No Plot? No Problem!

Corey Atad has struck again. This time he has attacked the cinema by seeking to contain it within the constructs of narrative. In his article, he points to director Stan Brakhage as someone who makes little more than abstract paintings, declaring they are not films. Furthermore, he places films as art within the confines of narrative storytelling.

My retort is to repeat that cinema is primarily a visual medium, not a narrative medium or a storytelling medium, but a visual medium. That means, first and foremost, film should be concerned with the images. It just so turns out that we can tell stories fairly well with images but that does not mean that this is the be all end all of films.

Film can be many things. I see no problem with embracing Stan  Brakhage as a filmmaker because he is crafting images in the context of what we technically understand as film. These visualizations may exist without the ease of narrative explanation, but that doesn’t mean we cannot draw out thematic depths and meaning.

To me, this is one way in which I see so much potential for film, the idea of simply exploring a theme outside the contexts of narrative and characters. The key example of this kind of filmmaking is Koyaanisqatsi, a 90 minute film about the clash between the modern and natural world. And there’s not a single named character or line of dialogue in the film. It exists outside narrative, an exhibition in thematic filmmaking.

This is where I would vehemently disagree with Corey about his issue with The Tree of Life. I can concede that parts of the film are indulgent, but I think the exploration of the minutiae he complains about is part of the way the film exploring this thematic depth. It understands that narrative is one way to explore ideas and convey meaning, but there are also ways to explore these same ideas and meanings visually.

Narrative storytelling doesn’t have a corner on the market of meaning. Music and paintings have long since existed outside the confines of needing to provide narrative in order to be meaningful and impactful for audiences, why must film artificially be limited to only conveying meaning through this one modality? Is not the collision of sight and sound an opportunity to take the best of two mediums, add the dimension of time and illusion of movement and go forward boldly into a new way of creating meaning?

Another example I would point to in understanding how film can uniquely generate meaning is Man with a Movie Camera. This silent film by Russian film theorist Dziga Vertov is simply an hour of shots edited together in such a way to create meaning and associations. Here, the contrast and juxtaposition of two images through editing convey visual motifs and ideas that give the film coherence outside the confines of any narrative or characters.

This opens meaning into a whole array of tools the director has at their disposal. The use of symbolism might be used to invoke ideas and then through the next image a bond might be created. For example, what if we cut from the images of an American flag to the interior of a sweat shop in China where flags are being created en mass? Does not that simple play of images convey meaning and make a point outside any sort of narrative? Could such a display be just as powerful, moving and meaningful as an engrossing space opera or a sweeping period piece?

At the end of the day filmmakers make films. What that film looks like and how it conveys meaning is up to the filmmaker. There is a wide array of tools available. Narrative is the primary tool used, and the most familiar to moviegoers, but to say that film is only art and only meaningful in the contest of narrative cinema is nothing short of cinematic fascism.

Therefore, to one Corey Atad I would quote from one of his beloved narrative films, “It’s all there! Black and white, clear as crystal! You get nothing about the nature of cinema and the complex array of tools available to those who toil in its craft! You lose! Good day, sir! I said good day! “

© 2011 James Blake Ewing

  • I agree that film is a visual medium. For me, the less plot the film has. The better for me it to allow myself to be engrossed in the story or lack of story by the images. “Koyannisqatsi” is a great example. It doesn’t have to mean anything. I’m currently reviewing the script I’ve been working on for months to see what I can re-write or edit. What can I add and stuff. I admit, I’m not very good with dialogue as a lot of the stuff I’ve written mostly has scenes where it’s not about the dialogue but rather the action of what a character does. I’m more inspired by plot-less driven films than plot-driven films.

    • I certainly enjoy a number of films that don’t have a lot of dialogue and are accused of not having much story. For me, I’ve never perceived that as a problem.

  • Steve Kimes

    Excellent reply, James. We are on the same page.

    And if The Tree of Life was indulgent, it was brilliantly indulgent. A monumental achievement of imagination and conceptual power. However, I think your example of Kayannisqatsi is excellent to prove just how wrong Corey is in this case.

    • We’ll see if I ever fully embrace The Tree of Life. It is the only film from this year I’ve seen three times and will probably see again before the year’s end.

