Movie plots aren’t always straightforward. Nonlinear narrative has featured in film for almost a century, effectively conveying stories out of sequence for a more captivating, provocative plot. Some of the most iconic, and arguably best, films of the modern age have made use of this literary style.
A classic example is Citizen Kane (1941). Its intricate central characters and magnificent visual symbolism have seen the film often cited as the greatest of all time. Orson Welles’ use of nonlinear storytelling was revelatory, and imperative to the film’s cultural significance and depiction of a journalist trying his utmost to discover the relevance of the titular character’s dying words. Annie Hall (1977) re-established Woody Allen as a director, opening with Allen’s neurotic Alvy Singer discussing the breakdown of his relationship with the titular character, assessing the romance with Annie, his family, friends and other ex-girlfriends, taking us on a rambling journey.
500 Days of Summer (2009) subverts the typical love story of acquaintance-separation-reconciliation not only in the make-up of its plot but also in its presentation. Jumping around the 500 days the couple were together, highlighting highs and lows from the male lead’s perspective. And what of Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? The 2004 film catches its audience unawares with stylish aplomb in its final act. The movie’s central characters meet on a train at the beginning of the movie. Naturally, we assume this is the first time they’ve met. We come to learn the truth of their acquaintance as the movie unfolds.
Quentin Tarantino wasn’t the first filmmaker to employ nonlinear narrative but his influence on its use is undeniable. It features in films like Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994) and Kill Bill: Vol I (2003)—arguably his most ambitious effort using the technique. Its explosive opening scene depicts a bride shot in the head, and the film unwinds to reveal a story of treachery and vengeance amidst a host of flamboyant characters. Most plot points appear out of order, yet everything flows flawlessly, as the bride’s past and present collide.
Pulp Fiction, however, remains Tarantino’s magnum opus, sewing together stories of misdeeds, vindication, and cheeseburgers. The film’s events are, as with the others, out of order, making the film an unpredictable experience. One of the central characters is dead by the film’s second act—which is only so in terms of the viewing experience. In terms of chronological events, it is the third. The film’s tone changes from relaxed to extreme to esoteric, leaving the audience questioning the end goal of the narrative, and rendering its meaning even more difficult to discern.
What is remarkable about each of these examples—and, moreover, any other films that use the nonlinear narrative technique—is their ability to allow viewers to suspend their disbelief and appreciate the product for what it is, completely uninterrupted. Each of these films flow in such a way that one could all but forget that they are viewing something shown out of chronological order—as if listening to an extended piece of music or an album.
Tarantino’s work is often criticized for its graphic depictions of violence. The ambiguous message of his work and graphic content are both things he has in common with Chino Moreno—lead singer, guitarist and lyricist of Deftones. Moreno’s lyrics have been described as image-heavy and poetic, yet vague and cryptic, even when addressing specific social issues like racism, prostitution, urban violence, and drugs. Moreno makes liberal use of second-person narrative in his lyrics, which more often than not juxtapose sex and violence in an incredibly mysterious and often questionable way.
Deftones’ third album, White Pony, arrived in the year 2000 at the height of the nu-metal craze. The album marked a departure from their previous efforts Adrenaline (1995) and Around the Fur (1997), seeing the band adopt a more progressive approach to song writing, while incorporating influence from disparate genres such as trip-hop, industrial rock, glitch, art-rock, post-rock, shoegaze, synth-pop and new wave. These new influences blend with their existing alternative metal/post-hardcore sonic template for a more expansive sound. The album was heralded upon release for Moreno’s increasing lyrical prowess and the band’s experimentation with new sounds, and is often regarded as their most mature outing. Another regularly lauded aspect of White Pony is how well the album flows—it is cinematic in quality.
The cinematic quality of White Pony is down to a couple of significant factors. Firstly, the contribution of turntablist/keyboardist, Frank Delgado. Though he made appearances on Deftones’ first two albums, he was officially assimilated into the band prior to the recording of White Pony, adding a new dimension to the band’s sound. Though turntablists in alternative metal during the era were hardly unique, Delgado differed from his peers in that his playing rarely made use of beat juggling or scratching, instead creating soundscapes to add texture to the music. Songs like ‘Digital Bath’, ‘Knife Party’, and ‘Change (In the House of Flies)’ are all defined by the spectral ambience Delgado’s samples provide.
Also of significance are the overlapping themes, images and motifs conveyed in Moreno’s lyrics. While there is no discernible story as such, there are moments throughout White Pony that lend themselves to the idea that the album can at least be considered a semi-concept album. Regarding the album’s title, Moreno explained that:
“there’s a lot of references for White Pony. One of them is a cocaine reference and there’s a lot of stuff… have you ever heard stuff like in dream books that if you dream about a white pony, then you’re having a sexual dream? There’s a lot of stuff that kinda goes around it. And there’s an old song…’Ride the white horse’. That’s obviously a drug reference song.”
Sex and drugs are just two reference points for the album, but there are other recurring lyrical ideas. The original issue of White Pony opens with the song ‘Feiticeira’, which Moreno explained:
“is some Brazilian name that I read in a magazine and just liked. It’s loosely based on the scenario of being taken captive. It’s completely fictional. I want people to listen to it and feel like they’re in the situation, because I do put myself in the story. It’s up to the people to listen to it and figure out whether I’m enjoying myself or not, even though it sounds a little eerie.”
