“Could you give an example of a story which could inconceivably be any good, no matter how creative the artist chooses to express it?”
Do I have to go into more detail or is my work done here?
" think you can observe, isolate, and logically critique moments in story where there was something in the story that could have been good if it had been realized differently. There’s that thought experiment people run all the time where they say, “What if this movie was actually directed by…” and so on."
Right, but to me that’s critiquing realization (what’s actually in film) rather than “good/bad” story. I’m not saying that you can never reasonably employ hypotheticals, just that these hypotheticals usally depend on the network of possibilities one has of experience/faculties with which to connect a particular “story” to, and also the depth one is willing to ascribe to a particular story (does anyone really think Varda’s gloss of Kane is a convincing read of the story?)
You don’t often hear someone say: “That was a really great film, but, man, I hated the story.” Is that because a “good story” (sorry for all the quotation marks, but it ellides the semantics involved) is a prerequisite to a good film? or is it that the relationship between “good story” and “good film” is tautological? . . . that “good story” is just a compliment payed to that aspect of films we like? My guess would be that failure of story is the most common attribution for perceived failure of a film to do its thing.
One of these days I want to go from here to Bordwell’s notion of “parametric narration” but I’m not really satisfied with his account of his own ideas re: , so I’m still mentally kicking it around.
Well I guess the thing is, it’s like criticizing acting versus the character. The two inform each other so much that they are sutured together, but nevertheless there are those two sides of approach and both are valuable.* I for one am more interested in realization than fundamental story, partly because I was quite taken by structuralist modes of criticism in my theory coursework and then solidified more as I got into technical and craft elements of filmmaking, but there’s so many people who isolate and focus criticism on story not just as critics but as what they desire as audience (even if they incorrectly don’t acknowledge the relationship between story and realization) that I feel it’s important to acknowledge that critical perspective. Robert McKee comes the closest, I think, to standardizing it in a way that makes it understandable and workable. Ironically he meant it as a rulebook, but I think it makes better criticism, kind of like how I think it’s misuse of Campbell’s theory to use it as a rubric (flip side: or apologia).
Of course, the ideal is that a movie will be seeded by an excellent script (story/narrative/themes), to become fully realized (aesthetics/style/poets) and acutely executed (technical craft/mise-en-scene/editing) to create ‘a classic’ where the elements are as near to self-contained and not atomic as possible; OR that, in the case of decidedly non-narrative, counter-narrative, minimalist, anti-narrative, and meta-narrative cinema, that the uses of those approaches are justified so clearly by the movie itself that you cannot imagine it another way (in other words, complaining about the lack of ‘story’ in Dog Star Man is like complaining about the lack of a good used DVD selection in Radio Shack. The only tenuous grasp of that connection involves arguing about the ‘inherent’ use of ‘electronics stores’ which will fully miss the point of retail space itself). So a person can say, “Wow, what a great story!” and another person can say, “Wow, and really well shot!” and another can say, “And wow, how it made me think!” and nobody has to give much time over to discussing which element is ‘more important.’
*Example: Jack Nicholson. In As Good as it Gets, it’s pretty much not worth trying to isolate Nicholson and the character he portrays, as the two are so defined by each other that the movie would be unimaginable without him. However, in The Shining, Nicholson I think lets his intensity get the better of him as an actor, because that character is basically ready to go nutso poo-flinging from frame one which runs against the movie’s otherwise immaculate build-up of suspense. This is one case where the actor supercedes character at expense of the story.
“You don’t often hear someone say“That was a really great film, but, man, I hated the story.” Is that because a “good story” (sorry for all the quotation marks, but it ellides the semantics involved) is a prerequisite to a good film? or is it that the relationship between “good story” and “good film” is tautological?”
But I hear ALL THE TIME “It doesn’t matter if it has plotholes/contrivances/cliches! It’s just a fun effects movie! Shut your mind off!”
Whereas that treatment/disregard of story is a cited pejorative to dumb audiences, how often do you hear from the art film people, “The story is gossamer thin, but the movie is all about the landscape/longshots/poetics”?
Well, you know, the supposed primacy of plot (mythos) goes all the way back to Aristotle. Of course, the Athenians didn’t have to worry about shot scale, etc.
“Example: Jack Nicholson.”
Yeah, and I’d throw late-career Pacino into that discussion as well—the character becomes the Pacino persona and vice versa.
“But I hear ALL THE TIME “It doesn’t matter if it has plotholes/contrivances/cliches! It’s just a fun effects movie! Shut your mind off!””
Don’t you think that’s more of a “seeing the forest for the trees” thing, though?