      Also glad to prove Corey wrong.

      • Three times!!! I mean I really liked it but I don’t know if I could sit through it three times in such a short period of time. I do hope to see it a second time before the end of the year.

  • I’ve seen some Brakhage, and I didn’t much care for it. I think that may be simply that I didn’t understand it. On the other hand, I’ve seen Koyaanisqatsi and Chelovek s Kinoapparatom, and I loved both of these.

    I’ll admit, though that a big part of my enjoyment of both of these films comes from the meshing of a superior soundtrack with the beautiful visuals–something the Brakhage I’ve seen lacked. Would my opinion be the same without Phillip Glass’s music in the former and The Alloy Orchestra’s work in the second? Probably not.

    Film may well be a visual medium, but it is also an auditory one in general. Even before sound in film, theaters employed at least a piano player to add an additional dimension to what was on the screen.

    Ultimately, the vast majority of people expect film to carry a narrative simply because the films that they have seen do–or at least most of them do. It’s entirely possible for film to simply be abstract, or a collection of images without narrative, and juxtaposition of images can create meaning. However, simply because of how we are used to seeing film and interpreting film, my guess is that many viewers of such films will create their own narrative of such movies out of reflexive habit. Film may not be an inherently storytelling medium, but it is a medium that adapts itself to that purpose easily and well, and thus has become closely associated with it.

    Any language–spoken, written, or visual–is at its heart both a way to convey meaning and a way to create meaning, and humans are meaning-creating animals. Create it, and someone will create a meaning for it. Regardless, for most of us, that generally means some level of narrative. Doesn’t have to, just usually does.

    • That is certainly a possibility. I understand that some people will create narrative in order to construct that meaning. My point would be is that there’s no inherent narrative in something like a Brakhage film or The Man with a Movie Camera.

      Also, audio is certainly an important part of films, one I intentionally neglected for the point of making this specific argument, but it certainly can affect and change the meaning of a film.

  • A great reply, and I have to say that in this argument I agree with you. While I don’t watch many films that don’t have narratives, I certainly would never be crazy enough to say that film “has” to have a narrative. Indeed, doing so almost sounds like a challenge to the next generation of filmmakers to experiment more and more with narrative-less filmmaking. They (or at least some of them) are artists after all, and there’s nothing that the artistic spirit, or for that matter the human spirit, loves more than breaking the supposed rules.

    Now, having said that, I wonder whether some filmmaker will take your post as a challenge too. A visual medium you say? What if the next generation of filmmakers includes a 5 minute segment of just black screen in the middle of the film (with sound over it that fits the narrative of the rest of the film). And then the next generation has several of those blackouts? And then someone does a “film” which is all black screen throughout, no visual change at all, something like what Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square did with art.

    I can imagine a filmmaker then making two pieces of art, one where a black screen is projected onto a screen while the soundtrack plays, and then a second where the same soundtrack plays and the visual projector is turned off. Where does film start/stop and just music start/stop?

    I’m not saying that I’d pay cineplex prices to see such a film, of course. I’m just imagining how someone might try to interrogate the divisions between art forms. For all I know, someone has already done this!

    • I’m not completely opposed to moments of dark in a film, they can be particularly effective in horror films at creating disorienting and frightening moments where all you can do is hear what is happening. However, if that’s your entire film, I think you’ve made a radio broadcast in theaters, not a film. But I could see someone making a playful film that flashes images inbetween spats of darkness. I wouldn’t have an issue with that if there was a reason behind the darkness that made sense for the film.

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  • I’m in your boat James, I don’t understand the desire some people have to pigeonhole film into one box or another. I like films with good narratives, I like films with lots of dialogue, but I also like films that have little narrative and films with almost no dialogue.

    I just commented on your Faust review, and I think Murnau is another great director who reinforces your point. He spent a tragically short career using minimal narrative to tell his fabulous stories. A narrative was present in each and every one of his films, but he also used his brand of visual artistry to tell his stories, because atmosphere and tone are just as useful in engrossing a viewer as a good narrative.

    • Yes, there is so much space that great directors work in, it’s hard to unify them as all directors who are working in the same space.