What’s Your Point?
There’s a scene in ‘Trains, Planes & Automobiles’ when Steve Martin rounds on John Candy and says, ‘Here’s a good idea; when you tell a story, try to have a point.’ It’s pretty good advice. Watching ‘Wild Tales’ the other night that simple idea was driven home to me six times in a row. Having grown sick of watching people with super-powers knocking over tall buildings or sending trucks spinning through the air for no reason (was there ever a worse cliche?) I was starting to believe that the idea of an actual story had become superfluous to modern movies. Here’s the problem:
In FX-heavy films there are very few stories – only situations. The Avengers fight an evil force. The X-Men fight an evil force. Iron Man fights an evil force. In Harry Potter films, a schoolboy learns magic to fight an evil force. In Bond movies, a spy fights an evil force. In Dracula movies, Dracula is the evil force. In the Jurassic Park movies the situation is even simpler. Monsters escape. Nobody can remember the plots of the Star Wars movies because the original was modelled on a plot-free serial, ‘Flash Gordon’, which George Lucas loved as a kid. It was an exercise in nostalgic cliffhangers retrofitted as a space soap. When you choose a proper story for a film – Phillip Pullman’s ‘The Golden Compass’ is a good example – it flops. Potter, Marvel characters, Bond, Dracula, they’re all basically the same simple algorhythm.
And then along comes Damian Szifron’s ‘Wild Tales’ (‘Relatos Salvajes’), an Argentinian six-pack of concise revenge stories that each manage to have a beginning, a middle and an end with a point, a theme and a character to root for. The sheer surprise of seeing six such well-told tales is enough to blast you over a couple of very minor flaws. Bravely, these adventures have nothing to do with one another, but all are so memorable that no one tale outstays its welcome over the next. The film was a big hit in the UK but bombed in the US, and I have no idea why. There’s more going on here in a single movie than in many entire franchises.
The ‘Wild Tales’ stories are ones of revenge, but with unexpected outcomes. They’re set on a plane, on a lonely stretch of road, in a deserted diner, at a hellish wedding and in two middle-class homes. They feature people pushed to the edge, faced with terrible choices and uncomfortable situations. They have unpredictable twists born out of character. They also say something about national character. People take action, and their actions have consequences. Nobody dithers. Nobody fights a nameless evil force. There are no cyphers, just ordinary folk in extraordinary circumstances, making fast and sometimes wrong decisions.
What’s interesting is that ‘Wild Tales’ makes it look so easy to tell stories with a point, you start wondering why all stories aren’t told like this. There’s a moment you reach in any film when you know its cumulative effect either works or doesn’t – a good example is ‘Don’t Look Now’, where the ending hits you like a punch in the gut, making perfect sense of every frame. One of the stories here has a very slightly muffled end-shot that could have been stronger, but that’s it – everything else is pretty near perfect.
One of the things I’ve always tried to do with my stories is construct them in a way that suggests an entire novel of events slimmed into one tale. It’s a tough trick to pull off, and I only have maybe four stories out of 120 that I’m totally happy with (possibly less). Without the point – the ending – working, you have nothing.