“the supposed primacy of plot (mythos) goes all the way back to Aristotle”
Well, and not to open up a bag of decay here, but that’s one of the reasons why a lot of the experimental/avant-garde and especially anti-narrative (as a policy rather than a structure) people see what they are doing as a subversion and confrontation of narrative itself, because its ties to Western philosophy has made ‘the supremacy of story’ a matter of hegemony, systemic and endemic. Then there are the Feminists/Marxists/Critical Race Theorists who brush along the notion of story itself being inherently a white male capitalist structure, if not outright overtly calling it out for it. I don’t agree with it but they are pretty good at tracing this philosophical history from Aristotle through Campbell and contrasting it to ‘Eastern’ aesthetics (Zen, Taoism, etc.). For my part that’s one of the reasons I like so-called Eastern movies, because there are different methods in which they ‘realize’ stories or undermine them, depending on intent. However, I am relatively dismissive of the ‘supremacy of story’ theory myself, as I’ve already talked about in other threads.
The worst was the essay I read, don’t remember the author, that said continuity editing is phallic. Women don’t ‘need’ visual/spacial continuity as they cognitively ‘read’ expressive space-time outside of linear (male) concerns or some shit. I don’t really know where that stuff comes from but it’s fun to play with when you’re an undergrad.
“The worst was the essay I read . . . "
I have a very fuzzy recollection of the piece you’re talking about.
Once you start speaking of critical context though you shift the discussion away from where Jazz would have it fairly clearly and are starting to posit the idea that the “goodness” of the story is dependent on the perspective of the viewer as a Sarrisian auteurist would say the worst film by a noted auteur is better than the best by a non-auteur. All of which suggests that the detailed attention to a Fincher film by an auteurist fan would find context informed by the rest of his films which another may not and therefore not see these allegedly important “story” elements which speak beyond the confines of the single film. (By the way, regarding the earlier comment, Nolan, bad stories well told? Please… I’m no auteurist, but there isn’t a single Fincher film I’ve seen worse than any Nolan however you want to slice it.)
Is Alien 3 a single story then or part of a larger whole? If the latter, then doesn’t it effect the other installments as they effect it? Aren’t people picking and choosing how to regard these things according to whatever their decided position is rather than consistently applying the ideas? (And another by the way, I would suggest that, as convoluted as it may have seemed, the Ripley suicide was still built on the character as a whole regarding the good/bad mother theme as her over-stylized cruciform dip in the smelter bath comes while she is “giving birth”, and therefore isn’t a pure Jesus figure as much as a sort of Mary deciding that the world doesn’t really need a new godtype running around so she offs it and herself instead. It’s a heck of a mess in some ways, but at least in some important areas it does hold with the other films, which each went their own ways as well.)
Regarding the Brahms, yes, it is perhaps possible for someone with an exceptionally careful ear and a grounding in composition to perhaps pick out the strengths of the underlying “story”, and so to it may be possible to do so in a film, but very few people could and I would suggest that most flat out don’t know what they are looking for, don’t have any definitional structure for which to begin to look and often can’t even clearly identify what makes one film more appealing than another or why it is they like a given film as much as they do beyond some vague mumblings and gestures towards some memorable moments. I have no problem with the idea that someone like Scorsese could watch a film and think that something much better could have been made from that story, and to lesser degrees others farther removed from focus on construction of films might as well, but mostly, and especially given how vague the “story” talk is among art films lovers or “dumb” entertainment film lovers, I have to doubt there is much to this beyond not liking the film and finding a convenient hook to hang the blame for that on.
The differences in stories between “good” entertainment films and “bad” entertainment films are often negligible unless one wants to define the term to take on much broader meaning than it seems is meant from usage. I don’t see people seeking out films for their stories as there are plenty of films which travel down much less worn paths and devote more time to story than the movies that are hits. As was mentioned before, people want familiarity. They want the same stories told in ways that remind them of their previous enjoyment of them. If they wanted good stories that didn’t seem cliched, they simply wouldn’t go to the movies they do. You can’t go see Thor after seeing Iron Man, Captain America, Green Lantern and reading comics and think you’re going to get a great new story. It’s going to pretty much the same damn story as it has always been with new furniture and slightly different faces.
We could redefine the question to about the failure to tell the stories we want to hear again well, but that strikes me as a somewhat different thing than was originally proposed.
Oh, and Polaris, I’m gonna let that Twilight comment slide…for now…
“Is Alien 3 a single story then or part of a larger whole?”
Also, it’s the one film among Fincher’s filmography for which he had little final autonomy and wasn’t allowed to make the film he ultimately wanted to make.
