How Not to Tell a Story
is a really enjoyable film. Matrix: Revolutions is not. I saw both about
a week ago. The contrast was a reminder that you can talk plainly about the
technical skill of telling a story.
At a basic level,
the problem with the storytelling in Matrix: Revolutions is that it rejects
both of the forks in the road that the mediocre Reloaded laid down, both
The first is to
play an entertaingly intricate and escalating series of tricky games with the
nature of reality, to return to the basic dilemma of The Matrix and
ask, What is real? The storyteller, in that scenario, has to have
a final answer in mind, but to allow his characters to be confused about the
answer, to have the action of the plot be a labyrinth, an ascending series of
false answers and red herrings, a fan dance tease. You can even end that story
with a little wink of doubt after the supposedly final answer is revealed, but
you do need to have a real and satisfying climax. This is the more intellectualized
storyit demands a high level of clever playfulness to work. It also would
require taking the story back into the Matrix itself for most of the filmas
Gary Farber notes, the odd thing about Revolutions is that almost
none of it takes place in the Matrix.
One possible strategy
for this kind of tricky, layered plot: suppose we find out in Revolutions
that the whole humans-in-vats being energy sources thing is just as absurd as
it sounds, that its just a higher-order simulation designed to deceive
the remaining humans, that what Morpheus and pals are doing is actually just
what the machines want them to do? What if the machines are really trying to
liberate humanity from the Matrix, and it turns out to be humans who put themselves
in it? What if the Architect is the good guy and the Oracle the bad guy? And
so on. In the right hands, this kind of escalation of doubt and confusion can
work beautifullybut it takes a storyteller who has thought it all out
in advance, who has an exquisite sense of how to use reversal and surprise as
a way to structure storytelling. It also takes a storyteller who is both playful
and willing to make some rules for his game and stick to them.
The only other
way to go is to play completely fair with anyone who has followed the story
to that point and reveal everything. Make the movie Matrix: Revelations,
not Revolutions. Solve all outstanding questions, lay out the secrets, explain
it all. Make those secrets basic, simple, and dealt with quickly through exposition.
That also is not
what Revolutions didinstead it dropped some more murky, oblique
characters into the mix, went on some time-wasting excursions to see old characters
whose pointless, plot-arbitrary nature was confirmed (the appalliingly annoying
Merovingian and his squeeze), offered some incoherently faux-profound dialogue
about the plots events, blew a shitload of things up hoping nobody would
notice how hollow the rest of the film was, and then threw into two incomprehensible
conclusions (Neos defeat of Smith and the final scene with the Oracle,
the Architect and Sati). Along the way there were isolated cases of really excrutiating
badnessTrinitys death scene was so protracted and excessive that
I found myself screaming at the television, Die already! Die DIE DIE!
Im sure there are Matrix fanboys out there who can explain all this, but
a dedicated fanboy can claim to see a pattern in a random piling of trash in
a garbage dump, too.
I got it right
in my comments on Reloaded: the Wachowskis want too badly to come
off like philosophers, but they think philosophy is about incomprehensible slogans,
meaningfully enigmatic glances and Ray-Bans. In Revolutions, theres
no hiding the naked emperor: they clearly dont have the faintest idea
what their story is actually all about, and so they perform the cinematic equivalent
of alternating between mumbling and shouting. I can see how they could have
played fair and explained it all. For example, make it clear that the machines
created self-aware software upon which they are now dependent, and make the
Matrix a literal Third Way in the human-machine conflictmake
it hardware vs. software vs. meatware, and make the software dictate a peace
on both humans and machines. Maybe the fanboys will claim thats what was
going on anyway, but that takes much more generosity than Im prepared
Hellboy gets it right because it tells a story honestly. As one of my
students noted, when you see an opening quote about the Seven Elder Gods of
Chaos, you know that youre deep in the heart of Pulpville. The storytellers
know that too, and they satisfyingly plunk their butts down right where they
belong and stay there consistently throughout the film. The story moves along
smoothly (well, theres a slow bit in the beginning, maybe), the plot is
transparent to its viewers and to its own genre conceits, and everything is
played more or less fair. If the movie were a little more dour or took itself
seriously enough, one might ask questions like, Why does an agency of
paranormal law enforcers seem to know so little about the paranormal?
(then again, just look at the 9/11 Commission to find out how law enforcement
agents can not know a lot about what theyre supposed to know about) or
Isnt it wise when youre dealing with a quasi-immortal villain
to not assume hes dead? You dont ask these questions seriously
because the story is robustly built and has an assuredness to it at all times.
It knows what it is.
These are great examples for a straightfoward discussion of the technical craft of storytelling. Whats important about that discussion is that it can very rapidly scale up into much more critically complex conversations about genre, audience reception and audience formation, the history of representation, the indeterminate meanings of cinema as a form and much more besidesbut it also shows that we need not (and in fact often do not) lose sight of a technically-focused ground floor of cultural criticism in moving towards more difficult questions.