What If You Don’t Tell Me A Story?

Film

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The reviews for Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘Mother!’ caused an uproar – among audiences mostly, not critics, who quickly saw how the director had set out his stall. But in a time when Victorian linearity and 20th century realism still rule in literature, film and theatre the fuss was to be expected.

At the start of the 20th century, photography robbed art of the need for linear narrative, splitting the form into abstraction, modernism and surrealism. But although the same thing was expected to happen to literature (see various entries in my upcoming Book of Forgotten Authors) it did not. This was partly because literature was not affected by technology. Even now with electronic reading, a book is a book.

The traditional narrative forms stayed with us. And most films and plays, like books, still have a beginning, a middle and an end, and feature recognisable archetypes. This even intensified from Victorian times to the present; we like facts, and love books that blur the lines between fact and fiction. Why else are there so many biographical films?

But every so often something comes along that doesn’t play by the rules. Luis Bunuel and David Lynch built careers on surrealistic but strangely logical narratives, Monty Python effectively destroyed comedy by creating jokes without punchlines. Fellini introduced surreal films suggestive of purely emotional states, like ‘Roma’ and ‘City of Women’. Roman Polanski made ‘What?’, a film that plays out in a dream state, and James Ivory made ‘Savages’, an allegory about the rise and fall of mankind set over one day and night in the 1920s.

But one of the bravest and wonkiest films to adopt this approach was ‘Synecdoche New York’ by Charlie Kaufman. In this, theatre director Caden Cotard is mounting a new play. Armed with a MacArthur grant, he is determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, so he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan and directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing them to live out their constructed lives in a mock-up of the city outside – which in turn becomes real. ‘The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration’, said the Guardian. Expensive and more than a little impenetrable, it flopped.

But ‘Mother!’, although allegorical and non-realistic, seems to me to have a clear and obvious point in line with virtually all of Aronofsky’s other films. The drama is set in an American Gothic house lovingly restored by Jennifer Lawrence, where she lives with poet Xavier Bardem. Here, her happiness, privacy and home is invaded and ruined by his friends just as she falls pregnant with his child.

Every shot of the film is either tight in on Lawrence or presents her point of view. There are surreal touches throughout; a squirming thing jammed down the loo, a beating heart within the walls, a bleeding gash in the floorboards. Then things get really strange as the poet is mobbed by hysterical fans and Lawrence is first marginalised, then ignored and condemned. Problematically, by the time we reach an apocalypse, Aronofsky is repeating himself, massively overstating his case to hammer home the point about his archetypes – and that’s what they are, god and human, Adam & Eve (played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), Cain and Abel – and long-suffering Woman.

It’s certainly not a hard film to understand and is very involving, so why were half the audience members in my row on their phones during the film (this was at BAFTA, the home of the supposed phone-shunning cineaste)? I think it’s fairly clear that many people either never encountered or lost touch with non-realistic fare, to the point where they simply have no idea how to process what they’re seeing.

Maybe they’ll have to learn, because the times we’re living in encourage more disconnection and strangeness in the arts.

8 comments on “What If You Don’t Tell Me A Story?”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Thank you, sir. You’ve persuaded me to go to see it.

  2. Chris Webb says:

    “At the start of the 20th century, photography robbed art of the need for linear narrative, splitting the form into abstraction, modernism and surrealism.”

    In his The Story of Art Ernst Gombrich disagrees with this conventional wisdom. He was of the opinion that realism in art had reached its zenith and that later developments would happen with or without photography. The truth is unknowable – the early modern artists themselves probably couldn’t have given a convincing answer.

    A mainstream idea say up to the end of the 19th C was of photography as an art form, complementing painting etc. A major movement in late 19th century photography was Pictorialism, basically viewing photography as fine art. It’s much derided today outside of the reactionary Royal Photographic Society. You still get people saying “is photography art” and I once knew someone who claimed to be a “photographic artist”, but I doubt if many people would seriously consider painters, sculptors etc. to be lumped in with photographers.

    An interesting experiment in early film making was Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera, made in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union. Most film up to then, either fiction of documentary, was really an extension of theatre or reportage photography respectively. Vertov deliberately set out to break free of these and explore what was technically possible, although he was obviously inspired by the surrealists and photographers like Man Ray. I think he claimed something like “I am creating a new language of cinema”. It’s worlds away from most people’s image of rather stilted and technically primitive 20s films. Sadly not very influential – even with modern special effects and CGI I have trouble thinking of cinema as anything other than an evolution of theatre. (Incidentally, I cannot think of photography as an evolution of painting or drawing – it’s too different – even though Fox Talbot only invented his process because he was rubbish at drawing.)

    There’s an excellent Blu-ray boxed set of Man With a Movie Camera in the unlikely event anybody other than me would want to watch anything so odd!

  3. Chris Webb says:

    You can watch it on YouTube if you must:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z97Pa0ICpn8

    but it’s poor quality and there’s a lot more on the Blu-ray.

  4. Bill says:

    David Hockney’s “Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters” (2006), Thames and Hudson, London, showcases the idea that technology of the Gothic Ages brought western art back to its original realistic roots. Some book!

  5. Bill says:

    BTW, I loved ‘”Synecdoche New York’’.

  6. admin says:

    Hi Chris – I’ve seen many versions of ‘Man With A Movie Camera’ including one with Michael Nyman conducting a live orchestra. Not sure I agree that realistic art had reached a zenith, partly because of the way it relied on developments in gadgetry (i.e. Vermeer’s lenses).

  7. kevin says:

    Hi Chris,

    This is sorta kinda off topic but I am curious about something. I’ve been reading your blog for several years now and I don’t think you’ve ever done a post about poetry. Your interest and observations are so wonderfully broad that you’ve opened my mind and eyes to a host of new things and I thank you for that. But I don’t think you’ve ever written about poetry. Do you like it? I’m in the process now of discovering how wonderful, yet utterly mysterious, poetry really is. I think it’s taken me so long because I was always insisting that poetry “mean” like prose. I apologize for going off topic but I am curious about your thoughts.

  8. admin says:

    I like a lot of poetry, Kevin, but I usually veer away from accepted classics, many of which now read like lurid doggerel, and I consider much modern songwriting to be poetry – so I guess it comes down to what we regard as being ‘poetry’ – expect a blog post sometime soon…

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