Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Narrative Theories

It was a bank holiday yesterday, and suffering a little from a late rainy night in Stockport (it's glamorous I know), watching Puressence, I ended up watching 3 films. All of them in very different ways were masterclasses in narrative. First up, on Five, was The Spirit of St. Louis, Billy Wilder's James Stewart helmed biopic of Charles Lingbergh. Told using a variety of flashback devices (Citizen Kane's influence perhaps?) the main part of the movie was the flight itself - one man in a tiny plane for 33 hours. It's a tribute to Wilder and Stewart that they made this so gripping. It could easily be recreated as a one man show at next year's Edinburgh. There's the real drama, even knowing he makes it, of how he can stay awake, keep the plane in the air, and then there's Stewart's voiceover, reliving his flying career, and for part of the journey, talking to a fly. A consummate piece of popular film making; that's almost existential in its methods. The New York-Paris trip was one of exploration and endurance. Film is often good at the first, less so at the second. The recent Touching the Void seemed a remarkable example of the latter, but I was impressed to see a much earlier film doing it so well. Having been drawn to Lindbergh after reading about his fictional version in Roth's Plot Against America, these real life stories deserve a telling as good as this one. Later, I watched Ridley Scott's Alien. I've recently got the boxed set and want to watch them all. In this first film - the Director's Cut - I'd forgotten much of the detail. I think its a near perfect piece of storytelling; so much that is important is hidden only to be revealed later - the role of Ash, the company's plant on the ship in particular. The details - calling the ship Nostromo, the ship's cat Jones - are signifiers of many a sea-faring journey. Obviously there's not the same suspense of seeing it for the first time, but instead I got a chance to marvel at the pacing, tension and story development. Only a couple of things seemed wrong - the first time the Alien appears on the ship it's already grown to full size - and I can't understand why Ripley tries to forestall the ship's destruction when she's actually seen the alien. There's none of the bond between Ripley and the alien that is so fascinating in the later films, but in a sense that doesn't matter, all of the possibilities are there - Ripley immediately understanding that this is something so bad that it has to be destroyed. The evening's 3rd film was Spike Lee's 25th Hour, a more recent movie, with Ed Norton as a busted drug dealer with a day of freedom before a 7 year sentence starts. There's a share of flashbacks, but intriguely its a day where nothing actually happens - in that Norton's character is resigned to his fate, and unable to do a thing about it. He distrusts his girlfriend, protects his father, and fights with his friends. As always with Lee, whose films are almost always better their profile would imply, there's an ensemble cast, talking to each other, and it's in this dialogue that most of the character building takes place. Three films then, very different, and all, I think, great narratives, even from the slimmest of controlled premises. Actually that's the one thing they've got in common, all are in "real time" (hence the flashbacks in two of them), and are in situations to have to be resolved by the end of the film. If you want to write a story that would make good cinema then this is one way of doing it, but more than that, most of us do get our narratives from film as well as books. I know quite a few writers who like the movies, but primarily as entertainment - I've always seen them as a good place to pick up tips on writing stories.

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