As it happens, as I was noodling around with this piece I happened to catch three great flicks by the Coen Brothers: The Big Lebowski (1998), Fargo (1996), and No Country for Old Men (2007). Joel and Ethan Coen are among the most elegant violators of many of the concepts addressed in this series, and the idea that every scene needs to drive the plot forward is no exception.
Before we go further, we need to get some terms straight. Many if not most people use the words “plot” and “story” interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things.
“Plot” is what we see on the screen; the sequence of events that carry a movie from its beginning to its end. “Story” is what all those happenings are about.
Ok, that’s a bit confusing. Let’s try this:
When H.G. Wells wrote The War of the Worlds in 1898 (yes, youngsters, there was a book, and yes, it’s really that old), it was an anti-imperialist reaction to the way Britain and other European powers thought they had some kind of divine right to occupy the lands of what they considered to be “inferior” peoples. Wells’ story was him saying, “How’d you like to be on the other end of this empire-building business?” So, the plot of TWOTW is Martians come to Earth, kick hell out of the mightiest powers on the planet and almost conquer the world, but humankind gets bailed out by the aliens’ vulnerability to Earth microbes. The story of the novel, on the other hand, is that humanity – humbled by a power greater than itself and saved by something smaller than itself – is taught the humbling lesson that it is not the center of the universe. This is that wild, submerged, invisible, sometimes subversive world of subtext.
“Plot” moves; “story” doesn’t. Story, for lack of a better way to put it, is a movie’s state of mind. It’s invisible on the screen, it’s a sensibility that seeps through, the cumulative, sometimes subconscious effect of what happens in the plot. As much as action, it can manifest in mood, texture, resonance. And, in my opinion, the more plot-driven a movie is, the less likely there’s much going on in that subterranean story level.
Plot-driven movies tend to move quickly. Think most big-budget summer blockbusters. They’re about what they’re about. Not a lot of subtext to the fight between the Avengers and Ultron (Avengers: Age of Ultron, 2015). It is what it is.
But some movies are about more than what happens on the screen, and, generally speaking, those movies will tend to have a slower momentum and “waste” time (at least those every-scene-etc. adherents would consider it a waste) watering and fertilizing their subtexts.
Ok, that’s a bit vague, so let’s look at some examples.
Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now (1979) offers a pretty clear illustration of the point about the separation of plot and story, and that the more weight given the story, it’s more likely that not only will every scene not drive the plot, but the nature – and success — of such a film demands they don’t.
Apocalypse is framed by a classic plot: a journey, that of the assassin Willard (Martin Sheen) upriver to “terminate the command” of a renegade American colonel (Marlon Brando’s Kurtz) “with extreme prejudice.” But the journey itself is episodic, and those episodes have little to do with furthering Willard’s trek; a USO show gone anarchic, a tragic encounter with a Vietnamese family on their sampan, the Boschian nightmare of the leaderless, never-ending fight around Do Long Bridge, and perhaps most memorably, Willard’s meeting up with the cowboyish, surfing-obsessed Colonel Kilgore (Robert Duvall with his memorable treatise on napalm: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”).
That these episodes have nothing to do with getting Willard to his destination is even more manifest in Apocalypse Now Redux (2001), Coppola’s re-editing of the film to restore footage not in the original 1979 release. Whether one prefers the original or Redux, what’s clear is that the cut footage changes the central plot of the movie not a hair. Like all of the episodes, they are there not to move Willard up the river, but to cultivate a sensibility that extends beyond the plot to nurture the soul of the movie; a thematic core taken from the film’s uncredited source, Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, Heart of Darkness.
Apocalypse is only tangentially about the war in Vietnam just as Darkness is only tangentially about ivory hunting in the Congo. Conrad’s thesis is that what keeps us sane and civilized is living in civilization among sane people. Remove that framework, and something brutally primal emerges: Conrad’s off-the-rails ivory hunter, Coppola’s off-the-rails soldier.
Coppola’s 1972 Mob epic, The Godfather, may have a more emphatic, driving plot, but, again, the subtextual yang to the plot’s ying manifests itself in a several memorable yet irrelevant (plotwise) scenes. Were the movie more conventionally built along the every-scene-etc. model, it would open with the segment where Robert Duvall, mob chief Don Corleone’s (Marlon Brando) adopted son and consigliere, tells the don of the need to meet with an ambitious drug dealer which, in turn, leads to an unfruitful meeting which, in turn, kicks off the gang war which, in turn, brings Corleone’s youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) — whom the don has tried to keep isolated from the family’s criminal enterprises — into the family business which, in turn, leads to his becoming the Mob family’s soulless chief. That’s a nice, clean, by-the-book, runs-like-a-Porsche plot arc.
But that’s not how the movie plays. Instead, we have the iconic opening of the undertaker Bonasera pleading with Don Corleone for revenge against the two punks who raped his daughter. We have Corleone’s actor/singer godson whining about his fading career; a scene which will lead to the infamous – and equally irrelevant – horse’s head scene.
These scenes have nothing to do with the plot driving the movie forward, but they do steep the audience deep in the day-to-day immorality which makes up Corleone’s universe, and Coppola’s take on the immigrant American dream gone twisted and perverse. Without this kind of “fat” in the script, The Godfather would be a more conventional, more familiar gangster flick. It wouldn’t be The Godfather.
