How can we escape from numerous reactionary notions of narration whilst accepting its fundamental importance to film? Often when we hear people talk of the importance of story, are we not usually listening to those who see film as a narrative medium whose purpose it is to tell a tale? Don't numerous script gurus couch their expectations within a natural assumption about storytelling, and our hard-wired need for them? And aren't they finding scientific advocates? "[George] Lakoff's work suggests that there are not simply stories found out there that fascinate us. Rather, our brain is already wired for these plots and craves the narrative content to make them come to life. If you look at the seven great plots of story universally found by Christopher Booker across all cultures (Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy, and Rebirth and Transformation), Lakoff s work suggests that people across all cultures crave stories to animate these plots." (Spellbinder) "Respected scientific researchers ranging from Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist, to Steven Pinker, a linguist, have argued that storytelling has", notes Jack Hart in Story Craft "uniformities that suggest an evolutionary basis." But we can argue, surely, for the usefulness of story without either claiming the story respected is really so very important, nor concern ourselves with essentialist ideas about hard-wiring. What the story can allow for is a working through of a problem within the story, but where the story is not so much elevated but used as a carapace: it is required to allow a problematic within it to become announced and pronounced.
To understand better this problem of storytelling let us take as an example a fine thirties film with Jean Gabin, Lady Killer (Gueule d'amour). Here is a film whose storytelling is prominent and unsubtle, but whose problematic is surprisingly complex and nuanced - and paradoxically perhaps all the more nuanced through the obviousness of the tale it tells. Gabin plays a man in Orange who seduces without much effort numerous ladies in the milieu in which he lives, and who is stationed at a nearby barracks. However, he seems to take his pleasure without much cynicism, and any pain he causes is oblivious rather than intentional. But one evening he is in another town arranging to receive money left to him by an aunt, and he meets a woman with whom he falls instantly in love, happily gives her the inherited money to gamble, and which she promptly seems to lose. That night he walks her home ready for his latest assignation, when she wishes him goodnight at the door, and he doesn't see her again until months later when he moves to Paris, still obsessed with her presence. What is interesting here is not the affair, though it constitutes most of the plot, but the notion of friendship which comes out of the story, and requires the contrivance of narrative to develop the richness of its theme.
At one moment early on Gabin's Lucien makes the casual remark that a good friendship is worth all the lovers he's had, but it is a throwaway and one we're unlikely to take seriously until its pay off at the film's conclusion; and yet we should remember that for all the talk of Lucien's reputation, director Jean Gremillon chooses not to dramatize any of these flings. There are admiring glances and remarks when he walks into a room, or sits astride a horse, but the dramatized dimension comes with the friendship. Thus, though the remark might seem tossed off, the significance of the two men's acquaintance is more pronounced than any dalliances we hear about. The scene in the cafe where Lucien and his friend are having a drink and insist to a couple of diners that the food is of dubious quality, managing to get a great meal for free after the manager insists they try the food themselves, works as a comic vignette early in the film, but becomes thematically consequential later on. It shows the pleasure of friendship when dramatized, but the importance of friendship when thematized. It works initially as a scene of minor relevance, but later takes on the weight of major import after what could be seen as a clumsy narrative twist. The woman Lucien falls in love with and sees again in Paris is none other than the woman his friend falls in love with years later, after the affair with Lucien is resolutely over. Lucien has moved back to Orange, Madeleine (Mareille Balin) eventually makes contact with his friend, and the friend informs Lucien of a beautiful woman with whom he is in love. Of course Lucien is happy for him, until he realizes it is none other than his ex. What Gremillion risks is losing the viewer through the obviousness of the plotting and hoping to win them back with the texture of his problematic. Where initially we might think it is a film about a lady killer (as its English title suggests) who meets his match (the lover wraps men round her finger as Gabin can wrap his arms round any woman), this isn't finally the subject of the film. It is only the premise upon which to launch a tale of the importance of true friendship over the dangers of false love.
