Displacement in Writing vs. Film (A response to Nerdwriter’s video “The Prestige: Hiding in Plain Sight”)

Evan Puschak’s recent Nerdwriter video essay about Christopher Nolan’s [awesome] movie, The Prestige (2006), got me thinking about how fiction can play with the displacement of time and space on the level of craft.

First, for context, take a look at his video, particularly from 2:00 on to the end. (And if all you take away from this blog is how great this video essay is, that’s TOTALLY fine.)

Puschak does a neat job analyzing the literary function of time in the movie and how Nolan takes advantage of two tools to put that function to work: the voice-over and the simple cut. Puschak describes how these tools are about displacement, moving the gaze through time and space instantaneously. He elaborates thusly on the simple cut, which is what I’m most interested in:

Most of editing cuts between short distances and continuous times; indeed, with a simple cut, that’s what most people expect. But that same simple cut can traverse great distances also, and great distances of time in either direction.

So in The Prestige, Puschak points out that Nolan cuts between multiple nested narratives “at will and without warning,” concluding that in this way, the movie demonstrates a “unique capacity of film.”

Which got me thinking: is this capacity actually unique to film? Is it possible to play with narrative time in prose the same way Nolan does with film editing?

I’d be curious to hear what you think, or if you can come up with any good examples in the comments or on the subreddit.

Okay, some rambling…

Of course, fiction commonly makes use of breaks to signify basically the same thing that a simple cut does in film, moving the narrative “gaze” through time and space. (I think fiction probably borrows from film more and more in this regard.) On an even more basic level, the start of every new paragraph performs the same function. Like a cut in a movie, paragraphs (even sentences?) serve to move the reader through a story.

But it seems to me that, in writing, one constraint on the use of breaks to shift the reader through space and time is language. As the primary tool available to the writer, language relies to a certain extent on logic through the hierarchical combination of syntax and semantics to continually signify the story to the reader.

That said, it also seems to me that the capacity of prose to displace the narrative gaze is not limited entirely to semantics and syntax; you don’t always have to say, “Meanwhile, this other thing was happening somewhere else.” As is evident in the [irritatingly enduring] maxim “Show, don’t tell,” there are also structural means of demonstrating such displacement without having to explain it directly. For example, changing point of view need not be explained directly; but the relationship between the shift and what came before must somehow be communicated in order not to confuse the reader… right?

Perhaps the uniqueness of film’s capacity for the temporal displacement of the gaze lies in how Puschak frames the simple cut as “instantaneous.” When it comes to demonstration, visual cues (which aren’t bound by verbal language) are much more quickly communicated to the viewer than the unfolding of a sentence, and probably hold a greater unconscious capacity for signification.

I don’t know. Am I selling prose short? What do you think?



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