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.
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
**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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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
**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***
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. . .
CONTRASTING DREAMS ON PAGE AND SCREEN: REVIEWING THE WORK OF PHILIP K. DICK
“Today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, by governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups… So I ask, in my writing, what is real? I do not distrust their motives; I distrust their power. They have a lot of it. And it is an astonishing power: that of creating whole universes, universes of the mind. I ought to know. I do the same thing.”
― Philip K. Dick
For a writer who wrote extensively about artificial intelligence and technology, Philip K. Dick himself was in fact a certifiable writing machine, publishing over 44 novels, a further 120-odd short stories, plus a whole vision of manuscripts, essays and other literary paraphernalia. His death at the relatively young age of 53 took an incredible genius away from us; however, you’re never too far away from his work either on TV, computer or at the cinema.
The latest cinema release inspired by Dick’s vision was the beautifully directed space epic Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Here Denis Villeneuve picked up the baton from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982); an adaptation of K. Dick’s seminal novel Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968). But of course his stories have also given us film adaptations including: Minority Report (2002), Total Recall (1990 & 2012), The Adjustment Bureau (2011), Next (2007), Paycheck (2003), A Scanner Darkly (2006) etc. Moreover, Amazon has recently adapted his classic 1962 alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle (2015) to positive acclaim.
With Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror jumping ship to Netflix, Channel Four UK (Sony / Amazon in the U.S.A) and various other production companies) must have felt there was a “futuristic anthology show” hole in their schedule. Thus, they obtained the rights to Philip K. Dick’s back catalogue and produced a show called Electric Dreams – shown in two halves in 2017 and 2018. The production values were very high and some extremely talented actors, producers, writers and directors were brought in to bring ten Dickian short stories to the TV screen. Such creative luminaries included: Janelle Monae, Dee Rees, Ronald Moore, Juno Temple, Bryan Cranston, David Farr, Matthew Graham, Timothy Spall, Jack Thorne, Steve Buscemi, Anna Paquin, Terrence Howard, Travis Beacham, Richard Madden, Vera Farmiga and many more.
I have immersed myself in the novels, cinema and TV work inspired by Philip K. Dick recently. I was fascinated by the themes and narratives represented and comparisons between the literary and screen works. How did they compare to Dick’s original vision and how do they differ?
NIGHTMARE THEMES IN ELECTRIC DREAMS
Of late I have read his novels Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), Ubik (1969) and the collection of short stories – collated in conjunction with the Channel 4 series – Electric Dreams. Moreover, I have seen most of his works adapted for cinema. His narratives are often hallucinatory and dream-like with simple yet devastating prose. They deal in reality, alternative reality and beyond reality. You’re often in a place where you are unsure as to what is occurring is in the real world or some imagined or manufactured nightmare. Technology, disease and war are more than often a threat. The biggest threat though is humanity and its seeming endless proclivity for inventing weapons, machines and viruses with which to kill. Paranoia and doubt infect Dick’s work making you feel as trapped as his characters. Further, mutated strands of humanity are a staple trope where telepaths and empaths inhabit his oeuvre; along with classic science fiction aliens and monsters from outer space too.
The narratives, while possessing an otherworldly and futuristic feel, paradoxically feel realistic because his characters are everyday people. They are rarely action heroes or soldiers or scientists but rather administrators or office staff, factory or transport workers. They are family people trying to make their way through life and the horrors the world throws at them. Given Dick was writing during the 1950s onwards it’s not surprising that the threat of nuclear war hung heavy within his words. Furthermore, the rapid technological breakthroughs which, while offering hope for humanity, brought with it a movement to the loss of free will and a possible future governed by machines. Big corporations, banks, governments and computers all erode and destroy the very fabric of being in Dick’s world rendering human identity and existence obsolete. His universe is brimming with people under threat, humans desiring to escape and a questioning of what it means to be human.
