With the evolution of the medium, almost naturally, came the creative departures from the theatrical unity of space and time in storytelling. Fragmented narratives became a favourite area of experimentation for many influential makers. Composite plots consisting of mildly connected vignettes and simultaneously occurring events, often with no evident central characters, can be found almost throughout the history of cinema.
It is actually quite difficult to trace the origins. But it was not until a decade ago that this quality had a very specific label for it. Writer and journalist Alissa Quart coined the term “hyperlink cinema” in her review of Happy Endings (written and directed by Don Roos) for the journal Film Comment in the year 2005. Critic Roger Ebert popularized the word through a reference in his review of Syriana (Written and directed by Stephen Gaghan).
Quoting from the Robert Ebert review- “The term describes movies in which the characters inhabit separate stories, but we gradually discover how those in one story are connected to those in another.” Though it was not an obvious comparison, but the style of jumping between interlocked parallel narratives does bear certain resemblance with the act of browsing the internet through hyperlinks.
Though the beginnings of this form had very little to do with the World Wide Web, it became a noticeable popularity around the beginning of this century, when it was quite a phenomenon. The style is essentially independent, and has rarely shown signs of thematic stagnation, yet it has become a discipline in itself. Some associate it with the “network” nature of the society.
The Journal Critical Studies in Media Communications made an inquiry into the style of narrative, perceiving them as a Global Network Films. This could be true for the more geographically and culturally explorative films like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s masterly landmark Babel (2006).
However, the little known 1973 Bengali film A River Called Titas (Titash Ekti Nodir Naam) by Indian filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, which is arguably a pioneering work in this area, was inspired by a very local tradition of interconnected lives in a small fishing village of Bangladesh. The form derives from a spirit of inclusiveness, and is thus flexible enough.
Enlisted here are examples of hyperlink cinema that not only accurately describe the narrative style, but also are landmarks in the craft in their own way.
1. Amarcord (Federico Fellini, 1973)
For a filmmaker who cured himself of one of the most infamous creative blocks in auteur cinema by weaving some of the most complex tales imaginable in the medium, this style was an obvious area of inclination. The form neither had a history, nor a name when he wrote Amarcord in 1973… an amalgamation of many bizarrely humorous tales about many eccentric characters in the village of Borgo San Giulian in the 1930s Italy, the Fascist times.
Fellini’s undisputed classic La Dolce Vita may also claim a slight proximity to the style we are discussing. The absence of a perceptible spinal plot in that film had come as a surprise to many viewers and critics of that time. But with Amarcord, he went insane.
Despite much of the existential quality of the film lying in the consciousness of the protagonist- Titta, who could be considered an author surrogate for the semi-autobiographical nature of the story, the film had very little centralized premise of inquiry.
While dissecting the confused and instructive society of the time with life-like eccentric characters, Fellini launches a freewheeling commentary in the perspective of an adolescent which both disorients and holds together the story. His audacious filmmaking had always sustained both chaos and character in an admirable integrity. So, when this inventor made this film and went on to win the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award, no one seemed to speak of the dawn of a whole new exercise in visual storytelling.
2. The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Bunuel, 1974)
Bunuel was undoubtedly responsible for some of the craziest imaginative pieces in the history of cinema. A surrealist with serious political insight- he is the man every generation of celluloid needs.
For an artist who believed in the raw creative virtues of automatism, stories of the hyperlink nature are quite natural products. His French language classic The Phantom of Liberty was his penultimate work. He was, according to many scholars, reimagining some interesting anecdotes and dreams of his, enriching them with some very thoroughly inventive themes. The film is a compilation of several short scenarios, each seemingly inconclusive and independent of another.
“We often find ourselves at complicated crossroads which lead to other crossroads, to even more fantastic labyrinths. Somehow we must choose a path” said the maker. A 21st Century browser of the internet would certainly associate this choice with hyperlinks.
While diagnosing the illusive quality of political and civil freedom, and illustrating the liberal dawn on the civilization of torments, he employs a narrative structure that could be called postmodernist. Multiple stories sweep through, connected by seemingly insignificant characters who assume a central position later, only to be completely abandoned afterwards.
