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February 15, 2005

Who needs plot in film, anyway?

Fenster Moop writes:

Dean Blowhards,

OK, OK I know you need plot. But I am personally feeling a little tired of it.

Maybe it's just getting older, and sensing that there are only so many stories to go round. Maybe there's just a natural process whereby genres deplete themselves, and it takes a while for culture to catch its breath and to invent new and original ways to tell the same old stories. Maybe it's just that the dominant story-teller, Hollywood, sucks.

It's probably some of each, including the getting old part. But Hollywood sucks is definitely part of it.

When I was a kid I was pretty good at predicting for my family from the first five minutes of a television show what would happen by the end, but film was usually capable of throwing me a curve. No longer. Just once--just once, dammit!--I'd like to see a bomb get disarmed when the timing device is still at three minutes and fifty seconds, rather than right at zero. Just once, I'd like the plot contours to be less than completely predictable. It must be the effect of those damnable screenwriting courses, with film now requiring a conventional three act structure, every bit as rigid as the "well-written play" of old.

My views on the matter are gentle, however, in comparison with the writer and film professor Ray Carney, who is interviewed by Movie Maker Magazine here and here.

An excerpt:

MM: Sometimes it seems like so many films are becoming more like roller coaster rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience. Even so-called "art films" many times gloss over the interior life of their characters and become cynical reflections of the moviemaker's unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is?

RC: How beautifully you put that. I couldn't agree more. Of course, cynicism never goes by its own name. It is always called something else: smartness, stylishness, coolness, playfulness, wit. Look at L.A. Confidential, which David Denby thought was one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp Fiction, which every critic in American had multiple orgasms over. Or the complete works of John Dahl and most of what the Coen brothers have done. All those hard, tough, mechanical film noirs. Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin' deal. That's the best we can do with a couple million dollars? I don't care how the New York critics revel in it; it's cynicism.

And, in comparing Pulp Fiction (unfavorably) with Mikey and Nicky:

If you want a crash course on the difference between gimmicks and revelations, watch Pulp Fiction and Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky on successive nights. May creates characters who have a superficial similarity to Tarantino's in their guttersnipe jitteriness, and scenes that similarly defeat our expectations, but she does it not to astonish us, but in the service of showing us astonishing things about ourselves. She's not playing with genre conventions. She doesn't use narrative surprises or shifts of tone to hold our interest. She doesn't use gore to scare us. She gives us a scary, wonderful, shifting conception of who we are. She imagines experience as having a mercuriality, onwardness, and open-endedness that is exhilarating and terrifying. Like Tarantino's, May's scenes can be both shocking and screamingly funny, but the difference is that in May these extremes of feeling are almost accidental side-effects of the insights her work provides. In Tarantino, the shocks and the jokes are ends in themselves. They reveal nothing. They are all there is.

The whole interview is worth reading. It presents a coherent and articulate, if unsparingly anti-Kaelian view.

For the record, I share much of Carney's venom but not necessarily all of his views. He is something of an absolutist--this is good, this is not good; this is art, this is not. Without getting overly postmodernist about it, I am somewhat more of a relativist. While a big fan of Mikey and Nicky, I have no objection to movies-as-roller coasters or movies-as-emotion-manipulators. But if I go to a film for such an experience, I'd like my disbelief suspended good and well, thank you very much. Fiery explosion after fiery explosion, each one in luxurious slow motion, with the protagonist jumping and hurdling toward the camera, just out of the fire's reach, does little for me any longer in the suspension-of-disbelief category. Ditto Tarantinian ironic sadism. Ditto Oliver Stonian (excuse the term) blowhardism. Ditto Spielbergian ersatz Disneyfied "magical moments".

View 1994's overblown (literally so) The Getaway, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Production values are tops--big, slo-mo explosions, lots of them!!! Shoot shoot bang bang. Shoot shoot bang bang. Shoot shoot bang bang. And so on.

Then compare the 1994 version with the 1972 original by Peckinpah. When it came out, the orignal was deemed pretty high octane. Nowadays, it reads like Hemingway in comparison with Stephen King. Steve McQueen is laconic, subdued, determined--and not a cartoon. The car chases and even the explosions looked like they might have actually . . . happened that way!