Now for all Lucien's supposed womanizing, not only do we see him seducing only one woman (his lover) but there is no sense that his seductions are anything other than pragmatic pleasures; any pain he causes a byproduct of the affair and not at all a pleasure beyond the flesh. Madeleine however seduces for gains beyond the act, whether it is the financial benefits through wealthy lovers, or the joy of knowing she can manipulate a man at will as she proves with both Lucien and his friend. It is an important point that Lucien isn't presented as a cad, but simply as an amiable object of desire, so that the film's point and purpose isn't at all to show him as someone who gets his comeuppance, but as someone who loses his health and well-being through what he thinks is true love but that amounts to unequivocal manipulation. Whatever Madeleine's feelings for Lucien, they always seem secondary to the centrality of her own ego and financial well-being: she is basically a high-class hooker. When Lucien is presented as a seducer early in the film, it seems more passive than active, more a quality he possesses that others desire, and there is no dissembling in the act. When women send him cash through the post he seems baffled rather than cheered, and so there is no moral dimension to his downfall in the latter part of the film where he owns a struggling cafe on the outskirts of Orange, with his health weak and his spirit destroyed.
The film could have been less contrived than it happens to be if that had been its narrative trajectory and its moral purpose (and therefore 'better' on the level of story), but instead the film chooses contrivance but at the same time shifts its perspective and opens up its problematic, moving from what initially appears to be a story of love's intensity into a story of friendship's significance. When Lucien strangles Madeleine near the conclusion, this isn't a moment of amour fou, but closer to amitie folle: he kills Madeleine partly out of the frustration he feels towards a woman who has destroyed his life, but even more to protect his friend from a similar experience. It might require the improbable narrative device of his friend taking up with his ex coincidentally, but the film earns it contrivance by allowing the twist to shift the focus from a more predictable account of love's labour's lost, to the suggestive one of friendship very troublesomely regained: after all Lucien is now a murderer.
There are numerous films about the importance of friendship, plenty examples of films where a heroic action illustrates the bond between friends, but often this fits into certain generic patterns, like the western or the war film, with the loyalties evident between the homesteader and the gunslinger in Shane leading to the latter protecting the former, and the bonding element so vital to the platoon in war movies. But in such instances is the narrative development not often based on questions of loyalty, heroism and friendship, so that the film follows a singular trajectory rather than switches tracks for the purposes of opening up a different thematic than the one we thought we were following? What LadyKiller gives us is the surprise shift of theme through the cumbersomeness of its storytelling device, and yet if we were to condemn too heavily the plotting, we would be missing out on what it serves.
Our purpose here is to defend an aspect of the film for the purposes of exemplifying a bond between friends even if it means the woman's death might be as big a problem for feminists as the storytelling devices will be for those whose concern is narrative subtlety. However, if Lady Killer is a film that remains meaningful and touching many years later, it resides, one feels, in this ability to turn a potentially ironic love story about a man who meets his match rather than the love of his life, into a story of love that goes beyond hormonal passion for one woman, and achieves platonic purpose, through another man. Lucien murders his lover to protect his friend from a pain he believes the friend will not be able to endure, an act of love perhaps all the more pronounced because Madeleine has in their relationship denied Lucien the capacity for self-sacrifice he seems to have been willing to make, but that she has been too careful to accept: Lucien might be willing to do anything for her, but that willingness would have still left Madeleine in relative poverty. He could have gone anywhere and done anything for her, but she would prefer he plays an occasional fling she can enjoy in between more financially rewarding entanglements. It is as though his sacrifice for his friend is a gesture that many a relationship insists upon, but that the lover in this instance isn't willing to receive: it would mean her sacrificing still more by giving up on her wealthy lovers. If a crime of passion often indicates a mixture of jealousy, pride and lust, we might describe Lucien's as a crime of morality: as an act that puts self-sacrifice into friendship after it gets rejected in the relationship. Lady Killer may be obvious in its plotting, and suspect in its sexual politics, but that doesn't mean it isn't a very subtle film on the problem of love and friendship.
