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Cover Story: The Year in Film and Music: Head Games

Conventional film narrative is being trumped by more complex story lines

By Steven Rosen · December 20th, 2006 · Cover Story
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  Nicole Kidman plays Diane Arbus in Fur, director Steven Shainberg's
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Nicole Kidman plays Diane Arbus in Fur, director Steven Shainberg's "imaginary portrait" of the famed photographer.



Robert McKee, the screenwriting lecturer and author of Story, believes that three distinct styles of movie narrative occupy a pyramid of importance: classical design, minimalism and anti-structure.

The first is by far the most popular, with its single protagonist, external conflict and closed, tightly wrapped-up endings. Minimalist comes next -- challenging narratives with multiple protagonists, inner conflicts and sometimes-ambiguous open endings. And then there's anti-structure -- films not afraid to call attention to themselves as films first, stories second. The work of David Lynch, for instance.

"When you go down the triangle, you're eliminating the audience," McKee said during a Los Angeles seminar this year. "Absolute forms of minimalism and anti-structure just don't seem like life to them. What you're left with are cinéaste intellectuals who like to have their worlds twisted every now and then."

Well, maybe. But there sure seem to be a lot of movies out this fall -- big-budget, high-profile Hollywood productions as well as smaller art films -- that toy with or completely embrace these "audience-eliminating" styles. A few examples:

Babel: Making abrupt, unannounced switches in chronological order, this film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and writer Guillermo Arriaga very loosely connects three downbeat stories set in Morocco, Mexico and Japan, each featuring characters with much inner angst.

Bobby: Writer-director Emilio Estevez interweaves and in some cases leaves unresolved the stories of 22 characters staying at Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy was fatally assassinated there in 1968.

Déjà Vu: This Jerry Bruckheimer/Tony Scott drama starts as a conventionally plotted thriller about a terrorist but veers off into complicated layers of parallel construction as the hero (and the film) travels through space and time to save a dead woman's life.

Happy Feet: This animated feature from Mad Max director George Miller -- already unusual in featuring penguins who sing and dance yet otherwise live in the Antarctic like actual penguins -- breaks a Fourth Wall when they come into contact with realistically rendered humans who are amazed that penguins can tap dance.

The Fountain: Darren Aronofsky moves between three time periods -- the 16th-century world of a Spanish conquistador, the present world of a novelist and the future world of a space traveler.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus: Rather than a conventional biopic about the photographer attracted to outsiders, Steven Shainberg's film turns into a weird Alice-in-Wonderland-esque blending of realism and fantasy in which Arbus (played by Nicole Kidman) is attracted to a semi-mythical hair-covered "freak" living upstairs.

Inland Empire: David Lynch's three-hour opus is beyond description, as it moves randomly between an L.A. actress (Laura Dern) losing control of her identity to hookers dancing to Little Eva's "The Loco-Motion" to rabbits in clothes, living in an apartment, whose every word is accompanied by a sitcom laugh track.

Stranger than Fiction: Writer Zach Helm's film, directed by Marc Forster, stars Will Ferrell as an IRS agent who discovers he's actually the character in a novel being written by Emma Thompson. Worse, he thinks the film's voice-over narration is coming from inside his head.

So what gives? It seems to be the impact of several outside external sources: heralded self-referencing screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); the Oscar-winning success Paul Haggis' ensemble drama Crash; the impact of hit television dramas influenced by Hill Street Blues; and the ongoing pressure for auteurist directors and writers to establish credentials by offering something new.

"We've run out of new content," says Howard Suber, a longtime professor of story structure at UCLA's School of Theater, Film and Television and author of The Power of Film. "It's hard to think of any subject, any kind of story, where somebody could say, 'No film has ever talked about what this film talks about.' That leaves, if there are aspirations to be an artistic filmmaker, experiments with style."

This seems to have been a motivation for Shainberg and his writing partner, Erin Cressida Wilson, on Fur. In a way, it's stylistically an anti-biopic -- similar in inspiration to the way writer Kaufman in 2002's Adaptation turned Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, about an orchid collector, into a weird meta-struggle between Kaufman and his twin brother (both played by Nicolas Cage) to adopt Orlean's book.

Another such "anti-biopic" might appear in 2007 -- Todd Haynes' I'm Not There: Suppositions on a Film Concerning Dylan -- in which seven actors, including Cate Blanchett and Richard Gere, play Bob Dylan at different career stages.

"Why is this happening? I could give you a meta-answer," Shainberg says. "It's about how much media there is. It's about how much information we get about everyone and how just portraying it straight really isn't interesting anymore."

That explains the motivation. But why is the audience receptive -- or, at least, not in open revolt -- to such experimentation? Because film is a very good medium for it. It's especially good for directors who want to visually play with the logical order of time and space.

"One of the things film does better than any other medium," Suber says, "is cut back and forth between time and space."

Filmmakers historically have been more conservative about narrative experiments. Directors and writers felt they inherited a tradition going back to Greek theater of basic stories around a major problem of a central character, with all else secondary. Successful variations were few, like Robert Altman's Nashville, because audiences tended to view open-ended multi-character stories as dramatically flat or too complicated to follow.

Now the approach is hot. It's identified with directors like Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction), Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights). Coming up is Karen Moncrieff's The Dead Girl, featuring Toni Collette, Marcia Gay Harden, Mary Beth Hurt and Brittany Murphy as women affected in different ways by a serial killer.

Suber says ensemble-cast television dramas with ongoing "multi-threaded" plots, especially the groundbreaking Hill Street Blues of the 1980s and later ER, changed the audience.

"It took the audience a long time to deal with what was initially confusing," he says. "But once they learned, they'd learned storytelling that was infinitely more complicated."

And films are eager to take advantage of that. ©

 
 
 
 

 

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