Thoughts On: Falling Leaves - Narrative & Theme


Falling Leaves - Narrative & Theme

Thoughts On: Falling Leaves  (1912)

Hearing that her older sister will die from illness when the last leaf falls from her garden tree, a young girl naively tries to save her by stringing up leaves to branches.

Falling Leaves is a poignant early short by the first woman to ever direct a film, Alice Guy Blaché. Blaché's first film is of course La Fée aux Choux, The Cabbage Fairy (1896). This is such an important film as it is arguably the first narrative picture ever made. Secretary to Léon Gaumont, the French cinematic pioneer whose films where heavily influenced by the early Lumière brother style of film, Blaché made her first film as a departure from almost all that had came before it. In such, The Cabbage Fairy tells a story instead of showing a simple event in the world...

This story is the novel translation of an old European fairy tale that says baby boys are born in cabbage patches whilst baby girls are born in roses.

Because there is this arc, this point made by a very simple plot, The Cabbage Fairy qualifies as a narrative film. The only contesting film that qualifies as a narrative picture that possibly proceeded The Cabbage Fairy is The Lumière's, L'Arroseur Arrosé, The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895).

This is the famous gag in which a boy steps on a rose, stopping the flow of water so that an unsuspecting adult looks down the nozzle, allowing the boy to lift his foot and spray him in the face. What qualifies this film as a narrative movie is both the contrivance of the event, the fact that it was staged, and its simple plot. These elements of plot and construction are what distinguish the first narrative films from the likes of L'Arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station) and La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon (Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon).

These films arguably have plots and so can semantically be called narrative pictures. Moreover, these events are somewhat constructed, again, semantically awarding these pictures narrative status. However, the way these two elements of the films interact in the documentary-esque Lumière pictures do not give rise to a cinematic narrative message. In such, watching a train come into the station does not symbolise nor comment on anything through its 'plot' or 'contrivance' - we can say this with confidence as this was not the Lumière's intention. However, both The Sprinkler Sprinkled and The Cabbage Fairy have an intention belying their story in narrative subtext. The Sprinkler Sprinkled makes a point of character; it describes the boy as devious. The Cabbage Fairy, however, has a much more complex narrative message. The idea of boys coming from cabbage patches and girls from roses distinguishes the genders, making a novel point on not just one devious boy, but an archetypal boy, all boys, as well as all girls. Whilst there isn't an intricate complexity to this point on gender, it is a much more poignant and profound narrative message, intentionally so, than The Sprinkler Sprinkled. This cites the great significance of Blaché's first film even if it doesn't win the label of 'first narrative picture' as it's an evolving stride in narrative story telling.

With the Lumière's first narrative film, there is plot and character, whereas in Blaché's we see a more complicated approach to theme and narrative message. It's these films' essence coming together that gives rise to cinema as a respectable higher art form as there is an establishment of its capacity to entertain over long periods, not just provide quaint projections of the everyday, as well as a capacity to inform, to question as well as intellectually and emotionally engage. This is what the best films of all time manage to do and so we see the seeds of Persona, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Citizen Kane, Tokyo Story, Vertigo, Goodfellas, The Wizard Of Oz and so much more in the first two narrative films ever made. It's with a focus on Alice Guy Blaché, however, that we can push into the heart of these films and really question what makes movies resonate with us, and we're going to do this with one of her most important films after The Cabbage Fairy, Falling Leaves.

A point that has been made by many, most notably Martin Scorsese, is that there's a difference between story and plot. In an interview with Jon Favreau, he says:

I just found that over the years I was more drawn to [...] the films that I [...] constantly re-visted or saw repeatedly [...] not because of plot but because of character and a very different approach to story. For example, talk about Hitchcock, we see his films in the 50s as they came out, Strangers On A Train, Rear Window all the way up to Vertigo, North By Northwest and Psycho. But, I think over the years the films of Hitchcock that I enjoy watching repeatedly, The Wrong Man for example...

