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Cinema's Dilemma - A Lack Of Ideas Or 'Narrative Exhaustion?'

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by Malcolm Woodard
September 20, 2012 4:18 PM
19 Comments
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I stumbled upon this interesting 2009 article on The Guardian website by veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) that offers a different POV on Hollywood’s indubitable tendency to recycle narratives.

It might be 3 years old, but it still seems relevant to the Hollywood studio film business today.

Schrader's explanation is one that many of us have voiced previously - that with the gluttony of media (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, reality TV, etc) supplying us with an ever-consistent feed of mini-narratives, it’s becoming increasingly challenging for the staid, rigid feature film screenplay to innovate competitively, stifling screenwriters in the process. So, the problem isn't necessarily a lack of ideas, as many of us have previously and continually expressed frustration over; the real problem, according to Schrader anyway (not me), is that we are numb from being inundated with narratives in various forms.

For example, he starts:

Let's crunch some hypothetical numbers. Take a media-aware person of, say, 30 years of age. Call him Ollie Overwhelmed. When Ollie's great-grandfather was 30 he had perhaps seen 2,500 hours of audio-visual narrative (plot). His grandfather, age 30, had seen about 10,000 hours. His father had seen 20,000 hours. Ollie in 2009, age 30, has seen approximately 35,000 hours of audio-visual narrative. These are not hard numbers. I've read no polling to this effect. But this seems about right. That's 35,000 hours of plot. Movies, television shows, cartoons, streaming video, YouTube clips. Storylines long and short: teen comedies, soap operas, love stories, crime shows, historical dramas, special-effects extravaganzas, horror, porn, highbrow, lowbrow, hour after hour, day after day, year after year. That's a lot of narrative. It's exhausting.

So, what does this mean for the screenwriter? Schrader states...

... It means that's it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer's expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He's seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humor? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what's true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

His solution for the storyteller? Work increasingly outside the confines of traditional storytelling, for one thing. Of course, I think most of you have already considered that. Schrader then goes on to detail the kind of "counter-programming" that he believes this exhaustion of narrative has led to - areas he seems to be suggesting that screenwriters (and filmmakers in general) consider working within. You all will recognize these:

1. Reality TV. Any regular viewer knows that reality television follows its own scripted formulas, but the appearance of being unscripted is essential to its appeal. Weary of so much predicable plot, the jaded viewer turns to "reality". 
2. Anecdotal narrative. The attraction of films such as Slacker and its mumblecore progeny is the enjoyment of watching behavior encumbered by the artifice of plot. It is not "fake," not "contrived" (although of course it is). 
3. Reenactment drama. Whether based on famous events or lesser-known ones, reenactment entertainment sells the premise that these events actually happened and were not cooked up by a staff of writers (though, again, if not actually cooked up, they were seasoned and served by writers). 
4. Videogames. The ability of the viewer to participate in the storytelling process creates an illusion of non-contrivance. 
5. Mini-mini dramas. Part of the appeal of three- to five-minute stories created for cellphones, YouTube and original programming is the illusion of not being crafted narratives. Just bits of life. 
6. Documentaries. A staple of filmed entertainment since its beginnings, documentaries, historically the poor cousins of commercial cinema, have grown in number and viewership, an increase owed in part to the desire of viewers to look beyond predictable narratives.


So, essentially, the times area a-changing; and you either adapt, or you die - figuratively speaking.

Schrader offers no real solutions to this storytellers' dilemma, other than to close with statements that remind us that we're working with what is already an archaic form of media, even though it's only about 100 years old - one that we can expect will evolve in form and structure, over time, unlike books, for example, which have maintained the same standard physical structure since the introduction of the printing press in the 1800s.

Movies were the artform of the 20th century. The traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old. I don't know what the future of audio-visual entertainment will be, but I don't think it will be what we used to call movies. Narrative will mutate and endure. Audio-visual entertainment is changing and narrative will change with it.

Just to be clear, I’m certainly not endorsing the writer’s POV. Clearly, his is a myopic one in that he's white and male. So, from that POV, yes of course it feels like narrative exhaustion, because Hollywood's story is a white male dominated narrative.

