Story, script, and the spaces in between.
In this, and many of her other writings on film, Virginia Woolf lays out the potential of cinema, and then, at once, forecloses the possibility of it achieving this potential. All this sounds a very familiar note; the lament for narrative cinema's clumsy fumblings, its shoddy attempts at externalising internal realities. Is this a lament that still has currency today? Or, are we any closer to realising a cinema of subjectivit(ies)?
The work of Claire Denis, Tsai Ming Ling & Wong Kar Wai is surely challenging this view, as is a significant body of work by artist filmmakers. Eija Liisa Ahtilla's films and gallery installations are uniquely concerned with blurring the boundaries between the real and the imaginary. Equally, much of the work produced through Anna Sanders Films is marked by the impossibility of pinning down the locus, the reality in which we are placed becomes part of their stories.
The experiential knowledge of the generation that were brought up with portable music devices, and psychoanalysis, tells us, that seeing and hearing is about the spaces in between. Isn't our experience of cinema - a form of spatial narrative - similar to our experience of walking the city with a Walkman? The music that's playing at once intersecting with the story of the streets, the story playing in our heads, and both these stories necessarily affected by, and affecting of, the story that the music's telling. The in-betweeness is that through sound, image and the endless layers of repetition and memory, new stories are ultimately constructed in our minds.
This quote from R D Laing is helpful as it extends the analogy - whether it's a response to the sound image layers of story structure, or, the dramatic structure of our psychic life, meaning is to be found, and new narratives produced by, the spaces in between. In any experience of cinema, the audience projects onto a film constantly. The mark of a good film is one that leaves enough space for us to do that. But those interstices are less available when a narrative is structured by an overdetermined causality operating through a rising, linear action line, as opposed to narratives that operate through tone, subtext and nuance. An image from Nietzche echoes here; "plot exists simply to occupy the front of our minds, whilst the music works on our souls."
Within artists' film there has been a conventional hostility towards narrative. Whether this was derived through debates around pleasure, identification or historically specific accounts of representation, is not my interest here, as much as the contention that narrative has returned to centre stage. In my own practice as a writer and director I have always been compelled by stories, but there's a maxim from Wim Wenders that has constantly haunted me. Wenders (the great psycho geographer) has discussed his approach to story as 'a hook to hang pictures on'. However, this is always coupled with the awful realisation that story is vampirical, overwhelming the imagery, but, despite that, he needs story for structure itself.
So, if story (necessarily) provides structure, how do we conceive of the elusive spaces, the unconscious spaces, the imaginary and real, the actual and arbitrary, the spaces in between? And, critically, how do we write them, as screenplay here is the written account which must be called to account. In the UK, the Film Council place an imperative on highly commercial, formulaic visions of script. But it's not just the market or funding structures that are overdetermined. It's the paradigm itself. Screenplay form dictates that tone, style and rhythm are subordinate to narrative events. These events are structured in a screenplay as present tense action descriptions supplemented with dialogue.
Whilst it's encouraging that much of contemporary cinema is embracing new approaches to narrative complexity, there's a continuum running from funding bodies to education that remains unchallenged. In her book Scriptwriting Updated (AFTRS 2000), Linda Aronson offers an in depth discussion of new narrative forms. In summary, her argument clearly demonstrates that apparently complex structures such as multi plot, tandem, sequential or parallel narratives, multiple protagonist, multiple time frames, non linear & complicated flashback structures, are still effectively beholden to the nuts and bolts of the three act structure. This work incorporates the rising three act model as the structural device that creates jeopardy, unity, pace and closure both within individual stories and across the films as a whole. So how are these new narrative forms reflecting an increasingly complex world with greater accuracy? The dominant critique of the three act structure is that it's a vehicle for the moral position that humans can change and grow, good will triumph, order will return out of chaos. In fact, a moral fable; pilgrim's progress recreated for the modern age.