One of the few mainstream filmmakers able to give story primacy over plot was Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Full Metal Jacket (1987). 2001 has the barest wisp of a plot; Kubrick’s priority was to create an immersive, futuristic experience. The actual storytelling in 2001 is minimal at best. 2001’s plotline may be barely visible to the naked eye, but Full Metal Jacket doesn’t even have that much forward narrative drive. Instead, there’s a series of episodes and mini-arcs, none with much connection to each other, but all contributing to a frame of mind, a sense, a feeling. The words “mosaic” and “collage” come to mind, neither of which make for a happy marriage walking down the aisle hand-in-hand with plot. Feeling – not the plot dynamics of suspense and anticipation or even character involvement — is what Kubrick’s after.
Bringing this back to the Coens as exemplars par excellence of filmmakers with a demonstrated ability to weld story to plot (to incorporate “fat” into a driving narrative), it’s worth noting these are storytellers not trapped by a specific style. They can write lean and mean (Blood Simple, 1984), and also go comedic in a movie so packed with speed freak-paced craziness it threatens to blow apart (Raising Arizona, 1987). And, they also have their contemplative, near-Kubrickian tone poems where narrative (plot) plays second fiddle to mood (Barton Fink, 1991; The Man Who Wasn’t There, 2001). But they also have those films where they’ve managed to seamlessly blend a reflective resonance with an imperative and impressively dense narrative.
Fargo juggles multiple plotlines – its dumbass kidnappers, the hapless businessman trying to engineer a ransom scheme to bail himself out of a financial bind, and the way pregnant cop poking into the whole mess. But what gives Fargo the distinctive, Coenesque flavor that brought the film a Best Picture Oscar nom and a win for its screenplay is the fat; the throwaway scenes. Think of Steve Buscemi’s not-the-hotshot-he-thinks-he-is kidnapper out on the town with a bimbo hooker trying to impress her with his (not really) discerning taste in schlock music; or the digression of preggers cop Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) meeting up with an old high school pal, touched by his tale of woe about marrying another fellow high schooler who recently died, then finding out it’s all b.s. and that he, in fact, had been stalking the woman. Think of those scenes that are nothing more than Marge having a bite to eat: no dialogue, not even another character present, just Marge at a hotel buffet, Marge in her car eating drive-thru burgers. And then there’s the scene with one of Marge’s deputies talking to one of the locals about a conversation he had with, possibly, one of the kidnappers. The scene runs over a minute and a half, involves two characters making their only appearance in the film, and, for the most part, is an unbroken meandering monologue which, in the end, conveys only a single, simple point of information.
So what does all this “wasted,” unnecessary, doesn’t-drive-the-plot stuff do? Like the fat in a good Italian sausage, it’s what gives Fargo its flavor, it’s what breaks it out of a crowd of thousands of twisty-turny crime thrillers, it’s what makes it its own thing and not a clone or variant on a jillion other caper-goes-bad flicks.
The Big Lebowski goes even further. It’s Raymond Chandler-on-weed plot is almost an excuse to drop in on the messy, completely unproductive life of an almost permanently stoned, 1960s burn-out case with a thing for bowling along with his two equally empty-headed (but each in their own odd way) bowler friends. You could strip out the plot from Lebowski and without much tweaking, set it in the 1940s with Dick Powell in a snap-brim fedora as Philip Marlowe and carry it off just fine. Even more so than Fargo, Lebowski is more about the flavorful fat than the familiar meat.
With its brooding, laconic storytelling, No Country for Old Men seems a different animal from Fargo and Lebowski, but the Coens – sticking pretty close to the Cormac McCarthy source novel – come up with a similar construct; a lot of plot spiked with irrelevant scenes that give the telling a greater gravity than the plot alone can provide. On the surface, No Country is about Josh Brolin stumbling across the money from a drug deal gone bad, then going on the run from both obsessive hitman Javier Bardem and local cop Tommy Lee Jones. That’s a solid, propulsive arc.
But the movie regularly wanders off onto sidelines: Bardem’s long conversation with a gas station attendant who never knows how close he came to being part of the film’s body count; Jones chasing after the dumbass who almost loses the bodies he’s carting in from the desert drug rendezvous; and several long, talky scenes Jones has – with a fellow lawman, with his crippled ex-lawman uncle, with his wife – about a world descending into drug-fueled chaotic violence.
And it is this last bit – this sense of an entropic devolution from a world of decent people and understandable motives into unnecessary, even absurd brutality – that gives the movie its poetry, that makes it No Country for Old Men instead of a more formulaic, nondescript guy-on-the-run flick.
I’ve been lucky enough to make the acquaintance of the award-winning American poet Renee Ashley. She was the only person who ever got me to understand how poetry works. Poetry, she said, doesn’t come in the front door. It comes in through the windows, through the attic vents, it comes in everywhere but the front door.
The concept of every-scene-etc. works for some films, can even work brilliantly (one of my favorite thrillers is the 1974 original The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, with Peter Stone’s express train of a script as flawless an execution of the every-scene concept as you’ll ever see). But it’s a way to go; not the way. It brings the viewer in through the front door, sits him/her down and tells them a story straight through to the end. For some stories that’s fine. But it rarely allows an opportunity for poetry. For poetry, you have to break a rule.