What Mr. Schrader fails to realize is that the dynamic of any random story can quickly change when a black person (or any other *minority*) is introduced (particularly as the lead character in the story), and since we've barely begun to really scratch the surface of what we call *black storytelling*, that “narrative shortage” he talks about eludes black folks, for example, as well as women, Latinos, Asians, and other so-called minority groups.

But given how much I've read, this kind of thinking isn't so uncommon in the industry – a white male dominated industry – and it does adversely affect the rest of us, unfortunately. So, as a screenwriter or filmmaker intent on a studio-backed career, as many are pursuing, your story (regardless of the ethnicity, or gender of the lead character(s) might be quickly dismissed with a yawn, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it.

So, essentially, what I took from the piece was something S&A has talked about previously – thinking and working outside the proverbial box, especially if your intent is to work within those limits set by the dominant group.

Although, maybe one could consider the rather simple act of casting a black man/woman instead of the expected white man/woman in a role as an example of thinking and working outside the box.

You can read the full article HERE.

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19 Comments

  • Archangel2020 | September 29, 2012 12:10 AMReply

    Avantgroidd, I fully agree with your statements and excuse me for omitting cable TV from the mix! You're right, cable tends to far more adventurous than regular network TV. They are also more forgiving if it takes a show awhile to find its audience. But really it's about developing niches for projects. The days of tailoring entertainment for the general public are over. The public is diverse ethnically and otherwise and wants to see itself reflected in its entertainment.

  • Archangel2020 | September 22, 2012 7:39 PMReply

    I tend to agree somewhat with Mr. Schrader's take on this initially. But with Hollywood being mostly insular, they tend to only do things that make money i.e. remakes and sequels. As another poster stated the Internet is the new game in town. As I said in other comments, people of color have numerous stories yet to be told. Since we know they're not going to let us in, we might as well be creative and explore any and all options available. Just my two cents worth.

  • BluTopaz | September 22, 2012 12:59 PMReply

    "your story (regardless of the ethnicity, or gender of the lead character(s) might be quickly dismissed with a yawn, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it."--This reminds me of director Peter Bratt's convo about his film "La Mission". It's an indie film, but he said many film festival directors were not interested because they claim homosexuality in movies is no longer controversial. Bratt's assertion was that it is still a major taboo in Chicano culture, and the movie is really more about the personal growth of the gay teen's father anyway.

  • Miles Ellison | September 22, 2012 1:31 AMReply

    The problem isn't a lack of interesting ideas. It's the lack of an interested audience.

  • Darnell | September 20, 2012 11:22 PMReply

    " I believe that casting changes can bring different views and emotions into play without changing a word on the page". HOLD IT... STOP RIGHT THERE. That's a deep thought that needs further examination. But let's go back. I agree with Schrader's basic premise that almost every possible subject (lets say that again... "SUBJECT") has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. Then Malcolm counters with the ambiguous (and I believe) misguided "YEAH BUT, WHAT ABOUT *black storytelling* there's a shortage of the black narrative". But wait, what the hell is black storytelling? And how (exactly) does that change the "story". Isn't a story, a story, is a story regardless of the color of the characters or writer? Now I believe MOVIELOVER caught something very important. That is, casting changes can bring different views and emotions into play without changing a word on the page. Yep, by simply inserting a black man into the narrative, the VIEWER'S (the audiences) emotions and reactions WILL change -- for the most part -- but the story does not change. Listen, if a man jumps from a plane without a parachute, will he fall at a rate 32.2 ft per second, or slower, or faster if he's a black man? If a woman dies of a broken heart, is it a slower, more painful death if she's a black woman? I am suggesting or asking, how does a "black" story fit into this discussion? Hell, what is a black story? In a black story, does the character's vernaculars differ from the King James version? Even considering all of the above, does the "story" and how that story is told, does any of that really change? I believe the "method" of telling a good story never changes. Consequently, Schrader's basic premise holds true. And the skin color of the writer, for the most, has little bearing on the outcome of said stories, imo.

  • Darnell | September 30, 2012 5:50 AM

    "Diversity in Hollywood, mainstream cinema is another discussion" ..."everything was taken from Shraeder's argument is more or less true (nothing is original anymore...). EXACTLY! Plan and simple and to the point. Thank you and thank you, ALEX.

