Plot, Storytelling, and the Well-Made Film
There is a long-held, rarely examined point of view in film culture that says that the goodness of a film is measured solely by the quality of its technique. A film that is “well made” in this way need not express anything truthful or show us anything new about life, our culture, or the world outside of us; the film simply needs to be entertaining, and competently constructed from a technical standpoint. Often, the well-made film contains a thin intellectual veneer, a layer of vague social or political significance, a quality that purportedly elevates the work. The well-made film adheres to the conventions of genre, even when it attempts to subvert them (often no more than a wink to the audience). It holds fast to the belief that it can transcend genre without ever leaving its confines.
A quasi-formalism accompanies this mindset that pervades our current culture of dark, “serious” television and cinema. This view accepts a film or television show as good simply because its creators got the formal and structural elements in place, a sort of veneration for form alone that gives way to a vague set of values: is it entertaining, compelling to watch? Does it have interesting characters and good performances? Is the plot well paced? And finally, are there glimmers of serious themes? This last one is important because it gives viewers the feeling that they are actually participating in something of actual substance as opposed to mass market kitsch.
Take a look at, for example, a film like 2013’s Snowpiercer: on the one hand, it is an exceptionally crafted action movie, but its themes of class conflict and the vast disparity between rich and poor are essentialized to the point that single characters and settings became parts that stand for the whole, able to be satisfyingly snapped together like platonic Lego pieces in the viewer’s mind. Sure, one may object and say Snowpiecer is an allegory, and that’s just how allegories function. But Snowpiercer illustrates a certain tendency in much of mainstream cinema: themes, characters, and events get boiled down to their essence, made simplistic so that their meaning is easily grasped and digested, while any ambiguity and complexity is stripped away.
These tendencies are even more pronounced in the realm of “prestige” television, no doubt due to the latter’s recent displacement of cinema’s cultural reign. A few years ago I was wrapped up in the first season of True Detective, entranced by its atmosphere and sense of lurking dread that seemed to lay just off screen, nearly convinced that these supernatural horrors inhabited our own real world. But then its final three episodes aired and the illusion was broken. Instead of deepening the mystery, series writer Nick Pizzolatto chose to resolve the plot. Had those episodes held the tone of the ones preceding, that illusion might have remained, but sooner or later the realization would have hit that the show was nothing more than a few ephemeral pleasures, as genre television and cinema often is. Pizzolatto’s pessimist themes, of which his character Rust Cohle was the mouthpiece, turned out to be nothing more than Lovecraftian wallpaper. It should have come as no surprise that the show’s ultimate goal was nothing more than to entertain, to tell a story. Yet in interviews, Pizzolatto would enthusiastically name his philosophical influences, and treated them as if they were the truly important aspects of his show, not the plot. What would a show look like that took those themes truly seriously, and explored them with real depth and nuance? Would it still be “good storytelling”?
As with True Detective, the vast majority of contemporary mainstream films and television shows are seen exclusively as vehicles for telling stories. Even independent and art films are often described by many of their own adherents as alternate ways in telling stories. In contemporary culture, storytelling is predominantly viewed in mechanistic terms, synonymous with plot; in other words, a story is something that, whether linear or not, unfolds through cause and effect, and the mark of a good one is in the tightness of its construction. It can be written in outline form, each scene logically flowing into the next. Its excesses can easily be pinpointed and excised. At its inception it can be expressed as a series of ideas that in turn are expressed, unchanged to the viewer, as the final product. Characters in this view of things are not much more than instruments of the plot. They are there to drive the plot forward, and are given a series of attributes that make them feel like something slightly more than two dimensional. When this works, we accept it (often contingent on the actor’s performance—no small feat), but this doesn’t necessarily make it adequate; the character often is still little more than a handful of abstractions. The plot itself is often the true antagonist in a film or television show.
One of the best recent developments in American episodic television of the last fifteen years has been widespread adoption of serialization: plotlines that continue through an entire season instead of resolving within single episodes, as had mostly been the norm up until the early 2000s (The UK had already been doing it for decades). Serialization is something American television was good to adopt—it opened up opportunities for greater depth in television’s long-form structure. And while this has made our best shows and the characters that inhabit them richer than they would have been otherwise, I don’t think we’ve seen where the format can take us. Very few shows have used it for anything beyond the way plot is used in mainstream feature-length films—it’s the same, just more so. But plot is also no longer simply an instrument for telling stories in today’s television; it must be used in service of a show’s binge-worthiness, too.
