The team have been researching polyphonic story structure in order for us to work out the task ahead. Joe Richards wrote this short piece about Robert Altman’s ‘Prêt-à–Porter’ (PAP).
Polyphony, within music, is an arrangement which consists of two or more melodic lines which can stand apart on their own merit but when intertwined are in equitable juxtaposition “…not absolutely free of each other but good individually, and at the same time accommodating themselves to an ensemble over which no one of them is unduly dictatorial’ (Merritt 1939, 3). These musical analogies also serve well in describing polyphonic cinema.
Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian Philosopher and Semiotician (amongst other things), wrote that Polyphony gives us ‘a completely new structure of the human being – a full-blooded and fully signifying other consciousness which is not inserted into the finalizing frame of reality’ (Bakhtin 1984, 284). This interpretation serves well in describing recent productions such as Magnolia (dir. Anderson, 1999) and Babel (dir. Inarritu, 2006) which have multiple, interwoven stories and themes that can stand apart but are stronger in forming a whole which will ‘preserve the multi-voicedness of everyday experience’ (Bruns 2008, 208).
Directed by Robert Altman and starring a large ensemble cast, Prêt-à-Porter (Ready to Wear) weaves numerous, interconnected stories amongst the back drop of Paris’s most famous fashion week of the same name in satirical style. Story highlights include the chasing of a renowned photographer by three fashion magazine editors in hope of hiring him, an absurd murder mystery involving the rekindling of old romance between aged lovers and a weekend affair with two unlucky journalists who, when not arguing, are having sex. All of these stories stand apart on their own merits, with Altman dashing from one to the other in habitual style.
PAP consists of multi-layered, multi-plotted and multi-character devices that Altman collates to unify a polyphonic story. The film succours the polyphonic motif well in that none of the characters are the ‘major character’ or serve the same goals in regards to usual story hierarchy involving the singular protagonist. Alex Woloch, a Stanford Literary Professor, writes that ‘The protagonist might be continually overwhelmed, but, as long as he holds on to his position as central character, the world of minorness never completely, or substantially, overwhelms him. In all of Dickens’s novels, minor characters persistently wrest attention away from any privileged, central figure – but they never succeed in destroying the asymmetric structure that condemns them to minorness’ (Woloch 2003, 143). Polyphonic films should not rely on this ‘Major-minor’ motif and in regards to PAP, no clear distinction is made into character position as they all appear to be protagonists in their own right. That the characters have their own independence and form their own individual narrative is an integral part of the polyphonic theme. Each character discovers their own journey where their vulnerabilities and strengths are confronted so they can experience ‘the facing up to alterity and the constitutive otherness and heterogeneity of subjectivity’ (Benson 2003, 295).
The film showcases how individual actions can dictate the outcome of other multiple, seemingly non related, strands of existence. Throughout PAP characters meet and interact with one another, whether briefly or directly, where each nuance affects another’s journey. One example is of the character Sergei, who affects the whole Paris fashion week by being suspected of killing a top designer. Through the designer’s ‘murder’, an American sports journalist is forced by his magazine to extend his stay in Paris to report on the story, forced to share a room with a female journalist who has lost her luggage. By sheer chance, Sergei steals his luggage at the same time. Through these chance encounters, the two journalists spend a weekend locked in a hotel room with no clothes, eventually having sex. Although random, one characters simple actions creates a scenario that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. The study of science describes this as Chaos Theory, ‘When the present determines the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future.’ (Danforth 2013). This statement is attributed to Mathematics but the same can be applied to most Polyphonic films.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. Ed. and trans. by Caryl Emerson. Theory and History of Literature, Vol. 8. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Benson, Stephen. 2003. For want of a better term?: Polyphony and the value of music in Bakhtin and Kundera. Narrative 11, no. 3: 292–311
Bruns, John. 2005. Baffling Doom: Dialogue, Laughter, and Comic Perception in Henry James.Texas. Studies in Literature and Language 47: 1–30.
Danforth, Christopher M. 2013. “Chaos in an Atmosphere Hanging on a Wall”. Mathematics of Planet Earth 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013.
Merritt, Arthur Tillman. 1939. Sixteenth-century polyphony: A basis for the study of counterpoint. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Woloch, Alex. 2003. The one and the many: Minor characters and the space of the protagonist in the novel. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.