“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 Michael Parkinson.