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Cinema’s Dilemma – A Lack Of Ideas Or ‘Narrative Exhaustion?’

Cinema's Dilemma - A Lack Of Ideas Or 'Narrative Exhaustion?'

I stumbled upon this interesting 2009 article on The Guardian website by veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) that offers a different POV on Hollywood’s indubitable tendency to recycle narratives.

It might be 3 years old, but it still seems relevant to the Hollywood studio film business today.

Schrader’s explanation is one that many of us have voiced previously – that with the gluttony of media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, reality TV, etc) supplying us with an ever-consistent feed of mini-narratives, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for the staid, rigid feature film screenplay to innovate competitively, stifling screenwriters in the process. So, the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of ideas, as many of us have previously and continually expressed frustration over; the real problem, according to Schrader anyway (not me), is that we are numb from being inundated with narratives in various forms.

For example, he starts:

Let’s crunch some hypothetical numbers. Take a media-aware person of, say, 30 years of age. Call him Ollie Overwhelmed. When Ollie’s great-grandfather was 30 he had perhaps seen 2,500 hours of audio-visual narrative (plot). His grandfather, age 30, had seen about 10,000 hours. His father had seen 20,000 hours. Ollie in 2009, age 30, has seen approximately 35,000 hours of audio-visual narrative. These are not hard numbers. I’ve read no polling to this effect. But this seems about right. That’s 35,000 hours of plot. Movies, television shows, cartoons, streaming video, YouTube clips. Storylines long and short: teen comedies, soap operas, love stories, crime shows, historical dramas, special-effects extravaganzas, horror, porn, highbrow, lowbrow, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. That’s a lot of narrative. It’s exhausting.

So, what does this mean for the screenwriter? Schrader states…

… It means that’s it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer’s expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He’s seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humor? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what’s true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

His solution for the storyteller? Work increasingly outside the confines of traditional storytelling, for one thing. Of course, I think most of you have already considered that. Schrader then goes on to detail the kind of “counter-programming” that he believes this exhaustion of narrative has led to – areas he seems to be suggesting that screenwriters (and filmmakers in general) consider working within. You all will recognize these:

1. Reality TV. Any regular viewer knows that reality television follows its own scripted formulas, but the appearance of being unscripted is essential to its appeal. Weary of so much predicable plot, the jaded viewer turns to “reality”. 

2. Anecdotal narrative. The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behavior encumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not “fake,” not “contrived” (although of course it is). 

3. Reenactment drama. Whether based on famous events or lesser-known ones, reenactment entertainment sells the premise that these events actually happened and were not cooked up by a staff of writers (though, again, if not actually cooked up, they were seasoned and served by writers). 

4. Videogames. The ability of the viewer to participate in the storytelling process creates an illusion of non-contrivance. 

5. Mini-mini dramas. Part of the appeal of three- to five-minute stories created for cellphones, YouTube and original programming is the illusion of not being crafted narratives. Just bits of life. 

6. Documentaries. A staple of filmed entertainment since its beginnings, documentaries, historically the poor cousins of commercial cinema, have grown in number and viewership, an increase owed in part to the desire of viewers to look beyond predictable narratives.

So, essentially, the times area a-changing; and you either adapt, or you die – figuratively speaking.

Schrader offers no real solutions to this storytellers’ dilemma, other than to close with statements that remind us that we’re working with what is already an archaic form of media, even though it’s only about 100 years old – one that we can expect will evolve in form and structure, over time, unlike books, for example, which have maintained the same standard physical structure since the introduction of the printing press in the 1800s.

Movies were the artform of the 20th century. The traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old. I don’t know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don’t think it will be what we used to call movies. Narrative will mutate and endure. Audio-visual entertainment is changing and narrative will change with it.

Just to be clear, I’m certainly not endorsing the writer’s POV. Clearly, his is a myopic one in that he’s white and male. So, from that POV, yes of course it feels like narrative exhaustion, because Hollywood’s story is a white male dominated narrative.

What Mr. Schrader fails to realize is that the dynamic of any random story can quickly change when a black person (or any other *minority*) is introduced (particularly as the lead character in the story), and since we’ve barely begun to really scratch the surface of what we call *black storytelling*, that “narrative shortage” he talks about eludes black folks, for example, as well as women, Latinos, Asians, and other so-called minority groups.

But given how much I’ve read, this kind of thinking isn’t so uncommon in the industry – a white male dominated industry – and it does adversely affect the rest of us, unfortunately. So, as a screenwriter or filmmaker intent on a studio-backed career, as many are pursuing, your story (regardless of the ethnicity, or gender of the lead character(s) might be quickly dismissed with a yawn, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it.

So, essentially, what I took from the piece was something S&A has talked about previously – thinking and working outside the proverbial box, especially if your intent is to work within those limits set by the dominant group.

Although, maybe one could consider the rather simple act of casting a black man/woman instead of the expected white man/woman in a role as an example of thinking and working outside the box.

You can read the full article HERE.

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