But I’m telling you the plot.

“Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no-one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story, we say: ‘And then?’ If it is in a plot, we ask: ‘Why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘And then – and then -‘ they can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.”

~ EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel.

I’m enjoying Forster’s book of lectures, which I’ve dabbled with before but never read cover to cover. Obviously he’s snobbish about the movie-public above, and he’s writing in 1927 when clearly elaborate plotting was to be found all over the screen. I wonder when Forster had last been to the flickers? But I also wonder if the pure story he speaks of, that which requires nothing from the viewer but expectation of the next stimulating event, really exists except as a sort of platonic ideal.

(Also, I’ve also felt that the word STORY had a grander sound than the word PLOT, so I’m almost inclined to reverse Forster’s terminology, but that would get confusing. So, in his terms a story is a linear sequence of related events, whereas a plot is a structured sequence of causally related events.)

The first STAR WARS certainly depends a lot on the appeal of pure story. Alec Guinness, frowning at the poor dialogue and hackneyed characters, was on the point of discarding it, he says, when he realized he wanted to know what happened next. And if that were so, he further realized, the thing had a shot at being successful. Wisely, as it turned out, he agreed to be in it.

But STAR WARS is plotted. At the beginning, we meet the robots, we see the princess captured, we escape with the robots and meet the hero. His path eventually brings him into contact with the princess, and he rescues her. This is all linear, and we use the robots as POV characters to pull us through the different strands of the story. But Lucas also cuts away from them to action involving the villains and the princess. This is so that we are reminded they’re in the film — and so that we can anticipate the adventure which will occur when the different plot threads weave together. If the film were mere story, it would be enough to simply follow the robots to Luke, then follow Luke. No doubt when he meets Leia and Darth we’d be surprised, because we’d have forgotten they were in the film, but from a STORY point of view that would be fine. In Hitchcockian terms, Lucas defuses that surprise in favour of suspense, which gives greater value over a longer period of screen time.

So if even STAR WARS uses plot mechanics, can the plotless film be said to exist? Even the most moronic video-game movie uses goals, often in a kind of treasure-hunt scenario. The constant succession of stimulating action sequences satisfies those who only require visceral excitement, but a causal connection has been established, a purpose to all the striving and strife. Critics who describe the modern action spectaculars as plotless are usually responding to a surface impression rather than really analysing how the things function. Such films tend to use very flat characterisation (to use Forster’s term: but even flat characters, he notes, have their uses) and any development or alteration of these characters is usually unconvincing and rote (because the screenwriters are following the Syd Field road map rather than feeling the landscape with their own senses). But plot is something they all have, usually extending even to the TWIST, where a goodie turns out to be a baddie or apparent salvation turns out to be a trap.

Forster’s own example is the Thousand and One Nights, which is odd because you can’t hook a “tyrannical sultan” merely with a string of interesting events — for him to keenly anticipate further developments, you need to engage his intelligence with puzzles, something needs to be at stake. If the hero is buried up to his neck in sand and the tide is coming in, you can’t be concerned unless you visualize what is supposed to happen next.

For a narrative in which memory and anticipation and intelligence are irrelevant, you kind of have to look to FELLINI SATYRICON — and the result is far more avant-garde, and a way far more interesting, than STAR WARS. Anticipating what will happen next will get you nowhere, because what happens next is always going to be whatever Fellini thinks would be most delightful or strange. Occasionally narrative questions are produced, dangled, and very occasionally answered, but actual dramatic tension is really beside the point. Forster complains that mere stories like Walter Scott’s often drag in death or marriage to provide a totally arbitrary conclusion, but Fellini’s non-ending is even more abrupt — he essentially just abandons the story. He does it beautifully, and makes us feel that the ensuing scenes are lost to history, and his inconclusive conclusion is more profound than Lucas’s Leni Riefenstahl borrowings could ever be, or were ever intended to be. THAT’S a story — as Homer Simpson once put it, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

But I wonder what Forster would have thought of it?

I don’t know what he’d have thought of this, either — but it’s the source of my post title. The late Kenny Everett as Cupid Stunt, on and with MichaelĀ Parkinson.

22 Responses to “But I’m telling you the plot.”

  1. Rupert Graves is a plot.

  2. What has survived of Petronius’ manuscript are fragments. The whole of his “Satyricon” is simply unavailable. Consequently Fellini decided not to fill in the blanks and give us a film of fragments. Transitions from scene to scene are nonexistent, as they are in the recit. Likewise the film doesn’t end it simply stops. Most important of all Fellini has his actors look directly into the camera — just like figures in a fresco. This is a violation of a major principle of filmmaking only a few have challenged. Godard is one example, and Peter Watkins has done it throughout his career.

