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Revisiting That 'Narrative Exhaustion' Thing Thanks To Ari Handel's Explanation For The Lack Of P.O.C. In 'Noah'

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by Tambay A. Obenson
April 14, 2014 12:37 PM
14 Comments
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Hmm

Sergio's piece published earlier this morning, on Ari Handel (co-screenwriter of Darren Aronofsky's Noah) giving his reasons for the lack of people of color in that recently-released film, reminded me of as item I penned a few months ago, waxing on the shortsightedness and laziness of the privileged - specifically, the white heterosexual men who run Hollywood - and the ramifications of those seemingly unconscious deficiencies, with regards to the rest of us. I posit that Handel's baffling response to the question of Noah's lack of diversity, is simply just another example of that shortsightedness and laziness that comes from being in a position of privilege. As Sergio said in his piece, Handel should've just simply said that he (and Aronofsky) didn't want to be bothered (i.e., the laziness I mentioned), rather than dance around the matter. 


Black films don't travel overseas, the experiences of black people aren't universal enough for non-blacks to appreciate on film, the black experience isn't the American experience (it's an *other*), etc, etc, etc... we've heard all those claims stated as if they are fact, over and over again, so much that many have come to believe them. Then there's the belief that some have, that cinema is suffering from "narrative exhaustion," because all the stories that can be told on film, have apparently already been produced - that is, all the stories about white heterosexual men, sure. But just don't tell them that. 

Recall this quote from George Clooney, a couple of months ago, which I addressed in my piece: 

“I had some understanding that Hitler was stealing shit,” Clooney says. “I didn’t understand he was taking all of it. They don’t teach that in school. That’s why I loved the story. We figured at this point, we’ve done so many WWII movies, there really aren’t any new ones. You have to get around to someone as smart as Quentin (Tarantino with ‘Inglourious Basterds’), who can burn Hitler in a movie theater to do something different.”

That came from a longer Variety piece on George Clooney's fight to get his last film, Monuments Men, made, which reminded me of a 2009 article by veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) that I highlighted on this blog years ago, that offered a POV on Hollywood’s indubitable tendency to recycle old material.

It might be an almost 5-year-old piece, but, given Clooney's above recent comments, and now Ari Handel's, it still seems very relevant to the Hollywood studio film business today, and emphasizes what I feel is a really myopic view of the world and the plethora of stories it still has to tell - an inability by people like Clooney and Handel (and many others of their ilk within the Hollywood studio system) to see beyond what's familiar, beyond their own experience. Let's just call it privilege - white male privilege in this case.

For Clooney to suggest that "we've done so many WWII movies" and as a result, "there really aren't any new ones," as he gives a nod to Quentin Tarantino for having the imagination to come up with Inglorious Basterds, is unfortunate. It's also not very surprising. But if I had Clooney's ear, I'd say, actually George, to start, there is a lot about that period in history that "they don't teach... in school." There are plenty of stories about that period in our history that have yet to be told on film. We've barely scratched the surface on films about the African American contribution to WWII efforts - fighting a war abroad, and then returning to continue fighting one at home - specifically, the civil rights struggle. And let's not forget the families they left behind, as well as the families they created abroad, and all of their own individual dramatic stories that have yet to be tackled on film.

There's a wealth of real-life, straightforward tales to choose from about that period that one doesn't need to fantasize about what could have been, as in Inglorious Basterds, or reach out of the proverbial box, whether structurally, stylistically, or narratively, in order to create something "different."

So yes, there certainly have been many WWII movies produced over the years; BUT, the stories they've told have been primarily from the POV of characters who are both white and male (and heterosexual), which obviously does not make up the entire WWII experience.

Paul Schrader's explanation for why Hollywood continues to recycle old material (plus all the sequels, prequels, spin-offs, etc) is that the problem isn't necessarily a lack of ideas, laziness and shortsightedness, as many of us have previously and continually express frustration over; The real problem, according to Schrader, is what he deemed "narrative exhaustion."

Schrader stated...

... 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.

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.

But clearly, reading a sentence like "almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively," demonstrates that his POV is a very narrow one, in that he's white and male. So, from the lens through which he sees the world and thus cinema, yes, of course it feels like narrative exhaustion, because Hollywood's story is a white, heterosexual male dominated narrative. So when he says "almost every possible subject," I'd add, "about white heterosexual men"... "has not only been covered but covered exhaustively."

What Mr. Schrader, Clooney, Handel, and countless others seemingly fail 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 filmmakers and audiences - as well as women, Latinos, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community and other so-called *minority* groups.

But as I said, this kind of thinking isn't so uncommon in the industry, and it does indeed 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 (as an artist who isn't a member of the so-called "old boys club") might be quickly dismissed with one of Schrader's many yawns, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it. Or Handel would insist that every experience must be seen through the eyes of white people to be considered universal.

A luta continua my friends...