  • Alex | September 26, 2012 6:46 PM

    This makes sense to me. It was all going well, mainly because everything was taken from Shraeder's argument is more or less true (nothing is original anymore, we're not taken by surprise and can almost always compare one storyline to another and the book it came from)
    Yes, it can be perceived differently whether you put a woman in the role (SALT) or a person of colour in role otherwise proffered to a Caucasian (Idris in Thor ...eh?... Morgan Freeman in Robin Hood? what...) however you can't say the story is original - if we're really going to be pedantic. Regardless of who is in the role that is not what he is saying. Diversity in Hollywood, mainstream cinema is another discussion.

  • Troy | September 21, 2012 7:18 PM

    I for one am very pro-black but would rather see completely new stories than completely new characters. Some film buffs can guess outcomes and plot twists in foreign language films in which they are not fluent. I think as story tellers we should look to challenge humans core beliefs. Special individual existence, belief in innocence(not only will everybody die but maybe everybody deserves to die natural or unnatural, the need of formative associations(family, country, organization), and/or complete ambilivance to common beliefs(anything agreed upon by the masses is inherently wrong for all of the things society is wrong about or has yet to rectify).

  • Darnell | September 21, 2012 11:18 AM

    Actually Monkeysuit, you're saying exactly what I'm implying. It's only the audiences reactions that changes, NOT THE STORY. Yes, I guess we can say it's an added bonus to include details, but again, the story does not change. So I still stand on my position that Schrader's basic premise holds true. You said it yourself, SAME STORY, different color actor, yet each audience member will perceive it from a different perspective. But enlighten me. Expound on the black man's "experiences" being different and how that difference changes the theme/genre of a thriller, drama, comedy, etc? Also, once you've changed the color of the actor, does that change the method of telling a good story? Please expound of these alleged political and cultural difference and how they relate to "black story telling".

  • monkeysuit | September 21, 2012 8:55 AM

    But that's ignoring the fact that being black: physically, politically and culturally is completely different than being white physically, politically and culturally. And how the audience reacts to a black body is completely different than a white one. So while a black man may not fall slower or faster, his experience in that fall as related to his experiences of being "black" will be different. And the audiences' attitude toward the man falling will be different. Good storytelling is detailed. Any little change affects how your audience perceives it and changing the race of a character is not a minor change.

  • movielover | September 20, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    "Just to be clear, I’m certainly not endorsing the writer’s POV. Clearly, his is a myopic one in that he's white and male."

    C'mon, Malcolm. Really? If you were talking about some artist who was known to keep things simple, in the box and safe I'd understand but calling Paul Schrader myopic because he's white and male is kind of weak.

    I say this because I agree with you partially here:
    "What Mr. Schrader fails to realize is that the dynamic of any random story can quickly change when a black person (or any other *minority*) is introduced (particularly as the lead character in the story), and since we've barely begun to really scratch the surface of what we call *black storytelling*, that “narrative shortage” he talks about eludes black folks, for example, as well as women, Latinos, Asians, and other so-called minority groups.

    But given how much I've read, this kind of thinking isn't so uncommon in the industry – a white male dominated industry – and it does adversely affect the rest of us, unfortunately. So, as a screenwriter or filmmaker intent on a studio-backed career, as many are pursuing, your story (regardless of the ethnicity, or gender of the lead character(s) might be quickly dismissed with a yawn, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it.

    So, essentially, what I took from the piece was something S&A has talked about previously – thinking and working outside the proverbial box, especially if your intent is to work within those limits set by the dominant group.

    Although, maybe one could consider the rather simple act of casting a black man/woman instead of the expected white man/woman in a role as an example of thinking and working outside the box."

    I believe that casting changes can bring different views and emotions into play without changing a word on the page. It needs to happen more. A whole lot more. Even if it means that more people need to make and develop projects for pennies. Budget is bullsh*t. People have stop talking about it and start making things. Creating.

    Where I disagree with you again is that what Mr. Schrader brings up is not only relevant but true. How we take in storytelling has changed dramatically. And that definitely has an effect on the business. And when business is slow - people of color or different ethnic backgrounds are at the end of the line.

    Make it happen, people. Do the do.

