by: M. Night Shyamalan, Jason Blum, Marc Bienstock, Ashwin Rajan
by: M. Night Shyamalan
James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Anya Taylor-Joy, Sarah Paulson, Samuel L. Jackson
Music by: West Dylan Thordson
**CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SHYAMALAN’S PRIOR FILMS**
M. Night Shyamalan is arguably one of the most critically divisive directors working today. Not because his films are particularly controversial, but mainly because he is a risk-taker that tests the boundaries of genre expectations. He has so many different ideas and concepts that quite often his movies have back-fired spectacularly, however, when he gets it right his genre films are highly entertaining and compelling. Films such as: The Sixth Sense (1999), Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002), and The Village (2004), were for me, brilliant genre films full of invention, suspense and wicked twists. Many people felt The Village stretched the limits of suspending disbelief, but it was a masterpiece compared to his filmic failures like: The Lady in the Water (2006), The Happening (2008) and The Last Airbender (2010).
I missed seeing the apparent disaster that was After Earth (2013), yet it was opined that Shyamalan returned to some essence of form with the horror film The Visit (2015). However, I still felt there were some dodgy creative decisions in that, such as the story-filler-white-middle-class-rapping kid in amidst a creepy thriller. Yet, with Split (2016), Shyamalan was back to his best, weaving an exploitational B-movie kidnap-plot with a searing psycho-performance from James McAvoy. The ending, which found Anya Taylor-Joy’s ultra resilient Casey fighting back against McAvoy’s twenty-plus split-personality maniac, then brilliantly linked the film to Shyamalan’s Unbreakable (2000). Therefore Glass (2019), becomes the third part of an unlikely trilogy; three films where Shyamalan strives to create his own universe and mythology within a more realistic superhero and super-villain world.
Glass starts three weeks after the end of Split and opens with a terrific and bruising encounter between McEvoy’s dominant “Beast” personality and David Dunn’s (Bruce Willis) vigilante, daubed “The Overseer” by the media. Captured by authorities, the two are locked up and analyzed by Sarah Paulson’s seemingly sympathetic psychiatrist, Dr Ellie Staple. Enter Samuel L. Jackon’s Elijah Price, who is ALSO being held at the same mental health facility. I mean what could go wrong? Does the catatonic Price have villainous plans for The Horde and The Overseer? What do you think?
What I love about Shyamalan’s screenwriting, and this is something which he could equally be criticized for, is you can hear the cogs of contrivance creaking with every plot turn. Yet his ideas really capture your imagination and you genuinely want to know what happens next. Personally, as a fan of say Agatha Christie, I love theatrical exposition and clear “rules-of-the-world” mechanics. Shyamalan gets his three big-hitters in the same place and cinematic fireworks, however unlikely and full of plot-holes it may be, ensue. Woven within the fights, monologues and narrative misdirections are very clever meta-textual references to comic-book structures. This adds a welcome context to the denouement, which contains at least two incredible revealing twists.
Ultimately, I feel, unlike certain critics, that Glass is a fun and entertaining end to the trilogy. Yes, it tests the believability grid but Shyamalan must be applauded for striving, once again, toward some form of originality within his chosen genre. It arguably goes down a deep rabbit hole at the end which is hard to get out of; but the impressive cast keep you in the light for the most part. James McAvoy is simply, once again, outstanding. Why hasn’t he been nominated for an Oscar? Who knows! Jackson and Willis are always solid performers, although I felt that Dunn’s character was slightly thrown away at the end. Anya Taylor-Joy also stood out and she is going to be a big star if she carries on delivering wide-eyed and steely performances such as these. Thus, Shyamalan gives us another big hit and something very different from the Marvel and DC superhero universes; something altogether more human.
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.
Written by: Russell T Davies – Based on A Very English Scandal by John Preston
Starring: Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw, Monica Dolan, Alex Jennings, Blake Harrison, Eve Myles, Patricia Hodge etc.
