Friday, October 25, 2013

Two Basic Falsehoods of Classical Narrative

Movies are capable of great good and great evil.  Movies can potentially reveal truths to people, but they can also spread mis-truths to a naive audience.  I don't necessarily just mean especially propagandist or immoral movies.  Virtually every movie, even the most positive, can warp people's ideas of reality.  The classical narrative structure, in some form dating back to Aristotle or further, but now applied in different ways to nearly every movie involves inherent distortions of reality.  I'm talking about the underpinnings of EVERY single mainstream movie.  Classical narrative crafts a world overtly full of purpose and meaning which hopefully inspires us to make that quest in our own lives.  That is good.  On the other hand, it can leave the naive viewer with the illusion that life is supposed to be constant action and movement.  It can also encourage those whose lives are in a negative stasis to wait for some outside force to save them or motivate them.  What sort of truth can we gain from narrative when the majority of it is a false construction?  Is narrative evil or do viewers merely need to check themselves.

I've already mentioned classical narrative and archplot in regards to Robert McKee's book Story: Style, Structure, Substance and the Principles of Screenwriting.  Classical narrative is good when through it's overtly meaningful structure, it encourages or aids in man's search for meaning.  Entertaining people is pretty awesome, too.

The underlying structure that can lead to narrative truth is itself false, though, in the sense that it is not true to life.  This applies to nearly every movie ever.  Alfred Hitchcock once said "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out."  Real life does not always have movement, direction or action.  Every moment is not overtly meaningful.  When these representations warp people's expectations of what life is or is supposed to be, it can be emotionally and psychologically damaging.  Real life is often marked by boredom, drudgery, down-time and even pure existential angst.  It's perfectly okay, often healthy, that these moments and feelings exist.

The other problem of narrative structure is the problem of the catalyst.  The catalyst is the thing that sets the story in motion.  Virtually every movie has one and all the major screenwriting books talk about it, sometimes under a different name.  The catalyst is generally not the act of a protagonist, but something outside of him.  To simplify the formula, a flawed hero is called to go on some quest in response to the catalyst, a call which he does normally actively accept, and he overcomes his initial flaw through passing the challenges of the quest.  The potential problem is that in real life, there often is no major catalyst, or at the very least, a person shouldn't wait for it.  If someone's life is in a rut, he needs to fix it now, not wait for some outside person, event, or thing to force him or motivate him to change.  Obi-Wan is not waiting at your door to whisk you away to Jedi training.  This inherent issue is greatly exacerbated when a movie has a weak protagonist, something generally agreed to be a flaw.  I absolutely hate movies where a passive agent gets all his problems solved by outside forces.

"I'm here to fall in love with you for no reason and solve all your problems while you mope."
So is narrative evil?  No.  I've already mentioned reasons why it's good.  It is extremely important to note, though, that the very foundations of narrative form are ideological, carry meaning within themselves and can influence our mindsets in a certain way no matter what content we apply to said structures.  Everything about a movie is somehow ideological.  We must consciously pull truth from fiction.  Narrative can still illustrate truth while some of it's potential underlying messages are questionable. This process can still be rewarding and the existence of some pitfalls does not make all classical narrative immoral.  This entire issue, though, is one reason I believe in the value of existential realism as an alternative approach.

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