Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Babel and Alternate Structure

I'm a sucker for alternate storytelling structures. If I continue wanting to write popular fiction, this may well prove my downfall... but I do love books and movies that use unconventional devices to tell a story.

Maybe I just like to be challenged a little while I'm reading/watching something? Maybe I need an extra something to keep my attention these days? Not all the time. I also enjoy a simply-but-well-told story. But some of my all time favorite books and movies have had some kind of alternative structure. (And alternate structures--particularly fractured timelines combined with heavy use of flashbacks--seem to have overtaken the TV writing these past couple of years. So far, I'm likin' it. Studio 60 had a reversed timeline last week...)

One of my favorite movie structures is interconnecting stories. (I've been working on a book like this, but it's in very early stages and I'm not sure how well it's working.) While struggling with that book I've been thinking movies have a bit of an advantage for this structure, because it's easier to show the reader which story they're in using visuals--such as the actors themselves, the setting etc. It's harder, in a book, to flip between stories when the reader is still getting all the characters straight. Not impossible... Just harder to suck a reader into a book that flips around a lot and still not bog down the pace with too much description and/or narrative.

But other alternate structures can work in popular fiction... I blogged a while ago about Journal of Mortifying Moments, by Robyn Harding which used a journal as a literary device. And Deidre Knight's Parallel series books use time travel to allow the reader to replay events in the book and/or see events out of order. Other books released as literary fiction but which crossed over to mainstream that used alternate structures by way of multiple or disjointed timelines include Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. LOVE both of these books.

But I was going to talk about interconnecting story movies. There are plenty like this in the "art house" genre. (Robert Altman is a god. (Nashville, Gosford Park, Short Cuts) Paul Thomas Anderson has done some great ones, (notably Magnolia) and Babel filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, (21 Grams, Amores Perros, Babel) is a master at this style as well.) Plus, he's cute. (Blogger wouldn't let me upload his photo. Maybe he's too hot?)

In addition to these less commercial films, a few movies using this structure have crossed into the mainstream. LOVE ACTUALLY comes to mind. In fact, I might argue that many episodes of Seinfeld used this structure. That is, seemingly unconnected story lines for each of the main characters end up connecting in an unexpected way. Love that kind of thing.

But back to BABEL.

I don't know if BABEL has opened everywhere yet, but it opened here in Toronto last weekend and I saw it in September at the film festival. I liked it enough that I may go again now it's been released. It is a long and challenging movie and the stories aren't as intricately connected as this filmmaker's earlier films... (like 21 Grams) but I was really impressed none the less. I found it a totally engrossing film.

And what a great theme for our times: Miscommunication.

Miscommunication because of language differences.
Miscommunication because of emotional baggage.
Miscommunication because of deafness (which I guess is just a special case of language differences)
Miscommunication because of cultural bias
Miscommunication because of prejudice.
Miscommunication because of politics.
Miscommunication because of fear.

If you haven't seen it, go. Brad Pitt actually made me cry. Something I really didn't think he, as an actor, could do. And the strange thing about my crying is, the way the story unfolds, it's not like the audience is finding out new information at the point he made me cry. (It was during the scene in this photo.) We'd see one side of this conversation early on in the film, so by the time we see this scene, we know what's going on, and still, as much as I've fallen out of love with Brad Pitt of late, it was hard not to admire how he evoked strong emotions in this scene. For me, anyway. Now I really want to see the film again.

And speaking of celebrity marriages... (Okay, Brad made me think of them.) Britney and K-Fed? Those two crazy kids.... Who saw that divorce coming? Shocker.


Anonymous said...

Babel is on my list of movies I really want to see. I'm going to have to check out if/when it's hitting my theatre.

Another movie I love that plays with alternative structure is Memento. It starts with the last scene of the movie and goes from there. Each piece of the puzzle is slowly revealed. It left an impression on me big time.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Oh Good ne Christine! Momento was pretty ground breaking.

What I love about movies and books that screw around with timeline is that 1. It's all showing. CHaracters are what they are and it's revealed through action. 2. It really really trusts the reader/viewer to be a smart participant in the storytelling process. I think way too often (especially in romance) we spoon feed the reader - we don't think or believe that the reader will get what's going on unless it's spelled out in neon letters. Which is crazy since on average romance readers read more than anyone.

Time travellers wife is one of my favorite books and I just heard they've finally pinned down a director for it. Can't remember who -

Anonymous said...

Loved Memento and 21 Grams, so am excited about Babel.
Love alternate structure as well, as long as it's moving the plot in some direction, backwards, or forwards, don't really care.

I agree with Molly, spoonfeeding is not only a little demeaning, but also sort of boring.

Anonymous said...

I hadn't hear of the Time Traveler's Wife before, and now it's been mentioned to me four times in the past two weeks. I'll be buying it this weekend to check it out.

Maureen McGowan said...

Memento was amazing. There was a french film a couple of years ago that took that idea of a reversed timeline even further.. But is was a pretty hard film to watch. Super violent. And for some reason I can't think of its name right now... One word...

Wylie Kinson said...

I saw The Prestige (Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine) the other night and it reminded me a lot of Memento. I later discovered that it's the same director!

Go see it - it's an excellent mind twisting movie.

I'm looking forward to Babel (anything with Brad Pitt is worth $9.00!)

~ Wylie

Anonymous said...

Hey Maureen,

Is the movie you're talking about Tension, or Haute Tension?, a french horror movie, that I think played around with timelines.

The Prestige looks great. Am really looking forward to seeing it.

Maureen McGowan said...

No... The title will come to me... Damn. Just found it...
Irreversible. Filmmaker is Gaspar Noe.

While the violence is super hard to take... it did an amazing job of making you wonder what the hell had happened to these characters to lead up to how it started... (or ended... if you know what I mean... The first scene of the movie is the ending.) Very well written.

Anonymous said...

On a lighter (???) note, the KFed/Britney break up wasn't unexpected but the Chris Rock divorce sure was. Puts a different spin on all his wife jokes now. Not quite so funny.

Molly O'Keefe said...

Chris Rock - Reese Witherspoon - Britney -- what is the world coming to? You know if regular people had a smidge of thier money and one nanny half the time they have two -- there'd be less divorce in general.

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