There are many different ways in which a screenwriter and a director can structure their story and film when it comes to narrative. Depending on the themes and the creative process, a whole plethora of storytelling techniques can open up. In the filmmakers narrative toolkit there’s linear, non-linear, dream logic, flashback narrative, reverse chronology, anthology, and circular narrative among-st others.
One of the most recognizable and used forms of storytelling is “hyperlink cinema”. Coined by author Alissa Quart in her review of the 2005 film ‘Happy Endings‘, hyperlink cinema has existed for years before that. A better name for it would surely be the simpler ‘multi-linear storytelling’ or ‘multi-linear narrative’. Anyway, a film that’s considered hyperlink cinema is one in which multiple stories with multiple characters are told at the same time. They cut back and forth between each story-line which is connected by theme, chance, circumstance, fate and the cause and effect of actions. Sometimes these stories also share the same place and time and always have an ensemble cast.
Not to be confused with anthology films which also tell multiple stories but unlike hyperlink cinema, anthology films tell each story in chapters, one after the other letting each one run its course to its natural conclusion. There have been too many great hyperlink films over the years to name, each deserving special mention, but the following ten films are the ones that represent the narrative structure at its best and are all round awesome films.
01. The Rules of the Game (1939)
One of the earliest examples and uses of hyperlink cinema is Jean Renoir’s sharp satirical look at the French bourgeoisie of the time just before the beginning of World War II. Rejected upon release, ‘The Rules of the Game‘ like many classics that were before their time has gone on to live as one of the greatest pictures ever made. The plot revolves around the upper-class members of French society and their servants who all have questionable morals and are too self-absorbed to be bothered by the oncoming war.
They all share one trait which enables them to survive and thrive in the world as shown in the film’s central piece where rabbit and peasant are hunted; they all know the rules of the game. What game is that? The game of life.. Jean Renoir made the film sensing that war was inevitable even with the Munich Agreement and wanted to capture the days and times. True to the fact, during production, Germany invaded Czechoslovakia breaking the Munich Agreement and causing the French army to mobilize and some of the crew members to leave the film to join the army.
Never one to put his characters on a pedestal or look down on them, Renoir simply shines a light of the different characters who all gather at the Château de le Colinière for the hunt. Flowing effortlessly from one character to the next and one scenario to the other, there’s a looseness and improvisation that makes the film feel real. It’s a timeless classic that stands as one of French cinema’s greatest exports and has influenced a whole generation of legendary filmmakers.
02. A River Called Titas (1973)
Ritwik Ghatak’s penultimate film looks at his country’s changing landscape after Bangladesh became an independent nation. Another early example of hyperlink cinema, ‘A River Called Titas‘ is a beautiful and haunting film that deserves to be seen by more people. Based on the novel of the same name by Adwaita Mallabarman, the film tells the story of poor fishermen living on the bank of the Titas River in Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh. It tells multiple stories of a traditional culture’s vanishing way of life in the ever-changing world. The most memorable storyline being that of a newly married couple that’s separated by a kidnapping.
In this poetic and haunting film, we watch the demise of a culture because of a wide array of reasons. Ghatak doesn’t shy away from showing us the brutal tragedies that the community experiences. He also shows us the beauty and uniqueness of the culture through their music, customs, and language. Using both professional and non-professional actors to tell his epic story also brings realism to the story and characters. The characters here are intertwined by the change and the cycle of nature as well as outside forces that seek to interfere as well as their own self-destruction.
Shot in breathtaking black and white that captures the beautiful landscapes and river banks with a creative sound design, the film shifts between drama, melodrama and a documentary-like nature that adds to its charm. ‘A River Called Titus‘ is made with great passion, depth and thoughtfulness in what’s one of the great films of cinema and a truly cinematic experience.
03. Nashville (1975)
While Robert Altman didn’t create hyperlink cinema he most definitely perfected it. He took the narrative structure and explored it as far as he could and thus set the template for what would come after. Almost every film in the genre follows what Altman did in one way or another whether it’s from the opening moments where all the different characters are introduced or the closing moments where all the characters story lines are wrapped up, each set by single event or circumstance that they each experience in their own separate worlds.
Set over 5 days in Nashville, Tennesse, the film follows 24 characters from all walks of life who are involved in the country and gospel music industry. While some are trying to succeed and make a name for them, others are trying to remain relevant and hold onto their success. Leading up to a concert rally for a Replacement Rally candidate, ‘Nashville’ has overlapping story arcs with an hour’s worth of music performed live.
Working more as a satire than anything else, Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury paint a mosaic of the different stereotypes you’d find in any musical genre. There’s the shameless groupie, the self-absorbed rock star, the celebrity-obsessed journalist, the talentless bimbo with false views of grandeur and the huge pop star going through a nervous breakdown. With an ensemble cast including some of the finest actors and musicians such as Ned Beatty, David Arkin, Barbara Baxley, Shelly Duvall, Jeff Goldblum, Scott Glen, and Keith Carradine to name a few.