It is of course important that films don't fall into clichs and contrivances, but a work's insistent need to avoid the obvious can endanger it from achieving purposefulness. The purposeful is a loaded word, a troublesomely vague term that we cannot easily use without the obligation to justify it, to create a limited space where it can serve our needs without expecting it to carry a priori signification. The purposeful here is no more than the need to explore a problem that might require elements of narrative obviousness to find a way into the issue it wants to address. Another example from classical cinema for our purposes would be Sabrina, a film that leans as much towards the optimistic as Lady Killer moves in the direction of the pessimistic: the difference between French poetic realism as tragedy, and the Hollywood entertainment as comedy. In Billy Wilder's film, the title character Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) loves the playboy brother in a wealthy family who employs her father as a chauffeur. Sabrina and dad live above the garage, but Sabrina is now as beautiful as a princess, and it is surely only a matter of time before William Holden's David recognizes her looks, and meets her adoring gaze. After a lengthy trip to Paris, Sabrina returns sophisticated and poised, and David starts to fall in love with Sabrina even though he is betrothed to another, and the older brother, Linus, played by Humphrey Bogart, has to keep her occupied and away from David. After all, David's marriage is good for the family business: if he were to marry Sabrina he is marrying into poverty; if he marries his fiance he will marry into even more wealth: it is a merger more than a marriage. Of course over the film's running time, the physically attractive and younger David makes a fool of himself, acts dishonourably and looks like a man of caprice more than commitment as, for the purposes of the story, he must pale next to the otherwise prosaic Linus. By the end of the film Linus will acknowledge his feelings for Sabrina, and David will take at last some responsibility for the family business, a business that the workaholic Linus has been propping up for years while his brother has been spending the family wealth.
The film's purpose is to arrive at the best of all possible worlds, as if Leibniz's metaphysics coincided with Hollywood demand. However, some of the problems concerning narrative development and female agency might be as suspect here as they were in the albeit superior and richer Lady Killer. Linus really does seem for much of the film to be entertaining Sabrina for the purposes of protecting, and hoping to expand upon, the family wealth, but come the film's conclusion he has to acknowledge his affection for Sabrina was the real reason why he wined and dined her. Wilder's film appears initially to explore the problem of a young woman's infatuation, but ends up commenting on the social mobility evident in the post-war US. If Sabrina's father reckons that everybody has their place, Sabrina indicates it is a place that happens to be socially mobile. This is perhaps all the more pronounced in the shift from Sabrina's fascination with one brother only to end up with the other, but the film's achievement resides in its democratic impulse showing Sabrina as a character not at all concerned with marrying into a good family, but hoping to find someone who will give her love. As she talks to Linus one evening in his office, here is a woman without a mean bone in her body who helps soften the meanness in Linus's: a healthy Hollywood osteoporosis. If David has been the spendthrift brother happily squandering the family fortune, Linus is the wary brother careful to protect it. That Sabrina ends up with this man who lives for work makes the film even more optimistic in its democratic impulse. To marry David would have been to marry into money, with David trading Sabrina's beauty for his exuberant wealth, but the point behind Linus and Sabrina's matching is that it occupies a place beyond ready trade: they will meet on the basis of a shared value system that makes respect more important than power play.
