Plot is Not the Key to Great Cinema

Focusing on the tree of narrative means missing the forest of cinema.
By  · Published on August 2nd, 2017

Focusing on the tree of narrative means missing the forest of cinema.

When I was twelve years old—bear with me, this will get relevant soon—I and a number of friends and relatives went to see The Addams Family at a well-appointed movie theater in San Diego. I had already seen the movie once, but with compromises being what they are this was the only movie everyone could agree to see and so I agreed, having liked it the first time, to see it again. Before the trailers started, a friend of my dad’s who was a writer and wore leather jackets and was cool, turned to me and asked me how I’d liked the picture the first time, and added that I must have liked it if I was agreeable to see it again. “It’s fun,” I said. But because I wanted him to think I was smart—cool was a bridge too far; this was, after all, a man who owned more than one leather jacket and whose girlfriend was blonde and rather hyperbolic in appearance—I added “But the plot’s kind of stupid.” Soon the lights went down, the movie commenced, and was fun (again). And my dad’s cool writer friend turned to me approvingly and said, “That was fun. And you were right about the plot.” And I felt smart. And almost cool.

Now to the promised relevance: there are a number of takeaways from the previous paragraph, which has a number of irrelevant details strewn about in its component sentences, and lacks clear indicators as to the conclusion, or even forward progression, of this essay. The one that I want to focus on is the perceived importance of plot to a movie’s quality. As I was twelve at the time I don’t feel overly embarrassed at having centralized plot in my critique of the movie, but it is imperative to note that the plot in that case was completely irrelevant to the movie’s quality or enjoyability. To be clear, the definition of “plot” in this case is specifically the schematic by which a story is constructed. It is not a reference to a “plot” in the larger sense of being a plan of any sort. The plot, being a schematic, is the easiest thing to track over the course of a movie, and being the easiest thing to track is often foregrounded in critique.

This is a narrow way to think about cinema, which is a vast and bounteous form capable of extraordinary things. Limiting one’s conception of cinema to “it’s a storytelling medium” and admonishing filmmakers to “just tell a story” precludes exploration. There is, to be perfectly clear, great pleasure in savoring a good story, told well. Crafting stories and executing their unfolding takes great skill, and even greater practice, to master. And hopefully, if I’ve been building this bit properly, you’ll sense an imminent “but.” But, in a surprising twist, I’ll go with “however”: storytelling is not the only thing that can be done with cinema, nor is it the peak of cinema’s value.

At its most elemental, cinema is the juxtaposition of one piece of photographed motion against another. We call them “movies” because they’re moving pictures, but (but!) the meaning is derived from the edit. A shot is a depiction. An edit between one depiction and the next is where the fun starts. Does that cut mean something? Is it merely a transition, or is it a judgment? What does when it happens mean? The questions are as limitless as the possibilities. The relatively early, from a historical perspective, addition of sound to the inventory of tools available to filmmakers pushed cinema into an unprecedented level among the arts to elicit raw sensory response.

This is what I would submit as the movies’ greatest potential. Story can contextualize sensation, plot can organize that story to maximize its potential to thrill, but cinema itself is a catalyst rather than a vessel, or a rail bed to carry a narrative locomotive. Comedies like the first film I mentioned, a few hundred words ago, exist to make us laugh. The visual splendors of Busby Berkeley existed out of time and space, on loan to us from a realm of wonder. Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is a 90-minute drug trip that feels exactly, and vividly, like being sunstruck and narcotized. (And yes, the juxtaposition between those two was a bit harsh.)

My personal favorite example of this effect—your own may and likely will vary—is a sequence in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a very nearly plotless film (Lucas Black goes to Japan, meets some people who don’t like each other, and learns a new driving move, and that’s pretty much it) that nevertheless casts a beguiling spell. Drift racing, in which the driver takes tight corners by deliberately oversteering, is an act of surrender. There’s a sequence, right after Lucas Black learns how to drift without crashing his car, in which he and his love interest and some friends go drifting down a mountain at night. An electric guitar reverberates on the soundtrack. Cars drift in formation around corners. The moonlight graces them as if they were water. It’s a beautiful moment of serenity, in which the high of adrenaline is smoothed over with the calm of eternity.

Casting a moment like that into words is imprecise, and fails to fully convey the brush with the sublime. In a movie, where words fail, a gesture carries the day. Cate Blanchett’s hand on Rooney Mara’s shoulder. The salty wind in Gong Li’s hair as Colin Farrell pilots the boat to Cuba. Arnold Schwarzenegger carrying a tree. One can describe these things in words, but those words can’t make you feel like looking can. Looking, and feeling, is the stuff cinema is made of.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all