Like you, we're always overjoyed when the alternating New Yorker film critic is David Denby rather than Anthony Lane; it's one less review we have to read that week. Today's issue, however, produces something of a master class in why Denby is despised by all right-thinking people: "The New Disorder" is a four thousand word essay in which Denby lets you know that nonlinear narrative (apparently invented by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avery in 1994) is difficult to follow. As Denby examines "the overloading, the dislocations and disruptions," you realize that this piece is equally, if not more, difficult. We're not sure what the bigger mistake is here. Is it the sheer pointlessness of attempting to codify narrative techniques that have been in place for at least a century, or the idea of having Denby as the explicator in the first place? In any event, in a fit of postmodernism of our own, we've recut and remixed Denby's essay. If you somehow have the fortitude and the free time, you can read both and decide which makes more sense. Or any sense at all.
THE NEW DISORDER (Remix!)
by DAVID DENBY
Adventures in film narrative.
J. B. Priestley, putting into practice arcane theories about the simultaneity of past, present, and future, juggled time frames in his theatre work in the nineteen-thirties and forties. Harold Pinter, in "Betrayal," his 1978 play about a love affair gone sour, ran time backward, from the bitter present to the happy past. But the current cycle of disordered narratives—in movies, at any rate—began with "Pulp Fiction," Quentin Tarantino's malevolently funny pop masterwork from 1994. In the movie, which is made up of three stories, John Travolta goes to the bathroom four times. In the first story, Travolta, a lowlife enforcer, has been given the job of looking after Uma Thurman, the wife of a Los Angeles crime boss. At the boss's house, Travolta absents himself for a minute and, when he returns, discovers Thurman almost dead, her eyes rolling back into her head from the heroin he bought earlier that day. In the second story, he sits down to read a novel on the toilet in the apartment of Bruce Willis, a washed-up fighter he has been sent to kill. But Willis quietly enters the apartment, picks up the gun that Travolta has left on the kitchen counter, and, when Travolta steps out of the bathroom, blows him away. In the third story, Travolta, bloodied after accidentally killing a young man in the back seat of a car, goes to wash up with his equally blood-soaked partner, Samuel L. Jackson, and the two get into a preposterous argument over the appropriateness of getting the towels dirty.
Travolta is still alive, and arguing over towels, because the stories, despite some overlap, are not in sequence, and no attempt has been made to lock them into a unified, flowing progression in the viewer's head by using flashbacks, flash-forwards, parallel cutting among ongoing narratives, or any other means. The fourth trip? Travolta, toting the novel again, goes to the bathroom in a coffee shop, only to stumble out into a robbery in progress. A young couple is running around, screaming curses and waving guns—the same couple that we saw in the same coffee shop at the beginning of the movie. That stickup is a kind of ring encircling "Pulp Fiction"; what it encircles, though, is not a stable planet but three semi-independent narrative platforms, each one spinning on a magician's stick.
A sardonic view of chaos, "Pulp Fiction" suggests that contingency and chance rule a good part of our behavior. A trip to the bathroom, normally a quiet moment in anyone's life, becomes an absurdist entry wedge into metaphysical disharmony. Time is out of joint in "Pulp Fiction." It doesn't really advance, which means that planning for future action is meaningless. By editing the movie this way, Tarantino was also, I believe, getting at something inherent in all moviemaking. It's commonly said that the immediacy of film is so powerful that what's onscreen always feels like the present, even if the scene is set in the past. By scrambling the time sequence, Tarantino explicitly created an impression of the eternal present, the sense that what is happening was always happening, will always be happening.
"Pulp Fiction" was a highly influential movie, but the majority of narratives, of course, are still constructed in the traditional way. Event A leads to events B and C. Or, alternatively, the movie starts in the middle, with B, which necessarily throws us back to A, which eventually leads past B and onward to C. "The Good Shepherd," one of the best (and most underpraised) movies of last year, jumps all over the place, but the different time periods—the distant, intermediate, and recent past, as well as the present—are clearly marked elements in a chronological scheme that the viewer eventually assembles in his head as a continuous tale. The eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher David Hume spent years hoping to convince his readers that sequence does not necessarily imply causality, but I would guess that he didn't get very far with such contemporary narrative artists as Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson (although Laurence Sterne, the proto-modernist prankster of "Tristram Shandy," may have been listening). Storytellers, relying on sequence and causality, make sense out of nonsense; they impose order, economy, and moral consequence on the helter-skelter wash of experience. The notion that one event causes another, and that the entire chain is a unified whole, with a complex, may be ambivalent, but, in any case, coherent meaning, not only brings us to a point of resolution; it allows us to navigate through our lives.
