Showing posts with label narrative. Show all posts
Showing posts with label narrative. Show all posts

Thursday, June 02, 2011

If the most perfect post-Hitchcockian mystery in cinema continues to be Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 between-Godfathers masterpiece, The Conversation, Giuseppe Capotondi’s debut film, The Double Hour, comes close enough to at least be mentioned in the same conversation. Both films present narratives that leave the viewer unsettled & scrambling to sort out what might or might not be happening, both feature great acting, and both (not coincidentally, I suspect) involve a central character devoted to surveillance audio.¹

Where The Conversation focuses on a paranoid detective played by Gene Hackman who takes a case in which he learns that the roles of victim & villain are not what they seem, The Double Hour focuses on Guido, a widowed ex-cop, & Sonia, a half-Slovenian hotel maid, in Turin, who meet at a speed dating event & slowly start to get involved. The film is primarily told from the perspective of Sonia, played by Russian actress, Ksenia (think Xenia) Rappoport, who won a best actress award for the role in the 2009 Venice Film Festival. Filippo Timi, who won a best actor nod at the same festival for his role as Guido, looks a lot like Javier Bardem, maybe a little shorter & more trim, especially with a close-cropped beard, even down to the soulful eyes. He is balanced by his best friend, the more phlegmatic Dante, who is still on the police force, one of maybe a half dozen secondary figures who play crucial roles in the various sleights of narrative going on simultaneously throughout the film. Sonia & Guido find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, an art heist carried out with Mission Impossible precision, shots are fired & we learn soon enough that both characters have been hit. What happens from this point forward, though, is almost impossible to discuss without presenting major spoilers other than to say that it’s not clear, ultimately, who the victims really are, with some suggestion that it’s possible for the criminal to be the true victim, even as they “succeed.”

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Caprica City looks suspicuously like Vancouver on a bad hair day,
right down to the mountains in the background

While half of our household has been watching the new series of Caprica – which completed its first half-season last Friday – the other half, having abstained from six years of Battlestar Galactica, is finally starting to catch up, watching the first season of that series. So in the week since Caprica wound up, I had a chance to watch a couple of episodes of the earlier series at roughly the same point of development as the new prequel. The comparison convinced me that my son Jesse is basically right – thus far BSG is much better, even if it is being written by the same people. Over & over again throughout the first eight episodes, we are spoonfed voiceovers to remind us of where we are in an increasingly bewildering multilayer narrative. If you go back to BSG, there is almost none of that, even when certain characters are multiple instances of the same cylon template. The voiceovers for the most part are dramatic monologs & are quite different from the miniature flashbacks Amanda Graystone has of her long-dead brother who appears to have wandered in from The Sixth Sense to haunt her.

From a television producers perspective, the problem with BSG was that its story was so complex that if you missed an episode, you were pretty much never able to get back in synch with what was happening. That meant that the audience could really only dwindle over time. Now, normally, the knee-jerk response of the network suits is to demand stories that are episodic & contained with in a single hour, so you join in anywhere, viz. CSI, NCIS or countless other TV dramas. And when a show violates that code of modularity & gets yanked back into the fold (viz., West Wing or even the second season of Twin Peaks), it’s almost invariably a disaster. But the folks at SyFy (then Sci-Fi) did something different in letting it play out, seeing the show as having a natural arc & a termination point set more by narrative than ratings. The result was the best narrative TV I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t even on HBO.

So what isn’t working & why with Caprica? It’s not a sudden loss of ambition. If anything, executive producer Ronald Moore has upped the wager markedly. The problem is that he & his writers have more story arcs going than Twin Peaks ever had, just eight weeks into the first season, and it’s obviously more than they know how to keep in the air at once. That old saying about Never catch a falling knife goes for master jugglers as well, and I fear that what might get cut ultimately is this ambitious, ambiguous experiment.

Consider, by way of contrast, BSG. Midway through their first season, the 50,000 survivors of the 12 nuked colonies had figured out that cylons had evolved, had made it for the most part off of Caprica & were even being prepared by the reconstituted government to start on a quest for the mythic planet Earth. The problem of identifying cylons that no longer looked like “toasters” was a serious issue & while we sense some divisions between certain cylons, we don’t spend a lot of time with them, nor on the other ships in the hastely thrown together fleet that has gathered around the museum-grade battlestar for safety. A show might focus on Admiral Adama, on viper pilot Starbuck & on Gaius Baltar’s relationship with the hallucinatory cylon Six, plus on Boomer’s relationship with the Chief (and a second Boomer’s relationship with another Galactica officer on Caprica). Plenty for a 42-minute episode.

