Map-making through multi-thread urban film and television narratives.

Author:Corbin, Amy

Abstract: "Map-Making through Multi-thread Urban Film and Television Narratives" This paper investigates the way multi-thread narrative structure represents the complexities of the turn-of-the-century American city. Multi-thread narratives feature multiple plot lines with unrelated characters that run parallel and occasionally intersect. Such a narrative structure replicates an ethnographic or sociological portrait of urban life, rather than one based on a central protagonist with a few key relationships. I argue that multi-thread narratives are by their nature "world-building," and thus are very relevant to theories of place-making and cognitive mapping. The article focuses on the films Grand Canyon (1991) and Crash (2004) and the television series The Wire (2002-2008). The comparison of multi-thread films and a five-season television series allows us to see various possibilities for mental mapping. It becomes clear that the films seek to create authoritative, "closed maps," with the spectator an all-knowing map-reader. The Wire, by contrasts, constructs a more "open map," which confronts viewers with the dynamism of place and the inevitability of unknown terrain. Such "open maps" are key to the politics of multi-racial urban imagery, as a means of countering the impression of totalizing knowledge.


All cinematic and televisual narratives build virtual worlds. These worlds are constructed by the photographic realism of location (whether studio sets or real streets and neighborhoods) combined with the fiction of storytelling. However the visual narratives that combine multiple plot threads and large casts of characters seem most deliberate in their ambition to build an onscreen world. Their larger scales allow them to either paint ethnographic-sociological portraits or to pose philosophical questions. My project here is to compare cinematic and televisual urban dramas in order to reveal the way their narratives construct the complex space of the American city. Two films--Grand Canyon (1991) and Crash (2004)--and the television series The Wire (2002-2008) seek specifically to understand the way characters of multiple races and class positions experience urban locations. Their portrayals of characters encountering each other dramatize the way that places are not static entities, but continually re-made with each encounter. The experience of watching such narratives is akin to building a mental map of these virtual cities. Distinct differences in their mapping strategies--including parallelism and degrees of omniscience--lead to maps we may see as "open" or "closed."

These three texts belong to distinct styles of filmmaking and television production: Grand Canyon comes in the midst of an early 1990s interest in the so-called "inner city," an interest triggered by sensationalist reports of drug use and gang violence. Crash is a product of its decade's attempt to see greater complexity in American race relations as well as a trend toward "puzzle narratives." The Wire is a fusion of socially-engaged journalism and "quality" television. As distinct as their styles are the two cities they take as their subjects. Grand Canyon and Crash are both set in Los Angeles, and reflect its image as a city of vast income inequality and of personal alienation. The Wire is grounded in its creators' intimate knowledge of Baltimore, and projects the image of a largely working-class and post-industrial city.

While these differences are worth study, the project here is to compare the way that a distinct type of narrative structure represents urban American geographies. At issue is the representation of urban-ness as a dense, inter-related network of people--not the accuracy of these texts' depictions of their specific cities. So the main points of comparison will be the way that these narratives depict the formation of places as subjective experiences, the way characters map multiple itineraries through the same physical spaces, and the way that watching these narratives sets up distinct spectatorial experiences. (1)

Map-making Ambitions in the Multi-thread Film

Multi-thread or networked narratives became more prominent in 1990s film; (2) television has much longer had multiple parallel storylines because of the durational possibilities of the medium (the soap opera is the most obvious example). Recent television scholarship has emphasized the rise of even more complex multi-thread narratives that require sustained viewer concentration and reward such viewers with new levels of moral ambiguity and psychological investigation. (3) As distinguished from ensemble casting, multi-thread narratives have several storylines running relatively autonomously, with characters secondary in one storyline often featuring centrally in another, in an attempt to replicate a social network in which individuals play larger and smaller roles in various social and vocational groupings. Evan Smith defines a multi-thread him as one in which each character is a protagonist in his/her own story; stories may intersect but "each presents a different dramatic premise." (4) David Bordwell's term "network narratives" is similar: "the characters, however they're knit together, have diverging purposes and projects, and those intersect only occasionally--often accidentally." (5) The emphasis on the intersection of plot threads is the reason for Bordwell's choice of the term "network," which will become important for this essay's emphasis on the representation of social structures and the work of spectatorship; Bordwell writes that network narratives put more responsibility on the spectator to "mentally construct ... an expanding social network" and that "network narratives suggest geometry or choreography." (6)

Prominent cinematic examples of the multi-thread or networked narrative are Bonfire of the Vanities (1990), Short Cuts (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Magnolia {1999), Traffic (2000), and Babel (2006)--and all of these take place partly or entirely in urban settings. (7) Bordwell suggests that the alienation of the urban environment encourages networked narratives as solutions to this psychological condition--a proposition Hsuan L. Hsu pursues further in response to the specific racial dynamics of turn-of-the-century Los Angeles. (8)

I would suggest another reason is because the networked narrative--with its broad social canvas instead of individual character study--finds the density and variety of the urban population an ideal setting for its mission. Networked narratives take on a particular meaning when they attempt to address urban problems of crime, race, poverty, and drug use. Cities are geographical arrangements that put different races and classes in close proximity to each other, yet still marked by social separation. Despite the post World War II "white flight," most cities have retained wealthy neighborhoods with an upper-class, largely white population nearby the very poor. The physical juxtaposition (as opposed to the relative segregation of the suburbs and the invisibility of rural landscapes) makes cities the clearest embodiment of America's racial and class disparities--and therefore, the setting of choice for visual narratives that want to explore those issues.

Multi-thread "we're all connected" narratives attempt to bridge these geographical contrasts by asserting that the destinies of diverse characters, who normally do not come into contact with each other, are in fact intertwined. The first section of this essay uses Grand Canyon and Crash to illustrate important geographical principles of place-making and mobility in their attempt to map a broad spatial system. The spectator is offered a "bird's eye" view of the city, revealing the interconnection of various raced and classed subjects from an abstracted, non-corporeal position that attempts to merge multiple human (character) positions into an omniscient, no-placed one.

Grand Canyon follows the stories of a white executive Mack and his wife Claire, a black tow truck driver Simon and his sister Deborah who lives in a violence-plagued neighborhood with her children, and two secretaries in Mack's office: Dee and Jane. The film follows a chain of events set in motion by encounters between characters whose paths would not normally cross. For example, Simon's rescue of Mack leads to Mack pursuing this interracial friendship, and Mack's flirtatious relationship with his white secretary Dee leads to him meeting Dee's black friend Jane, whom he sets up on a date with Simon. When characters

are not literally encountering each other, they are often paralleled through shared experiences such as encounters with violence and struggles with child-rearing. Such parallel scenes stress the common experience the characters supposedly share regardless of race and class--the difficulty of living a "normal" family life in Los Angeles--thus giving the spectator a more expansive view than that possessed by any single character.

While Crash's map is more complicated to assemble, it too ultimately offers the spectator the promise of an abstract, spatialized view of LA. It attempts to blur the specificity of place, and of the racial and class positions place represents, by endowing its characters with equal feelings of rage that it links to racism and alienation in the large post-modern city. Meeting "others" through chance encounters in the city teaches most of the characters that their racial anger is unjustified. Compared to Grand Canyon, Crash more completely fits the description of a networked narrative in that it has many more threads in which characters that are primary in one thread appear as a secondary character in another thread. A complete plot summary of Crash would reveal up to sixteen plot threads (depending on how you count them), with some character encounters that merge the plot threads.

In other plot episodes, a character does not realize that his or her encounter with...

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