P.O.V. No.18 - Storytelling

Story and.... "story"
Reflections on an over-hyped concept

Mark Le Fanu

Storytelling seems to be an innate human activity. The capacity to speak carries with it an invisible shaping power, even at the level of sentence construction, and there is no human being alive who is not impelled to tell stories (even if they are only to himself) several times a day - it is as native to the way we function as breathing is. Granted, then, that "storytelling animal" is one of the definitions of being human, the interesting distinction arises not between those who tell stories and those who don't (because we all do), but between the out-and-out professionals (writers, filmmakers, dramatists) and the rest of us, who may be characterized as mere amateurs of anecdote. Whereas the story-telling ability of most human adults subsists merely at a conversational level, a percentage of the populace in every generation attempts more ambitious shapings. So literature - in its multifarious branches - is born. People endeavour to tell stories for a living, and here, it seems to me, certain skills and enthusiasms are required that are precisely not innate or universal: 1. The writer in question must be able to invent interesting characters; 2. what they say is important: they have to be furnished with interesting dialogue, or dialogues; lastly, 3. a framework of incident has to be devised in which these fictional characters may be drawn out, "incarnated" and in other ways turned into live human beings.

I list these three skills separately, but of course they are all intertwined: in the cauldron of creation, they are operating simultaneously and invisibly. I would like to repeat my speculation that the aptitude to engage successfully in this sort of activity is - if not exactly rare - then at least a gift that is not given to everyone. Alas, for most of us, the desire to invent stories and to elaborate them systematically in writing, dries up around adolescence - along with those other ludic past-times of childhood such as drawing and colouring and dressing up in theatrical costume. Yet storytelling is profoundly congruent as an activity with the state of childhood. The phrase itself, "storytelling", can never slough off its primary allegiance to entertainment, and to wonder. A primitive taxonomy of story suggests itself. First, there are the bed-time tales told by parents to children - fairy tales and ghost stories that mingle with and interpenetrate the child's dreams. Further on in life, a central branch of the childish imagination is the adventure story, the ingredients of which we may attempt to list schematically: a simple robust plot, a hero or heroine who can be identified with, a quest successfully undertaken and a morally unambiguous outcome. With variations, this (or something like it) is still the template that powers the huge entertainment machine known as Hollywood. The satisfactions of the standard blockbuster, and even the ordinary comedy, are essentially "childish" in the context I am suggesting here - which doesn't mean that they aren't interesting, and genuine, and backed up by vast reserves of talent. There is no need to deny the fact that the people who provide these stories (the industry professionals - the "developers", the screen-writers, the script-doctors, the hordes of re-write specialists) are skilled craftsmen to the tips of their fingernails.

But there is another kind of story that is closer to the core of literature. In any case, it is interesting that in the context of literature one doesn't use the word "story" so often. Story has got to be there, of course - something is being told, and what that thing is, will usually be summarisable. Yet the deepest satisfactions of literature are not plot-confined: in some of literature's greatest works (I include plays - for example, Chekhov's plays - as well as novels) it is as if plot itself has evaporated: what happens, happens (so to speak) of its own volition - without the intercession of the storyteller, and independent of the exigencies of "genre". Miraculous moment! The scaffolding disappears: you search around and can't see a sign of it. It is as if it never existed! The same "trick" can be discerned in cinema, and is absolutely the thing that makes the greatest movies so wonderful- this beguiling feeling, that the audience doesn't know at all where it's being taken, doesn't even suspect that it's in a story. Take a simple example: the plot of Bicycle Thieves is easy to recount: a man loses his bicycle. Unless he can find it he will lose, too, his job and his family. With his ten year old son, he skelters around Rome in search of the vehicle. Yet nothing at all in de Sica's film is predictable: the incidents that follow each other have their own logic, their own rhythm, their own integrity. Everywhere, the film combats and outwits the reductiveness of melodrama. It is exactly similar, in this, to a film like Pather Panchali: plot, as such, has been banished by Satyajit Ray, to be replaced by limpidly beautiful incidents that seem to succeed each other with all the gravity and inevitability of life itself.

The two examples here are taken from the humanist classics, but one could just as easily cite modernist or postmodernist masterpieces. Indeed, "lack of plot" might even be one of their defining characteristics. One thinks of Godard or Antonioni. What exactly is L'Avventura, for example? A woman from a yacht-party goes missing on an island; her friends search for her. The search continues on the mainland and is never resolved. By the end of the film we still do not know whether she has disappeared in an accident, committed suicide, or been abducted (or none of these things). None of this matters, however: in life, after all, mysteries also remain unresolved. The extraordinary suspense of the film - the suspense that is necessary in every narrative and dramatic work of art - is not the suspense of a detective thriller; it is sustained, on the contrary, by our wondering from scene to scene where Antonioni will take us next - not so much narratively, as spiritually, psychologically, erotically. The film seems, as it unfolds, to have no structure at all; yet, when it ends, we have undoubtedly been somewhere, and taken prizes. Its cadences, in the musical sense, are beautiful and just.

Other examples suggest themselves. A good proportion, perhaps, of all the movies that count in film history are like this. One thinks of the Czech school of the 1960s: minimalist masterpieces like Intimate Lighting (Ivan Passer, 1965) or Capricious Summer (Jiri Menzel, 1967) in which nothing happens at all - on the surface, at least; though beneath the surface the currents of life flow impellingly. And there is the whole strand of French film-making that stretches from Renoir to Rohmer, predicated on tiny, almost invisible incidents, faultlessly evoked and elaborated. We are far here, indeed, from the broad brush strokes of populist Hollywood dramaturgy. Hollywood and the kind of films I have been describing are really two different forms of art, two different creatures In a way it is pointless to compare them. So it strange, I think, that efforts to place them in the same basket are very much the style of the age.

The trend first started ten or so years ago. At the time I am thinking of, one couldn't open a magazine or a newspaper without coming upon an article complaining that "European cinema [alternatively: "art-house cinema"] has forgotten how to tell stories." (The real meaning of this is: it is not enough like Hollywood.) Seminars and study-courses started up everywhere explaining to us, or purporting to explain, how this deficiency of imagination might be rectified. One was struck by the condescension - or else (is it the same thing?) - the ignorance of some of these initiatives. How openly they disdained what had been achieved in European cinema, in their eagerness to replace it with new formulas! What started out as a mild corrective (a plea for a return from the wilder shores of the avant-garde to the pleasures of orthodox story-telling) became, soon enough, a constricting ideology which begged more questions than it answered. "Films must be popular." But what do you mean by popular? (And actually, why must they be popular? A good film will find its own level.) And then this key mantra we have been considering. "A film must tell a story." Yes: but there are many stories, and many different ways of telling a story. The phrase itself, when overused like this, infantilises the subject, dragging art down to the lowest common level, and anchoring it there in the public's so-called "need for entertainment". So the plea here (in this special issue of POV) is for a cautious and scrupulous consideration of the topic, and a sensitivity to its ideological deceptiveness. There are films, to repeat, where story is everything (Almodovar's Bad Education seems to me to be a good recent example); and there are films that have no story at all - none, at least, that is discernible to the naked eye. Neither type of film, I would think, is necessarily better than the other. Power, beauty, depth and coherence in a work of art are surely what ultimately matter - these are the qualities that we should be looking for. Story is only the starting-point.

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