I would classify Se7en, Zodiac, Benjamin Button, and Social Network all as ‘Good story poorly told’.
In Se7en the characters were not believable as detectives and the villain was not entirely believable even as a psychopath. Zodiac has pacing issues all over the place and is way too voyeuristic about the murder scenes. Social Network seems to diagnose motives differently than you can plainly observe them to be, and Benjamin Button has both the pacing issues and odd conclusions.
“And another by the way, I would suggest that, as convoluted as it may have seemed, the Ripley suicide was still built on the character as a whole regarding the good/bad mother theme as her over-stylized cruciform dip in the smelter bath comes while she is “giving birth”, and therefore isn’t a pure Jesus figure as much as a sort of Mary deciding that the world doesn’t really need a new godtype running around so she offs it and herself instead. It’s a heck of a mess in some ways, but at least in some important areas it does hold with the other films, which each went their own ways as well.”
Pretty much exactly how I feel about it, actually.
Or to express my general criticism with Fincher’s approach more succinctly: His characters always behave more paradigmatically than humanly.
Well by and large most of them are sociopaths. They are reactive and instinctual but for the surface tension that makes them like pieces on a chessboard. Kubrick’s, Antonioni’s, and Assayas’ protagonists are quite similar, though only Kubrick shares Fincher’s fascination with psychos.
complaining about the lack of ‘story’ in Dog Star Man is like complaining about the lack of a good used DVD selection in Radio Shack
This example doesn’t make sense to me. Dog Star Man has a story, it’s just told by Brakhage elliptically and ambiguously. Does this make it any “less” of a story because it’s hard to interpret?
If one was to feel there is a “lack of a good story” in Dog Star Man, one must ask oneself why the story feels uninteresting in the context of how the information is conveyed, how it is structured.
If Dog Star Man feels interesting to you then you are interested in its story and the way it was told, even if its meaning feels ineffable.
I haven’t seen Twilight so I can’t counter this example yet!
.. something about angsty, teenage vampire love? I wonder how Tarkovsky would have structured such a story? Haha.
There’s a “story” to any abstract artwork, including abstract films (i.e. Oskar Fischinger, etc) and pure music (i.e. a Brahms symphony) in which Greg X outlined above that it is perhaps possible for someone with an exceptionally careful ear and a grounding in composition to perhaps pick out the strengths of the underlying “story”.
The “story” here is the sequence of events structured by the artist in such a way as to evoke an emotional response, even if the semantic meaning remains abstract and ineffable. We perceive the story as the artist chooses to structure it; when the structure is changed, the story (the sequence of events) is changed too.
If Karajan and Bernstein were to perform a Brahms symphony, they would both be performing that same composition with the same notes and structures. But if Karajan decided to re-structure the symphony – for instance, cutting passages here and there, and pasting them back in earlier or later in the sequence of events than where they were originally placed by Brahms – then he would be changing the “story”, the driving “narrative”, the sequence of events. In such a circumstance, Karajan and Bernstein would now be performing different compositions. Thus, the artwork’s “story” is at least partially defined by its structure.
I agree that Dog Star Man has a narrative, but not a story.
It depends how we define “story” and “narrative”. The issue here seems to be definitional.
And I already did that work earlier in this thread.
“Plot is the structure of story, narrative is how it is told. Plot the word comes from the actual action of ‘plotting out the story’, which means breaking down points where things happen and providing a causal relationship between them, so that action ‘rises’ and ‘falls’ throughout the story.
Narrative is a much messier word right now. It comes from the idea of narrating, but is not defined by the technical term ‘narrator’, which is the person inside the story that is telling the story (or lack of person) — a narrative is how a story is told. How the filmmaker tells a story to the audience, which means it is the structure of the movie’s meaning as opposed to plot which is the structure of its story. Since stories provide most narrative movies their meaning, stories thus inform narrative. But referring back to the first 30 Minute Film School: How to Shoot a Narrative , in industry terminology narrative filmmaking refers to the relationship of framing and editing to tell the story. Plot = structural content of story, narrative = structural construction of story.
A ‘narrative film’ is a film that by definition seeks to tell a story, using a plot (as opposed to an experimental film or a documentary, as just a couple mere examples). The closer a film adheres to narrative concerns above all others, the more a good story or lack thereof becomes a valid and compelling criticism from which to respond to or understand it. The more the film distances itself, subverts, counters, or metas (not a verb, I know) its narrative, the less good story or lack thereof is a valid and compelling criticism.
