The Rejection of Older Forms
There was an art exhibit in 1999 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art entitled “Sensation.” One of the highlights was a sculpture by Damien Hirst that is actually a cow sliced vertically into twelve pieces in glass cases filled with formaldehyde. This same exhibit also has a piece by Chris Ofili entitled The Holy Virgin Mary, a simple, African-style painting of Mary covered with elephant dung, which upset New York City Mayor Giuliani, among others.
In the critical and box-office hit movie, as well as winner of 2000’s “Best Picture” Oscar, American Beauty, we see a dysfunctional American family in which the father is ultimately murdered. What’s the point? Sorry, there isn’t one.
What these two things share, in my opinion, is their off-handed rejection of the old forms with nothing new offered as a replacement. I believe that this is actually a sad and unfortunate misinterpretation of the reductionism movements of the early twentieth century, in which artists with careers began boiling things down to their basic elements. Now, however, reductionism offers people the opportunity to be considered artists when they in fact lack such abilities and have nothing to say.
As a society we have devolved to a point where everything must be easy and convenient — if it’s difficult, it’s bad. So we reject that which is difficult by proclaiming it to be “old-fashioned.” Painting a realistic portrait of someone that actually looks like them is old-fashioned. Writing a song with a melody and witty lyrics is out of date. Telling a well-structured story with a point is passé.
Since it’s seemingly better to be modern than old-fashioned, a good likeness, a catchy tune, or a well-told tale are now all out of style. What we get now is elephant shit smeared on a canvas or a pounding beat accompanied by vocals by people who cannot sing or formless, pointless dramas that tell us nothing.
Marshall McLuhan said that “art is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.” We seem to be in sort of a technological fog — everything is supposed to be easier now, right? Why can’t I simply turn on my computer, go into my paint program, tell it “Rembrandt” under the style heading, sit back and watch it create a masterpiece for me? Then I get to sign it and sell it for a million dollars.
I see this all beginning on May 29, 1913, at the Theatre des Champs-Elysées in Paris at the premiere of Igor Stravinky’s ballet The Rite of Spring. The audience was expecting one more pretty piece of spring music — birds chirping, babbling brooks, wind in the trees — and instead got a pounding, chaotic, discordant, primeval explosion of sexual emotion, accompanied by seemingly naked dancers who appeared to be copulating onstage. The audience went insane and rioted, tearing out the seats and getting into fistfights.
Soon thereafter World War 1 began. Is it a direct result? Who can say. But The Rite of Spring is not simply an orchestra all playing nothing at once while people actually fuck onstage — it’s a very intelligent piece of music that took Stravinky three years to write and was choreographed by the greatest dancer of his day, Vaslav Nijinsky, who also performed it. This was something that had never been seen or heard before, but it was also very true: spring can be birds chirping, or it can be a provocative sexual explosion — it depends on how you want to look at it. Both are valid, but one is old and tired, and the other is new and exciting, unlike anything that had been depicted before.
Now, no one had bothered to slice a cow up into twelve pieces and put it on display before Damien Hirst. Other than demonstrating the ability to wield a chainsaw and buy the parts to construct the glass cases, what is Mr. Hirst telling us? That a cow can be sliced into twelve pieces? I wouldn’t have doubted that had he just said it. Perhaps I’m supposed to feel ashamed for eating meat? I don’t.
As far as smearing shit on Mother Mary goes, since I’m not Catholic, it has no religious impact on me. Ardent Catholics seem like pretty easy game anyway. Someone put a crucifix in jar of urine a few years ago and caused serious dismay among the Catholics. Fundamentalists of all kinds — with their I-know-for-a-fact-what-life-is-all-about attitude — are basically just wearing signs that say “Kick Me!” I suppose that you or I could run out and quickly smear shit all over a picture of Jesus and upset the Catholics, too, but so what? You still haven’t said anything.
Likewise, you haven’t said anything particularly special if you say that an American family is dysfunctional, as in American Beauty. That’s a set-up. Where you go with it is the question.
After World War 1 came the various reductionist movements: Cubism, Dadaism, Abstractionism, to a certain extent Surrealism, and also to some degree Impressionism, thus bringing us to today, with a cow sliced up into twelve pieces. When Pablo Picasso, who was an able craftsman, began reducing his use of brushstrokes and color, it was an interesting development worth paying attention to. But you can’t start there. If you have little or no experience, you have nothing from which to take away. The reductionist viewpoint is for those who understand the big picture and, in my opinion, have proven it.
When Michael Powell made the brilliant film Black Narcissus in 1947 he felt that he had finally broken through the constrictions of normal motion picture storytelling and arrived at a sense of film impressionism. I wholeheartedly agree; it is one of my very favorite films. Black Narcissus was Michael Powell’s thirty-sixth feature film. And just because he employed impressionism didn’t mean that he stopped telling a complete, well-structured story.
The three-act structure works in tandem with all other approaches to film storytelling. For example, Stranger Than Paradise is an extreme case of film minimalism, but it’s still a three-act story, and because of that it’s quite watchable.
Black Narcissus is a brilliant example of film impressionism — it takes place on a mountaintop in Nepal but was shot entirely in a studio in London — and it has a great three-act story.
Or take Walter Hill’s first three films, which I see as sort of a trilogy: Hard Times with Charles Bronson, The Driver with Ryan O’Neal, and The Warriors. All three films have something of a dreamy, expressionistic, and ultimately existential feel to them. In The Driver no one even has a name: the Driver, the Girl, the Cop. Yet all three films are still tightly-structured, three-act action stories. I might go so far as to say that Hard Times is Charles Bronson’s best starring role. There is a wonderfully similar existentialist sequence in both Hard Times and The Driver, in which the lonely, silent lead character checks into a cheap motel, goes to his ratty, horrible room, and just sits down.
John Huston made several minimalist chamber dramas that are all very good films and very well-told, three-act stories: The Maltese Falcon, The African Queen, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, Fat City, and his final film, The Dead. The biggest cast of these films is probably The Dead, which takes place almost entirely at a small dinner party in one room.
The point is that three-acts do not get in the way of any other approach to storytelling. But without it you are basically doomed. It doesn’t matter what style you use — expressionism, impressionism, minimalism — it will flounder without a three-act structure as the foundation.
For the past eight years I’ve been directing TV shows for a living. The script for a one-hour TV show is a very structured, formalized piece of writing: a teaser, four acts, and, occasionally, a tag, which altogether equal 42 to 44 pages. By the end of the teaser, which is somewhere between 2 and 4 minutes long, you will absolutely know what the upcoming story is about; it’s like the opening paragraph of a thesis paper — you flatly state what your thesis is, then you spend the remainder of the paper proving it, then you restate it and sum it up at the end.
A good feature film script works exactly the same way, without the commercial break between acts 2 and 3, thus making them one act and giving you a total of three. But essentially the first couple of minutes of any film script ought to function as the teaser. This is where you throw down the gauntlet and proclaim, “Here’s my story!” Someone shot Miles Archer. Who? “War again? Fiddle-de-dee!” “Everybody works on the bridge, including the officers. Their cowardice is your shame!” “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” Etc.
I keep reading scripts and seeing movies that almost all abandon the three-act structure and, consequently, don’t function. As I see it, movies will not improve nor will our society begin the long climb out of the trough of mediocrity we have slipped into until screenwriters and directors begin to tell rational, well-structured stories again.