot endure Jack‟s victory of myths, ideologies and point of views included in the
and he accuses him of stealing the necklace. Jack is text and identification of common themes. Finding out
the central oppositions serving to the construction of The capitalist system has brought about some
narrative structure helps to set forth the meaning of the fundamental changes and capitalist decadence has
film. extended its domination. Moreover, everything has
Paradigmatic structure in “Titanic” is based on such been commercialized and turned into a part of show
binary oppositions (Figure 3): business. In addition, class distinctions and
discriminations have become amplified. The
Figure 3 Hollywood film industry utilizes these issues largely
Binary Oppositions In “Titanic” and transforms them into a means of entertainment.
The narrative structure of the film, its theme and
Woman Man plot are identical with the principles of art of drama
derived from Ancient Greece and as well as 19th
Sea Land
century literary traditions. “A classical tragedy”
Human Nature making use of the same methods and the same classical
Upper Classes Lower Classes narrative for centuries but also enriched with “action”
Life Death scenes and visual effects built upon technological
White race Other race investments and huge budgets.
At the end of the film, death of the hero leaves
Powerful Weak
some questions to think about. He has opposed against
Consuming Producing the established system. Rose has been questioning her
Noble Commons life and feels depressed. He helps her to take steps
Politeness Rudeness towards self-awareness. Metaphorically, the message
Present tense Past tense is very obvious. Crises may occur in accordance with
the nature of capitalist system, yet these crises may be
Justice Injustice overcome, which becomes concrete in Rose‟s survival
Tenderness Violence and her choice, that is to say, she renounces richness
Love Hate for a middle class American life.
Richness Poverty
Good Evil
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