CONTEXTUALISING THE NIGHTMARES
**CONTAINS FILM AND LITERARY SPOILERS**
Adapting Dick’s work can be complex because what works on the page as a concept can be difficult to transfer to a visual medium. Conversely, his work is often altered beyond recognition with fragments of the initial idea remaining while others stay true to the original. The original and subsequent sequel of Bladerunner (1982) are very faithful to the structure and futuristic vision of Dick’s original novel; retaining the ‘hunting of replicants’ plot and the existential question of whether an android can be considered human. In Electric Dreams the adaptation of the short story Human Is. . . . poses a similar question. In this story a wife faces the choice as to whether her husband, whose body has been invaded by an alien, is in fact more human because he is an improvement and displaying idealised human traits such as kindness and love. The flipside of this occurs in the film adaptation of Imposter (2002), and the short story adaptation The Father Thing, where nefarious aliens hell-bent on invasion take over the humans in order to divide and conquer. Human Is… both the short story and television adaptation are particularly convincing as many people have all been trapped in dying relationships where we wish we could change our partner. Dick’s story takes this idea and makes it real and emotionally very powerful.
Certain filmmakers, when adapting Dick’s work, will mould their style to his vision. For example, in the Steven Spielberg directed thriller Minority Report (2002), Dick’s pre-crime conspiracy model was presented as an action pursuit film with Tom Cruise going on the run for a crime he may or may not have committed. Spielberg retains the initial idea and concepts relating to pre-cognitive telepathy and empathic mutation but renders it a more fast-paced and spectacular cinematic experience. Similarly, telepathy and mutants feature heavily in Matthew Graham’s pretty faithful adaptation of The Hoodmaker. Like Minority Report telepaths are exploited by the government and law to do their bidding, only for the system to be corrupted and used for death by those in power.
Dick’s story We Can Remember it For You Wholesale, has been adapted on two occasions as Total Recall (1990 and 2012). Paul Verhoeven’s earlier version about warring government agents and colonies on Mars is an absolute blast. Dick’s concepts relating to alternative realities and implanted memories are fused with an explosive Arnold Schwarzenegger action film. Yet, what is retained amidst the shoot-outs and spectacular set-pieces is the main protagonists’ life dissatisfaction and desire to escape their everyday existence for something more exciting. This is a common theme in Dick’s work and can also be found in the Electric Dreams’ stories Impossible Planet and The Commuter. In the latter a Station clerk finds a hitherto lost “town” which offers a means of escape from his seemingly humdrum life but it comes at a cost. While Total Recall raises the pace and stakes within an interplanetary setting, The Commuter is more ordinary and emotional in its cerebral representation.
Political, social and technological corruption is present in many of Dick’s other works too. In Richard Linklater’s adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (2006), an undercover cop battles to conceal his identity while struggling with drug addiction. While in Electric Dreams, Dee Rees’ rendition of Dick’s short story The Hanging Man, takes an allegorical story about social unrest and fascistic hangings, turning it into a thought-provoking, paranoiac nightmare scenario. Rees calls her story Kill All Others, where we find Mel Rodriguez’s factory worker driven by fake news and political manipulation during an election. This eerily reflects much of the social and media saturation seen during Donald Trump’s U.S. election win. Likewise the adaptation of Foster, Your Dead became the very impactful Safe and Sound; and examined the deadly possibilities of technology firms manipulating youth within the context of the war on terror.
Arguably not as successful, however, was the Tony Grisoni adaptation called Crazy Diamond. This episode completely altered Dick’s story Sales Pitch, which told of a relentless Sales-Bot who won’t take no for an answer. In fact I had no idea what Crazy Diamond was trying to say and perhaps the writer should have stuck to Dick’s intriguing techo-nightmare premise. Indeed, threat of technology and the inevitable doom progress represents is also presented in the excellent episode called Autofac. Dick wrote this story in 1955 and set it after an apocalyptic world war has devastated Earth’s civilizations. All that remains is a network of hardened robot “Autofacs” supplying goods to the human survivors. However, these drones and bots are in fact hindering survival and the idea is incredibly prescient. Indeed with the rise of Amazon and Google and Apple industries our society is becoming more dependent on such technology to the extent we could be classed as helpless without it.
