Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Planks of Bullshit

THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. (If you intend to watch Perfume or The Bourne Ultimatum, please be aware that the following post contains plot details from both films. And Poseidon as well – but I can’t imagine anyone in their own right mind who would want to watch that). I thank you.
One of the more entertaining aspects of movie going for me is to find a stray plot thread and to pick away at it until the whole narrative comes apart in your hands like some knackered cat’s cradle (OK, call me sadistic, but this sort of thing is fun). On watching Perfume over the weekend, I thought it might be amusing to go a little bit further and to formulate a theory (of sorts) to illustrate this general lack of narrative coherence, which I shall term Planks of Bullshit, or POB for short.

Tom Tykwer’s Perfume is a good example of a POB in action. First off, if you're not aware of the plot, check it out here...

OK then. Our serial killer protagonist, Grenouille, becomes enamoured with the daughter of Antoine Richis (Alan Rickman), and resolves to capture her ‘essence’ as the key note in his perfumed piece de resistance. Grenouille is slowly hacking and slashing his way through the town’s virgins (and the odd prostitute), and it looks highly likely that Richis’ daughter is next, given the furtive way that Grenouille ogles her and follows her about whenever he has the opportunity. Although someone confesses to the murders that Grenouille has committed, Richis gets wind of the fact that his daughter is next, so whisks her off to a monastery for her own protection.

It was at point I scratched my head and said, ‘Huh?’

When that happens, I know that there’s some major nonsense going down – to wit, how does Richis know that his daughter is next in line for a slice ‘n dice? Answer: he doesn’t. He simply ‘intuits’ this information as if it was somehow in the air waiting to be breathed in and learnt by osmosis. It’s a device that is intended to give this particular chunk of the plot a suitably ‘dramatic’ conclusion – but in the process of doing so, it turns into a creaky narrative conceit – in Chip-speak, a Plank of Bullshit (POB). With me so far?

Bear in mind there are two different types of POB – a POB (such as the example above), and an EPOB, which is an Essential Plank of Bullshit - an essentially unbelievable load of flapdoodle without which the narrative would not function.

In a handy fashion, Perfume also contains its own EPOB: in the film’s penultimate scene, Grenouille stands on the gallows surrounded by the good townspeople of Grasse, ready for the drop. But wait – what’s this? Grenouille pulls out a phial of his perfume, made from the ‘essence’ of the previously mentioned virgins (not forgetting the prostitute, of course): he wafts it across the crowd and, overcome with the heady brilliance of his perfumic masterpiece the townspeople descend into a rousing bout of euro-shagging.

But here’s the problem: Grenouille’s perfume is made from the essences of thirteen women. Rather than the men being solely overcome, the women are as well – er, why?

The only answer I have is the fact that Perfume is built upon an Essential Plank of Bullshit – i.e., a narrative conceit that isn’t designed to be analysed in any great depth.

Take The Bourne Ultimatum (somebody, please, take it): Jason Bourne is able to see into a building from a distance of about fifty metres and watch as the big bad CIA boss opens a safe, enabling Bourne to clock the combination (he’s not just superhuman, he’s bionic as well). Bourne then lays a false trail, which forces everyone out of the building – he is then able to waltz in (incidentally, no-one notices him do this), and crack open the safe: which of course, is all utter bullshit, an essential part of any POB.

I prefer movies that don’t solely rely on POBs or EPOBs to build their narratives, which made The Bourne Ultimatum such a huge disappointment for me. I don’t necessarily want to see movies that are ‘realistic’ above all else, but what I do want is at least the semblance of a coherent narrative, not one that makes you throw your hands in the air at the first sign of something that seems convoluted or just plain clumsy.

OK. So far, so good, right?

The following is a quote from The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood, by Joe Esterhaus:

If your movie wins an Oscar, they’ll probably “forget” to thank you.

On Forrest Gump, everyone involved with the film who went up on stage forgot to thank William Groom, on whose novel it was based.

And on American Beauty, the director and the star forgot to thank the man who wrote the original screenplay, Alan Ball.

Is this because the writer is held in such low regard, or is it more to do with the fact that story itself is?

You could almost make the assumption that these days it doesn’t matter whether a movie contains a POB or an EPOB: the simple fact is that, above all else, we go to the cinema to be entertained. In fashioning something that is predominantly seen as an emotional experience, the basic elements of narrative can often be discarded – and what’s more, no-one really cares or notices. For the most part, lip service is paid to the concepts of realism and coherence, because that isn’t what we want to see. We want to be entertained, to be emotionally engaged, rather than to understand.

If that’s what you want, that’s cool. But my idea of a good movie is not one where you have to switch your brain off in order to engage. And besides, if you regard realism and coherence simply as barriers to whipping up some fevered movie emotion, you end up with little more than a theme park ride – which is probably what the majority of people want these days anyway. And besides, I can easily start to resent films that manipulate my emotions for the sole reason that they are able to do so.

So there you have it. POBs and EPOBs exist not because writers and script editors can’t be arsed to do their jobs properly, but because the concept of story has become subservient to emotion. That’s my theory anyway.

Poseidon is another good example, although this time round both coherence and emotional impact have been sacrificed for vast swathes of CGI – the assumption being that if the explosion is big enough and loud enough, you won’t notice what a drab, uninvolving experience the whole thing really is.

OK, so the theory needs a bit of work.

Maybe I’m just getting tired of walking out of a cinema thinking, ‘What the flaming arse just happened in there?’ To my mind, POBs and EPOBs drag you out of the story by making you question the narrative you are attempting to follow, which in my book, is never good.

And as for Perfume? I think Kubrick was right to pass on it. It looks gorgeous, but it’s a load of nonsense.

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