Category Archives: Essays and Theory

EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

EXPLORING ARCHETYPES IN CINEMA

“All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes.” CARL JUNG

I have recently explored character names and character personas on this blog. These articles can be found here:

  1. WHAT’S IN A NAME
  2. A TEST OF CHARACTER

Now I would like to broaden the subject and have a go at defining some basic film character archetypes. My definition of this has some crossover with personas, but archetypes are not necessarily the component which make up the character – they ARE the character!

Archetypes are a common or typical shorthand; a tool writers, directors and actors can use to define character during the creative process. They are not stereotyping though. They are standardized models and structures that can be built upon to fully flesh out a character.

The archetypes I would like to consider are: Everyman/Woman, Hero, Super-Hero, Anti-Hero, Nemesis, Mentor, Sidekick and Lover/Romantic Interest. Obviously, many of these archetypes can combine, especially in more complex films, plus I’m sure there are loads of others. However, I will limit myself to these for now.



EVERYMAN / WOMAN

The staple for many, many movies is an everyman or woman or boy or girl (or gender fluid) character who is easy to relate to for the audience. It could be Tom Hanks in Castaway (2000), or Tom Hanks in Sully (2016), or Tom Hanks in basically everything – even Toy Story (1995). They tend toward the working or ordinary class with regular jobs and family units. Their stories will be everyday, or they will find themselves facing incredible situations. Alfred Hitchcock favoured everyman and woman characters who would be thrown into dangerous situations. Actors who excel in such roles include: Hanks, James Stewart, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Francis McDormand, Jack Lemmon and many more.


HERO

Many characters can begin ordinary or everyday, but over the course of a film become heroes. Luke Skywalker for instance is an bright farm kid with dreams of joining the academy. A series of contrasting events then cause his rise to discovery and heroism. On the other hand, some heroes are fully formed such as James Bond and Indiana Jones. The everyman character and hero are often combined, like with John McCLane or underdog characters such as Rocky Balboa. My favourite hero arcs are stories where the character starts in lower status such as The Terminator (1984), Django Unchained (2012) and Harriet (2019).



SUPER-HERO

So what’s the difference between a hero and a super-hero? For me the hero may be capable of incredible feats of action and endeavour, yet he or she is ultimately mortal. Thus, while they may be a super-hero on the surface, Batman and Iron Man are heroes to me; albeit mechanically improved ones. Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor, for example, have god-like powers, thus defining them as SUPER! Obviously, there are crossovers as illustrated by Peter Parker, Captain America and Captain Marvel. All of them begin as everyboy/man/woman characters and become super-heroes due to military experimentation or being impacted by incredible events which cause physical transformation.


ANTI-HERO

I love a good anti-hero. I think they are my favourite character archetype. They can be charismatic and just on the side of the righteous, but misanthropic and sarcastic like say, Wolverine or Blade. They can be on the wrong side of the law, but redeem themselves at the end of a film like Danny Archer and Han Solo. They can be outsiders or loners like Travis Bickle. They can be hard on the outside and soft on the inner like Juno. Moreover, certain actors have cornered the market on anti-heroes such as Jack Nicholson, Ellen Page, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. My favourite anti-heroes are often cursed with supernatural forces causing them to be trapped by certain powers. The ‘Wolfman’, Lawrence Talbot, and Carrie White are fine instances of this.



NEMESIS

Given it is pantomime season there’s no harm is looking at villains! For me the greatest villains are the ones which actually have a valid cause or point. Of course, I don’t agree with their actions as they will generally involve killing people or destroying the Earth or Universe. However, villains such as Robert DeNiro’s heinous Max Cady had valid motivation. Likewise, Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of everyone was founded on sound environmental ideology. This doesn’t make it right though. Sympathetic nemeses are also interesting like Marvel’s Erik Killmonger. Moreover, King Kong for example, begins life as a threatening monster, but ultimately ends up being sympathetic compared to man. Nonetheless, you cannot beat a good old fashioned baddie like Hannibal Lecter, The Terminator, Hans Gruber, Nurse Ratched and one of my favourites, The Wicked Witch of the West.


MENTOR

The Mentor character can take many forms. They are very valuable in supporting a hero or heroine on their adventures, plus providing vital exposition or the rules of the world information. The archetypal mentor archetype is a wise, older character like Morpheus, Alfred Pennyworth, Gandalf, Mr Miyagi, or Obi Wan Kenobi. Moreover, they will often have powers and magically assist those around them. The wonderfully helpful Mary Poppins is a great example of this. Every so often mentoring is rejected by the younger partner. A case in point being Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills eschewing Morgan Freeman’s Somerset’s sage advice with deadly results. Then again, mentoring can take a more twisted and controlling turn as seen with The Devil Wears Prada’s (2006), Miranda Priestly, and in Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent arthouse classic, The Phantom Thread (2017).



SIDEKICK

The sidekick is a lower status character that can be an ally, helper, friend or even enemy that also provides comic relief or dramatic tension. Different from the bromance or traditional buddy character, because that double-act dynamic is on an equal level of status. Great sidekicks include: Hermione Granger, Short Round, Robin, Chewbacca, Dr Watson and many more. Often, the sidekick actually becomes more interesting, funny and memorable than the lead protagonist. Examples of this include the brilliant Hit Girl, Igor, Donkey and the aforementioned Hermione. Sometimes the sidekick takes a darker route such as Loki and Lady Macbeth, who use their influence for evil rather than good.