That is about one quarter of what one gets into a comparable episode of Caprica. William Graystone, Faust by way of Bill Gates, is struggling to keep his corporation alive and deliver the military robot – he has coined the term cylon for cybernetic life form node – while dealing with the fact that his operating system was stolen from a Tauron corporation whose head is playing hardball to expose Graystone as ultimately responsible for two scientists slain in the theft. When she’s not seeing images of her dead brother, his psychiatrically fragile wife Amanda is in a deep depression triggered by the death of their daughter Zoe by a terrorist bombing (initiated, in fact, by Zoe’s boyfriend), while being courted by Clarice, the headmistress of Zoe’s school, who just happens to be the head of a cell of Soldiers of the One (STO), an off-world gang of monotheists, your basic Christian militia, out to carry out God’s Will. Meanwhile Zoe may be dead, but it hasn’t slowed her down all that much. Her avatar or apotheosis – the show has used both terms – was downloaded from a hacked version of something akin to SecondLife that was the source of Graystone’s fortune (he invented the holodeck band, basically virtual-reality glasses that every teenager on Caprica has to have) & by accident Zoe has gotten stuck, as it were, inside the prototype cylon robot, her life dependent on its hard drive. The only creatures that know this seem to be her dog (it barks at the cylon & wants to play fetch) and her best friend Lacey. (Her father suspects she's in there, but between a child and a profit, well, he knows where his loyalty lies.) She has convinced Lacey to help her complete the mission that she, Zoe & the train bomber Ben originally had set out on, to meet up with the STO on the planet Gemenon. Since stealing a one ton, eight-foot robot & getting it to another planet is not something your average high school girl is going to be able to do inconspicuously, she has had join a separate, rogue STO cell, run by Barnabus (think Dickens’ Fagin mixed with Charlie Manson, or perhaps Cinque of the Symbionese Liberation Army). Now I have not even mentioned Joseph Adams / Yusef Adama’s quest to find the avatar of his daughter, a teen likewise killed in the train explosion, [his surviving son (who will grow up to be the Edward James Olmos character in BSG, the only link thus far to the characters of the other series),] who has likewise been set loose in the hacked-realm of the V-world, where she has become the most dangerous lady in New Cap City, a game in which getting “killed” means your character cannot come back, but which doesn’t work on her since there is no original player with a holodeck sourcing her role. She is, in her words, a "ghost." Nor have I mentioned the ongoing thread of the FBI investigation into the bombing, the attempt by the Tauron corporation to make Graystone sell his Pyramid team, Adama’s brother Sam, a hit man in the Tauron variation of the mafia, but happily married to a guy named Larry.

That is all a bit much to fit into that same 42-minute time slot, but they’re trying, while also trying to keep folks oriented as best they can with all these cringy voiceovers. There are some unexplained details – such as how did Adama’s legal secretary know how to reach the dead daughter Tara in New Cap City – and potentially important figures who have already been killed off. In the last seconds of the eighth episode, one character is being driven in a limo that has been sabotaged with a large bomb, sees another character about to jump off a bridge & steps out of the car just in time to be away from it when it explodes while the escaping robot – it has fled to avoid hard drive wiped & reinstalled sans Zoe – crashes through a military barricade while one high school girl decides to save her self & her boyfriend by willingly killing her teacher. All of this happens in less than one minute. Just as the first foot of the jumper leaves the bridge we see the bomb go off. What happens next, Buck Rodgers?

The confluence of fortunate (or un-) coincidences at the end of the eighth episode were so overdone that Jesse & I were laughing our heads off as cars crashed & bombs exploded – not, I suspect, the intended effect. And not one that BSG gave rise to, even as some of its episodes are jaw dropping in their levels of allusion – there is an ongoing underlayer of topicality to BSG that Caprica thus far has only skimmed. Mostly, I think the creators of the new series, emboldened no doubt by reconceiving & rewriting the entire end of the series during the writers strike midway through the final season(Wasn’t that verboten?) are daring themselves to see just how much narrative trouble they can get themselves into in hopes that they can get it all to fit rubik-cubelike together later on. I did note two references in one of the early BSG episodes to elements of life on Caprica (“a pickup game of pyramid,” Adama describes his father as a “civil liberties lawyer”) which are spot on to the prequel seven years later. Maybe they can pull this off when the show returns in the fall. But for now, to deliberately mash up a metaphor, their narrative chutzpah is eating them alive.