Unconventionally structured and building over a background of guitars and drums, the song sets the scene, opening with the verse:
“Fuck, I’m drunk, but I’m on my knees
The police stopped chasing
I’m her new cool meat
She pops the trunk and she removes me
And a machine takes pictures of us
Now my jaw and my teeth hurt
I’m choking from gnawing on the ball”
Here, the record introduces some recurring lyrical ideas—the juxtaposition of sex with graphic ideas like crime, violence, drug use or intoxication, and late-night driving. There is also the implication that an unreliable narrator is presiding over the events depicted therein. Has the narrator been taken captive, or are they merely submissive?
‘… new cool meat’ suggests that the narrator is either the captor’s latest murder victim, or eye candy, or someone to objectify. The repetition of the line, “So she sang / (soon I’ll let you go)” as the song nears its end, could also imply that the captor is merely goading her victim, or that this is some kind of elaborate, twisted game.
This idea is compounded by the reintroduction of night-time driving in later song ‘Passenger’, featuring Maynard James Keenan of Tool fame on guest vocals. Chino himself explains the song as, “a scenario of being in a car and being taken for a drive when you don’t really know what’s going on”—a lot like the opening track. The racing, fighting thoughts in the mind of the narrator define the opening verse alongside faint keyboard phrasings.
“Here I lay (Still and breathless)
Just like always (Still, I want some more)
Mirrors sideways (Who cares what’s behind?)
Just like always (Still your passenger)
(Chrome buttons, buckles, and leather surfaces
These and other lucky witnesses)
Now to calm me (This time, won’t you, please?)
This could be a separate incident or a return to the first one. Either way we get the impression that this is not the first time it has happened. By the time guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s crushing, down-tuned guitar riff opens the chorus, Keenan has taken the lead, depicting the shameless exhibition of the act.
“Roll the windows down
This cool night air is curious
Let the whole world look in
Who cares who sees anything?
I’m your passenger
I’m your passenger”
The album’s second song, ‘Digital Bath’ similarly juxtaposes conflicting ideas. Its trip hop beat (courtesy of the criminally underrated Abe Cunningham), guitar interplay and ethereal soundscapes give the impression that the song is, in fact, a heart-wrenching ballad, as does the opening verse and chorus.
“You move like I want to
To see like your eyes do
We are downstairs
Where no one can see
New life break away
Tonight, I feel like more
The notion of new life breaking away takes on a whole new meaning with the revelation of later verses. ‘Digital Bath’ is indeed a song about seduction—but also one about murder. Quoth Moreno:
“I just pictured this whole scenario of having this girl, bringing her downstairs and taking a bath and like, out of nowhere, just reaching back and electrocuting – basically throwing some kind of electrical device in the bathtub and then taking her out of the bath and drying her off and putting her clothes back on.”
With this knowledge, and with the evidence of the lyrics, the vague imagery becomes that much clearer.
“You make the water warm
You taste foreign
And I know you can see
The cord break away”
“You breathed, then you stopped
I breathed, then dried you off”
For Moreno, sex and violence seem to go hand in hand constantly. The futuristic, bass-heavy, percussive ‘Rx Queen’ suggests contentment in a violent, toxic relationship with a prescription drug addict (“’cause you’re my girl and that’s alright / if you sting me, I won’t mind). Elsewhere, ‘Knife Party’ leads a heavy guitar intro and driving bass line to a Latin-Arabic style vocal bridge, conjuring metaphorical yet deliberate imagery of a couple building a relationship on drawing blood to reach sexual climax.
“(Go get your knife, go get your knife)
And come in
(Go get your knife, go get your knife)
And lay down
(Go get your knife, go get your knife)
Now kiss me”
The penultimate track, and arguably the album’s apex, is ‘Change (In the House of Flies)’, a song Moreno considers a “beautiful metamorphosis”:
“It’s a metaphorical song. You could take it in the literal sense of me watching someone turn into a fly and taking them home with me and pulling of their wings and laughing. It spawns from me being a complete asshole and getting the complete repercussion for it by having my life taken away.”
Opening with the same chord that brought album opener ‘Feiticeira’ to a screeching halt, Moreno’s narrator observes as the object of his view is dehumanized in his eyes. Images of flies and fire suggest objectification, desolation and consummation. Moreno hints at ownership and punishment in the song’s second verse, placing the subject on display like a fly in a museum.
“I took you home
Set you on the glass
I pulled off your wings
Then I laughed”
The act catches up with the narrator in the third verse (“Give you the gun / Blow me away”). An admission of guilt comes with the repetition of “you’ve changed” in the song’s final act. It sounds almost like the narrator is pleading with the fly for his misdeed. This is fitting given the redemptive yet sorrowful tone of closer ‘Pink Maggit’. Conflicting ideas and double meanings are littered throughout the song’s lone verse. The lyrics refer to causing someone pain, physical or emotional, as well as self-loathing, fear of abandonment, and a wish to be forgotten.
“I’ll stick you a little
Enough to take your oxygen away
Then I’ll set you on fire
‘Cause I’m on fire
And I’m with you alone
I’m so into this whore
Afraid, I might lose her
So forget about me
‘Cause I’ll stick you”
But what does it all mean? As mentioned, Moreno’s lyrics are rich with imagery and, in the case of White Pony, several common and overlapping ideas. However, they are deliberately vague and cryptic. What makes the album flow so well are musical commonalities and an attention to sonic detail. Whether via similar soundscapes and textures, guitar phrasings, beats, rhythms, tones or album sequencing. It’s like listening to a single story. But a deep exploration reveals that there may be something more to it, something more than coincidence at least.
To suggest that White Pony is a nonlinear story—about a troubled couple engaging in dangerous sex games and roleplay involving staged kidnap and blood play, and at one point a fantasy about murder by bathtub electrocution with a narrative twist—is a bit of a reach. But there’s a case to be made, given the reliance on second person narrative and recurring imagery throughout.