THE LOVER / ROMANTIC INTEREST

So, the love interest can be a romantic extension of the sidekick but can also be a mentor and even a villain. I would differentiate the love interest character from traditional romantic comedies or dramas. For instance, in When Harry Met Sally (1989), Sally and Harry are of equal status and classed as everyman and woman archetypes. However, in James Bond films the love interest is traditionally a female conquest. More in depth love interest characters are those that are not just trophies; they become equal in the story. Princess Leia is a heroine and love interest, likewise Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Most recently, and a reflection of our progressive times, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman found a fine love interest in Chris Pine’s heroic Steve Trevor. Thankfully, the outdated “damsel in distress” stereotype is being consigned to the past and now we have characters of all backgrounds and gender represented on an equal basis.


CONCLUSION

As I said earlier this list is just an exploration of archetypes. There are a number I could have included. That stock character the wife or husband is one which always appears regularly in films. Often, they are waiting by the phone or television screen as some disaster befalls their partner. Lastly, I could have included the double-act, the team or the ensemble archetype; where one or more characters combine to create a whole. But, I think I’ll save that for another essay.



A TEST OF CHARACTER: BRIEFLY EXPLORING CINEMATIC PERSONAS

A TEST OF CHARACTER: BRIEFLY EXPLORING CINEMATIC PERSONAS

“Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you HAVE character.”

Winston Wolf – Pulp Fiction (1994)


What makes one film character more interesting than others? Obviously, the actor who plays them brings much to the role, but the writing, their story and personality are what draws us specifically to them. While film studios have utilised the star system and cast well regarded actors to sell their movies, the actual personas of the characters are just as, if not, more important.

Having strong characters to support the genre, concept and plot of their works is integral to writers, directors and actors. Thus, I’d like to explore some general character traits which help define a strong film character. I would like to consider the following: LIKEABILITY, EMPATHY, EXPERTISE, RESILIENCE, HUMOUR, COOLNESS and COMPLEXITY. There are obviously many other aspects to a character we could consider but I’ll stick to these for now.

To support this, I will list five film characters in each category. If I have missed anything glaring, then please feel free to shout out and comment.

*******CONTAINS FILM SPOILERS*******



LIKEABILITY

Does a character have to be likeable for you to root for them? Not at all! However, if they are a positive character it does help you to warm to their stories and emotions. That isn’t to say you cannot appreciate unlikeable characters, however, they are more complicated and I will come to those later.


FIVE LIKEABLE FILM CHARACTERS

  1. GEORGE BAILEY – IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)
  2. WOODY – TOY STORY (1995)
  3. SAMWISE GAMJEE – LORD OF THE RINGS (2001)
  4. MARGE GUNDERSON – FARGO (1996)
  5. ATTICUS FINCH – TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (1962)


EMPATHY

Empathy and sympathy are two sides of the same coin, but can also contain variants. You can sympathise with a character but not necessarily empathise with their actions; and vice versa. For me, empathetic aspects are what I look for most in a character. They could still be pretty unlikeable, but if I feel drawn to their plight I will still connect with their story. Nonetheless, the characters I list here are both empathetic and mostly sympathetic too.


FIVE EMPATHETIC FILM CHARACTERS

  1. ROCKY BALBOA – ROCKY (1976)
  2. MARTY PILETTI – MARTY (1955)
  3. FORREST GUMP – FORREST GUMP (1994)
  4. CARRIE WHITE – CARRIE (1976)
  5. KING KONG – KING KONG (1933)


EXPERTISE

I have read a lot of screenwriting books and many of them say if you cannot make a character likeable or sympathetic, make them excel at something. Their expertise in their chosen field will draw you into their world, empathise and even admire their actions. If they are on the right side of the law that will obviously increase identification with such a character. Having said that there are many experts who are villains and I, like many, love a good nemesis too.


FIVE EXPERT FILM CHARACTERS

  1. TONY STARK – IRON MAN (2008)
  2. ETHAN HUNT – MISSION IMPOSSIBLE franchise.
  3. INDIANA JONES – RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981)
  4. HANNIBAL LECTER – SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991)
  5. DETECTIVE WILLIAM SOMERSET – SEVEN (1995)


RESILIENCE

Resilience or the overcoming of insurmountable odds is a sure-fire way of getting an audience on side. The fact a character refuses to give in despite overwhelming odds creates all manner of means with which to identify with a character. When watching a film we also want to see characters who mirror our own personalities. So, to watch characters who never give in is very appealing to me.


FIVE RESILIENT FILM CHARACTERS

  1. ELLEN RIPLEY – ALIEN (1979)
  2. SOLOMON NORTHUP – TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
  3. CELIE JOHNSON – THE COLOR PURPLE (1985)
  4. ANDY DUFRESNE – THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994)
  5. OH-DAE-SU – OLDBOY (2003)


HUMOUR

Obviously making an audience laugh is a fine way of making the one like a character. It’s also a good way to mask a characters’ agendas or be employed as a defence mechanism or weapon too. Funny characters are not just limited to comedy films as humour can enhance action, romantic and drama genres too.