This truly peculiar absurdist work was a very personal all-encompassing summary of the politics and subconscious of one of greatest artists ever born, all mediums considered.
3. A River Called Titas (Ritwik Ghatak, 1973)
The second greatest Indian filmmaker according to both critical rankings and public opinion, after Satyajit Ray (Ray’s first color movie ‘Kanchenjungha’ might also be cited as a film that made way for this narrative structure), and one of the pioneers of arthouse in India, was an artist with a very less informed style. He lived the life of a broken intellectual, had very few awards, and had not frequented the festival circuits. He had basically very little access, and thus very little exposure.
His style, which was indeed sharp and had an inimitable raw beauty, was an entirely indigenous vision. So, when he made A River Called Titas, menaced by Tuberculosis and poverty, neither he nor the world knew that he was up to something absolutely new. While his Cloud Capped Star, Subarnarekha, Reason Debate and a Story occupy many significant lists and are among the favourites of many makers of the generations since, A River Called Titas remains a little known work.
Like many Bengali films, his work suffers from poor prints and inaccurate subtitles. This story of an accidental marriage of bizarre consequences in rural Bengal, through the lives of fishermen settled by the river Titas (which is a source of profound symbolism in the story) has in its complexity illustrated a society of perplexing traditions with a melodramatic intensity. It is based on a novel of the same name by Advaita Malla Burman. This little known film is also considered the greatest film made in Bangladesh.
4. Hannah And Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)
The flexibility of the term ‘hyperlink cinema’ encourages the inclusion of this film in the list. Woody Allen had a knack for composite stories, and is known to have dealt with complex human relationships with greater dexterity than many more serious auteurs. Hannah and her Sisters is a relationship drama at its best. The title could be misleading, because this story about the conflicts of eclectic personas of three sisters has no protagonist as such, despite Hannah making it to the title.
A story of adultery, suicidals, spiritual bankruptcy, religious criticism, divorce, and failures has never been dealt with in a sensibility and temperament similar to this. In Woody Allen’s famous never-manipulative style of filmmaking and emblematic literary humour, this story becomes a classic.
Each of the three sisters in this film seems to bear a story, and though the characters intersect and often collide, they remain pretty independent episodes describing an individual. Their simultaneous and disparate realities, their complex intertwined relationships, are what makes it hyperlink cinema.
5. Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Multiple stories and fragmented narratives was pretty much confined to art house, other than a few works here and there, until Quentin Tarantino co-wrote and directed the landmark called Pulp Fiction. This Palme d’Or winning black comedy became an immediate classic with its eclectic humour, and of course, its bounciness with non-linear storytelling.
The central focus of the film migrates between characters, giving us three absolutely separate stories about some criminals, whose company is as amusing as it is thrilling and scary. This almost trivializing study of organized crime, and the whimsical people associated with it, is indeed a story of networks. The film dwelled very intimately in the characters, despite the brevity of their screen presence.
This film is a winner also for its great performances and creative use of conventional cinematography. Hyperlink cinema was brought to the masses with Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s wink at cinema.
6. Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
Robert Altman knew this form closely and had made it his own. Nashville in 1975 brought with it the first evident advent of really new storytelling. This film consisted of moments stringed together with such madness and music that one could immediately distinguish the narrative style from everything that had been done before. With twenty four main characters, the multiple stories set in the capital of Tennessee drew life from the country and gospel music industry of the region in which all seemed to blend.
The many tales occur in a span of five days, exploring characters of diverse sensibilities surviving on music, which was more than an unadulterated art form here. Wes Anderson had described Altman’s filmmaking style as something that was “designed to capture spontaneous moments that he could then shape and organize later”. He also says that “he was probably also very much a kind of conductor. So it’s not controlling, but nevertheless guiding and shaping to the same effect.”
Nothing can more accurately describe the complex networks of Altman’s characterization, especially Nashville in which an organic accrual of little plots convey like an independent behaving entity.
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