Regular readers will be fully aware/entirely sick of my repeated references to #TheProject, my in-progress stupidly ambitious tale of events, happenings and things (all plot deets embargoed for now) which has taken a backseat while I attempt to earn a crust writing this blog (if WordPress ever sends me my royalties, that is). Cryptic comments about #TheProject have taken the place of actually doing anything to complete #TheProject; troubling, but it at least makes me feel like it’s going to get completed, despite the massive plot cavity I’m currently trying to fill with word-caulk. One consequence of this mental struggle means I’m more aware of narrative theories presented by writers I follow, some of which make sense (though I’d prefer a dose of NZT, thanks).
However, I’m starting to get alarmed at the focus on “The Rules”, which at their best can be interesting ideas about how to enhance your stories, but at worst can be absurdly prescriptive constraints that can, if misunderstood, make every story basically a different flavoured version of all other stories. This focus on how stories fail when they wander outside the lines of what constitutes a “univerally-agreed” successful plot has led to some surprising critical reactions to stories that I thought were doing some fun, bold things. Even if only in terms of novelty or ambition, I think that’s worthwhile, but more importantly we all benefit when those rules are stretched, or shattered intentionally to generate emotion, make a point, or experiment with new techniques.
This is what has been on my mind for months now, making me more attuned to navel-gazing conversations about creators and their approach to art. The conversation between Arthur Krystal of the New Yorker and novelist Lev Grossman has been particularly fascinating in terms of what fiction is capable of. Krystal’s first paywalled article is here, Grossman’s response is here, and the latest installment is here. Thanks to friend-of-the-blog and excellent genre writer Sam Binnie for pointing me at that most recent, rage-inducing article (buy her book!). Yesterday saw The Wachowskis promoting Cloud Atlas, which they co-directed with Tom Tykwer. Their response to a question about why they resist interviews about their work really chimed with me:
Andy Wachowski: It’s four years on Cloud Atlas, and so I sort of resent the fact that now I have to sit down and explain it to people. It’s like the whole dialogue has been lost about… When I was a kid, we would go to movies as a family, and then we’d sit down and talk about them. I feel like this is the instantaneous-gratification generation, where they can just look it up and say, “Oh, well, this is what it means.” Our movies require a little bit of effort.
Lana Wachowski: And you feel it in a lot of critics’ approach today toward cinema. As soon as they encounter a piece of art they don’t fully understand the first time going through it, they think it’s the fault of the movie or the work of art. They think, [dramatic voice] “It’s a mess.”
Andy: [Dramatic voice] “This doesn’t make sense.”
Lana: “This doesn’t make any sense.” And they reject it, just out of an almost knee-jerk response to some ambiguity or some gulf between what they expect they should be able to understand, and what they understand.
As someone who has passionately, lengthily, exhaustively argued many times with many people over the quality of the Matrix trilogy and Speed Racer (or lack thereof; I’m no opinion-Nazi), I know what they mean. Just this week I tried to grapple with Post Tenebras Lux, though of course I was lucky to be writing blogposts for WordPress instead of being forced to write to a website or newspaper/magazine deadline (seriously, WordPress are going to be sending me a cheque soon, right?). Some critics argued it was a waste of time. With the space afforded to me, I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t an incomprehensible jumble of images, and tentatively gave it a sort of thumbs up. Yay me, I guess.
Which brings me to two movies shown at the London Film Festival which deal with the process of telling a story, and how expectations of what stories should do to be a success conflicts with ambition and intention. François Ozon’s Dans La Maison, adapted from Juan Mayorga’s play The Boy in the Last Row, concerns a jaded teacher, M. Germain (an fabulously grouchy performance from Fabrice Luchini), who discovers a talented pupil in his literature class. Claude (Ernst Umhauer) engages with a standard “What did you do last weekend?” essay question to a degree no one else in the class does, by relating a tale of how he has insinuated his way into a family that he has been interested in for at least a year.