So I'm not really an anti-Kaelian, like Carney. I am happy enough to appreciate genres like action, horror, sci fi. But at this particular moment in tiime, I prefer my genre films "neat"--the older Getaway instead of the newer, Boorman's Point Blank over the Mel Gibson bang-bang 1999 remake.

Maybe we'll see a little more restraint in art as well as life, going forward.

And maybe that's why I rushed right out to re-view Mikey and Nicky now that it is out on DVD. You should too!


The Elaine May film with Falk and Cassavetes really is as good as Carney says, and for the reasons he cites. It's a lot like some of Cassavetes own work--apparently a great deal of the terrific dialogue was improvised during interminable shoots--and a little like Samuel Beckett, too.



P.S. Over at the New Republic, there's a nice piece on the convoluted plot cult film Donnie Darko. Apparently the director didn't think it was sufficient to leave the film completely ambiguous, and so had decided to "explain" what was actually happening in the plot. Mulholland Drive has been similarly "explained"". The TNR reviewer does not care to have the ambiguity seemingly evaporate. I agree.

posted by Fenster at February 15, 2005


Man, do I agree with a lot of this. But I also agree that the problem isn't plot per se (why am i watching otherwise?), it's the "Big Twist" plot. Someone seems to think we feel cheated unless we get a 'Sixth Sense" head turner. This is absolutely destroying my beloved cop/mystery movies.

Now every ending must reveal a conspiracy of some sort. But more than that, you know the protagonist's close partner, close spouse, close buddy is... duh, duh DUH! IN ON THE CONSPIRACY?!? "You too Jimmy? You mean all along..."

Compare Clint Eastwood's 'Tightrope' to his later 'Blood Work.' Sure there were other problems there, but come on! We are deadened to this by now.

Sure this a problem old as mystery itself. By Chandler's era they were scoffing at how often the butler did it. But this is what we've replaced it with? Maybe we've just ran out of thrills than the genre can generate. No plots left.

Look at Mulholland drive. It's a prototypical Chandler, 'missing broad' (something like that if I remember correctly) set up. We praise Lynch for giving us an unexpected ending, but he could only give it to us by providing an inexplicable ending.

Maybe plot is over. Maybe it's just all been done. So maybe we've got to go back to the beginning and maybe it's time the butler DID do it. Just layer it with characterization, not tie it up with some bogus, surprised? No,-not-really twist. Let's at least try that for a while. Please?

Posted by: Ray Midge on February 15, 2005 9:55 PM

I guess I never realized before how predictable many of these Hollywood plots really are. Right after I read your article I was watching House and sure enough, when the young teens got into daddy's porsche I began to suspect the impending car wreck when they started getting all wild and not paying attention. And then BAM !! Out came the Big Trucks. Your article gave me the confidence to turn to my husband and say "here come's a car wreck". And I was right.

Posted by: R.Rose on February 15, 2005 10:41 PM

ugh I just came back from a sneak preview of Constantine to find this wonderful thread...
I've actually inured myself to the awfulness of modern movies (I'm only 22!) by trying to pick out the things I think cool about the movies I'm actually tricked into seeing (damn that free ticket), for example tonight after failing to immerse myself in the movie, I focused on the comic book feel that the cinematographer transfer onto the film so well, you could have frozen any of the frames and stuck it in a comic book and it would have been perfect. Now the plot, acting, story, quasi "twist ending" (twist endings are "normal endings now" btw ehhh not so much)

Now maybe comparing that film to the last two i saw is unfair but eh...
I saw Melinda and Melinda, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind back to back in France,

I'm not sure if Melinda and Melinda is out in the US yet, or if it's limited release etc, but i absolutely loved it. It isnt a perfect movie (what is) but it's different, and the acting is great given the sheer number of the characters (on both the comedy and drama sides (the movie is basically the same plot running through a comdedic version and a tragic version) It's an experiment, and it's different and was so easy to get immersed in, in both stories... (watching Will Ferrell play the traditional "Woody Allen" character going apopolectic is great, but maybe i'm too young to be sick of woody allen yet... )

now eternal sunshine of the spotless mind, which ignoring the plot is a story about two characters the course of their relationship, and by the end of the movie, the course of all human relationships. the strange sci-fi like plot device that is used as the backdrop of these more important and ultimately, more intimate, moments that the actors are aware that they are playing out.
*Note do not see previous movie with girlfriend on the last day of visit...