Obviously any Cinderella story requires that the tale be based on a value greater than the ready trade off between the poor girl's beauty and the rich man's status, but Sabrina could have worked differently by having David becoming more sympathetic as the film continues, and Linus the brother who helps him towards this new found maturity. To some extent this is what happens, but not before Sabrina has switched her feelings from one to the other in an act of emotional sensitivity and not at all one of social pragmatics. Wilder explores in Sabrina not only, or not even especially, the democratic instinct as a question of everyone being equal and people moving easily from one social class to another, but more the problematic of what justifies social mobility. If social mobility is based on envy or greed, then no progress has been made, because the democratic impulse is underpinned by a negative rather than a positive emotion. But if it comes from a shared value system that leaves the wealth irrelevant next to love and affection, then the democratic ethos holds. If Sabrina arrives at the best of all possible worlds, she can only do so because Linus and Sabrina act, finally, with the best of all possible motives. A cynic would have no respect for such an ending; seeing in the film's optimism a failure to confront various motives on Sabrina's part (Linus's huge wealth) and also on Linus's - Sabrina's youthful beauty. There is a more than a twenty year age gap between the characters, taking into account the age gap between the actors.
However this would be to read the film against the grain, and it would probably be fairer to do so for the purposes of feminist argumentation than cynical assumption. After all, there is no third option where the poor but free Sabrina decides to travel happily alone. As in Lady Killer there is a conclusion that might ruffle feminist feathers, with Madeleine in the former film too obviously a bird of prey who needs to be destroyed; and in the latter Sabrina a dove who needs to be protected. In each instance a feminist irritation would be understandable, but it should first of all acknowledge the achievement of each film. And what would these achievements be? To utilise strong, predictable storytelling for the purposes of arriving at the purposeful, at what we'll call an 'authentic sentiment', in another loaded phrase, but not an empty one if we differentiate it from 'fraudulent sentiment'. In the latter what we have is narrative contrivance and event for the purposes of entertaining the viewer with no reason beyond the idle speculation of what might happen next. The story is not so much worked through as the viewer worked upon: with twists and turns offered to sustain the attention of a viewer but to the detriment of a 'value'.
Let us take as our third and final example in this exploration of classic storytelling and obviousness Ernst Lubitsch's very fine A Shop Around the Corner, a film of authentic sentiment that was remade (like Sabrina) as a film of fraudulent sentiment, You've GotMail. The original concerns a couple of store workers who see each other every day (James Stewart's Alfred; Margaret Sullavan's Klara), and where their shop life is quite different from their vivid inner worlds as they both connect to someone through letters who happens to be a keen reader. Eventually they realise that they are the people who are writing the letters to each other as their day to day physical existence meets with their mental and emotional realm and they fall in love. In the remake Kathleen (Meg Ryan) owns a small bookstore and Joe (Tom Hanks) owns a chain of them, but they make contact through an internet site where employment status, name etc. are ruled out. After various problems (both are in a relationship; she openly attacks his company) they fall in love too. The fraudulent sentiment comes from remaking a classic (itself adapted from a play) with novel twists rather than trying to match the 'values' of the original. Lubitsch's films plays with the idea that we can't see what is in front of our eyes because of the assumptions we often have at the back of our minds, and the understandable difficulty we feel in everyday encounters in expressing what happens to be going on there.
The original wants the narrative contrivance of the characters oblivious to the fact that they are writing to each other so that it can explore possibilities that would be difficult to access otherwise. It's as though the film doesn't wish to play with the viewer's expectations through the plot twists, but much more that it wants to bring out a common problem: that people cannot see the mundane and the mysterious can occupy adjacent space. The revelation isn't only a plot surprise, it is even more a psychological illumination; as if the film is asking the viewer to what degree can their lives be more interesting not by changing them radically, but enquiring into them more perceptively, to wonder who around us might be of more interest than we would initially assume. Indeed, so little interested is Lubitsch in plot revelation, that halfway through the film Alfred sees who his ideal woman happens to be as Klara sits in a cafe waiting for the man of her dreams to turn up. What she doesn't know is that man is Alfred, and the reason he isn't going to meet his dream woman is because he lost his job that very day. The rest of the film has Alfred and the viewer in the know, but Klara still oblivious. There is no suspense in this, since we know what Klara doesn't: what needs to be worked through is Klara's realization that dreams can be in front of our eyes rather than dreamily in the back of our minds.
