In this short post, I’d like to introduce one of the key works in the field of narration and film: Edward Branigan’s 1992 study Narrative Comprehension and Film. For a thorough introduction to cinematic narration and its links to literary devices I would suggest reading Branigan in tandem with David Bordwell’s monumental Narration in the Fiction Film (1985). Branigan sets out to theorize how the spectator comprehends a narrative, deploying cognitivist film theory. Drawing upon concepts from cognitive science, narratology and linguistics, Branigan develops his theory of film narrative and narration. Narration, according to Branigan, should be understood as “the overall regulation and distribution of knowledge which determines how and when a spectator acquires knowledge [of narrative events]”(Branigan 1992: 76).
When we study a film’s narration, we focus on how spectators gain knowledge. The film agent is a crucial component in this process of knowledge acquisition. These types of agents are related to the several levels of narration Branigan distinguishes. Branigan argues that there are five different types of agents at work in the process of narration: historical authors, implied authors, narrators, characters and focalizers.
In the interest of the discussion on point of view, I would focus on the last three agents (narrators, characters and focalizers). The difference between narrators and characters can be described as follows: narrators only exist on the level of narration, they are not a component of the narrative world. They are like omniscient masters of ceremony. Characters are an integral part of the narrative world: they directly experience narrative events and act or are acted upon in the narrative world.
The most important contribution Branigan makes to the theory of narration resides in the category of the focalizers. He defines focalization as follows:
Focalization (reflection) involves a character neither speaking (narrating, reporting, communicating) nor acting (focusing, focused by), but rather actually experiencing something through seeing or hearing it. Focalization also extends to more complex experiencing of objects: thinking, remembering, interpreting, wondering, fearing, believing, desiring, understanding, feeling guilt (Branigan 1992: 101).
Furthermore, Branigan distinguishes between two types of focalization, each representing a different level of a character’s experiences. The first type is external focalization which represents a character’s visual and aural awareness of narrative events. For instance, the spectator sees what the character sees, but not from the character’s position in the narrative. The second type, internal focalization represents a character’s private and subjective experiences. Here you can think of simple perception (optical vantage point), but also deeper thoughts (dreams, hallucinations, memories).
When it comes to the actual analysis of film, Branigan’s theory of agents can be applied to the most detailed level of every film, its building block: the shot. Here, four types of shots can be distinguished (whose levels of narration range from objective to deeply subjective): first, the objective shot which is motivated by an agent outside the world of the film. Second, the externally focalized shot which focalizes a character’s awareness of diegetic events: for example, an over the shoulder shot. Third, the internally focalized shot (surface). This type of shot comes closes to a regular optical point of view shot, since it represents a character’s visual experience of diegetic events. In Branigan’s typology, this is a surface shot, in contrast to the fourth type. Finally, the internally focalized shot (depth). This shot represents a character’s internal events, such as dreams etc. Therefore the level of narration it stands for is considered deep/depth. If you follow this typology, every shot of a film can be labeled and identified in terms of the agent who controls it and the level it operates on.
In conclusion, Branigan’s method is a useful tool for analyzing narration, specifically those moments where narration becomes ambiguous. Analyzing on the level of the filmic shot yields to a more detailed and subtle analysis, recognizing the complexity of an individual shot or scene.