FIVE HUMOROUS FILM CHARACTERS

  1. ACE VENTURA – ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE (1994)
  2. PETER PARKER – SPIDERMAN (2002)
  3. JUNO MACGUFF – JUNO (2007)
  4. AXEL FOLEY – BEVERLEY HILLS COP (1984)
  5. RANDALL P. MCMURPHY – ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1975)


COOLNESS

Arguably the most difficult one to quantify and even write, because it could be the actor who the one bringing the cool to the role. However, I think there are great examples of characters who are written that way too. Usually, a cool character will be someone of few words or a reserved demeanour or simply designated cool by their skills, actions and even what they wear.

FIVE COOL FILM CHARACTERS

  1. VIRGIL HILTS – THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)
  2. CLIFF BOOTH – ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD (2019)
  3. LEE – ENTER THE DRAGON (1973)
  4. HOLLY GOLIGHTLY – BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S (1961)
  5. MAX ROCKATANSKY – MAD MAX (1979)


COMPLEXITY

Complexity can be defined it many ways. It could be they are conflicted souls, searching for their place in the world. Or characters who are behaving badly while striving to be good. They could just be presenting a certain persona while hiding their real self. Or they could just be totally screwed and have mentally flipped. Complex characters are often unpredictable, but always compelling.


FIVE COMPLEX FILM CHARACTERS

  1. HOWARD BEALE – NETWORK (1976)
  2. MIRANDA PRIESTLY – THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)
  3. DARTH VADER – STAR WARS (1977)
  4. TRAVIS BICKLE – TAXI DRIVER (1976)
  5. JOHNNY FLETCHER – NAKED (1993)

TO BE CONTINUED. . .

There are so many wonderful characters in the world of cinema. Those mentioned above are just a few. The aspects I speak of too are just brief sketches really in such a fascinating area. Certain characters are more than simply likeable, empathetic, cool, complex and funny. Some of are a collision of all the facets I have noted above. Lastly, as well as different elements to their personas, characters can also be defined as an archetype or genre type. But, that is another story for another article.


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WHAT’S IN A NAME? A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF FILM TITLES

WHAT’S IN A NAME? A BRIEF CONSIDERATION OF FILM TITLES

While reviewing the entertaining HBO show Barry, it struck me that I have an irrational dislike of film and TV programmes which resort to using people’s singular names in the title. Why, though? Let’s be honest: it’s not a big deal. So, why does it bother me? To answer this question I decided to a hold a brief whimsical exploration of such titles.

Titles are important. They create the first contact for the audience. They pull you in or push you away before you even know who made the film or who stars in it. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch a film called: Jaws (1975) or Alien (1979) or The Terminator (1984)? Conversely, who wants to watch a film called The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants 2 (2008)?

Obviously, big decisions are made at the title-naming stage of any works. Or are they? I think naming a film after a single name, on the surface, just seems a tad lazy. But, on reflection, using single names for the titles of a film or TV show can be impactful and to the point.

It’s weird, because I don’t mind place name titles at all. In fact, Fargo (1996), is one of my favourite films. The singular title just works. Similarly, so does Chinatown (1974). Fargo, especially, names both a place and the two syllables within the place — ‘far’ and ‘go’ — suggest the actions of the characters in the story. Chinatown, on the other hand, is more poetic; naming a place but also hinting at something exotic and mysterious. Either that or a cultural area where you can visit and perhaps get a certain kind of food.

I also don’t object to personal names being part of the title. For example, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), is such a great title because it’s better than just plain old ‘Rosemary’. What does the singular Rosemary tell us? Very little. But add the ‘baby’ element and you conjure up suspense and a desire to know what will happen to Rosemary and her child. Similarly, When Harry Met Sally (1986), is a simple yet delightful title which tells you the character names, events and we’re most likely to witness some form of romance.

It may be that the film is an adaptation and just named after the original source material. Rebecca (1940), by Daphne Du Maurier is a good example of this. Rebecca works for me though as the name has a haunting feel; and this is certainly confirmed once you read the book or watch the film. On the other hand, the film Carol (2015), feels benign in comparison. Based on Patricia Highsmith’s literary classic, it’s a sumptuous and touching romance, however, the title did not draw me in. It was only when I saw the cast and that it was directed by Todd Haynes, I decided to watch it.

The best singular name film is Rocky (1975). Here is a classic underdog story of a boxer who is Rocky by name and rocky by nature. He’s streetwise but lacking intellect and seems to have literal rocks in his head. He’s scrabbling around trying to make ends meet with a head as hard as rock too. But, because of this he can take the blows and punches and still come back for more. We love the character because he never gives in; he literally rocks!

In conclusion, like everything, there are good and bad examples of film titles. Some singular named titles work way better than others. Titles like: Barry (2018), Dave (1993) and even a fine film like Carol, seem weak to me. Meanwhile, a title like Rocky just works perfectly. Anyway, here are eleven singular named film titles which also fly against my pet annoyance and mostly work really well.

Top Eleven “Single Name” Films

  1. Rocky (1975)
  2. Carrie (1976)
  3. Jezebel (1938)
  4. Lolita (1962)
  5. Amelie (2001)
  6. Tarzan (1932 etc.)
  7. Rebecca (1940)
  8. Leon (1994)
  9. Matilda (1996)
  10. Marty (1955)
  11. Nell (1994)

SIX OF THE BEST #14 – FILMS SET IN A DAY

A DAY IN THE LIFE – SIX OF THE BEST #14 – FILMS SET IN A DAY

With a cursory Google search there’s a few of these articles around concerning films set in one day or a twenty-four hour period. But it’s something I wanted to explore from a narrative perspective in order to understand how it can help a screenwriter with their story. Indeed, as a writer a twenty-four hour period could be a seen as a limitation for one’s story but it can also create a hell of a lot of suspense, drama and comedy.

