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Revisiting That 'Narrative Exhaustion' Thing Thanks To George Clooney...

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by Tambay A. Obenson
February 11, 2014 2:51 PM
10 Comments
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“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.”

Reading the above from a longer Variety piece on George Clooney's fight to get his latest, Monuments Men, made, 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 comments, 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 to see beyond what's familiar, beyond one own's 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 LOTS 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, I should add), which obviously does not make up the entire WWII experience.

I recall Paul Schrader's explanation for why Hollywood continues to recycle old material (plus all the sequels, prequels, spin-offs, etc) - that the problem isn't necessarily a lack of ideas, 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 myopic 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 seemingly 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 filmmakers and audiences - as well as women, Latinos, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community and other so-called *minority* groups.

But as I said about Clooney's comments, this kind of thinking isn't so uncommon in the industry – a white male dominated 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 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.

Read the full Variety article on Clooney's Monuments Men troubles HERE (and if he of all people had difficulties getting that film made, imagine just how much more challenging a *fresh* story set during the same time period, but centered around black characters, would be to get financed). 

The 2009 Paul Schrader piece can be found HERE.

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10 Comments

  • Marian | March 7, 2014 5:14 PMReply

    Thank you very much for this. I was delighted to read it and used it as a starting point for part of my latest Wellywood Woman post.

  • CS | February 25, 2014 10:22 AMReply

    Being Black, I have Caucasian and Asian friends that made me think. If i look at websites like this. Also the fact that only us Black people have all Black schools and college funds. They said if Caucasian or Asian people did this we Black people would freak out. Sadly i could not disagree with them. They also pointed out if we riot, we normally blame the whites and just attack other black people 's businesses and neighborhoods. It's true. It seems we Black people are remaining deeply prejudice while wanting other races to stop. Lets do as Martian Luther King and forget color. We don't need to bring it up ever. Throw it away. Lets be Black and proud. Other races aren't bring the color of themselves up as much as we do. If we stop it, it will help others to also forget about color.

  • LD | February 20, 2014 2:34 PMReply

    Really appreciate this article. Of course, in addition to the stories of non-white, non-male American combat soldiers and civilians, which have hardly been touched, there were several hundred million people in Europe, Asia and Africa who experienced WWII as civilians in occupied territory, as members of partisan forces and underground resistance movements, and as soldiers in the armies of their colonizers. Those stories continue to be almost completely outside the imagination of Hollywood.

  • Progress | February 12, 2014 12:27 PMReply

    Hoorays! Shadow and Act FINALLY updated its top window! I was so sick of the same outdated content there from November!!!!!

  • Alias | February 11, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    Nothing to add but praise to Tambay for a spot-on piece about an ongoing conversation regarding whose voice gets heard and whose gets shut out in Hollywood.

  • Rocket | February 11, 2014 6:48 PMReply

    "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."
    ---
    My grandfather left his wife and newborn behind in Lake Providence, LA in 1942 at the age of 19. He went to the other side of the world and fight an enemy that he didn't created. He returned to Louisiana 3 years (and a lot of scars) later, gathered his family up, and moved 2,000 miles (sight unseen) to California. I remember him telling me he didn't want to leave Louisiana. It was home. But the Jim Crow South was just too much.

    Yeah, there are a lot of stories about WWII that still haven't been told. Of course some stories are deemed more important than others. Thank you for this well written piece. I agree with it 100%.

  • Daryl | February 11, 2014 6:48 PMReply

    Good articel Tambay. You point out the lens the hollwood industry looks at the world and give another reason why black filmmakers should do for self and not wait on hollywood to tell our stories.

  • Jasmine | February 11, 2014 4:47 PMReply

    I have nothing to add to what you've said, I just want to thank you for putting my long-held feelings into words

  • Josh | February 11, 2014 3:45 PMReply

    Clooney really dropped the ball here. The book is great. Each monument man was a interested guy who contributed heavily to the arts before and after the war, one even started the New York City Ballet. But he completely ignores their back stories for well......nothing. Clooney kept giving them speeches on the importance of art, he didn't have to do that. They had spent their lives to culture and art. I don't believe that WWII is an "overdone" event in movies. There are plenty of stories. Just put together a descent script! WWII stories I would like to see done well in the movies:

    555th Paratroopers- First black paratroopers who fought fires in the Pacific Northwest

    The Freeman Field Mutiny, red Tails should have covered this. Would have been a new angle.

    Blacks who flew with the RAF

    Africans who served in the British forces such as the King's African Rifles.

    6888th WAC's

    A Descent Japanese Internment Camp movie

    the "four chaplains"

    a movie about black "rosie the riveters", heck maybe a tv series.

    etc...

  • No | February 11, 2014 3:32 PMReply

    Well, Clooney certainly didn't offer anything new re WWII in his latest film: it was still the US cavalry riding to the rescue. It was just an aimless movie center on art. He could have use the conceit that the Second World War was contrived to steal art.

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