Germain and his wife Jeanne (Kristin Scott Thomas) are electrified by Claude’s peculiar and unpredictable tale, and the teacher urges his pupil to continue under the pretence of improving his writing, but also because of the voyeuristic thrill of this stealthy invasion. Claude’s tale is at first laden with class-based envy, leading to a caricatured portrayal, but under Germain’s guidance he begins to approach the “Rapha” family with greater compassion, leading to a richer download of information for his delighted audience-of-two, but also affecting his growth as a person. As the film progresses, though his spirit returns, Germain becomes compromised in his urge to receive more of these exciting updates, and Claude’s friendship with the family becomes precarious.
Ozon masterfully plays with the levels of fiction and “reality” here, creating a symbiosis between the art of storytelling and the act of living, from Germain and Jeanne’s feeble justifications for their almost prurient fascination with Claude and his adolescent crush on Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), to Claude’s clever manipulation of his teacher and ever-shifting accounts of what goes on in the Rapha household. The audience is given an unreliable view of his actions, shown through the eyes of a boy not only fantasising about his importance within the family, but also his self-worth, his rationalisation for his actions, and his relationship with Germain, who he regards with a fascinating mixture of respect and disdain.
Everyone’s intentions and desires are obscured, but Germain’s questionably-motivated tutoring has other consequences. Germain becomes so intoxicated with the chance to live vicariously through his student that he too becomes entwined with Claude and the Raphas, both in reality and fiction. Once he becomes part of the story, no amount of writerly knowledge can protect him from the ramifications; either a consequence of his hubris or his prosaic talents as a writer. On first viewing I found the finale a little unsatisfying but the more I think about it I see Ozon, as well as offering a kind of open ending for Germain and Claude, has also contrasted the neatness of narrative and the mess of life. Not an original idea, but one entertainingly depicted.
It also calls into question the efficacy of Germain’s advice, which while solid enough also “tames” Claude. There’s a chance that the story he would have told would be sour, bizarre, even dangerous; his motives are unclear at first, which leads to some suspense early on, and accounts for part of Germain and Jeanne’s curiosity. The teacher’s interference channels Claude’s intentions, and creates a tension between the irrepressible spirit of the untamed teenager possibly giving in to his impulses (for better or worse), and Germain’s instinct to create a more conventional tale of a young boy falling in love with an older woman. Of course, while Germain focuses on this story, he ignores an unpredictable threat from another “character” who won’t play by the expected rules.
Story rules as the taming of ideas, real life as the chaos that surrounds it. At the same time Jeanne tries to keep her art gallery afloat as the philistine twins who fund it consider closing it. Jeanne’s ideas for generating publicity include lazily transgressive fusions of sexual imagery and fascist iconography, and bland computer-generated artworks or interactive installations, while at the same time finding pompous comfort in the thought that the family whose experiences they have been vampirically living off are the kind of ignoramuses who have Klee prints on their walls but don’t understand them. The only person who seems to genuinely want to learn about himself through art is Claude, and Germain’s prodding threatens to blunt this innocent eagerness.
At least, this is how I saw it. It would have been nice to have spent more time dissecting it, but after the screening off I raced to meet a friend prior to another screening, and if anything can wipe a mind’s blackboard it’s a trip on the Victoria line. There is so much to ponder in this complex story about story that it’s easy to forget that it’s also deliciously funny and lightly played. This isn’t a stuffy exercise in navel-gazing; though it tackles ideas about authorial intent, the impossibility of creating something without imposing yourself onto it, and the negative effect of pandering to an audience, it’s a delight from start to finish, even if I thought the final act went on too long. See? Even I can’t help interfering. WordPress should be proud to have me on the payroll.
