Defying Structure?

Monday, September 13, 2010

The other day I happened to meet Mr. Madan, the noted cartoonist, film critic, TV celebrity and screenwriter (Anbe Sivam - Tamil). As always, the talks sponaneously drifted toward the craft of writing screenplays; and how upcoming writers look up to screenwriting as career. A few, or very few want to be screenwriters; all want to be film-makers. May be the majority finds screenwriting as not that promising and lucartive as film making; but those who I see as aspiring writers want their screenplays to look different. Whether it be Screenwrite.In or LV Prasad Film & TV Academy when I share with them my knowldege on structures, they all want to defy the structure and move on with something entirely different. This's very curious for me to find - all upcoming writers want to defy formulaic structure. Or simple said: Three act Structure.

I tell them, by all means you can defy the structure; for which you should know structures, know the rules to break the rules, if at all we may call them rules. They always mention the two perennial films 'Memento' and 'Irreversible' and, all of them, they want to write films like these.

I'm writing this for all those who want to defy any of the existing story-telling paradigms (structures) and 'write a screenplay along lines of Memento or Irreversible'. And for that I need to talk to you about linear and non-linear structure.

As story has always a chronological order, as life itself, I'd reckon all stories are linear. And when the story telling (structure) moves along with the chronological order of the story, you call it linear structure. When the telling goes ziz-zag, not caring for the chronolgical order of the story it's non-linear structure.

As linear story telling became more and more doctrinaire many writers became intentionally innovative to newer plotting and structure. 'The Usaul Suspects' is an example juxtaposing flashbacks and flash forwards that intersect the main plot. Tarantino's 'Pulp Fiction' sails on the the same winds. Kurosawa's 'Roshomon' is a story of rape and murder, but seen from different Points's of View. Amores Perros interlink three different tales, all connected to a singular car accident. In all these films, the 'traditional structure' is quesioned and a new approach attempted.

This's the new way story-telling emerging. Agreed. Good. But did you ever put your mind to find why these films have amazingly wonderful structures?

Usual Suspects tells you the story of man telling a convoluted story to get away from being convicted; and we are put through the maze of parrallell action with the main plot, so that we can experience the intensity of intelligent conning by the protagonist. Kurosawa takes the pattern because he has four different view points to tell the story. Amores Perros is told so because there are three lives affected by the same car accident. Sex, Lies and Dhoka (Hindi) is told that way because it's all three different tales about girls abused in the perspective of the 'private eye' (portmanteau).

In all these films what I find is REASON to adhere to plot variation. When the story demands a different style to tell the story, the new approach to structure has meaning. Otherwise, I have doubts about why one should think of an off-track structure. To merely confuse the viewer? Or to show the intelligence of the writer as being defferent, or to question the IQ of the viewer?

Most of the Directors and Writers who has attempted on plot variations have been masters of linear structure; and eventually they tried plot variation. That's clever because they know where they're heading for, from their own wealth of experience in linear narration, even when they try plot variation. They didn't do it just to defy structure, but FOR a REASON.

Now, let's look into 'Memento' for those who blindly want to follow the line: It's challenging and ambitious, of course to run two parallel storylines, one (in balck and white) is linear and other the recounted tale (in color) running backwards. The structure is supposed to capture the disorienting nature of the protaginist's memory condition; and the viewer doesn't get to know anything more than what Leonard does. I personally has a doubt here: the last thing Leonard remembers is the demise of his wife, then how does he remember the fact he has short-term amnesia? I'm not picking nits here; but trying to show why REASON is important to attempt plot variations.

In 'Irriversible', I find a clever REASON to support the chronological disorder. In the beginning, we see the vengeance and a very gory, brutal murder and when we go backwards, we find the cause of such an act of violence - the rape of the lover, also to our confusion and question, that the avenger kills the wrong man. The more we go towards the end we realize the reason for the rape, and finally see the warmth of love and the good mements of the lovers' lives.

Has the structure been linear, the movie would have been a 'cause and effect continuum' which leads to a hard-hitting violent retaliation and the message clearly communicated: pay the price for your faults. By reverse story-telling Gasper Noe gives the veiwer at least the screen time to ponder and evaluate the reasons for a brutal murder, that the reasons become more cerebrally pronounced when compared to merely pass a message. I find a clear, amoral REASON here for the structural shift.

In Annie Hall, Woody Allen ( I adore him for his genius) constructed a non- linear structure to portray the unquenching thirst of the two characters, to find ever-lasting love - which is a mirage. The REASON is perfect here.

On the other hand, in 'Sex and Lucia' and 'La Vie en Rose', I find difficulties finding REASON to take to such a structure; I think you should watch the two movies and let me know your assessments. I think, may be , in La Vie en Rose, Olivier Dahan tried to make the story ply without a chronological direction as compared to the fragmented re-collective nature of human memory; but it gets us to strain a lot to get along with the story. In that case of treating memories structurally, 'Point Blank' is a treat to watch. In 'Sex and Lucia' I absolutely missed the choice given to the characters almost after the middle, as I watched the film.

Back to where I started, the aspiring novice writers' prerogative SHOULD NOT be on grounds of just to defy any of the existing story telling paradigm (structure) and 'write a screenplay along lines of Momento or Irreversible'; but the thought should be based on REASON, based on your experience, from many fronts of screenwriting, to convince yourself on that REASON.


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