Of course, in some cases it can also increase the need for an audience to suspend disbelief with many events occurring in such a short space of time. For example, in the classic TV show 24, we kind of know that it’s totally unlikely that our hero Jack Bauer is going to suffer THAT many bad days but we still root for him to save the his family, the dog, his neighbours, and the world. Yet, the distillation of narrative incidents also raises the dramatic stakes, providing much fun and tension for the audience.

As well as creating entertainment the structural benefits of setting a film in one day can provide a “ticking clock” or race against time scenario. Moreover, fixing a time scale or limit conjures up a dramatic sense of containment for the characters. They are trapped within this day and must survive it and whatever fate throws at them. As time moves on during the day suspense is funnelled to a striking denouement as sun-up moves toward sunset. It’s a grudging acceptance of life’s incessant clock of fate as our existence flickers along to the inevitable end.

There are many films which have been set during a one day period and a lot of them are bona fide classics.  Here is SIX of what I consider the best or at least my favourites from a story perspective. I have not included one of the greatest comedies of all time Groundhog Day (1993) because, while that is set in the same day, it actually repeats its day in a Sisyphean and fantastical never-ending situation. Thus, the films here are all set in a fixed period so no temporal loops or time travel movies are included.

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989)

Spike Lee’s incendiary look at the day in the life of a Brooklyn neighbourhood finds a variety of characters coping with both rising temperatures and simmering racial tension. Lee’s brilliant script is fully of boldly written and brightly sketched characters presented via a succession of hilarious and dramatic vignettes. The formal excellence on show too from Lee is to be applauded as he uses devices from: music video and cinema to tell his rich stories. The day does not end well as the neighbourhood erupts into tragic violence with Lee proving himself adept at balancing humour, politics and tragedy in equal measure.

DOG DAY AFTERNOON (1975)

Sidney Lumet really was a terrific director. Moving from stage and television to film and his first cinema production was rather incredibly 12 Angry Men (1957). This film was ostensibly set in one location over one intensely dramatic period and he would revisit the day-structure for the equally intense bank-robbery-gone-wrong film Dog Day Afternoon in 1975. Lumet directs Al Pacino and John Cazale as ill-fated and inexperienced criminals who rob a New York bank and get deep in over their heads. Once again the set-in-a-day structure creates a bottle-neck effect, squeezing the drama to a suspenseful denouement. As these empathetic and hapless criminals find themselves surrounded by law enforcement Al Pacino’s performance as Sonny dominates, becoming more and more animated and emotional. Incredibly, this original heist movie was based on a bizarre, true story and was another compelling addition to Lumet’s fine directorial C.V.

FALLING DOWN (1993)

Michael Douglas is, in my opinion, a very well rated movie star but also a very under-rated actor. He proved it again in Marvel’s Ant-Man films that he is an altogether reliable on-screen presence, while his staggering performance as Liberace in Behind the Candelabra (2013), garnered deserved praise. Similarly he is in career-best territory as “D-FENS” – named so after his number plate – whom begins his day in a sweltering, polluted traffic jam, before deciding enough is enough. What follows is a violent and explosive rampage both bleak and darkly comic that highlights the anger an individual can feel at being discarded by society. While “D-FENS” actions are appalling it’s clear he has had a mental breakdown and gone over the edge, in this damning and compelling indictment of capitalist society.

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)

John Hughes was arguably the definitive creator of what came to represent iconic 1980s Hollywood teen and comedy cinema. It may have pretty conservative dealing with, on the main, middle-class American characters and their lot; however, he always had affection for the geek, outsider and under-dog.  Yet, it is important to note that Ferris Bueller is not a geek or an underdog but rather a narcissistic, lying, brash, confident and handsome youth trying to rail against the school system. But in the hands of Matthew Broderick’s standout performance he is also very cool. Because as well as skipping school he is a risk-taker and cheeky and amazingly talks directly to the audience too. During his day off school he crams all manner of crazy things into the day while trying to outwit the school Principal because as he (Hughes) says: “Life moves pretty fast; if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it!”

HIGH NOON (1952)

Not only is this classic Western set in one day but it’s pretty much shot in real time. It makes the most of the ticking-time-clock scenario, anchored by Gary Cooper’s noble sheriff and fine direction from Fred Zinnemann. The story is very simple. Marshal Will Kane (Cooper) is about to leave town with his wife, Amy (an early role for Grace Kelly), finds out a vicious gang of outlaws are coming to town out for revenge. Kane’s choice is to flee or stay and fight. Guess which one he chooses?  Ready to face the outlaws on his own he tries to enlist the help of the townsfolk of Hadleyville, but he is admonished at every request. The suspense and drama are palpable as the clock slides toward noon and the gunfight. The film received many awards and nominations and is a truly humane examination of duty and courage under fire. It could also be seen as an allegory for the McCarthy and Communist “witch-hunts” occurring in Hollywood at the time. However, one could easily see it as a conservative validation of law and order too and the individual fighting for justice against a common enemy.