Composer(s): Murray Gold
Production Company: BBC
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’ve never been a fan of politicians. They are a necessary evil. Perhaps I shouldn’t blight a whole raft of people who may, in their hearts, believe they are trying to do well for their country. But, I just cannot help feeling there is something not quite right with someone who wants to be in control or lead or rule. I’m of the view that power does corrupt the individual and even though they may begin with great altruistic tendencies they will, ultimately, be poisoned by the job. Or worse than that they have sociopathic tendencies and the prestige of being voted in will feed their greed and lust for control. How does one explain the amount of wars and conflicts there are? Humanity is greatly flawed and the leaders of the so-called free world are more flawed than most.
But, what alternative is there to the capitalist system we have? Running a country and leading millions of various people must be tough; and difficult decisions must be made everyday. Many have tried the commune lifestyle and socialism has also led, in the Soviet Union and China for example, and, to dictatorial regimes replete with fear, repression and murder. Not that the West hasn’t had its fair share of Dictators and sociopathic leaders. General Franco in Spain is one such fascistic leader and our own Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher, hiding within the illusion of democracy, crushed Union leaders, working class lives and whole industrial communities. As such, crooked and nefarious politicians are often a staple of film and television shows. A case in point is the BBC’s recent adaptation of John Preston’s book, A Very English Scandal.
This strange true life tale focussed on the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe and his relationship with a troubled young man called Norman Scott. What first starts off as an illicit but touching love story soon becomes a desperate, twisted and darkly amusing black comedy of insane proportions. First off, Thorpe and Scott are portrayed with absolute brilliance by Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw. Both sterling film actors they bring gravitas, sparkling chemistry and humour to their respective roles; while Alex Jennings, Adrian Scarborough, Eve Myles and Patricia Hodge also excel in supporting roles. Furthermore, acclaimed director Stephen Frears ties the strands of Russell T. Davies brilliant script, expertly switching between comedy and heightened drama, without losing tonal control.
Set against the backdrop of English Parliament and the United Kingdom’s homophobic laws which outlawed gay sex, Jeremy Thorpe, is presented as an honourable man at first. He champions workers’ rights and lambasts the policy of Apartheid in the House of Commons. He has to hide his homosexuality though due to the oppressive legal system and the fact that, as a politician in the public eye, this would seriously harm his ambition to become Prime Minister. When he meets Ben Whishaw’s highly strung stable lad he immediately falls for him and they begin a secret affair. The relationship goes wrong and Thorpe moves on to become the leader of his political party, but an ever increasingly unstable Scott, just won’t go away. That’s when things begin to go awry for Thorpe. Scott won’t take a pay-off and Thorpe won’t give him the National Insurance Card, Scott hilariously demands.
So, like Henry II demanding, “Someone rid me of this meddlesome priest”, he allegedly, as per the script, takes a more sinister route. I won’t spoil it but the events which are presented are both funny and shocking and have to be witnessed to be believed. The privileged Jeremy Thorpe, garners some empathy due to having to hide his sexuality, however, his subsequent decisions to shut Scott down, as presented in this fascinating tale, are shown to be the actions of a spoilt, desperate and sad man wielding power over someone less fortunate. They say absolute power corrupts absolutely but as shown in A Very English Scandal it also leads to incredible poor decisions by individuals from the ruling classes. Indeed, the main reason I dislike and distrust politicians in general is they can and should afford to be better behaved and more compassionate than those they lead.
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. . .
Produced by: Kevin Frakes, Ridley Scott, Buddy Patrick
Written by: Ari Aster
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Music by: Colin Stetson
Cinematography: Pawel Pogorzelski
**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**
I’m tempted to do two reviews of this movie. Because there’s a minority part of me that feels its bravura and beautifully crafted horror film; but the majority part just could not get over the illogical and surreal elements which unhinge the carefully plotted family tragedy it promised to be. Nonetheless, the writer and director Ari Aster is clearly an ultra-talented filmmaker who deserves much praise for creating a series of impressively creepy scenes throughout. Still, he does throw a lot of ideas at the wall hoping they stick so many critics will probably love Hereditary, unfortunately it lost me some way through due to a major plot and tonal turn which, while foreshadowed, did not really make any emotional sense.
