how often have we heard that from time immemorial human beings have been fascinated by stories? the group assembled around a fire at night, hanging onto every word of a fabled storyteller? the listeners fantasizing about arresting characters, exotic locales, great deeds, fanciful romances, surprising turns of events, etc.? in our own life the initiation begins with a parent reading to us at bedtime. all at once, we were able to journey to a world without boundaries, where anything was possible—especially when compared to the limited experience and the confined environment that were then our lot. in a roundabout way, these stories also told us about the adult world, what happens in it, the causes and consequences of actions, etc. they provided us with a moral compass with which to evaluate human undertaking.
yes, the magic worked for a long time but it owed its effectiveness to its rarity. storytellers after all would come by only so often. this is no longer the case: books, magazines, newspapers, television dramas, movies, the internet, and the social media have gradually turned what was a novelty into a routine event. narratives are everywhere nowadays. we are drowning in them. they have lost their punch as a result.
another systemic problem: stories more often than not follow a model developed by nineteenth century novelists. we are typically asked to identify with one character in particular. this person faces a life-changing situation. we tag along with him or her as conflict arises between various personages. after the dramatic issues are sorted out, the chain of events slows down to a state of repose. it is all so damn predictable. the prototype smothers us. one begs for fresh air.
finally, in hollywood films, a vague humanist credo prevails throughout the work: people are alike regardless of epoch or country. their worldview is no different from ours. the same goals motivate everybody. we all aspire to the same things in life. personal fulfillment is what matters, always. even though this approach makes it possible to identify quickly with the protagonists, it disregards radical differences in civilizations and excludes all those in ours who have a different standpoint on society.
my take is that storytelling needs a radical overhaul. on the one hand we are told that a story should allow viewers to escape to a different world. on the other hand, the model remaining unchanged, the place we are brought to is always the same. advertised as a unique faraway paradise, we inevitably end up in the local club med. far from encountering dissimilar human beings and unusual ways of living and thinking, we are constantly reacquainted with characters we know only too well. even when the purported locals sport colorful clothing and the locations behind them are alluring, we recognize soon enough, under the make-up and the fresh paint job, the prototypical cast and the familiar layout. in other words, we are stuck in a tourist trap. most times, we don’t even need to see the film to identify the customary machinery: watching the trailer is enough.
in recent years, to make things worse, the fast pace now taken for granted in film compels the creators to eliminate anything not essential for the advancement of the plot. an unforeseen side effect of this approach has been to make the bullet points that propel the story forward—as well as the order of their appearance—more noticeable to viewers. put another way, audiences have become privy to the mechanism at the core of storytelling.
in commercial filmmaking, plot has become synonymous with story. each shot is but a building block leading to the next entry. the whole thing is so tightly wound that actors become like chaplinesque workers on an assembly line: they must bring out in each shot that single task that moves the narrative forward. they are not given any elbow room to explore their situation. when this happens, the story, more than the director, governs the film.
alternatives do exist however. they take on various forms. a familiar recourse is to breakdown the causal factors that typically fuel the story’s engine. this means spending more time with the characters as they worry about some personal issue, embark on some trivial occupation, or do something unrelated to the plot (nordic series are very good at this). in so doing, you humanize the characters as well as provide a quieter, more textured narrative tapestry. to some extent, the main action becomes a mere pretext for the real subject matter—the assorted subplots (if one can call them that)—to arise.
a second line of attack involves embedding the characters within a non-fiction environment (e.g. medium cool, cleo from 5 to 7, etc.). in other words, whenever the protagonists go out in the world, it is our world they are entering into. having left the protection of a movie set, they are now subject to the same hazards as the rest of us. anything can now happen at any time.
yet another salvaging approach is to leave things unsaid. in the forsaken land, a film from sri lanka, one scene is particularly memorable. on a country road two trucks carrying soldiers are facing one another. maintaining maybe five feet between them, they drive some distance in one direction before reversing course and ending back in the original position. the whole thing is rather strange: the trucks facing each other like a couple ready to dance, the little trip back and forth… there is no explanation. the scene just happens.
this inexpressiveness is disorienting at first. why is there no effort to help us understand what is going on? is it meant to represent the seesaw war between government forces and the tamil tigers that ravaged that country for so many years? maybe but, even if true, the imagery is unusual enough to resist being absorbed by its symbolism.
inexplicitness—leaving something ambiguous or hermetic—is the true antonym of story. i’m not talking about the conventional mystery that gets progressively unraveled as we proceed, but a presentation of events whose significance or connection to one another is not spelled out for our benefit.