If Ozon is curious about the interplay between artist, art, and audience, and unconsciously references genteel tales of middle-class ennui and yearning such as Six Degrees of Separation and Manhattan Murder Mystery, Martin McDonagh’s approach to exploring the constraints imposed on story by genre is feistier, and Seven Psychopaths is a much more flamboyant trip through layers of narrative, cliche, and viewer expectation. His follow-up to In Bruges shares some DNA with his play The Pillowman, as he uses the tale of a blocked screenwriter and his feckless dog-napping best friend to lampoon the well-worn tropes used in traditionally “male” genres — basically the kinds of tales that feature gangsters, buddy relationships, gun fights, and psychopaths.
Colin Farrell plays Marty Faranan, a screenwriter attempting to write a tale about seven psychopaths which will somehow convey a message of love and hope not traditionally found in stories about psychopaths — a commendable intention, to transcend the rules of the genre as I would hope all writers would aspire to do, at least to some degree. Hopelessly blocked on how to do this — and now writer’s block! McDonagh was speaking right to me — Marty takes on board plot and character suggestions from his friend Billy (possibly Sam Rockwell’s most entertaining performance yet), but withholds credit from him, selfishly pretending that he is the sole author of a story that is actually being influenced by real world events he doesn’t fully understand.
A series of bad choices by Billy leads to the two men and companion Hans (Christopher Walken’s best work since Catch Me If You Can) eluding a vengeful mobster (Woody Harrelson), before trying to save their lives and finish the screenplay that echoes their predicament. Their solutions conform to and transcend the conventions of the action genre, with Marty’s noble ideas hijacked by Billy’s cliched suggestions as well as the deadly impositions of the “real” world, which has its own demented film-based rules. By placing this in a familiarly illogical setting, where for example “psychopaths” have the convenient symptoms found in lazily researched narratives, this love letter to genre ends up with a lot of critical footnotes, and questions whether writing rules can be broken without breaking the story, and whether we should just embrace them for what they are.
Notably the movie barely features is women, with the two lead actresses in the credits — Abbie Cornish and Olga Kurylenko — barely getting anything to do, and the one well-drawn female character being Hans’ wife Myra (Linda Bright Clay — a scenestealer in her short time onscreen). Without seeking to derail this post, it’s worth addressing this absence, which became quite a talking point after the movie ended, primarily because of a line in the movie about the fact that male-oriented action movies regularly dismiss, ignore or under-represent its female characters; a self-aware line in a movie that, to that point, had sidelined its two female leads into near-invisibility, and gives a better idea of McDonagh’s satirical intention.
McDonagh and producer Graham Broadbent appeared after the movie with LFF director Clare Stewart for a Q&A during which he responded to a question about the treatment of the female characters. At first he seemed (this is my impression; I could be wrong) that he’s been asked this question before, and no one had given him enough credit for creating Myra (who is indeed a terrific character). He revealed that there were more scenes with Cornish, but they were dropped for various reasons in post-production (Kurylenko may also have had more to do; the image below is not in the film). He then vowed that his next project would feature many “strong female characters”, a comment that got a laugh, mostly because it was delivered with a weariness that made it clear he’s said it before.
Despite the arguably dismissive reply (as I say, this is my impression of his tone but others found his response unsatisfactory) I think the deliberate choice to make Abbie Cornish’s girlfriend character a cypher who is treated like absolute shit by Rockwell’s insecure best friend archetype was the right thing to do, simply because it is done with such unapologetic vigour. Marty and Billy come off as assholes for treating her poorly; they’re the symbolic buddies you find in any number of lazily-scripted action movies, and they’re called on their crap by Hans, the most sympathetic and noble character in the film, the only male adult in a film full of pathetic children. The line gets a laugh, but it also sends the audience back to earlier scenes for reappraisal.
Answering another question, McDonagh referred to his interest in Sam Peckinpah’s movies; a telling comparison considering how the notoriously macho director used his movies to work through his issues with aggressive masculinity and his own relationships with women. I talked about Peckinpah’s struggle with his masculine nature in this end-of-year review of the Straw Dogs remake (scroll down). Straw Dogs was an expression of his ambivalence toward the stress between his public image and his inner nature, with the character Amy reduced to pawn status in the middle of a battle between Alpha and Beta males, though Amy is arguably more complex than most female characters in movies, as shown by the “stronger” less-interesting Amy in Rod Lurie’s remake.