Posted by: azad on February 15, 2005 11:39 PM

Raymond Carney is an intriguing man with a lot of interests, some really super-rarefied tastes, and odd but fascinating opinions on cinema. Any man whose favorite filmmakers are Frank Capra and John Cassavetes and Elaine May is a man to be reckoned with.

But maybe his own comments point out why he's attracted to these disparate artists: they absolutely aren't cynical, are they?

Carney and I share one thing, though: I suspect both of us have sat through Mikey and Nicky more than anyone should. I've seen it at least 50 times, and the ending blows me away every time. Stanley Kauffmann said something about it one time -- something like one of the most riveting images American cinema has given us, or something like that. It's such a remarkable film, for all the reasons Carney says and more: it's a movie that scrapes away at the layers of a friendship in the way very few films I know of ever have; this kind of almost emotional S&M thing between one character (Nicky) who is an unconstrained high-wire performer and one (Mikey) who wishes he could be; both depend on each other in a strange way, audience and performer, and only in killing can the "lesser" man triumph. I know I sound like I'm talking through my ass, but you know what I mean, right? It's the way so many male relationships are: one man has to live vicariously through the other, as Mikey lives through Nicky, and the killing -- beyond its practical advantages -- is the only way he can get beyond the burden of who he is.

Cassavetes performance is, I think, maybe the greatest ever caught on film. I think it blows away the best Brando or the best Olivier or the best whoever, because he's so much like his character: it's like he's always pushing through to some other level. It's a performance that always -- always -- surprises me. It keeps throwing you off guard. Of course you can argue the character was shaped around him, I guess -- maybe it was. But damn; there's just nothing like it in film at all, nothing that raw or spontaneous or real.

And -- and this may be why I've watched it so many times -- I sometimes think Falk is better. I'm not sure anymore who the film really belongs to between the two.

Having said that, I also like Pulp Fiction and most of Tarantino's work. I've never compared the two. They're both entertaining and interesting in their seperate ways, but if it means anything Tarantino's work isn't as incandescent, as bottomless, as Elaine May's great film, but what is?

As for the two versions of The Getaway. I haven't seen the Alec Baldwin one, but I never thought much of Peckinpah's, and it has not improved over the years. Nowe there's a picture of real cynicism -- the way Doc and Carol hand money to poor old Slim Pickens and then drive away happily. What an extraordinary contrast to the hellishly surreal ending of Jim Thompson's perfectly pitiless original novel.

In the book, Doc and Carol McCoy evade their pursuers by taking an underground journey through mud, shit and flies to an island of lost souls, where the objective is to arrange your own death.

From the book: "You tell yourself it is a bad dream. You tell yourself you have died -- you, not the others, and have waked up in hell. But you know better. You know better. There is an end to dreams, and there is no end to this."

It's as far from a Hollywood ending as you could imagine, and it makes Peckinpah and his co-scenarist Walter Hill look like a pair of silly old ladies.

Posted by: Rodney Welch on February 16, 2005 12:03 AM

I've never known what to make of Carney. He's smart and I agree with about half of what he says, which isn't a bad ratio. And I think every field needs a loudmouthed Jeremiah figure. But somehow I don't like him, the way that I do like someone like James Kunstler, the New Urbanism's Jeremiah.

Trying to figure out why. Hmm. Well, he seems rather unforgiving towards "fun" films, for one thing. I can be too, but I think he outdoes me by a long shot. Does he really never just watch a picture -- especialy a bad or a cheesy one -- just because he's in the mood for such a thing? Does he really watch movies only for Quality and Truth? That's his right, of course. But I suspect I'd find it hard to blab about movies with such a person, unless he's got a surprisingly good sense of humor about being so high-minded. I know a few high-minded filmbuffs who do have such a sense of humor, and I enjoy yakking with them a lot. On the other hand, it seems to me that a big part of being a moviegoer is being amazed by what you run across and how you respond. A lousy movie may mean more to you personally (in a variety of ways) than one you recognize as "good" does. You get hooked by performers, bizarro genres. Stuff just works for you. The Wife, for instance, loves '50s sci-fi movies, Tarkovsky films, the blind Japanese-samurai "Baby Cart" series, and Ed Wood movies. She isn't very interested in the "but are they great" conversation. She'd rather talk about how all these films make her happy in one way or another.

