Losing the plot. The Observer film quarterly, 22 March 2009

Stanley Kubrick’s 1956 film The Killing follows a prickly collection of gangsters as they plan to rob a racetrack of millions of dollars. The way that it follows them, however, was considered most unusual at the time. Right from the outset the film shifts to and fro between the multiple different points of view of its protagonists, and leaps back and forth in time to tell the story. Its circuitous structure deliberately plays around with linear chronology, as if throwing out pieces of a jigsaw puzzle and forcing the viewer to put them back together again. At test screenings, the reaction of audiences was disappointing, and their chief gripe was its confusing structure. In the end studio executives became convinced that audiences wouldn’t have the patience for it, and The Killing was quietly buried.
The Killing was one of the first films to use nonlinear, multi-perspectival storytelling in the mainstream cinema. Forty years after it bombed, however, there began to appear a slew of films that looked very much like it. Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) can be seen as an early example of the form. Hammering together as it does three completely different stories in a resolutely non-chronological order, Pulp Fiction is now considered to have been at least partly inspired by The Killing . The films were aimed at different audiences in different periods, but both aimed to zigzag around the truth and confuse the viewer into engaging more fully with the story. Explaining the thrill he gets from telling stories in cryptic, nonlinear fashion, Tarantino has claimed that he finds it fun “to watch an audience in some ways chase after a movie”. But whereas Kubrick’s film died a death, Pulp Fiction cleaned up. Why?
At least part of the answer must be that, in an age defined by our intense involvement with electronic information, the kinds of stories that we want to hear have subtly changed. In her speech accepting the Nobel Prize for literature in December 2007, for example, Doris Lessing delivered a sermon warning against the dangers of spending too much time on the net. What we urgently need, she argued, was a new appreciation of the ancient art of storytelling, which was, under the weight of all this new technology, in danger of being forgotten. “The storyteller,” she insisted, “is deep inside every one of us. . . It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker, that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best – and at our most creative.”
Lessing was right about the power of storytelling. The ability to tell a story properly, after all, requires that the teller should not be waylaid by the wanderings of the audience. Stories are everywhere, and the reason they are so popular is that they offer us meaning and a way of making sense of the world and our place in it. For as long as we humans have existed, stories have entertained us and helped us hand down knowledge and lore from generation to generation; they are so fundamental to us that they must somehow be hard-wired into our brains.
Isn’t it possible, though, that Lessing was too pessimistic? Isn’t it possible that the greater freedom for manoeuvre afforded us by electronic information is simply altering the kind of stories that we want to listen to? Might our cybernetic urge to forge our own path through electronic information, as the media guru Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s, now be too restless to cope with the traditional one-thing-after-another plot lines that we’re used to in mainstream culture? If stories are hard-wired into our brains, in other words, isn’t it possible that the wiring is subtly changing?
For many years now, just as McLuhan prophesied, the habit of reading books has slowly been losing its grip on many of us. At the same time, many of us have slowly become highly skilled at pressing buttons and adjusting ourselves to a constant stream of electronic feedback on computer games, the internet and our mobile phones. In itself, that need not be a problem. There is, as McLuhan pointed out, nothing particularly natural about the act of reading or writing stories in books. What the invention of the book did manage to do was to impose a cer tain kind of order over how readers made their way through the story, and, over time, the wiring of our brains adjusted to catch up.
The control of the book’s author over how we read is not absolute; tire of a bad book and one can always turn its pages to find the sexy or interesting bits, like the owner of a video recorder pausing or fast-forwarding a dull film. Compared to the computer gamer or the internet user, however, the reader of a book has long been seen as passive and utterly at the mercy of the storyteller – he or she, after all, has precious little power over how the story is told. On the other hand, it’s the humble reader who chooses how to interpret the work. Even in the most straightforward of novels, it’s up to the reader to reassemble the component parts of the story in their minds and then scan it for meaning.
Those of us who have got used to doing things on screen, however, have a much more powerful way of taking the reins from an author or an authority. Armed with our computer mouse, what would have been a book appears to us as a stream of messages on a loop, a loop that usually encourages us to hop around nimbly from one place to another. What kind of stories do people brought up like this want to hear?
Look carefully at mainstream television and cinema: a new kind of storytelling that deliberately engages our restless, cybernetic imagination already exists. Stories like this seem to allow the audience to adjust and zigzag their way through the story – not by giving away some physical control of the narrative, like a computer game, but by adjusting themselves to a sensibility that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time sending out messages and batting back feedback on an electronic information loop.
These new stories are not structured in the traditional way – they are oblique and elusive enough to allow for a wide variety of interpretations, and broad enough to allow the reader more freedom of manoeuvre to follow their own path through the narrative. For the most part, the plots of these new stories emphasise chance, coincidence and random connections. They don’t have an obvious beginning, middle and end; if they are thrown forward at all, it is by bad luck, freakish twists of fate, and the systematic inability of characters to take things into their hands and make sense of their own lives. Like all good stories, these new stories are invested with morals and meaning, but more often than not the meaning is that meaning itself is difficult to decipher. What is special about this new kind of storytelling in cinema and television is that it is becoming increasingly nonlinear.
