April 19, 2004

How Not to Tell a Story

Hellboy 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 possible conclusions.

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 story—it 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 film—as 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 it’s 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 beautifully—but 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 did—instead 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 plot’s 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 (Neo’s defeat of Smith and the final scene with the Oracle, the Architect and Sati). Along the way there were isolated cases of really excrutiating badness—Trinity’s death scene was so protracted and excessive that I found myself screaming at the television, “Die already! Die DIE DIE!” I’m 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, there’s no hiding the naked emperor: they clearly don’t 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 conflict—make it hardware vs. software vs. meatware, and make the software dictate a peace on both humans and machines. Maybe the fanboys will claim that’s what was going on anyway, but that takes much more generosity than I’m prepared to show.

So. Hellboy. 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 you’re 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, there’s 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 they’re supposed to know about) or “Isn’t it wise when you’re dealing with a quasi-immortal villain to not assume he’s dead?” You don’t 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. What’s 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 besides—but 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.