Ironically but not at all surprising, some of the characters were based on real-life country music stars and some of the scenes based on actual events that writer Tewkesbury observed while visiting Nashville. With Altman’s trademark overlapping and improvised dialogue, what makes ‘Nashville’ a masterpiece and the arguably the directors best film is the music. Even if you don’t like the country or gospel genre there are more than enough songs in the film that will get stuck in your head.
04. Do the Right Thing (1989)
Spike Lee’s trademark film still stands as one of the greatest films about racism ever made. Written, directed, produced and starring Lee, ‘Do the Right Thing’ is as relevant today as it was 29 years ago. Set on the hottest day of the summer in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant where racial tensions and misunderstandings reach their boiling points with the rising temperature which eventually ends in tragedy, Lee paints a portrait of America’s history, present and future (as now would have it) with racism.
Starting off early in the morning and ending late at night, we follow a whole host of characters in the neighborhood as they go about their day. There’s the local pizzeria owner Sal who runs the store with his two sons, one of whom constantly complains about having to work in a black neighborhood. There’s his pizza delivery boy Mookie who besides having a job is ambitious-less and always takes detours when out making deliveries. There are also his never happy girlfriend and serious sister along with the old timers on the stoop, the neighborhood kids and the town drunk to name a few.
Alongside Lee, the cast also stars Danny Aiello, John Turturro, John Savage, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, and Giancarlo Esposito with Martin Lawrence and Rosie Perez in their feature film debuts. They all play characters we’ve all known at one point or another and engage in discussions or arguments we’ve all had at one point or another as well. What makes ‘Do the Right Thing’ special is how relatable it is. Its honesty next to its fresh creativity makes it one of the most unique films to ever be created with a whole score of unforgettable scenes and characters. It goes to show that even serious topics such as this can be entertaining.
05. Dazed and Confused (1993)
Nobody can make a coming of age story quite like Richard Linklater. And nobody can play with the effects of time like the director either. And while he would go on to combine the two in greater detail with ‘The Before Trilogy’ and most notable ‘Boyhood’, “Dazed and Confused” still stands as one of the director’s best works on the themes of youth and time. Its free-flowing plot follows various groups of teenagers in Texas during their last day of school in 1976. Featuring an ensemble cast of young actors who would go on to become huge stars, there’s Ben Affleck, Mathew McConaughey, Milla Jovovich, Jason London, Adam Goldberg, Nicky Katt, and Parker Posey.
School is out and everyone is out to have fun as the beginning of summer comes on. There’s a piece of us in all of the characters who each represent who we are, who we were or somebody we know or knew. Stuck in a small town where there’s nothing to do but listen to rock music while cruising the streets and experimenting with alcohol and marijuana, ‘Dazed and Confused’ is one of the ideal coming of age films. As the kids in junior high get ready to move on to high school and the high schoolers get ready for life beyond, there’s an anticipation of the future filled with hopes and dreams in the air.
And although the films sticks to its comedy and silliness throughout most of its run time there are hints of drama and seriousness that comes in at times you’d least expect. Less concerned with linking his characters in the obvious ways of the genre, Richard Linklater just aims to tell a story where all the different characters are one through their shared experience of that day in 1976.
06. Pulp Fiction (1994)
What is there to left to say about Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Pulp Fiction’ that hasn’t already been said? Studied to death in film schools all over the world, quoted endlessly to kingdom come by Cinephiles and working its way into every facet of pop culture since its release, ‘Pulp Fiction’ is undoubtedly the most influential film made in the last thirty years and one of the main reasons this is so is because of its ingenious use of the narrative structure.
Telling the story of several interrelated criminals in Los Angeles; there’s the mob contract killer Vincent Vega (John Travolta), his spiritual partner Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson), the prizefighter Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis), the boss’s wife Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman), the boyfriend-girlfriend partners in crime and a priceless gold watch.
Told out of chronological order, this wasn’t the first film to tell its story in non-linear structure however it is, even today, one of the most unique uses of the narrative style. Episodic in nature, Tarantino follows the perspective of a different character at different times where a scene may be repeated but with new information or picking up where the last one left off. One character may die onscreen only to be seen alive and well again in a different story line from a different character’s point of view.
However, Tarantino never uses these connections and surprises as a way to advance the plot in the same way a heist film would, he uses them in a nonchalant matter-of-fact way which makes them all the more memorable. Because most of the characters don’t know each other it adds a layer of coincidence to the story where there could be a hit man using your bathroom when you get home.
Never content to be one who follows the rules, the writer/director also employs a circular narrative where the beginning is also the end and everything comes a full circle. People live and die, come and go but they always will be criminals with interesting things to talk about.
07. Magnolia (1999)
When wunderkind Paul Thomas Anderson decided to make the epic, all-time, great San Fernando Valley movie, no one could’ve predicted that the results would be this great. After all, it was only his third feature and although his talent had blossomed at that time, three-hour epic movies are a tricky thing to pull off, especially for a young filmmaker.