TRAINING DAY (2001)

David Ayer’s career as a filmmaker has taken a few critical body-blows lately on big budget Hollywood productions; notably his over-blown mess of a franchise trifle that was Suicide Squad (2016); and the odd mix of fantasy and cop thriller that was Bright (2017). While Suicide Squad really did not make any sense it made loads of dough and Bright was actually pretty decent entertainment. Indeed, it actually had a similar structure to Ayer’s brilliant cop drama Training Day. Ethan Hawke is the in-awe trainee to Denzel Washington’s fierce narcotics officer, who has taken his younger charge along to see if he has what it takes to join his team. What I love about this superior genre film is, aside from the brilliant plot and characterisation, is the day unfolds so dramatically with their two respective characters beginning as master and student only to find the respect between the two eroding and a violent power game ensuing.

TELLING STORIES WITH STYLE: THE TROPES OF TARANTINO

TELLING STORIES WITH STYLE: THE TROPES OF TARANTINO

**CONTAINS MOVIE SPOILERS**

Quentin Tarantino is a powerhouse of cinema. He has proved consistently, since his debut film Reservoir Dogs (1992) right up to his most recent film The Hateful Eight (2015), a filmmaker of incredible invention. His works are well known for their references to pop culture, TV shows, music, fashion, and quoting in general from an array of cinematic influences. Indeed, his films are always firmly planted in genre, from: war films to Martial Arts to Western to crime and B-movie pictures. However, despite utilising other genres as a springboard for his writing, Tarantino instils his own style within his work. This creates a paradoxical form of originality, making him what I would call a postmodern auteur. The postmodern auteur not only quotes, borrows and steals from other influences but they are able to present them in a fashion so as to make them feel fresh and somehow original.

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It would be easy to write an essay of Tarantino-style bingo pointing out which films and genres he has used and stolen or quoted from, thus, as an alternative, I would like examine the narrative tropes he employs to tell his screen stories. Tarantino isn’t simply a cultural magpie throwing in arbitrary pop references but he has a magic box of narrative tricks gained from cinema, stage, literature and music. In this essay I would like to explore some of these methods and how he diverts from the linear narrative style represented by the classical Hollywood norm. I will also examine his work in general and scenes from his films to show how he has created some fascinating means of telling stories.

Tarantino differentiates his films from the classical narrative style in a legion of ways. Such tropes include: “Chapter Headings”; non-linear timelines; unreliable narrators; and what I have termed “the long game” scene or sequence. Along with his perpetual references to various genres, specific films and the use of soundtracks from other movies, such devices work brilliantly to propel the narratives of his films. It may seem quite a simplistic device to use, but “Chapter Headings” are a very effective story device.  It’s obvious to say Tarantino has borrowed from literature in order to structure his films this way, but the ‘Chapter’ introductions establish the nature of storytelling and literally inform the audience of a change in scene, time, place and character.

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While classical Hollywood works to immerse us in the invisibility of filmmaking, Tarantino calls attention to the form with “Chapter Headings.” He does this not as a Brechtian distanciation device but rather as a means to include us in the story intellectually. The “Chapter Headings” also create humour, mystery and suspense. For example in Kill Bill: Volume 2, one chapter is called The Lonely Grave of Paula Schultz, which immediately conjures a mysterious and eerie story to come. It  turns out to be just that as Beatrice ends up buried alive as the segment further reveals more of her fascinating back-story. In an ingenious aside in Tarantino’s “Universe”, Paula Schultz is in fact the wife of King Schultz from his own Western Django Unchained (2012).

“Chapter Headings” also seek to cement and bind another of Tarantino’s tropes: the non-linear or fractured timeline structure. Here, fractured events are portrayed out of chronological order and do not follow the direct causality pattern of the events in the standard narrative model. Non-causality is as old as the hills with Homer’s The Iliad in the 8th century BC being one of the first examples of such a narrative device. Indeed, it’s easier to pick out a Tarantino film that doesn’t follow a non-linear structure than not. However, even his most linear film Jackie Brown (1997), which follows the eponymous protagonist’s attempts to stay out of jail and alive, finds the narrative splintering into a triptych of varying perspectives during the final act.

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Often non-linearity is used to show dreams, flashbacks, time-travel and explore splintered identities or point-of-view; nonetheless, the non-linear narratives of, for example, Reservoir Dogs (1992), Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Inglorious Basterds (2009) contain fractured timelines from mainly a creative and aesthetic choice. But they are not just style for style’s sake as they create a dazzling intellectual response and activate the viewer to piece the stories together like a jigsaw. Reservoir Dogs (1992) is especially ingenious in breaking the rules of genre as it’s one of the only films I’ve seen about a robbery which shows us everything aside from the actual crime. It is important, however, to say that while Tarantino knows the rules of linearity he chooses to break them, on the whole, to enhance the cinematic experience. Interestingly, in my opinion, his most satisfying films are those which are his most linear. Tony Scott proved this when he re-wrote and re-ordered Tarantino’s script of True Romance (1989), while Django Unchained (2012), aside from a few brief illusory dream sequences and momentary flashbacks, builds powerful emotions as Django hunts down his slave captors and wreaks revenge in order to be reunited with his wife.

A narrative off-shoot of fractured timelines is Tarantino’s use of stories within stories and unreliable narrators. The device of the unreliable narrator is another means in which Tarantino differentiates his narratives from classic storytelling. In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Tarantino takes great joy with narrators, unreliable or otherwise, telling lies; something seen brilliantly in both Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his most recent film The Hateful Eight (2015).