The story begins with the Graham family mourning the death of Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette) mother. From beginning to the end Collette’s portrayal is absolutely incredible and she deserves any awards that are coming to her. Indeed, Collette anchors the film with moving and incredibly dramatic performance. Her character is very empathetic suffering tragedy after tragedy and attempting to come to terms with the devastation life brings. She is ably supported by Gabriel Byrne as her husband; while Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro offer excellent support as their troubled kids. Shapiro especially is well cast as the unstable teenage girl who may or may not have some darker force within her.
The film begins slowly and creeps along for forty minutes or so building dread and atmosphere. Collette has some fine speeches about grief and family relationships and this is where the writing is very strong. These scenes showcase Collette’s acting ability before the action takes a vicious twist with one grandstanding horror moment half-way through. This is where, in my view, the film suddenly started to become lop-sided and full of debateable plot-holes. Don’t get me wrong, if you read the film as a supernatural fantasy full of surreal and dream logic like the cinema of Luis Bunuel and David Lynch, you can swallow much of what happens in the final act. Moreover, symbolically and thematically Hereditary is very strong with issues relating to grief and dysfunctional family relationship very well explored. However, due to a ridiculous final act where the film moves away from this my empathy for the family was lost in a number of wildly over-the-top scenes, which while scary, made little sense in my humble opinion.
Hereditary (2018) is a “Mother” of a horror film!! Indeed, it has much in common with last year’s divisive work of cinema directed by Darren Aronofsky called Mother (2017). Like Mother (2017) it is a brilliantly directed horror story with great acting throughout, that alas, falls apart at the end with narrative illogic, plot-holes and a laughable denouement. It’s a shame because the first half of Hereditary is beautifully set up. The visual style involving miniatures, shadows, weird dolls’ head and bird decapitations is creepy and very impressive. However, the filmmaker’s fantastic work is destabilised by a narrative desire to twist the film into something pretty crazy. Yet, Ari Aster deserves much praise for taking risks in the horror genre and his and Collette’s craft are of the highest order; at least until the ending.
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi
Music by: James Edward Barker
Cinematography: Magnus Joenck
More times than not I go to the cinema to escape the nagging existential doubt I have in respect of life. I watch movies, even the movies based in some believable reality to escape MY reality, my work, my everyday life. Sometimes, though you find a film which will not allow you to escape. It is so relentlessly realistic in its representation of the human spirit that it does not allow you to get away. You are stuck; imprisoned by the misery and hopelessness one can feel with life. Lean on Pete (2017) is such a film.
Adapted and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete is a tunnel-focussed character drama based in the dustbowl plains of Portland, Oregon. The lead protagonist is Charlie Thompson who is portrayed with an incredible maturity by Charlie Plummer. The director Haigh and Plummer deserve much praise for creating such an empathetic and troubled character. I mean he’s a good kid who works hard. He jogs everyday in order to keep his fitness up so he can return to playing football at school. Yet, his life suffers from ennui, poverty and family discord. Put simply: Charlie was born with no luck. His mother left when he was a baby and he’s brought up by a father (Travis Kimmel), who loves him, but is somewhat of a nomad; moving from a different job to a different location to a different women every few years.
Movement defines Charlie. He’s either running down roads or walking or driving or leading the horses out. He gets a job working with irascible horse race trainer portrayed by the excellent Steve Buscemi and befriends a rundown racehorse called ‘Lean on Pete’. Charlie becomes, against the advice of everyone, attached to the horse and this affection will drive his actions in the tragic latter half of the film. This is no Disney-kid-befriends-animal-rites-of-passage-fairy-tale but rather a depressing and harsh neo-Western where the American dream is a distant memory.
Overall, it’s a strange thing to say that, while brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Magnus Joenck and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete, is a tough film to recommend due to the relentless existential misery on screen. However, there is hope there in Charlie’s character as he won’t give in and just keeps moving trying to find some light at the end of that tunnel we call life.