To display the misogynist tendencies of the genre, and formulaic Hollywood product in general, McDonagh excludes the women closest to Marty and Billy to the most extreme degree, and only gives agency to Hans’ wife Myra, both of whom don’t correspond to the traditional action movie protagonist template (e.g. they’re old, they’re an interracial couple). The homoerotic overtones of the buddy sub-genre are mixed with the casual disposability of story-complicating women in action movies, a trope McDonagh makes fun of while using it to great effect. Much as I don’t want to admit it, the most upsetting scene in the film, in terms of shifting the audience’s allegiance behind one of the protagonists involves exactly the trope being mocked (and references Scott and Tarantino’s similarly violent tale True Romance), which makes the audience question their acceptance of this convention.
McDonagh may note the efficacy of these dramatic choices, but through Hans’ line he also expresses a hope that female roles in this genre will be improved in order to give a voice to the voiceless, an admission that the emotional impact of using female characters as a narrative tool comes with a cost that is only recently being debated. Look at the recent uproar over the new Tomb Raider game, in which Lara Croft is given an origin story that includes the threat of sexual assault. The discussion of the treatment of women in narratives is rightly addressing these issues, and statements about “strong female characters” mean nothing if all that means is better-defined biceps and abs on women who are still victimised, sidelined, or used as motivational tools in a male-led narrative.
I suspect your mileage may vary on whether McDonagh is lazily casting aside criticisms of poorly-written women in macho cinema with one well-timed laugh line, or whether he is forcefully iterating his objection to it by reducing Cornish and Kurylenko’s roles to almost nothing in favour of scenes in which his male characters, who mistreat or ignore them, are portrayed as pitiful child-men scrabbling to survive in a world more dangerous than they realised. I’m willing to give McDonagh the benefit of the doubt because he brought it up, but I understand and support concerns about disappointing representations of women in the media, and hope that future works by him do branch out past his interest in what it is to be a man as he sort of promised, to focus on what it is to be human.
As for McDonagh’s games with storytelling, he does an excellent job of playing with our expectations of what these movies require to be considered satisfying by less questioning audiences, most notably in a superb sequence in which Billy, finally given free reign to participate in Marty’s writing process, gives his version of how the ending (of the screenplay but also their predicament) should unfold, which conforms to every boneheaded cliche about action movies you can imagine, including absurd levels of cartoonish violence. The way the movie ends, playing against and with these cliches, is one of its most enjoyable aspects, topped with a graceful final note that I can’t spoil, other than to say this writer gaped in awestruck appreciation of McDonagh’s talent.
I spent the movie’s running time in a state of bliss, thrilled by its depiction of the struggle between the writer and his material, his ambition and the constraints of genre, not to mention how our stories are affected by all the stories in our past and what we think are the essential components of them. Genre conventions are only recognisable once we’ve experienced numerous tales with a certain structure and consistent components. The good thing about such exposure is you absorb these important elements and can deploy them without thinking about them too deeply. The bad thing is you take the elements for granted or see them as unchangeable, leading to stagnation. A million identikit stories, all making the same mistakes as those that came before.
Seven Psychopaths is a response to the stifling expectations of genre storytelling, addressing the genre limitations while providing a film as entertaining and wittily written as the best movies of this kind, in much the same way Shane Black did in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang. McDonagh highlights our lazy acceptance of these elements and then offers them up to us again to show how silly they seem in a new context; the “Rules” suffering a judo assault from a master storyteller, using their power against them, showing their flexibility when tested by an ambitious artist. The result is invigorating, and, to those of us with a vested interest in working in genre writing, inspiring. Man, I gotta get back to #TheProject. That’s it, WordPress, I’m handing in my notice.