The cinema, in which actors appear to be moving in consecutive time through patches of genuine space, has always created a strong expectation of realistic narrative. But here's the paradox: thanks to the mechanical nature of the recording medium (still photos, or digits, strung together in rapid succession), playing with sequence and representation is almost irresistible. As soon as film was invented, experimental film was invented. Some of the fooling around was just exuberant exploration of a fabulous new toy, but some of it arose from political or philosophical convictions, and was intended to turn us upside down.
As an Academy Award nominee for best picture, "Babel" was a startling choice. The movie, which was written by Guillermo Arriaga and directed by Alejandro Gonz lez I rritu, is composed of three stories held together by a slender thread, and the mood is darkly calamitous; even the few joyous moments are suffused with dread. In the Arriaga-I rritu world, if something bad can happen it happens—hardly a typical American movie's view of life. Earlier, the two men made, in Mexico, the bloody, turbulent "Amores Perros" (2000) and, in the United States, the dolorous "21 Grams" (2003), which starred Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Benicio Del Toro. Now, however, the collaborators have had a falling out (each claiming the greater credit for what appears in the movies). As they seem to be heading in separate directions, these fate-driven films can be seen as a kind of trilogy. All three send characters from separate stories smacking into one another in tragic accidents; all three jump backward and forward in a scrambling of time frames that can leave the viewer experiencing reactions before actions, d nouements before climaxes, disillusion before ecstasy, and many other upsetting reversals and discombobulations.
The Arriaga-I rritu films are hardly the sole topsy-turvy narratives out there. In recent years, we've had movies, like "Adaptation" (written by the antic confabulator Charlie Kaufman), that are explicitly about the making of movies, and others, like "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (also written by Kaufman), that move forward dramatically by going backward in time. Then, there is a related group of clogged-sink narratives, like "Traffic," "Syriana," and "Miami Vice," which are so heavily loaded with subplots and complicated information that the story can hardly seep through the surrounding material. "Syriana" made sense in the end, but you practically needed a database to sort out the story elements; the movie became a weird formal experiment, testing the audience's endurance and patience.
Godard once said that he wanted to make films with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. "21 Grams" moves sideways and turns itself inside out, but in no order. We see Sean Penn lying in a hospital bed and then, a few scenes later, moving around outdoors, and then back in bed, and then making love, and then nearly dead, and so on. But why? Since none of the characters are part of any reality that makes sense to us, we can't say, as we did at "Amores Perros," that a social malaise has made the normal sequencing of the story irrelevant. On the contrary, we may wonder if I rritu and his editor didn't scissor the movie into fragments in order to give soap-opera dismalness the appearance of radical art.
Some of the directors may be just playing with us or, perhaps, acting out their boredom with that Hollywood script-conference menace the conventional "story arc." But others may be trying to jolt us into a new understanding of art, or even a new understanding of life. In the past, mainstream audiences notoriously resisted being jolted. Are moviegoers bringing some new sensibility to these riddling movies? What are we getting out of the overloading, the dislocations and disruptions?
For more than eighty years, frustrating our pleasure in the orderly unfolding of a story has been a familiar strategy of the political and artistic avantgarde. According to radical aesthetics, continuity is a bourgeois fetish, and disruptive experiments in form, which challenge the bourgeois's sense that the world belongs to him, are the first step toward revolution. This may be a delusion, but it's an enabling delusion. Bu uel the surrealist was more interested in artistic than political revolution, yet he mocked purely aesthetic responses to his early experiments. Of the audience reaction to his first collaboration with Salvador Dali, "Un Chien Andalou" (1928), in which disturbing erotic and violent images are arrayed in non-sequential order, he remarked, "The crowd of idiots found beauty and poetry in what was basically just a desperate, impassioned call to murder." More than forty years later, Bu uel was still placing stink bombs under cinema seats. In "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" (1972), the rapacious gentry assemble for the principal rite of their civilization—sitting down to dinner. But the director won't let them eat. Someone is always taking the movie off in new directions. Appetitive frustration becomes the model of narrative frustration. The audience's desire for a central story is thwarted, although, in the end, it was fed a richer meal of irony, anecdote, and ridicule.
