I can remember only once watching a movie by myself and loving it. I was tripping and was so enraptured by “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome” that I immediately rewound the VCR tape and watched it all over again (don’t judge).
Otherwise, give me a book. The cinema in my head beats anything coming out of Hollywood, thank you very much.
Then I fell in love with a real cinephile, the kind of person who thinks watching all 7 hours and 30 minutes of Hungarian director, Béla Tarr’s, “Satantango” is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon (which it is by the way).
Over the past nine years, we have watched roughly 1800 movies together, mostly at home thanks to the New York Public Library and then, until it shut down, Kanopy, a free movie/documentary streaming service that had an astonishing range of movies. But one of the many reasons that I adore living in New York City is having access to countless foreign, classic, and independent movies on the big screen.
And those are the kinds of movies that thumb their noses at linear narrative arc or tidy adherence to an easily-followed plot. Years of immersing myself in defiantly non-linear storytelling that trusts its readers/viewers to keep up has opened some interesting doors to me as a writer.
Take Aki Kaurismaki, Finland’s fabulously dour master of working-class cinema. There are no good clear-cut guys or bad guys in Kaurismaki’s Helsinki neighborhoods. Many of his films track losers whose luck just keeps getting worse and worse. Occasionally he offers a glimmer of something like light at the end of one of his films, but similar to most independent filmmakers, Kaurismaki isn’t all that interested in a linear narrative that holds the viewers’ hands, walking them through what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
There are ways of telling stories that respect the readers/viewers. Kaurismaki gives us enough context so we know where we are and most of what’s happening. In my own story-telling, I continue to play with how much I can withhold and when to tease out more information. My partner, my ultimate beta reader, is incredibly helpful in pointing out where I’ve made a sudden turn or leap that my readers are not going to be able to follow. A great example of this kind withholding of information is my story, “Giving Ground” which was published in Black Wire Magazine in 2014.
Another filmmaker whose methods fascinate me is Bela Tarr, the Hungarian master of the long slow shot. His most notorious film, the afore-mentioned Satantango, clocking in at just over 7 and one-half hours, consists of less than 150 shots. Contrast that with the “average” Hollywood product that generally consists of 1200 or more shots in a two-plus hour running time. The opening shot of Satantango runs nearly 11 minutes and simply follows cows wandering through a derelict village but instead of lulling the viewer to sleep, Tarr uses his pacing and space as well as a subtle and hypnotizing score to slowly build tension. It’s brilliant filmmaking.
I really love playing with time in my story-telling in a similar way. Years ago I launched myself seriously into writing a novel and from the start I let events unspool without much in the way of propulsion. Did it work? You judge.
In addition to shifting the focus of storytelling from predictable actions (Kaurismaki) and speed of action (Tarr), another welcome move in independent cinema is the character-driven narrative. One of my favorite filmmakers to deftly use this is Kelly Reichardt whose films “Certain Women” and “Wendy and Lucy” do what really well-written literary fiction does: brings interesting characters to vivid and believable life.
From my very first completed short story and throughout my years of writing fiction it’s always the interaction of characters that keeps me reading and writing.
The Black Pigeon
Opalene Lewis stared out the window of the bus through the sleet. She ached with homesickness even as she recognized…
We are being taught how to tell stories from the time we’re little kids watching “The Wizard of Oz” for the first time (which, by the way, I was unable to sit through to the end until I was at least 14 it scared me so much).
When we simply go along with what Hollywood feeds us we can’t construct truly interesting stories because all our consumer-based entertainment industry does is spoon-feed us product. And, if that’s what anyone wants to read, write and watch, that’s fine for them.
But I’m hungry for other ways to tell our stories and have found independent filmmakers to be a treasure trove of fascinating and original stories told in unexpected ways.
Fade to black, roll credits.
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