  • Troy | September 21, 2012 10:25 PM

    Yeah, that's what I meant emulating black actors. Who are not channeling Sidney Poitier but white actors. Being that their is a larger catalog of white stars to draw on. I know there is a difference in black and white experience. However their exist black people who haven't spent any significant time around black people during their formative years. The universal themes have been regurgitated since before the bible was written. American cultural distinctions aside, very few black or white American people believe Jesus was the bad guy. Many believe that America is the most powerful country in the world. Regardless of race many people believe the same lies and falsehoods. I just get tired of heroes and stakes characters living through shit. Black characters won't change the success of the hero or the bad guy. But honestly some extremely radical things should happen in real life before we need or have a bundle of A list black actors. You know the real life events that have inspired generations of movie makers. Let's just say in the world today only black criminals, politicians, musicians, service people(help/butlers) and athletes are trending. Let us real black people inspire the art we crave. Be the hero you want to see.

    Just a rant not to anyone specific.

  • Darnell | September 21, 2012 9:37 PM

    "That is who they immolate" ~by TROY | SEPTEMBER 21, 2012 7:00 PM. Troy, your comment was a bit confusing. I can only assume you were referring to black actors when you said "they emulate". Therefore, I believe you were basically saying there's no distinct differences between the black experience and the core of the white man's stories ( i.e, walk, talk, culture, family values, pain & triumphs, etc). Consequently, looking for and/or trying to define an authentic black experience/character is a misguided effort? Btw, while I'm thinking about, where is MALCOLM WOODARD? Shouldn't he join in this discussion? Me think, since he laid this subject on the table, he should come back to stand on his position and clear-up any confusion.

  • Troy | September 21, 2012 7:00 PM

    What would you say to the idea that some black actors in the industry, no matter how talented, seem to lack a certain authenticity to their blackness? Being that there is little genetic difference between the races the homogeny obviously not only exists within caucasian story lines but black, Asian and Indian alike. Tyler Perry is an example, especially since his story lines are neither authentically black or black cinema. My comments could fall off a cliff for using "authentically black" however President Obama has aspersions cast on him and he was raised almost exclusively by white people which for me makes it impossible for him to be authentically black. For his upbringing was mostly devoid of black culture. I don't think injecting black actors or actresses change how plots are viewed. Some of their impressions as to what a Hollywood star looks like are images of white people. That is who they immolate. Their are different perspectives and characters that exist within ethnic minorities but watch how the prevailing winds determine our direction as we ventured into unchartered territory.

  • Marie | September 20, 2012 4:34 PMReply

    I've always attributed Hollywood's lack of imaginative films to the need to have a sure thing. There was a time when filmmaking was understood to be an art, not a science. Some things worked, others didn't. It wasn't a big deal if a film failed because it didn't have a budget of $100 gazillion dollars. Now, with the feeling being that movies HAVE to have huge budgets, there's no room for error. When in such a situation, it's natural to play it safe. Hence, the prequels, sequels and remakes. If Hollywood could find its way back to modestly budgeted films, it will create a safe environment to fail. There's no success without failure.

  • Wow | September 21, 2012 8:57 PM

    @ Hollywood, excellent point! If there was no such thing as success in the film industry not even the most nihilistic directors would ever make films. We (human beings not Hollywood) NEVER plan to lose, so not accomplishing goals and losing money are NEVER-EVER-NEVER okay.

  • Hollywood | September 21, 2012 8:37 PM

    Whoa, compadre don't think I'm not the reason you use slang. The Internet is the new television just like everyone on it is a sell out everyone living through the Internet is a non existent sell out. Trading real lives and interactions for virtual ones is the epitome of a sellout.

  • artbizzy | September 21, 2012 7:07 PM

    Aw Dang who let Stanky ole HOLLYWOOD in here, again? Wrong website, homes. This ain't boxofficeblowhards.net or howtoselloutlikeamofo.com

  • Hollywood | September 21, 2012 6:23 PM

    As Hollywood I should inform you that I sub-contract 85% of the shitty movies to artsy independent film school graduates whose actual only successful accomplishments include graduation from compository and secondary schools. Oh, I still make shitty movies mainly ones that make a lot of money why else would anyone ever want to make movies. If their was no such thing as success in the film industry not even the most nihilistic directors would ever make films. We(human beings not Hollywood) never plan to lose, so not accomplishing goals and losing money are never okay. There is no success without someone else's failure, if you are ever to be considered a winner, winner, chicken dinner.

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