You've Got Mail plays much more on the idea of opposites attracting rather than the mundane made magical, as it tells the story of Joe the exec in charge of a big book chain falling for Kathleen online unaware initially she is the woman attacking him through the media. Why, though are we proposing Lubitsch's film offers authentic sentiment and Nora Ephron's version the fraudulent? Perhaps it resides in the trope in the latter while one feels it is the problem in the former. In other words, if the mechanics of the film seem more prominent than the question the mechanics are being used to serve, then the film becomes fraudulent rather than authentic as the interest in developing the problem is of less interest than the manipulation of the viewer's sentiments; that idea of the film working on us rather than working through its question. How often in a film do we see a couple splitting up not because the film wants to search out the deeper complications of a burgeoning relationship, but because of the complications required for the plot? If the couple would just get together early in the film and stay together till the end, the film wouldn't have generated enough of a story to justify the running time, so would need to find an emotional complication that can extend it (Addicted to Love, Bridesmaids), or have, say, two people who think they are merely good friends only to realize that they're made for each other, as evident in Some Kind of Wonderful and When Harry Met Sally.
We might ask whether in any romantic comedy the purpose is to find a problem that demands a hundred minute story to work itself through, or whether there isn't much of a problem but a series of narrative obstacles that must be overcome. For example, if a film focuses on two friends who find that they love each other but realize they cannot live together, because something in the emotional dynamic robs them of the intimacy of their previous friendship, then the film might justify them splitting up at the end of the second act if they can find by the end of the third a reason to get back together, or a very good one to stay apart. If we feel that the film has stalled two thirds of the way through and looks for a forced intervention (an ex comes back from abroad; a lie is exposed, a meddling friend causes trouble), we may notice fraudulent sentiment. Is this what happens in You've GotMail? as the film sets up a series of obstacles so it then has to work them through, which understandably takes up most of the running time? Both Joe and Kathleen are in relationships, Kathleen's bookstore is failing, and she campaigns against Joe Fox and his mega company Fox books. This is a lot of narrative gristle to chew, and while the film offers up various complications, we might wonder what might be the film's concluding point, and see that it isn't a very positive one. With its product placement references to media giant AOL, and its insistent need to show Fox not as a man interested in pushing product but engaging with books, the film inverts the importance of the little figure in the original, and plays a bit like a paean to corporate can-do with a bit of romance thrown in. If one feels fraudulent sentiment it is because of what is being expressed sentimentally (the plot mechanics that make us root for the creation of the couple), and the message covertly: the ready acceptance of large corporations.
Our point and purpose here has been to defend in principle the use of narrative contrivance, but chiefly so out of the plot mechanics a value reveals itself that could not easily be explored without the devices that may be dismissed as narrative weaknesses but that we are proposing are thematic strengths. Lady Killer is a film that moves beyond the potential tale of two narcissists outdoing each other to find the integrity of the soul in friendship. Sabrina shows the title character moving from one brother to the next but not at all cynically (how Madeleine might have wished to be in Sabrina's position), but democratically: she believes that she is as good as anyone else, and unlike her father does not accept her station need necessarily remain lowly. This isn't at all the same as saying she is a gold-digger; more that she would be with any man who loves her and whom she can love back. In The Shop Around the Corner the characters assume a dream must be elsewhere, but find it can also be in front of their noses if the circumstances allow for us to see the possibilities in our fellow human being.
All three films use their stories to generate a better ethos, and perhaps this is why we should always be wary of talking of films in terms of optimism and pessimism, and instead see in them the generation of a value. The plot twists and turns in each of the three films manage to do this: to take the narratively predictable and turn it into a higher thematic purpose; they achieve the purposeful and the authentic. Often films ostensibly better plotted and less contrived, we may notice, lack this capacity.
© Tony McKibbin