Lastly, what Electric Dreams demonstrates, along with the many film adaptations of his work, is that Dick’s concepts are just as relevant, if not more so than at the time of writing. Moreover, what this thematic and genre contextualisation of Dick’s work illustrates is that universal themes such as: the desire to escape; what it means to be human; media manipulation; fear of technology and war; oppressive government regimes; and all round insidious paranoia about a very dark future are inescapable and will always be part of society and the human condition.
FAMILIARITY AND NOSTALGIA IN THE FANTASY FILM GENRE
“Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.”
― Walt Disney Company
Once upon a Time. . . four simple words which immediately conjure a whole host of possibilities and eventualities in literature and by extension, cinema. In her book A Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale, Marina Warner attests that fairy tales are “Stories that try to find the truth and give us glimpses of greater things. . . this is the principle that underlies their growing presence in writing, art and cinema.” My own personal experience growing up was of reading fairy tales, myths and legends. Indeed, such stories formed a narrative backbone to my childhood and opened my mind to all manner of worlds of monsters, magicians, Kings, Queens, dragons, spiders, ghosts, gold-haired heroines, muscular heroes, acts of love and war, epic journeys; as well as breath-taking battles and feats of unimaginable compassion and bravery.
Such an education conditioned my young mind for an array of imaginative potentialities and in later life my love of fairy tales and stories would bleed through into my love of cinema. But how does one make the leap off the page onto the screen, making that which is fantastic believable to our eyes, hearts and minds? In this article I would like to consider certain ways we have been conditioned and how storytellers develop their narratives in the fantasy genre. How does the unbelievable become believable in our minds? There are many ways in which this is achieved but I would like to focus on two methods which are familiarity and nostalgia.
How does one define fantasy cinema? One could certainly posit the notion that the fantasy genre deals with fantastic themes including: magic, the supernatural, myth, folklore, exotic worlds, and fairy tales; and for the benefit of this article can encapsulate science fiction, horror and superhero movie genres. Essentially, fantasy is that which is not of our perceived rendition of reality, enabling escape into the extraordinary. Fantasy cinema is not simply dragons and wizards but more far-reaching as their stories cast their magic from childhood to adulthood. I myself recall the day when I first saw The Wizard of Oz (1939) as Dorothy’s journey from Oz literally took my breath away. Moreover, only recently I marvelled at the fantastic images and comedy of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) on the big screen.
Lew Hunter’s book Screenwriting 434 is a fine research tool for all budding writers. He opines, “You have to make the audience care about your on-screen people and their dilemmas, and when that occurs you’ve created believable unbelievabilty. Audiences will not just get with a film that starts with what they perceive as unbelievable unbelievability.” Thus, this is an integral rule in getting the audience to suspend disbelief and come into a fantastic world. I mean for every Lord of the Rings Trilogy, which in my view brilliantly brought to life J. R. R. Tolkien’s incredible literary behemoth, you get many films which fail to achieve this. Peter Jackson obviously used, at the time, state of the art special effects to achieve his vision of the book but more important, in my view, is establishing the world and characters in the audience’s psychology and making the unbelievable believable.
As aforementioned there are many other movies which do not arguably work as fantasy films. Of course these are subjective choices but offerings such as: The Island of Dr Moreau (1996), Judge Dredd (1995), Batman and Robin (1997), Van Helsing (2004), Cat Woman (2004) The Lady in the Water (2006), Eragon (2008), Foodfight (2012), Terminator: Genisys (2015), Death-Note (2017), to name a few, could all be argued to have failed to make the unbelievable believable. Be it the poor writing, bad production choices or a lack of cogency in the presentation of the rules of their respective worlds, these are a few examples of movies which arguably did not work. But what of the films that successfully connect with our imagination. How do they achieve that?