Missing out on that and failing to enjoy that as part of what "moviegoing" is strikes me as ... Oh, I don't know, a limitation, maybe.

So he's kind of unforgiving. And I find it a bit unbecoming, the way he's forever attacking other critics and academics. I semi-understand it when an outsider or young person does this. But Carney publishes books, has a nice academic positions, and gets interviewed by Moviemaker magazine. What's he got to bitch about? I'm left suspecting that he wants to be a bigger tastemaker than he is.

And his list of greats ... Hmm. I'm not a Cassavetes nut, although I recognize what many people see in his work. I like two or three Capras. I respected and semi-enjoyed "Wifey," though I'd never urge other people to see it without a big "this is painful" warning attached. But maybe I just don't have as big a commitment to Truth as he does. And I think he wildly underestimates what it takes to make a good action-adventure film. I'm no fan of the genre, but it's obviously not an easy thing to do, partly because of the point you raise, which is that everone knows all the cliches and Big Moments. How to deliver what's expected but do it in a semi-fresh way? I thought "Speed," thought about in those terms, was a pretty darn snappy movie.

I guess one thing I wish Carney would do more of is separate kinds of films. There are popular-entertainment films. There are art films. There are Truth films. There are many other kinds of films. No one can respond to and be trustworthy about all these kinds of films -- we've all got our limitations and preferences. But he seems narrower and more high-minded than most.

To his credit, he's smart, he's right about a lot of things, and he's seen a lot of short movies. I wish short movies were easier to get hold of.

And I guess one thing's clear: I've got to catch up with "Mikey and Nicky."

Actually Rodney's comment suggests an interesting additional topic: which movie have you seen the most number of times? And how many times is that? I think the two I've seen the most often are "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" and "Rules of the Game," both of which I've watched probably 16 or 17 times.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 16, 2005 12:41 AM

I've seen "A Clockwork Orange" 13 or 14 times.

Posted by: Bryan on February 16, 2005 2:11 AM

Specific to your discussion on explosions and high octane action in the movies these days, I'm reminded of a regular bit, "Farm Film Celebrity Report", that John Candy & Joe Flaherty did on SCTV. The two were dressed in bibs, sitting among piles of hay, and elocuting on films and actor/actresses. The main ingredient in the film being reviewed or the actor/actress being critqued was how well things/peope were being blown up.
"She/He blowed up real good" was a compliment of the highest order. This was back in the mid 1970's, when pyrotechnics/action was epitomized by Mr. Peckinpah. What an innocent he seems compared to the grand scale of fire & explosion on screen these days! Candy & Flaherty would have a field day with today's movies. What they did in jest is now a matter of serious cinematic value; a joke taken too far, perhaps?

Posted by: DarkoV on February 16, 2005 8:24 AM

I think plot is wonderful, but I think you are right, most people suck at it. And even when Hollywood is given good plot---a book like "Presumed Innocent"--it blows it. Some movies I can think of where "plot" worked for me in liking the experience were: "Silence of the Lambs" (think about it---that's one movie where every character is exactly what they are initially presented to the audience as being---no oh-no-Jimmy-not-you moments). "Sense and Sensibility"---now that had plenty of plot u-turns, and I adored them, and I did not always see them coming. "The Age of Innocence." All from books by good-plotting authors.

Anyway, I think "plot" can be wonderful--I just think Hollywood sucks at "plot" most of the time. And I agree with MBlowhard--I think there are other reasons to enjoy movies, like big explosions, or really juicy characters (the original "Die Hard" had both) or humor. But if people are getting tired of explosions, I think, again, it's because they aren't being done well---too many of them is "doing them badly."

Posted by: annette on February 16, 2005 9:50 AM

Interesting bit on DOnnie Darko. I saw the new "Director's Cut" and was shocked. Given his druthers, the director managed to hack the movie to pieces. One of the reasons I loved "DD" was the mood it created, half-real and dreamlike with something sinister/doomed/ lurking just in the background. To have it suddenly all "explained" just ruined it, since I never thought the actual plot ("What is *really* going on with Donnie") was the attraction.

PLus, changing the opening music completely threw off all the beats and rythmn of the sequence.


