Roger Ebert Jim Emerson has a brilliant post up here about what conventions signal to us that a story (particularly, a movie) is beginning or ending.* Particularly, he’s interested in asking what ending conventions small children would inherently understand, prompted by this blog post.
I’m loving Dr. Bordwell’s post, which begins with this anecdote:
I was watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” some years ago with a friend’s three-year-old daughter. Molly hadn’t seen the movie before, and she watched it in a fascinated silence. At the end, Snow White and the prince leave the dwarfs and ride off into the distance.
At this point Molly cried, “More!”
This surprised me. How could she know, on her first pass, that the story was ending?
My dissertation was on the psychology of narrative. That’s an awfully broad topic, ranging from how people tell stories of their own lives to how they understand genre conventions used in filmmaking, playwriting, and other narrative arts. As I was just starting to play with these ideas, one of my biggest “aha” moments came at a showing of “The Mummy.” (Some of my smartest ideas are inspired by some of my stupidest experiences.) The audience was extremely diverse in age, ethnicity, and apparent social class. Halfway through the movie the projectionist switched a reel. And at the exact same moment, everyone in the audience registered that the story had stopped making sense. There wasn’t an obvious visual cue; one scene cut to another as might happen ordinarily. It was the story that stopped working, and everyone knew it. You almost never see an entire roomful of people “get it” at the same moment. Certainly “If X then Y” logic never works that way. But story logic … story logic is different.
*Commenter Unmana points out that this is Jim Emerson, not Roger Ebert. Apologies and thanks!