It's likely that the increasing dominance of new narrative forms is a postmodern inevitability, produced through increasing intertextuality. Audiences are raised on a diet of episodic drama in the form of television soaps. However, it's also clear that these forms mark a shift from genre preoccupation with plot, to a new, possibly more novelistic, preoccupation with theme. The principle of thematic construction and variation is the genesis of multiplot films, as a multiplot has no central plot spine to structurally unify the telling. However, if theme has a new dominance, what of other literary devices such as voice, tone and rhythm? Here I need to widen this discussion into a critique of the screenplay paradigm, as I want to argue that it's not just structure but the form itself that fundamentally mitigates against a cinema of subjectivity.
Take for example the following sentences:
I don't need to provide either plot or character biography to suggest that the resonance of the image here is the velocity of memory, the shuddering impact of loss bookended between two landings, a lover's thighs, and the brutal announcement of death sealing the space between. In screenwriting though, this imagery would need to be externalised, and, as there's simply no I, and there's only one tense, the sentences would translate into something like this:
PALMA AIRPORT. AUGUST 2004/DAY
BEDROOM/ANDRATX. AUGUST '94/NIGHT
MOUNTAIN ROAD/ANDRATX. DAY
NATASHA'S FRONT DOOR/LONDON. NIGHT
NATASHA'S BEDROOM. MOMENTS LATER
Natasha rips open an envelope. A dried magnolia falls out. Natasha holds the flower, again, scans the card.
She stabs at
the answering machine.
the pause button and swigs heavily at the vodka. Charlotte picks up another
Natasha hurls the vodka bottle across the room. The sound of breaking glass is drowned by the pitch of Natasha's wail.
INT. PALMA AIRPORT.
"All this, which is accessible
to words, and to words alone, the cinema must avoid."
If we accept that our interest lies in narrative, and with it, Wender's maxim of 'story as a structure to hang images on', how do we extend that into a cinema of subjectivity? What other paradigms of script form and indeed script development could explore the possibilities opened up by tone, style and rhythm without subordinating these elements to a reductive sequence of story events?
Last year I received a grant
from the Arts & Humanities Research Board to develop a screenplay
that evolved through an engagement with, (and in response to) the contingency
of a live event. All Tomorrow's Parties weaves a tapestry between
a group of strangers; three characters who are all strangers in a foreign
city or strangers in their own lives. The script is set in Amsterdam on
Queensday, (a national party celebrated across the Netherlands) and spans
the 24 hours of the event itself. Within this duration the three characters'
separate narratives slowly collide.
There's a significant body of work that is derived through improvisation, such as the celebrated work of Mike Leigh. Yet this has predominantly evolved through a studio based rehearsal process where actors improvise with words and language. Cassavetes' famously 'improvised' scripts were actually tightly scripted. His improvisatory process involved extensive emotional improvisation designed to explore the complexity of conflictual emotional states. What's interesting about Cassavetes' work is that his process was almost sculptural. His autonomy from the studio system allowed him to shoot excessive multiple takes that he then roughly edited on location, allowing the material to determine the directions and possibilities for the next day's shooting.
Another significant precedent is a substantial body of work produced by the British avant-garde. The poetic documentaries of William Raban, John Smith, Lis Rhodes, Margaret Tait, to name but a few, have all been produced through an engagement with space and place. Whilst all of this work foregrounds an exploration of certain modernist grammars - it is non-linear, fragmented, interior, digressive, and differentially textured - it has refused an engagement with character and narrative.
My own improvisatory process involved a lead actor and two cinematographers - myself, and my regular Director of Photography, creating a series of 'sketches'. The sketches not only captured the tone of Queensday but they also focused on more abstract imagery that was generated through an engagement with place, time and texture, - the pulse of light, the rhythm of movement, the swell of colour. The process extended and developed the events of the script as the actor was responding to character, place and time, and, the cameras were responding to character, place and time. This ensured that the imagery we generated was reciprocally affecting; 'seeing and being within a place and time'.
Overall, the objective of this improvisation was to generate material from the live event that will ultimately be used in the film itself, offering the possibility to fuse the real and the fictional, as well as to generate material that would inform the 'note' of the overall script development.