Michel Gondry's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" (2004) goes back in time from the bleak aftermath of an affair, in which the two lovers (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet) don't quite recognize each other, to its tender beginnings. When Carrey realizes that Winslet's memories of their relationship have been erased (by well-meaning mad scientists), he has his memories erased, too, but then, grief-stricken, he struggles to recover them. As they return, in odd fragments and sometimes in disguise, the movie's time-shifting mechanics, which are baffling and clumsy at first, lead to a pathos bordering on anguish. Pinter's "Betrayal," with a similar time scheme, performed a kind of archeological dig into the temperamental makeup of its characters; moving backward, it found hints of the disastrous behavior of the present in small remarks and acts of long ago. There the rottenness started early, while in "Sunshine" the beginning was pure. The movie is a near-masochistic feast for romantics who live or die by their hold on the roots of emotion. It gives body to the ineffable.
"Memento" (2001), which the British director Christopher Nolan wrote with his brother Jonathan Nolan (from a story by Jonathan), is a more brutal thrust at our unconscious. (Seeing it again recently, I was spooked for days.) The hero, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), remembers his entire past up to a certain point—the moment of an assault in which he thinks his wife was killed. In the same assault, he lost his short-term memory; he forgets, after a few minutes, what he's just experienced. He wants revenge for his wife's death, but, when he haplessly falls into the middle of a drug deal gone bad, some of the other players, drawing on his rage, inflame him against their enemies. He kills a couple of strangers but can't remember who or why. The movie has a richly sardonic relation to genre history. In the classic Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies, the violent acts of the avenger often engulf the hero who commits them, but Leonard takes revenge without consequence. His limits free him: the existential moment of action is the only consciousness he possesses. Once enraged, he can't stop himself from carrying out the perfect crime.
Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story, "Funes the Memorious," about a man who is paralyzed by his inability to forget anything. Leonard is the opposite: he remembers things by inscribing them on his body—his tattooed flesh becomes a text devoted to warnings and instructions—and his writing sends him into action. In sympathy with Leonard's difficulties, the movie begins with the events that happen latest in time and then, in consecutive order, moves backward: Chapter 12, followed by Chapter 11, and so on. And each chapter, establishing the present moment—say, Leonard conscious of himself alone in a motel room—goes back to its own beginning and then forward again to the present. At first, such structural legerdemain may seem a gimmick, but, through repetition, it develops a hurtling power: pitched back into the origins of a given action, we seem to be travelling according to the operation of a new physical law. "Memento" has the haunted feeling of a science-fiction masterpiece, but this is science fiction without a trace of fantasy. Leonard, at the beginning of his quest for revenge (that is, at the end of the movie), says, with a burst of exhilaration, "I have to believe in a world outside my own mind." This most subjective of films is also a stunning reaffirmation that the world exists.
All these movies draw on a sophistication about cinema that is now almost universal. We know that a film is not a piece of life; we know that it is something made. And we're used to being shoved around in time—we may even be doing some of the shoving ourselves. Twenty-five years ago, the videotape transfer of a film sustained the notion of a movie as a continuous track: you could run it forward or backward, but the film was "printed" on magnetic tape, and you remained on the track. Digital information, on the other hand, can be infinitely manipulated; you can jump from one place to another or cut the movie into pieces. At home, kids create "mashups"—chopping sections out of a feature film, mixing the excerpts with their own material, and posting the result on the Web as a madcap original creation. The danger of instant editing, of course, is not just disordered time sequences but glibness. Some of the big Hollywood action films move so quickly that they eliminate the most rudimentary emotional attachment to the material. It would be terrible if computer editing wiped out the proper emotional resistance to making a cut—the lingering grave affection for a face, a landscape, an interior, even the resonance of an empty space.
No one could accuse Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro Gonz lez I rritu of glibness or an indifference to sentiment. The world of their movies is one of extreme emotional violence, disastrous mishaps, wearying desperation. At first glance, their filmmaking is grindingly earnest. I rritu has an instinctive feeling for the volatility of hard-pressed people, for the varieties of explosive sexual temperament, and he has drawn committed, almost reckless performances out of such actors as Gael Garc a Bernal, Benicio Del Toro, Naomi Watts—even Brad Pitt, as the man trying to save his wife's life in "Babel." I rritu has never directed a flat or indifferently shaped scene, and, working with the cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto, he has produced landscapes bristling with iconic power—the alleys behind Mexico's mean streets, the winding roads in the arid mountains of Morocco, the fantastical night scenes of neon Tokyo.