Scorsese then goes on to talk about a small moment in The Wrong Man that defined Hitchcock's ability to play with perspective, a moment that influenced the production of Taxi Driver. He then says:

I find that that is more interesting to me [...] I saw Rebecca maybe 10 times, 14 times, but at a certain point I said [...] for me, the style [of] Hitchcock is only in the sequence [where] Mrs. Danvers shows [...] Rebecca's room to Joan Fontaine. For the rest of it,  I know the plot and it's not interesting anymore. 

(To see the full segment of interview click here). What Scorsese is clearly picking up on here is the difference of viewing experience people have between films. Hitchcock is such a sterling example of this as he made pictures that were, on paper, not that special. If you look to North By Northwest and Strangers On A Train, you see heavily plot-centric films that tell a story tantamount to the Lumière's, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. In these films, a plot just plays out for around 100 or 135 minutes which entertains you, but does little more. However, Hitchcock could really brings these films to life with his direction which is what elevates the viewing experience. Nonetheless, for me, the likes of The Lady Vanishes and Rear Window are much better films that I can re-watch endlessly. Like Scorsese says, this is largely because of character. In such, the films resonate with me personally - just as The Wrong man does with Scorsese. Character isn't the only element of this, however, as there is also theme. A monumental factor of why films can speak to us comes down to the subjects or themes they focus on. To me, Rear Window deals with isolation, speculation and perspective in a very poignant manner. So does The Lady Vanishes, but with added elements of levity and comedy. In such, I like the story, the narrative, the complex whole, of Rear Window and The Lady Vanishes more than North By Northwest or Strangers On a Train. This is because Hitchcock manages themes, direction, character and plot in a resonant manner, subjective to me.

This is such a relevant subject when we discuss Alice Guy Blaché as she capitalises on this element of story over plot in her approach to narrative. A great example of this is undeniably Falling Leaves.

In this short story very little happens in terms of plot. We open with a sister being sick with consumption (tuberculosis). When the doctor examines her, he only gives her a short period of time to live, the time it takes for all the leaves to fall off of the tree in her garden. Taking this assessment literally, the younger sister ties leaves to the tree so that they can never fall. However, in doing this a bacteriologist shows up to treat her older sister with a cure. Three months later she is back to her stable self.

At face value, this plot is a rather weak one. As a modern audience, we'd expect many layers of conflict and character development to be injected into this story to make it viable. However, Blaché constructs a timeless narrative with such cinematic confines through a precise focus on characters, projecting a social and philosophical point. In such, she uses the little girl as a thematic point of connection to the audience. The sister thus represents naivety in face of death, one that can hold onto hope. This is of course symbolised with her tying leaves to tree branches as a misunderstanding of the true gravity of her sister's situation. When the bacteriologist with a cure cuts the narrative to a sharp happy ending, we don't feel cheated though. This is because there is relief and levity in the prevailing of blind hope, one that instils the audience with a warm positive perspective of concepts of fate and mortality. This is what Blaché achieves through theme and character. She builds a philosophical premise that implies some level of purpose and unity in the world, one constructed by people and modern medicine. As a result, the warmth the audience is made to feel is a trust and hope in society and people. We are made to feel that we are not alone, that hope, no matter how naive, may pay off.

Whilst you may still argue that this is a weak narrative in comparison to films such as Ordet--which is an undeniable assertion...

... the weight and significance of Falling Leave's narrative is still evident in the feelings it may conjure in an audience. This is the true test of any movie and thus the qualifying factor of a great narrative. In such, I do not hesitate in saying that Falling Leaves is a great picture.

The significance of Falling Leaves to both filmmaker and audience is then in a lesson of how great narratives are built. Alice Guy Blaché teaches us that the films that resonate with people, the films that stand the test of time in front of an audience, are those that incorporate theme into their story. With a focus on narrative in this respect, character and plot work together to produce rounded stories, films that have an ability to philosophically and emotionally speak to an audience on a personal and profound level.

Before you go make sure you check these post that are connected to this talk on Falling Leaves...

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