Let’s call it cyber-realism. A cyber-realist story contains at least one of four different elements – the puzzle, the loop, multiplicity and the tie. Sometimes a film comes along that showcases all four, and in 2003 that film arrived in the form of 21 Grams
This bleak film marked the arrival in Hollywood of the celebrated but now defunct Mexican writer-director team of Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro Inarritu. Its plot revolved around a tragic hit-and-run road accident that resulted in the death of a father and two small daughters. As far as that goes, 21 Grams isn’t particularly different from the usual Hollywood fare. The way the story was written and filmed, however, was novel. Just as in Amores Perros , the previous film by Arriaga and Inarritu, and their subsequent star-studded blockbuster Babel (2006), 21 Grams dealt with the overlapping, strangely myriad connections between three characters who – if their lives had not become intertwined through a random tragedy – would not otherwise have met.
Then there was the filming itself. 21 Grams was shot in chronological order and subsequently edited into a nonlinear arrangement of sections that flicker back and forth between events before, after, and during the accident. Watching it was a deeply confusing experience, and deliberately so. 21 Grams set out to chop itself up into “digital bits” so as to challenge viewers and keep them on the edge of their seat. The disparate pieces of the story fitted back together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, a puzzle whose real meaning became clear only when all the pieces were in place. Like a computer game it zigzagged back and forth, forcing its audience to constantly adjust its antennae to bring the plot closer into focus.
Films like 21 Grams are now all the rage in cinema, and not only in the art house. In more or less artful ways, storytellers of all kinds have been queuing up to stoke our suspicion that secret codes and patterns might exist, tantalisingly out of reach, and taunt us with possible solutions.
Yet another example of the type of paranoid puzzle that is becoming more and more common in film and cinema is Lost , an American TV series that began airing in 2004. This follows the tribulations of a group of air-crash survivors on a mysterious desert island. Twenty-five episodes into Lost , the viewer is witness to a conversation between John Locke, a bald-headed mystic, and Jack Shephard, the programme’s nearest thing to a leading man. Locke, whose enigmatic demeanour leads one to suspect that he understands more about their predicament than he is letting on, is berating Jack for his lack of faith. “Do you think this is an accident? That we, a group of strangers, survived, many of us with just superficial injuries? You think we crashed on this place by coincidence, especially this place? We were brought here for a purpose, for a reason, all of us.”
Some years and many series later, viewers are still in the dark about what that purpose might be. Lost boasts a huge cast of characters and a breathtaking number of plot lines; it works by piling puzzle upon impenetrable puzzle while stubbornly refusing to solve them.
In search of a little enlightenment, its diehard fans have flooded on to the internet for clues on how to crack its determinedly labyrinthine plot. Dip your toe into the blogosphere and you will be floored by a wave of riffs on the meaning of Lost ; musings on the significance of the different shades of light used, the colours of black and white, even the clothes worn by the characters. Some have suggested that the island might be a tropical purgatory, that the plight of the characters might be an allegory for the state of contemporary America, that they might have got themselves caught in a time warp, that they are unwitting island mates in some reality TV show, and – that old chestnut – that it all might be a dream. One intriguing interpretation of the series is that everything within it is part of a giant computer game.
The second hint to the viewer that they are watching a piece of cyber-realist storytelling is the appearance of a narrative loop that suggests that the story, rather than moving forward, might be about to turn full circle. Just as McLuhan predicted that linear, one-after-another processes would soon be replaced by continuously looping circuits of information, storytellers have begun to use narrative loops as a neat way to flip the expected chronology of their stories. The end of 21 Grams , for example, reverts straight back to the beginning, as if all its events have been playing on a giant loop and are fated to be replayed again and again.
A common way of inserting a narrative loop is to play around with memory. The film Memento (2000), for example, told the story of a man who has lost his memory and who lives only in the present, but who is obsessed with finding out who murdered his wife. The movie begins near the chronological end of the story – the protagonist’s slaying of what he takes to be his wife’s killer – and then gradually loops its way backwards, a few scenes at a time, to tease us with what really happened. Like 21 Grams , Memento has been systematically chopped up and rearranged to entice a modern audience that needs more of a challenge; what it amounts to is a classic and very conventional murder-mystery zapped into cyber-realist form.
Asked why he so often slices up his stories into bits and rearranges them in a different order, Memento ‘s director, Christopher Nolan, paid tribute to the greater sophistication of his audience. “I think people’s ability to absorb a fractured mise en scene ,” he said, “is extraordinary compared to 40 years ago.”
The third sign of cyber-realist storytelling is when a story runs to a multiplicity of disparate strands or plot lines that the storyteller manages to keep spinning at the same time. Hosting a variety of different protagonists is nothing new in cinema; what is novel is when all of those protagonists are pursuing multiple, parallel goals that seem to have nothing at all in common for most of the film. Moving across these multiple, scarcely overlapping stories, the film forces the viewer to hop from one jarring piece of information to another to make sense of it all. The result of the decision to chop up 21 Grams into little bits and rearrange its chronology, for example, is that its disparate plot lines are thrown into a crazed juxtaposition even before it becomes clear what has happened and to whom.
