Daniel Mendelsohn did not like Tarantion’s Kill Bill. Why? Because there was no “psychological motivation” and a “tenacious plot”:
For Tarantino, the movie fan who knows everything about the actors in the films he loves, it’s unnecessary to write psychology or motivation into the movies; he’s assuming that, like him, you’ll be able to fill in the blanks. This goes for plot as well as character: he assumes that you, too, have seen enough kung fu movies and bad old westerns (to say nothing of bad Seventies chick-cop shows) to know why these characters do what they do, why they’re seeking revenge, and so on. He thinks, in other words, that he can devote an entire film to choreographing scenes of kung-fu violence because you already know the story, in effect, and are willing merely to sit back and enjoy the fight sequences that he’s hung on a tenuous plot line.
I’m glad that the New York Review of Books is starting to take movies seriously, but they have to do better than this. Is it really so deeply ingrained in the mentality of the American moviegoer that there must be a character driven plot in which the psychological problems of the main character are resolved in a three act structure, culminating in some kind of redemption? Aren’t there other forms of narrative, other forms of story telling that are allowed to grace the big screen?
In the movie Adaptation, the main character’s screenplay adaptation of a book is going nowhere because he can’t fit it into the standard three act structure. Then he attends a workshop with screenplay guru Robert McKee (a real life person, whose seminars preach “Structure is Character“), who leads him to see the light. He finally gives in, calls his successful brother to come and save his screenplay, and then the audience is treated to a third act full of drugs, character development, and, yes, redemption.
I liked Adaptation, mostly for Chris Cooper’s performance, but I felt that this third act was too easy a way out. The writer, Charlie Kaufman, gives the audience a wink and a nudge, which allows him to be really clever and conform to convention at the same time. How boring. And how boring an ending. In discussing the film with people, I’ve been struck by how many didn’t even understand that the third act was written by the brother. Some found the ending contrived, others moving, but few saw it as being a product of the main character’s rejection of artistry for formula. That is, they saw it as the plot of the film, rather than a film within a film. I believe this is because we’ve become so preconditioned to a certain narrative structure that we aren’t able to think critically about it as an audience, even when the filmmaker sets out to ask us to.
In a recent interview with LOTR director, Peter Jackson, he was asked about his decision to remove the wonderful character Tom Bombadil from the first movie:
I always think of Tom Bombadil as a slightly silly character who doesn’t actually contribute too much to the story. We’ve always felt the spine of the story was about Frodo and the ring.
Which explains why the films, while featuring wonderful feats of cinematic escapism, fail to capture the real joy of the Tolkien books — the joy of story telling. Instead, we are presented with a series of battles, each bigger than the last — all standing as a backdrop for the psychological struggle between good and evil faced by the bearer of the ring. It is true that this is all in the book as well — but I believe that for Tolkien this strong narrative existed primarily as an excuse. It is an excuse to move us through a world full of fun an interesting characters, like Tom Bombadil. The central narrative is deliberately simple so that we can enjoy the process of watching what we find along the way.
Virginia Woolf did a wonderful job of capturing this narrative structure in her short piece “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” about going to the strand to buy a pencil. Her goal — buying the pencil — allows her to thread together a rich narrative of all the things she sees along the way.
How beautiful a street is in winter! It is at once revealed and obscured. Here vaguely one can trace symmetrical straight avenues of doors and windows; here under the lamps are floating islands of pale light through which pass quickly bright men and women, who, for all their poverty and shabbiness, wear a certain look of unreality, an air of triumph, as if they had given life the slip, so that life, deceived of her prey, blunders on without them. But, after all, we are only gliding smoothly on the surface.
If you made a movie about this story and removed everything that didn’t have to do directly with the pencil because it didn’t help “the plot” you would clearly betray your ignorance of the whole point of the story.
Needless to say, Tarantino’s “revenge” story works much the same way. It doesn’t really matter what order the various episodes are presented — they are all self contained narratives. Some of the stories and characters are more fun and interesting than others, I agree, but the problem isn’t the lack of a character driven narrative. In fact, that lack is what makes this film so much fun — it is all about the pleasures of narrative. The extravagant and cartoonish violence only adds to the sense of oral storytelling. There is nothing “real” about this film — psychologically, or otherwise. It is pure escapism, but not of the pre-packaged three act structure kind. It is more akin to the stories people tell (or used to tell, since public story telling seems to be a dying art) about catching a fish, or a great movie they once saw. Mendelsohn thinks that stories about stories are “empty” and “passive”, but I think it is precisely the vapid three-act morality plays we are so often served with that best fit this description.
I was going to stop there — but Johnathan Delacour has written a nice post about Ozu’s philosophy of character which is directly relevant to the points I make here.
One understands, then, Ozu’s dislike and distrust of plot. Plot is possible only if it is agreed that a character is a certain kind of person with a certain kind of past who will therefore predictably do certain kinds of things and not others—that he is, in short, limited in a way people never are, before death.
Only if you believe that all your decisions in life are pre-determined by your childhood relationship with your mother, can you think that the traditional three-act hollywood plot is the best way to tell a story.