Disney Studios has been presenting animated and live action films for close to a century now. As well as developing short animated films centred on iconic characters such as Mickey Mouse, Disney Studios used established texts too. Their first short was Little Red Riding Hood (1922) and subsequently they would win an Oscar for The Three Little Pigs (1933). Thus, the Disney template of utilising familiar stories from folklore or fairy tales was born and since then they have produced many, many such short and feature length productions such as: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Sleeping Beauty (1959) and The Little Mermaid (1989). The suspension of narrative disbelief is achieved because innately we are accustomed to the idea of talking animals or wicked witches or half-woman-half-fish characters as they were familiarised to us in infancy. Indeed, as famous fantasy writer Neil Gaiman confirms, “We encounter fairy tales as kids, in retellings or panto. We breathe them. We know how they go.” Thus, believable unbelievability is achieved due to conditioning as children with the extraordinary. Likewise, our acclimatization with commercial products when growing up, including toys such as: Lego, Transformers, Barbie and the Pixar’s ingenious Toy Story trilogy tap into this familiarity model and the child’s dream that perhaps our toys can actually come to life.
As we grow older though many of us can become cynical and lose the innocence and imagination we had when younger. Thus, the challenge for filmmakers is to make not only children but also adults believe in the fantastic and the unbelievable. One way of doing this is through nostalgia or harking back to narrative conventions established from yesteryear. Academic Frederick Jameson wrote in his seminal essay Postmodernism and Consumer Society, that society entered a key cultural period from around the 1960s onwards where modernism had given rise to postmodernism and that originality per se was being replaced by emulation; more specifically satire, parody and pastiche. He goes on to suggest “. . . individualism and personal identity is a thing of the past. . . stylistic innovation is no longer possible and all that is left is the imitate dead styles.” A cinematic element of pastiche he argues is the “nostalgia film” which consists, not of original narrative, but of film moments and narratives from the previous films.
Indeed, one of the most successful cinema franchises of all time is George Lucas’ series which began with, Star Wars (1977). While containing many original elements in regard to the fictional monsters, creatures, planets, space ships, weapons, heroes and villains it’s structurally very familiar, featuring the archetypal hero rescuing a “Princess in a Tower” narrative. Even the “Once Upon a Time. . .” like beginning is echoed in the now classic opening text: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. . .” Moreover, the expositional crawl which then follows is inspired by the early Saturday cinema sci-fi adventures such as: Flash Gordon. Lucas’ genius in using such nostalgic devices creates a clear pattern of familiarity and mental preparation for the fantasy elements yet to come in the story. Lastly, and less obvious, Star Wars also draws heavily, in terms of structure and characters, from Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Hidden Fortress (1958).
Similarly, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is equally adept at creating a magical world out of nostalgia and familiarity. The films are all structured around the school year and generally begin with an opening set-piece set in a mundane suburban area before slowly introducing the fantasy elements. Of course, some of us may not be so nostalgic for our school years but we are familiar with the educational structure. The Harry Potter books and films are a creative stroke of genius creating both emotional connections for children and adults. Children see the characters of Harry, Hermione and Ron as reflection and wish to emulate such characters; while adults can look back on their school days nostalgically and perhaps also enjoy the magical adventures from a position of halcyon positivity. What Star Wars and Harry Potter both offer is a means to project some incredibly fantastical elements but make it believable by setting their worlds in a recognizable environment such as school or through the stylistic signifiers like the opening Star Wars text.
Ultimately, most of us love reading or going to the cinema in order to be entertained and escape from our reality. However, if the writer or filmmakers have not successfully created a suspension of disbelief we as an audience will fail to enter their fantasy world. Quality writing, production design, costumes, make-up, performance are of course integral to ensuring we believe what we read and see on the screen. However, as I have attested films also work on a more psychological level of drawing us in using methods such as familiarity and nostalgia to tell their stories. We may not even be aware of this but to make the unbelievable believable it paradoxically must connect with our prior knowledge and experiences, especially those we had as children.