It should be noted that there is a definite difference between story (or narrative) and plot: as said above, plot introduces causality into the mix, whereas a narrative alone may simply be a chain of chronological events. It is precisely this aspect of plot that keeps us watching episode after episode of a television show, eager to see what happens next in the chain of cause and effect. The result is that, more often than not, human concerns are pushed to the side; they get lost in the plot, so to speak. If most of life has never made it into our movies, far less of it has made it onto television. When television and films are used solely as storytelling apparatuses, many of the essential functions of art—to tell the truth about human experience, for instance—are largely ignored. Truth-telling is overtaken by storytelling.
That said, this isn’t an argument to dispense with plot entirely, although I am quite happy when filmmakers do exactly that. Plot is a tool that filmmakers and artists of all sorts should be free to employ or neglect as they see fit. There are no rules, after all, and it isn’t all or nothing. In the world of art film, plot is dispensed with so often that it’s easy to associate it exclusively with genre film. But an art film with a plot need not be a contradiction. As I see it, there are two main types of filmmakers that deal with plot: those who employ it in service of truth-telling, and those who employ it in service of filmmaking that refers only to itself (and not much else). The truth-telling filmmaker recognizes the importance of plot as a means to an end, while the other sees the well-made film as the only end worth pursuing.
One shining example in the truth-telling category is Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, whose A Separation won the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2012. A Separation contains many of the goals and conflicts that a Hollywood drama might, but approaches them from an entirely different angle: instead of figuring out how to resolve events in a way that is satisfactory to the narrative (and hence the viewer), Farhadi uses these common devices to explore his characters and their relationships. That he leaves things unresolved as the film ends is not the point, and just to be clear: an unresolved plot isn’t necessarily good, nor a resolved one necessarily bad. Farhadi shows the messiness and unfathomability of life and people that is the domain of so much art film, yet he never abandons the cause-and-effect structure of plot. It is a remarkable tightrope feat he demonstrates in all his films. His main focus is people rather than events. Compare this with Mike Leigh, who nearly always dispenses with plot but whose interest in people is at least equal with Farhadi’s. While Leigh sees plot for the lie that it is and rejects it, Farhadi understands that, paraphrasing the alleged Picasso quote, it is a lie that helps us understand the truth.
Contrast Farhadi’s approach with another contemporary filmmaker on the opposite end of the spectrum, David Fincher. A consummate formalist, Fincher’s films are precise and meticulous (and eminently watchable) as few others to come out of contemporary Hollywood. Plot is king in a Fincher film, out of which all other artistic and technical considerations seem to arise. To watch a Fincher film is to gaze upon an impeccably made, well-oiled machine. It is no surprise that at least two critics described his Girl With the Dragon Tattoo as “clinical,” while New York Magazine‘s David Edelstein said of The Social Network that, despite its fall-from-grace story, there was “no humanity [for its characters] to lose.” Fincher’s often populates his films with characters that are little more than ciphers, such as Rooney Mara’s title character in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: a performance that gets look and attitude right, then stops there, neglecting essential elements like behavior and personality. When shimmers of humanity do show through in Fincher’s characters, as in Carrie Coon’s performance in Gone Girl, they feel incidental, peripheral to the main concerns of the film. It isn’t that I think Fincher is necessarily a bad director whose films lack any worth, simply that he represents a type of filmmaker who believes everything begins and ends with story, told with surgical precision. This view of filmmaking is, I think, more or less the dominant one in our film and television culture; Fincher is just an extreme example.
The very type of precision employed by Fincher and his contemporaries is now being regularly emulated by today’s prestige television, and often it is just as constricting for multi-episode narratives as it is for two-hour movies. These days we are told television is coming into its own, that we are living in a new golden age of TV, that it now possesses more cultural currency than that of the movies. The part about cultural currency may be true, but television hasn’t grown up; it’s discovered serialization and gotten better production values. There are significant exceptions, but I don’t think the baseline has risen. In television, truth-telling is even more rare than it is in film, and even in the vast majority of so-called prestige series, adherence to structure and the plot is the main concern. The well-made film has become the well-made show.
In our current era of movies and television shows, I see a lot of brilliantly executed technique, but very little real artistic exploration (this point was sharply argued from another angle in Ricky D’Ambrose’s great essay, “Instagram and the Fantasy of Mastery”). It goes without saying that real artistic exploration is rarely popular, although it is cause for celebration when it is. If movies and television are as important as we believe and say they are, then it is time to go beyond “good storytelling,” to leave behind the abstractions and easy slogans, and go toward something more truthful, complex, and even difficult. Dark political times have arrived, and perhaps dark cultural times are on the horizon, and the enemies of the truth and complexity are winning. In our entertainment-saturated culture, suggesting we raise the stakes might be too much to ask. The question of how we can arrive there does not have an easy answer. But whether it is possible or not, one thing is clear: we need fewer well-oiled machines, and more works of art.