Neo-realism, for example, sought to deviate from strict adherence to plotting as a matter of a political aesthetic point: strict plots do away with useless detail that don’t serve (i.e., move forward) the story, and neo-realism wanted to show ‘real life’ people and their occassional moments where nothing of importance is happening specifically in order to break away from the fascist red phone films of the previous era. So complaining about a neo-realist film indulging in a woman rolling up some socks while cooking dinner as not good storytelling is not a valid criticism and would not be compelling to those who understand neo-realism in context. And also if a later, non-neo-realism era director from a different country obviously seems more interested in the woman’s socks and dinner than creating her beats (the character plotting), then a critic should try to focus more on why the director is focusing on these details as opposed to criticizing the movie for failing to meet narrative standards. A good critic with valid and compelling points asks him or herself why a movie does something it does and how it functions, not whether it lives up to his or her own rubric of aesthetic qualities. This latter half of the paragraph, of course, in my humble opinion."
This work tied narrative to ‘how story is told’ but oftentimes the word narrative (which, for the second time, has been used very messily) is applied to experimental film to describe how meaning is formed by an illustration of various conceits, in Dog Star Man literally animism, space, and humankind. But that movie has no plot, no beats, no character development from choices signifying choices with resolutions, no rising and falling action —> it has no story, as defined by the craft-books and technical terminology.
I know these arguments come off as semantic but I find them very useful in observing different constructions. They aren’t hard-edged; Sans Soleil, for instance, has characters and hints of plot points and beats developed through the voice over and the ‘dialog’ between the person reading the letters, and the writer, but nevertheless the movie is more metanarrative, which is a type of narrative. Even ‘anti-narrative’ is a type of narrative, rather than it’s opposite.
Ah okay, sorry.
Well, I can see the importance of distinguishing between story and narrative, even if we don’t strictly adhere to these definitions and leave them “open to interpretation” to some extent, and so perhaps I ought not use the word “story” in discussing the structure of, say, pure music (the word “narrative” probably works better).
However, would you agree that if you change the structure of a story (i.e. its plot), then you also change its quality? In other words, the story will be either better or worse than it was before?
Yes mostly. I’m a structuralist. There’s also the chance that the story would be equally as good, but very different. It just depends on the story and the person who handles it.
I always think of story as the “what” and plot as the “how”.
What is the story about?
It’s about a guy who falls for a girl.
How is the plot told?
A guy meets a girl on the street. He asks her to dinner. She declines. Then they meet again in a record shop. He sees they have the same interest in music, he asks her out again. She accepts. They go to dinner. She shows him her paintings. He’s intrigued by art. They go to a museum….
There’s also the chance that the story would be equally as good, but very different. It just depends on the story and the person who handles it.
Yes I agree. This is what I was trying to get at earlier when I was suggesting that when appreciating art it’s kind of pointless to consider the quality of a story outside of the way in which it is structured and expressed by an artist.
The problem Polaris is that Brakhage’s work, the type of experimental cinema he is noted for is also generally considered to be non-narrative cinema by many or even most sources, so the neatness of your separations there quite fit either. Story and narrative theory tend to have come from literature so there is a real problem when sliding them over to film. The camera as a narrator and stories without character are things which don’t quite fit many literary theories. Not that there is absolute agreement even in literary circles on the terms either.
I’m responding to Flani’s perceived narrative in it, which is backed up by plenty of theory. Many people discern an underlying narrative to Dog Star Man, if anything because of it’s progression through exceptional length for an experimental film that builds on these repeated motifs/conceits that point toward a ‘meaning’ that can be read as relationships (in short, the relationship between leads Dog, Star, and Man), which gives wiggle room for ‘narrative.’
Brakhage’s work, the type of experimental cinema he is noted for is also generally considered to be non-narrative cinema by many or even most sources
But if the word “narrative” implies a sequence of events, then wouldn’t any artwork which is temporal (such as a Brakhage film, which still has a beginning and an end and a sequence of “events”) have some kind of narrative, even if it’s abstract? Can’t the narrative still be either well-constructed or poorly-constructed? How can we analyse the “goodness/badness” of the structure of a temporal Brakhage film?
“wouldn’t any artwork which is temporal (such as a Brakhage film, which still has a beginning and an end and a sequence of “events”) have some kind of narrative, even if it’s abstract?”
So some theorists claim, and I’m willing to see where they’re coming from though my feelings on that are ambivalent.
“Can’t the narrative still be either well-constructed or poorly-constructed?”
Yes. There are bad experimental movies.
“How can we analyse the “goodness/badness” of the structure of a temporal Brakhage film?”