See related post: Co-Screenwriter of 'Noah' Explains Why There Are No Black People Or POC In The Film

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14 Comments

  • Brian Winiarski | June 28, 2014 10:24 AMReply

    I may watch this movie when it reaches dvd because it may entertain me as many works of fiction do. The problem though with any movie that is bible based and has a white cast is that most of the white,so called christian, brainwashed, bible thumpers in the usa and elsewhere will perceive the movie as truth and completely accurate in fact. The holy bible has been rewritten hundreds of times, and often purposelly misinterpreted to conform to the beliefs of the man rewriting it. Each new (white bible) based movie made just proves to any white christian with a narrow mind and perhaps low IQ that their' perception of God is true. Many of them subconsciously believe that their' caucasion god actually produced the movie.

  • frank doane | June 25, 2014 11:55 AMReply

    Please stop using African American. I am offended by that term. I suspect Mr. Obenson knows what I'm talking about. I am married to a West African woman. She & her family are called Africans by other Americans (White & Black) & not African Americans to avoid confusion with Black folks. Every other group of immigrants get their own XXX-American (Asian-American, Indian-American, etc.). African immigrants & their progeny have to keep being called African so Black Americans can have this quaint PC term that is used as a litmus test for racial attitudes of White Americans using it (how often do you refer to yourself as an African American when addressing an exclusively Black audience?).

    Let's let the Africans move in. Leave African-American for folks who came over from Africa within the last 30 or so years. Oh & don't tell me you want to share that term with them too. I'm not that naïve. Thanks.

  • frank doane | June 25, 2014 1:00 PM

    What's bilious about my statement? I'm just sticking up for folks whose voice has been ignored for years. Perhaps you would prefer they remain oppressed. I fear for the people who have to deal with your wrath on a daily basis. Hater.

  • Donella | June 25, 2014 12:15 PM

    You sound completely full of hatred and bile. There's pills for that.

  • frank doane | June 25, 2014 11:29 AMReply

    What is the main point of your article? Is it that white-male heterosexuals are the only voice in Hollywood & they've run out of ideas collectively - hence the oppressive repetition of stories that stick to genre 100%? So reduced down, we don't get new stories b/c we only let certain storytellers tell them?

  • Rie | May 26, 2014 1:52 AMReply

    Well I do know one thing... I won't be supporting it, and yes I'm African American.

  • Rod | April 28, 2014 4:52 AMReply

    I didn't go see the movie. I figured it would be one of those parodies that cast a humorous light to the story, so I bailed. I did learn something from the movie though, even though I wasn't there. When God gave Noah the measurements to the Ark and Noah began building it, there was no measurements to make the front of the boat like all of the new bass boats and speed/ski boats that have a pointed front on them. The Ark was built with the front of it square. Now, if that be the case, I never thought to take the scripture apart and read it to learn the story better.
    You can be very sure I will though. I'll come back and let everyone know what I found out for sure, OK?

  • Keith | April 22, 2014 7:32 AMReply

    BOYCOTT the film. This is Racist, White supremacy at its height of ignorance

  • Sara | April 15, 2014 11:12 PMReply

    This is actually a pretty racist article. I agree one hundred percent with the main points of the article, but tracing all of George Clooney's opinions back to the fact that he is a white male is pretty narrow-minded yourself. I could tell that this article was written by a minority because the author was so quick to blame these problems on white privilege! It sounds racist for me to say that, and that's the exact point I'm trying to make! Nothing is as black and white as this article makes it out to be, including race.

  • Ten Commandments came after the flood | April 15, 2014 2:10 PMReply

    The story of Noah happened before Moses or the tower of Babylon which is where it is believed the different nations developed. Although some suggest it happened when God placed a mark on Cain so he wouldn't be killed. No one knows what that mark was. Before Noah and Babylon we were all one nation and one language. No one knows for sure what that nation looked like. White or Black, Asian or Italian...Jewish people are mentioned throughout the Bible from the beginning. Personally I think they all should have been Jewish and I'm not Jewish. I imagine even the Jewish people don't look like they did back then so who knows. The Bible only says that the flesh had become evil.. so evil that God regretted creating man so he was going to destroy everything except Noah because he pleased God. I would think the EVIL WHITE MAN needed to be destroyed so that should please a lot of people. It's really every mans interpretation on how they want to picture this story. The whole focus of this story is the great flood. If someone wants to see it full of POC than they can make their own version.

  • frank doane | June 25, 2014 11:36 AM

    Jews came 10s of 1000s or at least 1000s of years after the flood. Stick to the who knows what we looked like point.

  • Dee | April 15, 2014 7:45 PM

    Yes, and two of them are Jewish, Jennifer Connelly (Jewish mother) and Logan Lerman (both parents).

  • Truth | April 15, 2014 6:26 PM

    We do know what the nation looked like and it was Black. Simple genetics because you're not getting a Black man from two white parents but it can happen with two Black parents having a white child. Genetically recessive but science is something I doubt you're trying to learn.

  • urbanauteur | April 14, 2014 3:25 PMReply

    Still at it!...denied access to the corridors of white male privilege and power...hold the mustard!... a continuing saga.

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