“Stop trying to say something and say it!”
These words pounce on to the page as I try to write the introduction to a response to watching 21 grams for the first time. Appropriate, as I stared at the three previous abortive attempts. And further appropriate as they sum up what I actually want to say…
A lot is made of narrative structure: the kind that accommodates pragmatically measured ‘acts’; reveals, clinchers, revelations, restoration, progress, catharsis. I have found that in recent years a lot of cinema has been released solely to satisfy this kind of ‘fix’-narrative, providing highly satisfying experiences… at the expense of moving its audience.
Is this done in anticipation of reviews? Of expectancy? Of an apparent decreasing span of attention and/or sensitivity to stimuli in new audiences?
Two films I have seen recently utterly resist the lure of trying to say something; trying to stoke the headlines and anticipate how it shall be remembered in captions and quips; of how it may be referred to in the historical canon of cinema. Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (TTSS) and 21 grams unapologetically show a story, and make no song and dance of it (though…TTSP’s trailer tries its best to defy this and is partially to blame for an emphatically confused reception among the majority audience).
TTSP is so straightforward in its depiction of the novel that even the ‘great reveal’ is somewhat muted. Bold; seeing as the film was billed as being an epic whodunit (again, naughty trailer!) while the readers of the novel will tell you that the story is less about the criminal mastermind and more about the understated hero amidst his ambling and troubled marriage. In fact, the revelation of identifying the mole is only as such (in the book) because it is considered in respect of our hero’s relationship with the mole; his betrayal, now made complete and, moreover, ‘official’. That this doesn’t translate well to film, I believe, is down to motion picture’s natural or modal aversion to depicting the inner cogs of a highly intricate and pragmatic brain/mind, without resorting to banal voiceover (which in essence destroys that which it attempts to depict). The story is told, in spite of its literary origins, with great economy. It doesn’t TRY to say what happens in the novel, in a way that attempts to capture the reading experience: it just gets on and shows the story with the tools at its disposal: the key events, with the key characters, in the key locations.
21 grams tells a similar story (not THE story, but the production of it). Initially I was guilty of acknowledging a fragmented, ends-against-the-middle plot device, in which I could expect a revelatory discovery of how things came to be at the end of the film (where we find ourselves at the beginning and are referred to the end). Though this is partially true, I would be absolutely blind and ignorant to the film’s genius if I were to stop at this first analysis. The film seamlessly – almost clandestinely – drifts through time between(recent) nuclear points in the lives of various characters, who are about to become forever entwined in time and its relentless march. The audience cannot help but be challenged to start putting things in a ‘correct’ chronological order; hence the confused notion that the film would hang its success on a neatly unravelled, chronologically plotted reveal. Before long, however, you begin to realise that only a few possibilities exist for how the characters have ended up where, presumably, they are (for you can say with no degree of certainty that you have even been shown the ‘end’ in the opening few scenes). You become enraptured in whichever moment you are seeing, as though each is contained on its own parallel timeline, and that each story could diverge and conclude in its own mini-narrative/film. And here is the genius: the sense of the inevitable; something predictable that you simply don’t want proven correct. The film looms with a ‘sense’ of history about it; a full sense of lives lived, choices made, desires followed and consequences faced. And because of this your attention is not geared towards finding out what happens in the ‘chronological’ end, but observing how each character is dealing in and with the present. Opposed to any over-used narrative devices seen in many a modern drama, wherein the entire film experience balances on a precariously feeble reveal that has been driven towards with no other alternative – and yet still trying to hide itself – from the very first seconds of the film….
21 grams embodies the sense of tragic inevitability and yet engages so deeply its audience in every moment of the characters’ lives that it ceases to be about any narrative climax. It is testament to a reliance not on the audience’s hunger for cheap momentary satisfaction, but their natural interest in humans and human lives; in characters and their actions. The subject of 21 grams is not the intricate way in which people can be connected by a single event, or any such ‘butterfly effect’; 21 grams’ subject is its subjects. It is a feast of human emotion that discourages its audience to view it in a plot-reveal oriented fashion, by the fragmented displacement of narrative time and the purposeful avoidance of transitional devices or nearly plotted ‘acts’. The film tells, and doesn’t TRY to tell. There is no grand showdown between Christina Peck and Jack Jordan. There is not even the slightest hint towards the state of Paul Rivers and Christina’s relationship after the shooting; no bedside shot with Christina lovingly, tragically nursing Paul in his final moments. There is no word of a bastard child.
In 21 grams: the time of before, during and after; each scene, each period of time, and each narrative off-shoot, professes that, even at the end of the film….life goes on.
And this brings me back to the introductory quote on Kundera. Kitsch is described as the absolute denial of shit: the denial of imperfection in order to ‘realise’ an ideal. Yet Kundera argues that to deny the existence of shit is to falsify the world we see in front of us. And if art…if literature, cinema, theatre and performance are to formulate ‘ideal’ ways in which to tell a story; ways in which to maximise ‘effect’, and structure the experience of the re-telling of our lives, then what we are experiencing is life told to us from a dishonest or distorted point of view. If a story is truly moving, then where is the need for the reason for its being moving to be told to us? Why do the events have to be regimented into measured ‘acts’ and ‘arcs’ that remove the imperfections – in many cases the actual ‘humanity’ of characters – to be replaced by the ‘mathematics’ of an ideal narrative/plot?