BordwellThompson/Narrative Form (Discussion)

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  1. How do Bordwell and Thompson (B/T) define "form" in its general sense? And how is film a "system"?
  2. Apply B/T's four principles of film form to Ordinary People:
    1. Function: What function do Conrad's dreams/fantasies serve?
    2. Similarity and repetition: What is one motif that recurs in the film? (And what is a motif, according to B/T?)
    3. Difference and variation: How does the film make use of variations?
    4. Development: B/T note, "Another way to size up how a film develops formally is to compare the beginning with the ending." So, how would you say the beginning and ending of Ordinary People signals the film's development?


Narrative form

B/T define narrative form as "...a chain of events in cause-effect relationship occurring in time and space." Discuss/define each phrase of this definition, providing examples from Ordinary People:

  1. a chain of events in cause-effect relationship
  2. occurring in time and space

Plot and story

  1. What is the "diegesis" (Pronounced "die-eh-gee-sis"; see ScreenLex)
  2. What is the difference between "plot" and "story", as B/T are using those terms?
  3. Describe the plot and the story of Ordinary People. How do they differ?

Classical Hollywood cinema

  1. What are the five or six principal characteristics of classical Hollywood cinema, according to B/T? List them.
    • Does Ordinary People qualify as a classical film? Why or why not?

Ordinary People narrative

The Jarretts, an affluent family, try to return to normal life after the death of one teenage son and the attempted suicide of their surviving son, Conrad (Timothy Hutton), who has recently come home following a four-month stay in a psychiatric hospital. Alienated from his friends and family, Conrad chooses to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Berger (Judd Hirsch), who learns that the boy had been involved in a sailing accident in which his older brother, Buck, died. Buck, more outgoing and athletic than Conrad, came first in everyone's estimation (including Conrad's). Conrad now deals with posttraumatic stress disorder and survivor's guilt. Conrad's father, Calvin (Donald Sutherland), who awkwardly struggles to connect with his surviving son, is tormented by depression, guilt, and the lingering trauma of the accident. Conrad's mother, Beth (Mary Tyler Moore), who appears to have loved her elder son more, has now grown cold toward Conrad, fixated with maintaining the appearance of perfection and normality. In one telling scene, she overhears her husband telling a friend at a party that their son has been seeing a psychiatrist. Then, on their way home in the car, she berates him angrily for revealing something she thinks should be private.

As Conrad works through his minefield of emotions with Dr. Berger and learns to try to control his emotions less, he starts dating Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern), a kind and nonjudgmental girl from his school choir. Conrad begins to regain a sense of optimism. However, the suicide of Karen (Dinah Manoff), a friend from the hospital who he had recently seen at a restaurant, threatens to send him spiraling back into depression.

Conrad struggles to communicate and re-establish a normal relationship with his parents and schoolmates. He gets into a fistfight with a loutish schoolmate at a minor provocation, and rejects the overtures from a former friend of his and his brother's because it re-opens the wounds of Buck's death.

In one emotionally charged scene, Conrad argues with his mother while Calvin tries to referee. In perhaps the movie's most revealing moment, Conrad confronts his mother with the fact she never came to the mental hospital to see him:

Conrad: "You would have come if Buck had been in the hospital."
Beth: "Buck never would have been in the hospital."

It isn't until later that Calvin realizes the full import of this exchange: that Conrad's fears that his mother doesn't really love him are probably well-founded.

Eventually, Conrad is able to stop blaming himself for Buck's death, and realizes his mother's frailties as Dr. Berger advises him to accept her as she is. Calvin, aided by a session with Dr. Berger himself, and his own observations, (culminated when Conrad tries to sincerely apologize for his behaviour and affectionately hug his mother and tell her he loves her, she freezes and refuses to return the hug or the sentiment), finally begins to recognize the degree to which Beth has emotionally isolated herself, not just from Conrad, but also from Calvin himself. Calvin confronts Beth about his new feelings, telling her that he questions his love for her, and inquires whether she is capable of truly loving anyone. As Beth packs to leave, her facade is momentarily shattered by a sob, but she struggles and successfully restores the mask, inadvertently proving Calvin correct.

As Conrad is awoken by a cab pulling away, he goes downstairs where his father tells him his mother has left. Conrad's first reaction is to blame himself. Calvin angrily rebukes Conrad for taking that attitude, but then regrets losing his temper. Conrad tells him not to apologize, that perhaps he needs his father to take him to task more often, as he used to do Buck. But now, both having achieved some level of understanding with regard to Beth's feelings toward them, father and son are finally able to truly connect with one another, and they embrace.

From Wikipedia.


  1. David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010).

External links

  1. Frame grabs from Ordinary People.
  2. TV Tropes: listing of numerous narrative conventions.