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In Reservoir Dogs (1992), Tim Roth’s “Mr Orange” is revealed to be an undercover Police officer. “Orange’s” cop superior actively tells him to invent a story – because you “gotta have a story,” – to inveigle his way into the Joe Cabot’s gang. Thus, he invents a shaggy dog tale about the time he almost got bust by cops in a toilet. Tarantino presents a dishonest character delivering a story in a false reality providing both suspense and entertainment from a wholly unreliable basis. More ambiguous and vile is the story Samuel L. Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren tells to Bruce Dern’s irascible Confederate, General Sandy Smithers, in The Hateful Eight (2015). Sworn enemies while occupying opposing sides during the American Civil War, Warren, raises the dramatic stakes by regaling the story of how he strips, sexually humiliates and then kills Smithers’ own son. We flash-back to this incident and must consider if this is actually real or invented in order for Warren to provoke Smithers to grab a gun; thus allowing the Major to shoot him self-defence. These devices are tremendously effective narrative tools for creating shifting emotional responses to characters and again mark Tarantino’s work outside the classical norm.

The Hateful Eight (2015), given it is virtually set in one location, is very theatrical in feel. Marrying the influences of the Western genre in such television shows as Bonanza with Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), the film also evokes principles of the “Shaggy Dog” story and Chekhov’s gun theory where every element of a narrative has cause effect irreplaceability. Consequently, the whole film feels like one long sequence of scenes and event with a massive and particularly violent payoff at the end. Indeed, this narrative conceit is a major styling of Tarantino. While most basic screenwriting books will tell you to get in and out of a scene as quickly as possible to move the narrative along, Tarantino disregards this rule throughout his oeuvre. This, I call the “Long Game” scene where lengthy dialogue gives way to a spectacular punchline at the end.

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A perfect example of the “Long Game” scene is the beginning of wartime epic, Inglourious Basterds (2009). We open with the “Chapter Heading”: Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France and are introduced to Christophe Waltz’ SS Office Hans Landa. At first Landa is amiable and charming in his inquisition of a French farmer. Indeed the scene moves slowly and not without humour as the German takes out his over-sized pipe and drinks the farmer’s delicious milk. But, as this is Tarantino we know suspense is building to a slow but startling crescendo. When the reveal of the hidden Jewish family below the timbers is shown, we realise that Landa is not the affable German he acts but a devious murderer and the nemesis within the narrative. With machine guns firing and splintering wood in slow motion, the soundtrack swells operatically as the scene ends with Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) sprinting away, her family butchered by the Nazis. Such “Long Game” scenes are one of Tarantino’s memorable tropes and he achieves this through his brilliant handling of conflict, dialogue and expert use of cinematic form and content.

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Overall, Tarantino has had an exceptional film career by using established means of telling stories, both inside and outside the rules of standard narratives. He uses devices like those discussed to invigorate and entertain the audience. There is also much pleasure to be had from experiencing the tropes such as: “Chapter Headings”; unreliable narrators; non-linear structure and the “Long Game” scenes. Thus, using theatrical, literary, cinematic and musical narrative influences Tarantino proves himself a master of storytelling as demonstrated in his impressive body of work.

SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA (WITH HUGE SPOILERS)

SIX OF THE BEST #12 – UNRELIABLE NARRATORS IN CINEMA

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**

I find the nature of storytelling and narrative construction a fascinating craft. As someone who reads and watches a lot of stories via: books, cinema, theatre, comedy, radio and television, I am always drawn to devices which differ from the conventional norm. When I was younger I used to pour scorn on stories told straight and in chronological order. I like difficult or unconventional works as it appealed to my younger rebellious side. Of late though, I have come to realise that unconventional or non-linear storytelling can be used as a stylistic device for the sake of it and adds nothing to the story. Screenwriting navel-gazing devices such as fragmented timelines can detract from the emotional impact of the characters’ journey. Thus, to get a complex layered and non-linear storyline right is difficult. Many writers and filmmakers experiment with variant structures to escape standard narrative conventions. Indeed, with hard work and positive creative decisions it is possible to capture magic in a script and transport it to the screen.

Conversely, the device of the unreliable narrator is another means which a screenwriter can differentiate a narrative from conventional classic storytelling. Usually, in say a Hollywood blockbuster our hero or heroes will be those we root for from beginning to end. To switch our main protagonist or narrative focus from positive to negative or good to bad is brave writing. To even begin with an anti-heroic or even unlikable lead protagonist is obviously a risk and can alienate the audience. Furthermore, to make the lead character or characters unreliable is very difficult. However, the tricky craft of leading us one way with a protagonist before revealing them to be untrustworthy or twisted is a device which can provide much narrative satisfaction.

In 1981, William Riggan, created a study of various unreliable types, including: The Picaro, The Madman, The Clown, The Naif and The Liar. The Picaro will typically be a bragger, similar to the Liar but not as heinous. The Madman or Mad Woman, however, will be more sinister but The Clown and The Naif will either be playing for laughs or in the latter’s case, telling their story from a naïve position. Moreover, an unreliable narrator will potentially be hiding their own crimes or actions out of guilt. Or they will have amnesia, selective or deliberate to mislead the audience. They may just take great joy in telling lies or simply be unhinged to believe their fractured personality is presenting their version of the truth. It could be they are also attention seekers; OR actually a combination of all of the above.