Arriaga and I rritu are experimentalists in form but sorrowful humanists in temperament. From the first, they have been reworking the three-part, asynchronous structure of "Pulp Fiction," but without the jokes, the wild profane talk, the gleeful pleasure in life's screwed-upness. Arriaga reportedly wrote thirty-six drafts of the screenplay for "Amores Perros," and one can only admire the ingenuity with which he distributes the narrative space to the people of Mexico City. Each of the three main characters—a battling, lovesick working-class boy; a dopey model who has a married upper-bourgeois lover; a savage ex-guerrilla who works as an assassin—dominates his own story but appears as a minor character in the two other stories. All three tales, connected by a car crash, are essentially dog stories, with the animals mimicking their owners' traits: the boy's Rottweiler fights magnificently in local high-stakes competitions; the model's decorative, fluffy Lhasa Apso falls into a hole and gets nibbled by rats; the remorseless killer's mangy strays accompany him in his shabby but liberated life. The movie's pessimism is extreme, but it feels rooted in the streets and folklore of Mexico City, where experience melds into legend and individual misfortune is part of life's infinite danger. When the social breakdown is general, bad luck hardly seems arbitrary. As in "Pulp Fiction," the three stories are only vaguely related in time, and the emotional result is similar—an uncanny feeling that all this is happening now, was always happening, will always be happening. Only a literalist would demand causality within a malaise.
That convincing sense of rootedness and inevitability disappeared, however, when Arriaga and I rritu moved north. In "21 Grams," which is set in a dank, drizzling American nowheresville, calamitousness floats free and unhinged, and the sober awe that one felt before "Amores Perros" turns to disdain. Del Toro's ex-con runs over a father and his two little girls; the dead man's heart gets transplanted into the body of an expiring mathematics professor (Sean Penn); and the professor decides to seduce, of all people, the victim's widow. At this point, the math professor, with his new heart, begins dying again. But that isn't tragedy; it's a lachrymose sick joke, and it made me wonder if Arriaga and I rritu hadn't fallen into the fallacy of thinking that misery was somehow more real than happiness, death a greater subject than life.
The same suspicion of pretentious fatalism and structural willfulness shadowed my response to "Babel." The movie is a lofty globe-hopping lament over mishaps and misunderstandings in wildly dissimilar places—Morocco, Southern California and Mexico, and Japan. We are scattered into different languages and habits, and either we can't talk to one another at all or we fall into gruesome misunderstandings. And yet human life has a shape. Parents and children live together everywhere. The theme appears to be the cohesion of life within the seeming disorder of life. The different stories are related in subject. Yet they fall out of synch with one another in bizarre ways.
In the first twenty minutes or so of "Babel," there are three narrative tracks: two Moroccan boys with a high-powered rifle that was left in the mountains by a vacationing Japanese hunter; a wealthy American couple (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) on a tour-bus holiday in the same mountains; and the Americans' Mexican housekeeper and their young children back in San Diego. The Moroccan boys are fooling around and one of them shoots at the bus, but we don't know where the bullet lands. Instead, in the San Diego house, we hear a distraught and demanding Brad Pitt calling from abroad—an event that, we find out, takes place a couple of days later. Then we see Pitt and Blanchett having a tense lunch together; they climb into the tour bus, and, as Blanchett sleeps, she's hit in the neck by the bullet fired by the boy in the mountains. Internally, each of the three tracks runs in chronological order (and I'm leaving out the introduction of another narrative, in which the deaf daughter of the Japanese hunter—a girl grieving over her mother's suicide, and longing for some sort of sexual contact—exposes herself to boys and men). Yet the tracks, which detail events happening simultaneously, are edited together in ways that make them disjointed in time. The editing also withholds information, not so much to create suspense as to uncouple the intent of an act from its result, the reason for a telephone call from the impression it makes.