Another example is the fearsomely fidgety 2005 geopolitical thriller and George Clooney vehicle, Syriana . In the first half hour , the befuddled viewer is introduced to a total of six different plot lines, which, for most of the film, seem to have nothing in common with each other.
Then there is the surprise 2004 hit Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Michel Gondry, which switches not only between different levels of the consciousness of its hero, Joel (Jim Carrey), but between different time zones in the present, past and future. Fittingly for an audience that has grown up hitched to computers, the film turns on an attempt by Joel and his former girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet) to undergo a medical procedure to erase the memory of their failed and mutually painful relationship.
Like Memento , Eternal Sunshine ‘s narrative structure is a perfect loop. It begins where it might normally end, when the two former lovers encounter each other on a train, after having erased their memories of each other and with no inkling of their previous relationship. But it does something else, too. The result of superimposing different layers of Joel’s consciousness on the story – his recovered memories, his observations of himself from within his memories, and the world outside his memories – is to present the story from a dizzying range of different perspectives that all happen to come from within the tortured psyche of the same character.
Essential to the idea of multiplicity is that the story’s many different viewpoints do not necessarily arrive at the same kind of truth about events. The reason for watching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , Kaufman explains, is to see what Joel thinks about his relationship with Clementine, not what actually happened. “You don’t really know what their relationship is,” says Kaufman. “You only know what Joel thinks about their relationship.”
The fourth and last element of cyber-realist storytelling follows from the third. The way in which a cyber-realist story brings together the different perspectives and goals of its myriad protagonists is through random or unlikely ties or connections, a device that often ends up framing the entire story. Holding together the whole messy edifice of 21 Grams , for example, is a single accident that catapults its many characters into one another’s lives. The tie that brings together all three different stories in Pulp Fiction is a stick-up in a diner, which begins and ends the film’s narrative loop.
Thanks to a multiplicity of different protagonists and a hornet’s nest of random ties and connections, cyber-realist stories do not so much move forward as spread out to ricochet around whole neighbourhoods, cities and beyond, pointing up the interconnectedness of just about everything.
“People lead very fragmented lives,” Inarritu told one journalist, justifying why he should want to tie together such different stories in 21 Grams . “We can be on the cellular phone and on the computer and in many places in a short time. We are more conscious of things happening at the same time that can affect us.”
In a similar way, the Oscar-winning 2004 film Crash features a wide range of protagonists from different walks of life in contemporary Los Angeles. The story proceeds to bring all of them together through an apparently random series of car accidents, shootings and hijackings. The result is to build random ties and connections between very different characters and thereby illustrate a rich and open-ended fable about racial tensions, hypocrisy and the sharply divided American class system.
One last example: the title of the popular American TV show The Wire initially referred to a wire-tap that the Baltimore police were using to try to nail an outfit of local drug dealers, but soon became a metaphor for the premise that a wide variety of organisations and individuals in the city of Baltimore were connected. The series started out as a cops-and-gangsters story but soon spread out to tie together cultures that appeared to have little in common – drug dealers, the police, government and political lobbyists, schools and the media. In The Wire no single character or story line takes precedence; many are kept spinning at the same time, and its different worlds are brought together via unlikely connections to illustrate how everything is quietly tied to everything else. Interviewed by the New Yorker in 2007, its creator, David Simon, insisted that The Wire “was never a cop show. We were always planning to move further out, to build a whole city.”
The new cyber-realism and its constituent elements – the puzzle, the loop, multiplicity and the tie – tempt us with more freedom to negotiate our way through stories in film and cinema, and discover our own path. It does so, for the most part, by making us constantly adjust our expectations in response to a rich and continuous loop of jarring information.
Playing around with chronology to suggest that the story is not really moving forward at all is not new to avant-garde artists and film-makers. As Jean-Luc Godard famously quipped, a story should have a beginning, middle and end – but not necessarily in that order. Long before the worldwide web was widespread, many of our best novelists and film-makers – from James Joyce to Salvador Dali – were experimenting with non-traditional ways to tell stories within the confines of books and films.
This kind of storytelling, however, is entirely fresh to mainstream cinema. Maybe the only thing new about it is that it has found itself at home among a mainstream audience.
Another way of making sense of the best of these new stories is to say that they are beginning to take on all the weight and complexity of those sumptuous, many-layered novels much loved by the Victorians, which seemed to contain the whole world within their covers – and which, like the box-set TV series that we huddle over our computers to watch today, were often produced in smaller gobbets for serialisation, and consumed a little at a time.
The promise of cyber-realist storytelling is that viewers are tired of formulaic narratives and are looking instead for richer stories that allow them greater freedom of manoeuvre. The danger is that they fail to decipher any meaning in this explosion of information and perspective, that they end up going around in circles, and that they are left – like those suspiciously well-preserved characters from that daft American TV series – utterly, utterly lost.