Well Dog Star Man gives us a structure we can work with without even having to resort to contextualizing it in the history of cinema, Brakhage’s own work, or any writing he may have done on it — the simple fact that each Part is an additional layer of images printed over each other, of mostly the same sources of footage. It’s in fact one of his most structural films in terms of pure editing, so in its structure can inform you on how to read it.
Most of his films I feel are ‘good’ at revealing in their own structure his interests and reason for editing that way — he’s good at what he does. I did see one of his (many hundreds) of movies in a class that I didn’t feel was a strong piece, either for Brakhage or experimental film. It involved low angle handheld tracking shots through a farm with only a few of his usual painting, double exposure, and other processes through which he brings an image its own particular new reality, instead just cutting together mostly footage of chickens wandering around. And ‘lo, before thy protest —> I have seen experimental films featuring barnyard animals that were quite brilliant, and this wasn’t. To illustrate why would require me having access to it so I could break it down again, but nevertheless the main thing is that whereas most of his films very clearly weren’t random, this movie played like it was.
Can we break down Brakhage’s work entirely on narrative? Not really. Black Ice would only be ‘narrative’ if we considered it a close-up, and to do that we require Brakhage’s nondiegetic explanation for his creation (it represents what he saw when he slipped on some black ice and damaged his eye) to create the reaction shots that are the other half of the structure of a close-up.
Yes, but in much the same way it can also be interpreted as having a “story” or not, just as it can be interpreted as having a narrative or not, and the two terms butt into each other based on those interpretive differences and where one sets the definitional line. You can call the film a text and leave the matter vague, but the definition and application of the term story for the original argument still is fluttering in the wind here and seems to be used haphazardly to fit already determined feelings about films than being used for any concrete argument. I don’t have a problem with calling Dog Star Man a narrative film or saying it has a story one way or the other myself, I just don’t think this thread is really getting anywhere. Which, I guess tells me I may as well bow out, now that I think about it, since it isn’t doing any of us any good to keep circling around like this.
“This is what I was trying to get at earlier when I was suggesting that when appreciating art it’s kind of pointless to consider the quality of a story outside of the way in which it is structured and expressed by an artist.”
What I feel you’re getting at is that the way a story is told takes precedence over story. I prefer that approach to criticism personally but clearly many critics give story precedence over aesthetics, technique, style, or whichever contrast you want to bring up. “by an artist”: You are privileging the artist, not the piece, is their claim. And there is at least some truth to it, enough to be worth I feel the necessary work of distinguishing between the story itself and how it is told.
But guys, I gotta sleep now. It’s 2:40am here, I’ll catch you cats later and elaborate on my Twilight point, because that is a truly irredeemable story that could only be saved by becoming a different story altogether.
“it isn’t doing any of us any good to keep circling around like this.”
Well that’s the thing. I’m trying to illustrate the more craft-based and technical definitions but a) other people keep offering their own and in some cases those alternatives come from slight variations and b) unfortunately theorists enjoy reappropriating terminology where neologism doesn’t suffice, so that plenty of alternative definitions can be proffered for any one word. Also, I am aware that prescriptivism ultimately will still find its weak spots and words when scrutinized too closely will always deconstruct themselves, nevertheless as long as some basic conscientious agreement toward what people MOSTLY mean and ultimately are trying to express in such terms as ‘plot’, ‘story’, and ‘narrative’ are established we can understand how ‘the lack of a good story can be a valid and engaging criticism’. Perhaps I can’t have it both ways and just nix out any theorist usage of words like ‘narrative’ to describe the, semantics here, ‘conceits’ of Dog Star Man or whatever.
Nevertheless the frustrating part is that this isn’t so difficult. Once you break story into its separate parts and how it functions, you no longer NEED to apply it in any way to Dog Star Man because that’s not the point that’s not the point that’s not the point and in this case ‘the lack of a good story is not a valid and engaging criticism.’ How is context and differentiation so hard to get across?
I’m just trying to point out that abstract filmmakers such as Brakhage and Fischinger use a temporal medium for the purpose of conveying information in a series of events over time, otherwise they would use a static medium such as a still painting to capture their aesthetic ideas, rather than utilise a series of paintings in a sequence. So I’m just saying that there must be some way we can analyse the quality of the temporal structure in a Brakhage film (I’m thinking in particular of his painted films), even if the meaning of the “narrative” (i.e. the flow of time) is abstract.
What I feel you’re getting at is that the way a story is told takes precedence over story.
What I’m getting at (I hope) is that one ought not to frame any expectations of what the quality of a story will be before considering it in context of how it has been structured and organised within an artwork, because before this happens, a story or plot can really only have “potential” to be good. I don’t think that this is necessarily giving any precedence to one thing over the other, but rather to consider them working together as a unified whole.