Examples of unreliable narrators are legion throughout theatrical and literary presentations. Indeed, Agatha Christie and Jim Thompson often utilised them in their crime stories; as did novelists such as: Emily Bronte, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bret Easton Ellis, Gillian Flynn, Vladimir Nabokov and many more. In this piece I would like to consider six of the best films featuring unreliable narrators. It was tough to get just six as I could have easily doubled it but here we are!

***CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS***

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ATONEMENT (2007)

Joe Wright’s majestic directorial adaptation of Ian McEwan’s tragic war story is a poignant study of petty revenge and romantic conflict. While the story focusses on the doomed love affair between James McEvoy and Keira Knightley’s class-crossed lovers, the narrator is novelist Briony Tallis (Vanessa Redgrave).  Due to a spiteful action by her thirteen year-old self the events of the drama are revealed at the end to be manipulated out of sheer guilt. While she attempts to give the romance story a more positive ending the horrors of war are to the fore and Briony’s remorse will never be humbled.

THE CABINET OF DR CALIGARI (1920)

This silent movie classic is seen as the epitome of German Expressionist cinema. Set within the confines of a mental health asylum it was directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer. The story concerns a man named Francis (Friedrich Feher) as he tells of a strange tale involving the mysterious somnambulist Cesare and nefarious Dr Caligari. Both stylistically and structurally formidable the film features: twisted and painterly sets, shadowy key lighting and ghostly make-up. Also, the story-within-the-story is both terrifying and all a lie in the mind of a madman. The ending would now be seen as potential cliché but on release it was astounding and clearly influenced another story with a troubled and unreliable narrator in Shutter Island (2010).

FIGHT CLUB (1999)

Chuck Palahniuk’s seminal novel and David Fincher’s incendiary cinematic adaptation is way too complex a piece to sum up in this little list. However, it still stands the test of time in terms of style and structure as Fincher directs the hell out of Edward Norton’s everyman and his charismatic alter-ego, Tyler Durden. A brutal, violent and coruscating vision of masculinity in crisis within a crumbling, corporate and schizophrenic society, Norton’s unreliable narrator spits and spirals and finally splits literally in half. Funny, dark, and a genuine film classic, no one’s meant to talk about Fight Club but it certainly deserves all the praise heaped upon it.

MEMENTO (2000)

Christopher Nolan’s early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet, incredibly and sadly, it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.

RASHOMON (1950)

Akiro Kurosawa’s superbly directed crime classic has not just one but numerous unreliable narrators. Structured around the investigation into a rape and murder in Japan the story splinters around the investigation of said crimes. Various versions of the same story are told from different perspectives as the subjectivity of truth is tested to the full. Are the characters’ stories from the perspective of: the bandit, the wife, the samurai and woodcutter lies or “true” reflections of the events in their respective minds? We all tell stories and is it possible we have got it wrong by mistake or manipulating the truth to our own benefit. Rashomon  posits such questions and more in a beautifully rendered cinema classic.

THE USUAL SUSPECTS (1995)

Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay remains one of the best I have ever read and the film is not too bad either. Shot on a low budget but cast perfectly the whole story is set around Chazz Palminteri’s cop grilling Kevin Spacey’s Verbal Kint about a major crime at the docks. What follows is a fractured structure which twists and turns on the basis of the narratives Kint is providing. We flash into event within event which is initially perceived to be truth but ultimately is a fiction. The final reveal where we find Kint has, in fact, been hiding a devilish truth all along astounds the cop and audience beyond belief. The story was so complex that Gabriel Byrne and other cast members actually thought they were Keyser Soze; only finding out they weren’t when they’d seen the incredible twist ending.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA

A BRIEF HISTORY OF META-TEXTUALITY WITHIN CINEMA 

**CONTAINS FILM & LITERARY SPOILERS**

With the multitude of means of telling stories from video-games, literature, television, plays, songs, poems and of course, cinema, we have collectively become very sophisticated and experienced in our ability to understand fictional representations. Indeed, storytellers have, for centuries, attempted to find more complex and interesting ways to structure a narrative. One such way is the “story within a story” framing device. This could be: a play within a play; play within a film; TV show within a TV show; book within a film; film within a film; and so on. Indeed, Christopher Nolan’s incredibly complex science-fiction heist thriller Inception (2010) blew the audience’s mind with a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream concept; creating an array of stunning framing devices.

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The history of storytelling as illustrated by the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory shows that as far back as the likes of: Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights, Edgar Allan Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, narratives are framed from various narrator perspectives either through the devices of flashbacks and flash-forwards; stories within stories; or simply changing the narrator. In regard to stories within stories my first clear memory of such a framing device was in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the drama the Danish Prince attempts to shock a confession from his Mother and Uncle by getting the players to re-enact his father’s murder within their own play. Conversely, films within films have been a staple too of Hollywood and non-Hollywood film productions. Examples include: the classic musical Singing in the Rain (1952); Truffaut’s Day for Night (1973), Altman’s The Player (1992) to name but a few, are examples of filmmaking actually being the subject of the movie. As storytelling has further evolved, Harold Pinter’s adaptation of The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) shows both events of John Fowles original text, but at the same time, the author of the novel involved in a love affair thus reflecting events of the book. Lastly, postmodern films such as: The Purple Rose of Cairo (1984) and The Last Action Hero (1993) even have characters from the on-screen cinema world enter the “real” world and vice versa.