one more example. in day night day night, the film opens with a tight silhouette of a woman in a bus. she appears to be immersed in praying. in the next shot she retrieves her luggage from the bottom of the bus. the camera then follows her as she enters the station. in the concourse, she turns around and we see her face clearly for the first time. her cell phone rings: she is told to meet someone in a car outside the building. she gets inside the car without a word being exchanged between her and the driver. they eat in a small restaurant, still without talking. next, the camera follows them in the hallway of a hotel. after they enter a room, the man closes the curtains then leaves. having switched on all the lamps in the bedroom and the bathroom, the woman obsessively cleans herself in the tub. back in the bedroom she opens the curtain and takes a look outside. instantly her phone rings telling her to shut it tight. later she gets another call asking her to wear what has been placed under a pillow. sitting on the surround of the bathtub she covers her eyes with a blindfold before slipping her wrists inside manacles. she then waits quietly.
we know almost nothing about this person and we have yet to receive a clue about what the story will ultimately be about. probably most viewers at this point would suspect some kind of sexual hanky-panky. to be sure, in this approach, the indices that are encountered must tantalize, otherwise the audience would disconnect. the key point though is that this entire sequence is riveting precisely because nothing in it has allowed us to assess the goings-on. to put it differently, we don’t know yet what kind of movie we are in. we are still baffled. the story still escapes us.
and indeed the film ends when the story appears. from then onwards, the movie may still be enjoyable but the essential mystery is gone. the protagonist may decide to go left or go right, do this or that, but her choices leave us largely unconcerned for we already know the parameters of the tale she is involved in.
one last strategy relates to flaubert’s musing over the possibility of writing a novel about nothing, held only through style. can this feat be managed in film? tsai’s vive l’amour comes close to it. in the film three characters go about their life. they interact at times, smoke a lot, one of them attempts suicide, but there is no attempt to give them much of a personality or imbricate them inside a compelling narrative. even the main location is a perfect example of what henri lefebvre calls an ambiguous space: a condo for sale that has been “staged” with furniture but is thoroughly lacking a lived-in feeling. no wonder then that the following is found on the imdb’s film page: “it looks like we don’t have a synopsis for this title yet”… still, durkheim’s anomie could be suggested as a way to connect the dots—anomie being a psychological condition affecting people when the ideals, norms and moral guidance proffered by society are no longer relevant to their life. as a result, people feel left out, forgotten, their life lacking direction.
all in all, pleasure while watching a film does not arise from the story per se. it is felt only as long as we are kept guessing about the meaning of the events we are given to see. in other words, we experience pleasure when the events are still taking place in the immensity and unpredictability of our own world as opposed to the rarefied environment of a tale, a genre, or what we take to be cinema. to put it as plainly as i can, the story kills what is alive in a film.
“the story is everything”. what do people who repeat this commonplace actually have in mind? are they saying that the story precedes not just the film but also the screenplay? that it is located in the writer’s mind prior to him/her extracting a screenplay out of it? the story would then be construed as a platonic ideal superior to any actual elaboration of it. or is it argued that the story is the beating heart of any successful screenplay? if true, it would be enough to read the screenplay to know whether a good film could come out of it and all films would be blockbusters. in truth every film going into production is assumed by its makers to contain in its core a good story only to find out later that, after all, maybe it didn’t. the problem then is that a screenplay is not a novel of which one can have a definite judgment after reading it because what you read is the thing itself. the screenplay, per contra, is by nature incomplete, an inchoate forerunner, a crawling caterpillar that may or not metamorphose itself into a colorful butterfly when the film ends up on a screen.
to take a single example, the shining was made into two distinct treatments which became incommensurable projects. were the people who said “the story is everything” after seeing kubrick’s film said so again after watching the mini-series sanctioned by stephen king? were they still referring to the same story? in short, a story emerges only after the film is finished. it is the finished film that ascertains what we call the story, not the other way around. so to say, “the story is everything” is the same as stating “this film is great”: story and film have become synonymous.
the actual shooting is thus paramount in delineating the story. even when the work is done by a plodding director, it matters whether the part is played by this or that actor, the living room is painted beige or grey, or the street is lined up with oaks or palm trees. put differently, our appreciation, pleasure, or annoyance with a film is based on a thousand unfathomable details that make up the visible skin of the finished film. all these features, so important for our appreciation of the work, form our real points of entry into the story.
a film is more than a story and filmmaking a more mysterious process than mere storytelling. so to say that the story is everything is as inane as saying the story is nothing.
peter watkins is a director who has worked very hard all his life to escape the limitations inherent in “the story is everything”. in his films he has mixed documentary and fiction, the past and the present, actors and characters, those in front of the camera and those behind it, etc. oftentimes his actors are invited to comment upon the social, economic and political issues that pertain to their characters as well as their own life. in other words, watkins is constantly reconnecting his narratives to our own world. his films thus break through the “no trespassing” sign that keeps ordinary stories claustrophobic and