    As a recent documentary on Roger Corman points out, .Star Wars is simply a B-movie that “went A all of a sudden,” and changed movie marketing forever.

    The off-screen affair of Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (“Where’s Carrie?” “Have you looked in Harrison’s trailer?”) is far more interesting than anything on screen, though Mark Hammill does a sterling job with an impossible part.

  3. B-movies come close to being pure story, but there’s often a bit of plot in the mix. Thus with Star Wars. I have an article on the film currently under embargo for being too controversial…

    Ozu is the master of looking-to-camera: with him it’s the norm. Whereas John Landis took to using it to punch-up his punch-lines, something Luc Besson has lifted rather clumsily.

  4. Well that’s Coppola Satyricon

    “Too controversial”? You? I simply can’t imagine such a thing!

  5. Howard Hawks’ HATARI! comes a lot to what you say about “pure story” since the film doesn’t really have a plot, they are guys who trap animals for zoos, that’s their job, in-between they have an Italian photographer bringing romance, baby elephants, two guys who fight for a girl and end up becoming pals, there isn’t a sustained anticipation or attempt to prolong curiosity.

    Luis Bunuel’s films, especially THE PHANTOM OF THE LIBERTY are as avant-garde as Satyricon.

    I like Mark Hammill for his voice over work and for THE BIG RED ONE, but aside from disjointed TV viewings, have never seen Star Wars and what I saw did not impress me.

  6. I can’t even tell you the title of my Star Wars article, that’s how bad it was.

    Yes, Hawks says he dismissed plot after that Big Sleep incident. What he creates instead is little scenarios designed to create amusing character dynamics, all motivated by some overall situation. In the westerns, that situation has some over-arching significance which makes it a plot, but in Hatari! it really doesn’t — the film could theoretically last forever.

  7. Aside from Star Wars sucks, which I don’t think is a controversial position, how controversial is it?

  8. I think for Hawks the defining moment was the re-shoots on The Big Sleep. A few years back TCM showed the almost-never-seen first cut. The plot made perfet sense. Everythign was explained. And in one scene Lauren Bacall wore a very fancy hat with a veil, resembling the sort of get-up Juliet Berto donned in Duelle. Then it was decided that the film’s best resource was Bogart and Bacall. So Hawks and Fulkner write new scenes for them, put them in, and took out others. As a result The Big Sleep as we know it today makes little narratiev sense. In interviews Hawks has covered for this with outright lies — sayig he and Faulkner couldn’t figure Chandler’s plot out. But they did. They just liked other things better. Hawks has always gone on about “every scene” was made to entertain. This is obvious in Hatari! which is a very loose assemblage of entertainign scenes with no plot whatsoever. It’s the Hawks that most influenced Rivette. There’s all manner of plotting in the “backstory” of Out 1, but what reall counts are the film’s moment-by-moment developments. In Phantom Ladies Over Paris the whole idea of plot is relentlessly ridiculed.

  9. Todd McCarthy goes on in amazement in his book on Hawks, that HATARI! was made as a commercial film. He talks about the fact that it was made without a complete script and was pretty much made up as it went along with Hawks and the cast living in the wild and improvising bits day-by-day. It still went on to be a box-office hit and its the kind of movie that just can’t be made anymore.

    Nicholas Ray’s THE LUSTY MEN, not exactly plotness (since its a serious tragic film and that has to have a plot to have any resonance) was made in similar conditions and it’s also about itinerants. Another example is SHORT CUTS which is based on short stories but its unusual in that its an ensemble film without a background event to stitch it in(like NASHVILLE had the concert), it works from moment-to-moment and cross-cuts these multiple strands which have some plots in themselves but don’t fully attach to a complete whole.

    Jerry Lewis had the magnificent final word. He says in an interview with Bogdanovich that his films don’t have plots so that kids can come in at any time during the screening and not have to worry about missing anything. They can come in anytime and follow the film.

  10. How controversial? It was suggested I might destroy my entirely putative Hollywood career!

    Short Cuts is miraculously coherent, though. Sometimes the chance meetings engineered for the characters overwhelm their separate stories (the Robert Downey Jnr – Buck Henry collision is one of the biggest laughs in the picture). The insecticide spraying and the earthquake create moments of cohesion at beginning and end.