‘Magnolia’ is the story of a mosaic of characters that are interrelated by their search for happiness and forgiveness. The after effects of parent-child relationships play a major role in shaping the characters and their current situations or life choices which they try their best to escape. But some things are hard to heal from if you continually keep running away from them. With disease, most notably cancer playing a major part as well, ‘Magnolia’ is that film that resonates with everyone more so than any other Anderson film.
With an ensemble cast of Anderson’s regular actors at the time as well as new faces, the film is filled with one of the greatest ensembles with Jeremy Blackman, Tom Cruise, Melinda Dillon, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, William H. Macy, Alfred Molina, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly, Jason Robards and Melora Walters. While Tom Cruise steals the show, the film belongs to everyone who’s a part of the cast.
What makes ‘Magnolia’ memorable besides its great story, direction and acting, is its risky approach. Anderson uses every idea he has throughout the three-hour run time from musical sing-along, raining frogs and a prologue and epilogue that evokes old-school Hollywood storytelling and visuals. And the most shocking thing is that he pulls it all off. These weird, wacky and wonderful moments add to what are not only an emotionally draining movie but also a fun and entertaining three-hours that just fly by.
08. Traffic (2000)
The year 2000 was a knockout year for Steven Soderberg with the release of two box office hits and critically acclaimed films. The first being the character study in ‘Erin Brockovich’ about one woman’s determination for justice and the second one being an ensemble piece in ‘Traffic’ about the never-ending war on drugs. Adapted from the BBC miniseries called Traffick from 1989, everyone involved in the drug trade is giving a perspective from users, enforcers, politicians, cartels, and traffickers. With three main story-lines, Soderberg employed distinctive color grade for each story line so that audiences can tell them apart. From chilled blue, overheated yellow and a sun-kissed center, the different grades also match the mood of their distinctive setting.
An Academy Award-winning film that saw Soderberg rewarded with a Best Director statue, Benicio Del Toro with Best Supporting Actor, Stephen Gaghan for Best Adapted Screenplay and Stephen Mirrione for Best Editing, ‘Traffic’ is the rare film that achieved box office success next to critical acclaim. With an excellent cast that also includes Michael Douglas, Don Cheadle, Dennis Quaid, Catherin Zeta-Jones and the forever underrated Luis Guzman, everyone shines.
With over a hundred speaking parts, some of the characters don’t even meet each other but are related and connected by of course the drug trade, their actions, and their location. Not much has changed since the film’s release with Mexican/U.S. border still being a hot and controversial topic. With all the progress that is made by the end of the film like in real life, it’s the failing’s that have the biggest impact that shows that nothing really changes it just goes on in a never-ending cycle.
09. City of God (2002)
Even when making a film using hyperlink cinema, you can still use other narrative structures in addition, and no film shows that better than ‘City of God’. There are flashbacks within flashbacks or flash forwards within a circular narrative, all rapidly cut to tell a story that stretches decades about a time and place. Based on the novel of the same name by Paulo Lins and also drawing from real life events and people, the story shows the growth of organized crime in the Cidade de Deus ‘City of God’, the western boroughs of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil from the end of the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s.
Our narrator and guide is a young, quiet and honest boy called Rocket who dreams of being a photographer and manages to be the only character not to fall into the depths of the criminal world of his surroundings. He introduces us to the area, its past and the different characters that played a major part in its growth and what would become the major gang wars of the eighties.
Unlike most films in the genre that have no lead characters to speak of, Rocket is the closest thing to one as the story is told from his point of view as a resident of the place. He tells us what we need to know at the time only to sidetrack it by telling us a different story that makes us better understand the current story he’s telling. With director Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund utilizing everything from editing, color, pacing, and music to put the feeling across, ‘City of God’ is a raw and unforgettable film with a whole host of characters and stories that shaped a place.
10. Cloud Atlas (2012)
Perhaps one of the most ambitious films ever made and undoubtedly the most ambitious film to use the hyperlink cinema structure, ‘Cloud Atlas’ stretches over six different eras with multiple characters with different ethnicity from different walks of life. Based on David Mitchell’s novel of the same name that explores how the actions of individual lives impact the lives of others in the past, present, and future as souls are shaped to go from villain to hero and vice versa.
Lots of novels and books have been called un-filmable or un-adaptable but sometimes all it takes is the right kind of director to bring those complicated works to the big screen. With ‘Cloud Atlas’ it took two directors, The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, each with their own separate crew, filming at the same time. The story line cuts back and forth from the Pacific Islands 1849, Cambridge 1936, San Francisco 1973, London 2012, Neo Soul 2144 and Big Isle 106 winters after the fall in 2321. With all sorts of genres thrown in for good measure and the same actors each representing the same soul by playing different characters in different timelines, it’s a shock that they done it.
It all works because of the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer’s excellent structuring and pacing who make sure we never get more than we can handle at a time. No film has juggled so much so perfectly! Extra credit to editor Alexander Berner who keeps the pace and story-lines clear and engaging. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Susan Sarandon, and Hugh Grant, ‘Cloud Atlas’, unfortunately, failed to find an audience and received a mixed response from critics. But those willing to look past what they don’t understand or some of the film’s flaws will find a viewing experience like no other in this underrated masterpiece.