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Narrative, postmodern and semiotic theorists gather plays, stories and films which quote from other texts under the umbrella of meta-fiction. Indeed, many studies, including those by post-structuralists Julia Kristeva, Gerard Genette, and subsequently by academic Daniela Casellis, assert intertextuality or meta-textuality is a shaping of a text’s meaning by another text, as well as a production within texts. Meta-textuality often involves: allusion, quotation, pastiche, parody, homage and translation. It also enables the writer or director to differentiate their product and make it somehow fresh and contemporary. For example, Quentin Tarantino’s characters, while fictional, will make all kinds of references to: television shows, films, characters, hip-hop music and even fast food joints because that’s what real people talk about every-day. While his films themselves work on a meta-textual level within: War, Westerns, crime thrillers, Kung Fu and many other genres, his characters exist in the now with their strong knowledge of popular culture.

While meta-textuality is a complex cultural theory with many different strands, I have identified four interconnecting levels within texts such as films and television.  The first level of meta-textuality is structural. Incorporating flashbacks, dreams, imagination, narration and other textual framing devices, structural meta-textuality allows the filmmaker to play and bend linearity to create a fascinating means of telling a story. Moreover, it also asks the audience to question the very nature of storytelling itself. A simple example of structural meta-textuality is in The Princess Bride (1987) where the wonderful fairy-tale stories are based around a Grandfather telling his sick grandson tales of adventure and romance. More complex is Christopher Nolan’s structural representations. His early noir classic Memento (2000) is famously told in reverse chronological fashion, thus subverting the very nature of linear storytelling. His anti-hero, Leonard Shelby, has no means of making new memories thus via tattoos and Polaroid photos he constructs a present day movie of his own life in visual form. As the story unfolds we flash back and forth to a film within a film about a character called Sammy Jankis. Yet it turns out that Sammy is an imagined character used to suppress a terrible event in Leonard’s life and the film within a film is in fact the imagined vision of an unreliable narrator.

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This second level is diegetic meta-textuality. This, on a basic level, refers to texts within texts which while featured within the story do not really comment on the text. These could involve the characters visiting the cinema, reading a book or watching a television show. The third is thematic meta-textuality where the texts within the texts directly impact the narrative, characters and themes. For example, any number of films about filmmaking or film distribution process could be classed as thematically meta-textual. Cinema releases such as: the Scream (1996) franchise, Bowfinger (1999), Boogie Nights (1997), Ed Wood, Living In Oblivion (1995), State and Main (2000), Berberian Sound Studio (2012), The Disaster Artist (2017), to name but a few, are great examples of films about filmmaking which exhibit thematic meta-fictional tropes.

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The Disaster Artist (2017) takes great delight in paying homage to Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003); a film which is often hailed as one of the worst ever made. The film shows how Tommy Wiseau came to make The Room (2003) and the disaster he encounters. Meta-textually, comedically and entertainment-wise this film is a highly satisfying cinematic experience. Even as the credits roll the sequence which shows scenes from The Room and re-enactments from The Disaster Artist are a joy to behold. Also thematically strong is Scream. It is especially clever because the characters are aware of the fact they are under threat and attempt to avoid death by making reference to various horror film tropes. Likewise, Tarantino’s uber-meta war film Inglourious Basterds (2009) features the fictional film Nations Pride, which both satirizes the German propaganda machine and the violent nature of war films in general. Tarantino is so obsessed by cinema that his wish fulfilment bloodlust even sees the Nazi hordes burned and shot down in an actual cinema.

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The final level is emotional meta-textuality. This idea is slightly more open to interpretation because one could argue that all aspects of storytelling are intended to illicit emotion in the audience. However, I am referring to films where the meta-fictional aspects have a deep emotional or dramatic impact on the characters. Such examples include the intriguing Will Ferrell dramedy called Stranger Than Fiction (2006). Ferrell portrays Harold Strick who suddenly finds his life is being narrated by an omniscient storyteller, who turns out to be Emma Thompson’s author. Here the narrator is presented as a God-like power dictating what she thinks is a fictional character in Strick. Ultimately, fiction and the “real” world collide in an emotionally satisfying meta-textual story of discovery and mid-life crises. Similar, but even darker in its representation of emotional meta-textuality is Tom Ford’s adaptation Nocturnal Animals (2016), from a novel by Austin Wright. Here Amy Adams character, an Art gallery owner is sent a novel by her former husband, Jake Gyllenhaal. As she reads the manuscript a film within a film opens up which shows events that symbolise the wrongs he feels she has done to him. In the final revelatory scenes the emotional impact is damning to her life decisions and she is left alone, in the dark, with her own guilty thoughts.

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In keeping with historical and literary modes of storytelling many films will deliver their stories in a meta-textual fashion using structural, diegetic, extra-diegetic and emotional methods. Furthermore, some films will utilise these all at the same time. One such screenwriter and filmmaker is Charlie Kaufman. His works such as: Being John Malkovich (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and Adaptation (2002) offer mind-blowing meta-textuality. Adaptation, starring Nicolas Cage, for example, features a screenwriter called Charlie Kaufmann trying to adapt a book called The Orchid Thief but suffering writer’s block. Instead he begins to write a screenplay about a screenwriter struggling to write an adaptation of The Orchid Thief. Did he I also mention he has a twin brother called Donald who is also a screenwriter. Now, I could begin to analyse Adaptation but that would be a whole different story within and story within a story. . .

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