In other words, part of the disconnection that the movie presents as a universal fact of our world is produced by the odd way it is put together. And, once one notices the inorganic structuring of the material, and the hostile tease of the editing, one begins to wonder if the conjunction of so many mishaps isn't a kind of abuse of the freedom that's normally granted to fiction. The Mexican housekeeper, having taken the children across the border, gets into trouble when returning to the United States. After that, damned if she doesn't lose the children in the desert, at which point I lost all faith in the movie. "Life is like that," I heard people in the audience say. Actually, a certain kind of pseudo-serious bad fiction is like that. Arriaga and I rritu end the movie with a series of reconciliations and salvations that leave the audience weeping. "Babel" feels like the first example of a new genre—the highbrow globalist tearjerker.
Now, at the conclusion of the trilogy, the calamities in these movies seem programmatic, rather than haphazard. In "Amores Perros," the capitalist playmate—a blond model—is treated nastily by the filmmakers, while, at the end of the movie, the jauntily imperious ex-guerrilla and murderer lights out for fresh territory, like the hero of an old Western. In "Babel," the privileged carelessness of the First World characters, giving their guns away and leaving their kids behind, plants the seeds of what goes wrong. There's a pattern to the disasters: a punitive attack on the selfishness of the rich can't pass itself off as the mere impersonal merciless working out of fate. Experience can't be random and also structured like a cage.
Of all the highbrow directors of the late fifties and sixties, Alain Resnais, working with experimental writers like Alain Robbe-Grillet and Marguerite Duras, and drawing on ideas developed by those writers in their fictions, played the most extreme (and infuriating) games with time and narrative. In "Hiroshima, Mon Amour" (1959), two lovers, one French, one Japanese, mainly lie in bed trying to retrieve their memories of the war. The movie ceases to move forward in any conventional sense; and the past, it turns out, becomes ungraspable, even irrecoverable, leaving us stranded in an elegant time warp. In Resnais's "Muriel" (1963), a variety of distancing devices hold at arm's length an unendurable recollection—a French soldier's experience of torturing an Algerian girl. At the same time, the present-tense narrative is developed intermittently, and without the usual climaxes and tensions, so that the structure of the story's emotions, rather than their power, becomes the subject of the film.
Resnais's formalist work in the sixties was solemn and analytical. In the same period, Jean-Luc Godard, interrupting his commonplace B-movie plots with jokes, political lectures, and notes on film history, was savage and joyous. But both directors served a knowing audience, for whom experimentation was almost a norm, or at least something expected. By contrast, the recent examples of cin ma d sordonn are meant for a mainstream audience. Suddenly life has become more interesting: when the audience's pleasure in narrative is diverted, or postponed, it may realize how conventional that pleasure usually is—how easily most movies yield to the desire for tension, release, and resolution. The kind of revelation that was once the possession of a privileged few—that formal play could not only enlarge your notion of art and entertainment but change your life—has moved out into the more volatile region of popular culture.
Arriaga and I rritu may be too obsessed with the unfair distribution of power and capital in the world to operate freely as radical experimenters in form. In 1960, in the great "L'Avventura," Michelangelo Antonioni set up a mystery—a young woman disappears on an island—and then refused to solve it. The woman's friends, after initially pledging a search, begin a guilty affair. The movie's mournful despair suggests how often we pay homage to appropriate moral sentiments while our real feelings drift elsewhere. The plot divagation put a crack in the moral universe, and the audience, at first baffled, then wounded by self-recognition, fell into it. "L'Avventura" was an open form; it didn't play around with time sequences, but it altered our sense of how life works. The Arriaga-I rritu films, for all their structural innovations, are closed, even overdetermined, forms—puzzle boxes. All the pieces are there to be put together in our heads, but the rich ambivalence of art somehow slips away as we reconstruct the way one thing connects to another.
Playing with time can be a brilliant provocation, but one response to its misuse is the new German film "The Lives of Others," which recently opened here. The movie dramatizes not a series of trumped-up misadventures but a fully realized historical nightmare—the spying by the East German State Security Service (the Stasi) on many of its citizens in the Communist era. Since it's a film about secrets, the audience needs to know exactly what everyone in the movie knows, or thinks he knows, at any given moment. These characters fall into dreadful mishaps, too, but their mistakes are a result not of fate but of a monstrous system intruding into every corner of their lives. And what is the device that gives "The Lives of Others" its shattering power? Straightforward chronology driven by cross-cutting among parallel actions, a technique that was invented by D. W. Griffith almost a hundred years ago. It still may be the best way of leading us to the paradise of a morally complicated but flawlessly told story.