Whilst this work was enormously generative, in a sense we became the victims of our own success, not least because much of the material we generated was potentially more interesting than the story events I was working from. The possibility to extend and develop this material in response to our imagery on location was curtailed by one of our creative constraints - the contingency of duration - a live event that spanned 24 hours. In addition, there was a significant limitation built into my initial proposal, as the budget from the AHRB could only accommodate one lead actor, whereas the script necessitated four leads. This would have required a significant budget and a substantial preproduction period, (effectively I would have been making the film itself). However, given that my main objective was to generate imagery that would contribute to the note of script development, the project exceeded my own ambitions, but, with that, the research has forced a radical conclusion which is a significant departure from my own intentions. And that is, for subsequent projects I will be abandoning the tyrannies of screenplay form by dispensing with it altogether.
The project I'm currently working on - The Mills - is an experimental feature film that explores the fractured pattern of family relationships. The film will be devised through an adaptation of three short stories (written by myself), and, crucially, this adaptation will circumvent screenplay form. Rather than reduce the literary text to a formal structure to be observed on set, what will be taken from the texts are the properties of tone, texture and rhythm. The emphasis on these properties directs attention to interiority, or the complex layers of subjectivity. I aim to use story and the literary devices within - syntax, allusion, metaphor and tense - as a basis to explore a musical grammar through improvisation, precisely staging the encounter of image, sound and language, or, more critically, the spaces in between.
The three stories are structured from the point of view of each main character, mother, daughter and son, and set in the same location, Andratx, Majorca, though not at the same time. The theme of the stories/ film is entrapment and the thematic is staged in the process of the work. The form here echoes the content as each character is sealed within their internal world, and the actors/collaborators are in a space that is dislocated from normal western commodities - a solar powered drought zone where every drop of water is conserved and recycled.
The dynamism of response and exchange inherent to improvisation allows visual and aural storytelling to develop as an organic process. The musical grammar of symmetry, repetition and variation offers a basis for this improvisation building on the tonal and rhythmic qualities of language rather than the external expression of dialogue. For example, the key resonance of the imagery in the prose cited earlier was the impact of the velocity of memory, the compression of time registered through a chain of associations. Reducing the urgency of language to sequenced events and dialogue eliminated the core structure of feeling and it was precisely the structure of feeling that offered expressive possibilities. A variable frame rate that explored the elasticity of time; sound that's stretched out, suspended altogether, then slapped back in; mutiple visual layers, - these are just a few obviously available interpretations, amongst a myriad of possiblity.
Digital filmmaking is not only productively rethinking the 'look' of cinema, it's also challenging our understanding of the production process. With forms of micro-media and new economies of shooting, the process of film production is open to new possibilities and experimentation. An extended improvisation with camera and sound design/composition that responds to actor and environment further extends this rethinking of production roles and processes. The role of director is transformed to the role of orchestrator. Sound, camera, performance, space, place and texture comprise the ensemble. Within that, each element forms a note that can be endlessly revised and echoed, drifted away from, each offered the opportunity for it's own solo rift, before we finally arrive at the completed score. A composition that will allow abstraction and subjectivity to co-exist, where resonance will replace structure and atmosphere will take the place of 'action'. Where the spaces in between are as significant as plot, and all comprise the music to work on our souls.
Inevitably, the material we generate
will endlessly affect our original intent. Staying open to new directions
and possibilities, allowing the material to teach us, is fundamental to
this process. If stories give us a structure to hang images on then why
limit the potential for a cinema of subjectivity through the tyrannical
template of a screenplay. Surely the story itself and the structure of
feeling within, is a more fertile place to start?
In July 2002, Vertigo
Magazine held a Film Parliament at the Cambridge Film Festival. Attended
by panels of experts from both academia and industry, the aim of the Parliament
was to conduct an open and independent debate, which interrogated UK film
policy initiatives. The most significant findings of the Script Development
Sub Committee concluded:
These findings have been presented to both the Film Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Their sentiments have been echoed by an increasingly vocal and frustrated lobby of British independent filmmakers. To date, it doesn't seem that the policy makers have been listening. Maybe they need to take a walk round the city with their Walkmans, and then try reading Virginia Woolf.