You can watch all eight episodes of Caprica on Syfy Rewind.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Several contributors to the comments stream Tuesday noted the distinction between narrative and plot, and they are of course entirely correct on that point. Plot is narrative at its most vulgar, just as the novel constructed entirely around a single character is but a step in the direction of dramatic monolog, that (mostly) dead end of the Victorian era.

Narrative in the purest sense is the unfolding of meaning over time. It moves in the direction of plot to the degree that it becomes figurative, something that can occur in very small increments. This is why (and how, for that matter) a painting can be called narrative simply because it presents a scene. In works of mine that deploy the new sentence, such as Ketjak, Tjanting and many of the sections of The Alphabet, many if not all of the individual sentences can themselves be understood as narratives, often on two & sometimes three levels. First there is an unfolding of meaning in the sentence itself –

A sequence of objects which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point on the horizon line.

– then there is a frame set up by what comes before and what comes after otherwise “discontinuous” sentences –

The implications of power within the ability to draw a single, vertical straight line. Look at that room filled with fleshy babies. We ate them.

– then, in certain works, individual sentences evolve & elaborate as they reoccur during the course of the work –

A sequence of objects, silhouettes, which to him appears to be a caravan of fellaheen, a circus, dromedaries pulling wagons bearing tiger cages, fringed surreys, tamed ostriches in toy hats, begins a slow migration to the right vanishing point, signified by a palm tree on the horizon.

Bob Perelman was, I think, the first person to observe that in Ketjak sentences themselves function as characters. Indeed, even juxtapositions have a life of their own – the distance between the variation of “The implications of power” that occurs in the final paragraph of Ketjak in The Age of Huts (compleat), which now reads “The power implicit…,” and “We ate them” is four pages, the first on 97, the latter on 101. In Ketjak2: Caravan of Affect, one section of The Alphabet, that distance will double when the book comes out from Alabama next fall.

All of this is narrative, tho relatively little of it could be associated with plot at the level of the signified, the referential illusion that is realist fiction’s proto-cinematic trope – and which gives way directly to the origin of cinema, so that today a book is judged realist more by how “cinematic” its writing seeks to be than ever was the case in the days of Dreiser and Norris.

Cinema, of course, can be every bit as sophisticated in its use of such devices – the films of Abigail Child are every bit “as narrative” in this sense as any work of fiction & far more so than your formula chaser, be it James Bond or Jason Bourne. Films like Rear Window or Blow-Up are all about the construction of narratives, and a film like Vertigo kicks it up a notch from there.

Peter Davis makes the point (without using these exact words) that certain poems can today function as a mode of flash fiction. His case in point, Bill Stafford’s “Traveling Through Dark,” tho, sort of the high point of American kitsch, functions not so much as an efficient narrative as it uses plot to set up the arch-silliness of “I thought hard for us all – my only swerving –,” a perfect instance of feigned & posed seriousness & just possibly the single most pompous line ever written. Pomposity figured as caring is in fact a good example of what I meant by the pathological aspects of the School of Q. In “Ezra Pound’s Proposition,” part of his National Book Award Winning Time and Materials, Robert Hass offers a far more complicated project, joining the history of literature & the problem of Ezra Pound’s attempt at a politics of poetry with an account of the flow of capital from corporate banks to world-scale construction companies to corrupt local elites, generating dams that displace rural populations into the cities where 14-year-old girls become prostitutes for want of any alternatives, but ultimately his choice of the word ”throb” in its next-to-last line and “her cheekbones and her lovely skin” in the final one reveals him to be proposing only a more up-to-the-moment version of the very same pose as Stafford’s. The poem as moral homily in this sense is a total cringer. For all its complexity, it’s still a comic book sermon, preaching to the choir. Yes, poems can function that way, but what would it say about us as human beings if we wanted them to do so?

Even a poem like Aram Saroyan’s

has a beginning, middle and end. Engaging the history of typography, it has a social context and makes a point. One might even see in Saroyan’s humor here the same flash of personality one intuits from “I thought hard for us all” (except which poet would you rather spend time talking to at a party?). Strictly as a narrative poem, on the same terms as Stafford or Hass, Saroyan’s is a far more efficient use of language if that is a goal.

My argument would be that these shared levels are only a few of the many pleasures of the Saroyan poem – the play of the letter n as it appears to the mind both before and aft the root m triggers a level not even present in the two sermons. Saroyan’s work is the most complex of the three, and once you realize that, the awkwardness of the others becomes their overwhelming feature.

So, yes, perhaps I should have used the term plot to indicate vulgar narrative on Tuesday. Contemporary poetry is not less narrative today, just less apt to confuse these levels, far more apt to ask the question: narrative to what end?