    I can certainly remember the sensation of being a kid and not understanding ANYTHING in a movie’s plot, so the idea of pure sensation and character moments still appeals. There was a very small kid at Avengers Assemble this afternoon who was certainly taking that view: the movie was a series of explosions and moments where the audience laughed.

  11. It can’t be more controversial than this:

  12. Hmm. Hard to say which is worse. There’s crossover, I’ll say that.

  13. Ohe really? How about THIS?

    It was written, BTW, by Larry David

  14. Growing up I never followed or even attempted to follow the plot of any Bond. But I knew who was good, I knew who was bad, and I recognised jeopardy so every episode within each film worked fine. It certainly didn’t stop me watching Diamonds Are Forever again and again. Star Wars is the best.

  15. I took Fiona’s brother (who has learnng difficulties) to see a Bond film, and afterwards my mum asked him what happened. He was able to summarise the first half hour in minute detail (before we stopped him), and he certainly knew who was who, but I’m not sure he got the overall purpose of the plot. But I’m not sure many adults too either — it’s the bit relegated to a few boring talk scenes.

  16. Just to add on to David E.’s remarks on Petronius and Satyricon, I’d venture that Fellini’s adaptation is even less coherent than the original, though by design of course. While the text of Satyricon is indeed in fragments, the bits that survive will on occasion interlink and refer back to each other. Fellini tends to remove those portions and inserts sequences either borrowed from or inspired by other Roman classics, resulting in that never-ending-train-of-events structure. It’s a brilliant film, though I also feel that there’s room for more than one good film made from Petronius, whose book remains a delight. Fellini’s version is heavy on the phantasmagoria, which tends to veil Petronius’s still vivid satire and earthy picaresque humor. When read, Satyricon startles the reader with its directness, whereas Fellini’s film emphasizes the otherness of a remote and alien past–and it succeeds vividly in doing so.

    An after-thought: If another version of Satyricon gets made, it’d be interesting to see how the sexual aspects play out. For its time Fellini’s film was brave in directly depicting the male characters’ lust for the slaveboy Giton–especially when compared to a contemporary Italian adaptation that made Giton a girl! And yet Fellini’s film is still less homoerotic than the original, and one wonders what a less hetero director would do with the material.

  17. Still, for an avowedly hetero filmmaker, Fellini did extremely well in embracing the work’s pansexuality, especially considering the age he was working in. I would say “and the country,” yet Italy throws up so many interesting takes on sexuality that it seems as if Catholicism has had an effect rather opposite to that intended.

    I’m guessing FF found the book’s fragmentary nature inspiring, especially as his films had been moving away from traditional narrative for some time.

  18. Fellini was the cinema’s most sophisticatred “unsophisticared country boy.” Do not forget that he planned a sequel to I Vittelloni called Moraldo in the City. This eventually morphed inot La Dolce Vita with Marcello replacing Moraldo. Fellini had come to know the city quite well, and for his purposes a naif like Moraldo wouldn’t have served as a protagonist. He’d be in a perpetual state of “shock.” Marcello’s world-weariness became Fellini’s primary mode. There are several lesbians (including veteran Jerry Robbins dancer Sondra Lee) and a couple silly queens in the last sequence of La Dolce Vita as befits the overall “last call at the Via Veneto” atmosphere. But by that time he had met and collaborated with Pasolini on Nights of Cabriira — the most sophisticated gay Italian of that era (and most others). Fellini Satyricon sprang from his interest in the hippie movement. He first thought of Terence Stamp and Pierre Clementi for the leads. Then he saw “Hair” and snapped up Hiram Keller. The resultant film is in many ways an Acid Trip. And the presence of Donayele Luna in the cast makes it a perfect doubte feature with Skidoo (aka. Preminger Satyricon)

    Thanks for mentioning that other version of Satyricon made at the same time as Fellinii’s. Apparently it was a flop in every concievable way. Giton as a girl? Oh Prunella!

  19. I’m undecided as to whether to try to see the other Satyricon… ironically, I seem to recall that it was the makers of that version who were done for indecency.

    I wonder if the tapes Fellini made of his own acid trip have survived anywhere…

  20. Not “Donayele Luna “.

    Whose death of a heroin o/d in a rehab clinic still smacks (sorry) of the Suspicious.

  21. I don’t know the details, it just sounded like another tragic self-combustion. Is there an account online?

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