Sunday, 23 September 2007

Ravenhill, Waters, McKee

What follows is an article published in The Guardian on 21st December 2006 by Steve Waters (original article is here). There’s a Mark Ravenhill article that covers similar ground, but I suspect that Ravenhill hasn’t really read too much McKee – this doesn’t matter a great deal, as it’s a very entertaining read.

It now seems, as Steve Waters states below and Ravenhill echoes, that all readers, script editors and commissioners are now wrapped up in the “three act, sole protagonist, inciting incident” model of screenwriting. There are plenty of films that buck this trend – Paris, Texas, as Waters states below, but how about Psycho, Babel, Full Metal Jacket, The Prestige, Eraserhead, Chung King Express - the list goes on. If narrative is to be churned out to a predetermined, homogenised pattern, is it any wonder we end up with movies that are the production-line equivalent of Big Macs?
“Story is a metaphor for life. Or so says the guru of "story", Robert McKee, whose ideas have spread like a virus. Infamous for having been impersonated by Brian Cox in Spike Jonze's Adaptation, McKee's ideas - which are expounded in his weekend seminars (£460, including software) and in his tome, Story - are on the lips of writers, script editors and commissioners. Such ubiquity surely places McKee beyond suspicion.

So what's the idea? McKee proposes that the art of story (which he promotes from humble noun to abstract concept) is on the wane. Movie-makers opt for mere incident to tart up underdeveloped screenplays, while in the arthouse sector story is snubbed by elitist conceptualism. As film audiences shrink, so story withers; for story was most ascendant when film was a mass art and when audiences weren't coteries.

There's much truth in this, and McKee's paean to the undervalued art of screenwriting is a corrective to years of auteurist ideology. But his ideas don't stop there; he seeks to offer a grand prescription for dramatic narrative comparable in its ambitions to Aristotle.

Here is the orthodoxy: every story has a three-act structure. It begins with an "inciting incident", centres on a protagonist under unimaginable pressure seeking a burning objective, and rides out on the spine of this quest with "progressive complications" ratcheting up the pressure. Thus every story is driven by antagonism, crisis, conflict - you can almost feel the honest sweat seeping from the pages of his book.

Can a man whose pupils include the winners of 26 Academy Awards be wrong? The old joke that there's a two-word answer to McKee - Paris, Texas - suggests he can. It's telling that the majority of his exemplar films are middlebrow products such as Ordinary People; when he turns his attention to Chinatown his reading feels off the mark. Theatre gets the odd nod but it's Ibsen's Hedda Gabler rather than When We Dead Awaken; God knows what he'd make of Saved or Blasted.

The most lethal fallout from McKee's approach comes in his proposition that good stories must be engineered in advance like municipal car parks, thus ushering in the stultifying world of 80-page story treatments where the improvised life of the narrative is nailed dead before a line of dialogue is written.

And this is not simply about fiction; I heard a TV producer admit that story is now colonising narrative history; and where the facts don't fit the template they are simply set aside. In the recent BBC docu-drama on the history of Rome it became apparent that the life and times of Emperor Augustus didn't conform to the demands of story to make the series: where was his third act crisis?

Isn't there already too much narrative cliche clogging up our relationship to experience; the Brown/Blair tiff is packaged in advance as a three act drama with deferred climax; Global Warming as a set of progressive complications yielding the mother of all climaxes. We can't blame McKee for his influence, but story's looking increasingly like another patent, branding random experience into manipulable commodity.

Truly great stories shatter the crust of cliche. I remember watching Caryl Churchill's play Top Girls and experiencing that delirium of uncertainty that great narrative art induces. What about the early Wim Wenders films which weave around their narrative core releasing us to enjoy time and space for itself. Writers learn their craft from the canon of drama but they should steer clear of recipes - and McKee's work has become one more ideology filtering out the shocks that radical fiction uses to shake us from our slumbers.”

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