Posted by: JL on February 16, 2005 10:31 AM

Not only do the bombs get disarmed just before the timers hit zero, there are nice easy-to-read timers in the first place! Heck, if I were a villian planting a bomb, I wouldn't have a visible timer ... or I'd have one that showed more time to detonation than really exists.
Though no movie cliche is quite as silly as the infamous L-shaped bedsheet, which covers the man to the waist and the woman to the neck.

Posted by: Peter on February 16, 2005 10:47 AM

Rodney: no, I donn't think you are talking out of your ass. Now, Nicky, that's someone who was talking out of his ass. Your points are quite clear.

Michael: Agreed, there's no need--at least in my book--to narrow film to the degree Carney does. When you get down to it, film is what happens when you sit down in the dark and watch moving images. I don't like to listen to John Cage, but give him this: he reminded people that music is for the most part what happens when you listen to intentional sound. I don't like listenting to his, but I get quite different things out of The Mothers and Mozart--and I see no problem with that. People are complicated and can be addressed in different ways.

What movie have I seen the most? . . . hmmm--maybe Atlantic City.

Annette: Isn't it refreshing not to be tossed a u-turn cliche nowadays. I think it's one of the reasons I really liked The Winslow Boy, slow as it was. There it was: an interesting story.


Posted by: fenster on February 16, 2005 10:59 AM

Well, remember the take down of the ticking bomb in Galaxy Quest...


Posted by: JL on February 16, 2005 11:09 AM

Dumb question here: What is "anti-Kaelian"? And, is that word(s) applied to topics other than movies?

Posted by: Kris on February 16, 2005 12:06 PM

Anti-Kaelian is a made-up word. I intended it to refer to people, like Carney, who would not be expected to hold to the aesthetic views of Pauline Kael, the late film critic for The New Yorker.

Others on this list, I strongly feel, are better equipped than Fenster to go on at length about Kael and her influence. My shorthand way of putting it: she was groundbreaking, as a seemingly "highbrow" critic (The New Yorker, after all), in her defense of movies as visceral experiences. She was not averse to appreciating them in that light, and did not feel the need (as Carney seems to feel) to rule certain film experiences out of bounds because they are long on gut experience and short on the mysteries of humanity.

Put even more succintly: she liked Brian de Palma.

Posted by: fenster on February 16, 2005 12:43 PM

This is so odd. I just read this article bemoaning the state of French film and talking about how Hollywood has the most geniuses working in it. I was pretty confused by the article. Afterall, when if ever do you hear anyone compliment American movies? Much less the French!

Posted by: lindenen on February 16, 2005 3:06 PM

This little comment section may have expired, but let me say one other thing.

I went back and read the Raymond Carney interviews with MovieMaker and came away really liking him, even if I don't agree with 90 percent of what he says. Maybe it's impossible to agree with him unless you are him. I very much like his spirit. He's very encouraging, not unlike reading Luis Bunuel is very encouraging. They both say "Don't worry about money, worry about whatever personal truth you are trying to get across." Raymond Carney may look like Harold Lloyd, but he's a film punk, like the punks of the late 1970s, or like Bunuel and his Surrealists pals were in the 1920s -- he looks at film as something that has become refined and processed and dull and says "Let's burn this corpse and create something new and vital and alive."

Contrast him with a company man like Robert McKee, with all his little rules of screenwriting. Who would you rather have a beer with?

Posted by: Rodney Welch on February 16, 2005 7:03 PM


McKee, if he can get my danged script in turnaround. Can Carney do that?

Posted by: fenster on February 16, 2005 7:50 PM

Well, no, but McKee will fuck it up. He'll cut out your voice-overs, and I think you want to keep the voice-overs. Besides, I don't think McKee wants to have a beer with you. He barely wanted to have one with Nicolas Cage.

Posted by: Rodney Welch on February 16, 2005 8:14 PM

"A lousy movie may mean more to you personally (in a variety of ways) than one you recognize as "good" does. You get hooked by performers, bizarro genres."

A point made (well, the movie IS that point, among other things) in Tsai's "Goodbye, Dragon Inn", where King Hu's 1966 martial arts "Dragon Inn" is playing for the entire length of Tsai's movie.

Posted by: burritoboy on February 22, 2005 4:56 PM

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