Hollywood dictates that films must be tightly plotted, but after my Irish road trip I'm less sure. Cinema also has a more life-like, picaresque traditionby Mark Cousins / August 1, 2007 / Leave a comment
I’ve just driven 1,200 miles around the west coast of Ireland in my VW camper van. Though I didn’t see a film for the whole fortnight, the trip felt cinematic. A windscreen is exactly the same shape as a movie screen, so driving is like one long travelling shot. Hollywood calls its blockbusters “rollercoaster rides” to suggest thrilling emotional peaks and troughs, but also, in part, because to sit in a rollercoaster car is to see an oncoming vista, like watching a crane shot.
But my trip was cinematic for more than visual reasons. As I had my bed in the back of the van, and had no fixed route, the structure of my holiday was open. On the Dingle peninsula, I saw a sign for an ancient oratory, so decided to head for it. In Galway, the sun came out, so I drove to a beach I’d glimpsed on the horizon. Those who have read anything about screenwriting will think such capriciousness unfilmic. Movies are all about structured stories, we’re told. Screenwriters say the hardest bit is engineering the narrative: establishing personal, social and existential dilemmas in the system of characters and incidents in acts one and two that will afford complex and satisfying revelations in act three. A recent editorial in the film industry magazine Screen International agreed, and called for the reintroduction of the best story Oscar that was awarded between 1928 and 1956.
I don’t disagree. The recent German film The Lives of Others moved me deeply because its plot built to tragic climaxes layered with irony and regret. But in the majority of films, narrative operates in a more rudimentary way. Its purpose is to provide new challenges for its characters. You can hear its whirr, the clunk and clang of its camshaft. One of Britain’s best producers told me, some years ago, that the secret of a successful film is lots and lots of plot.
Narrative, then, is in part a newness machine. It generates novelty from within the world of the story. But as my idyllic drive showed, newness can come from outside the world of the story—a sign to an oratory, a glimpsed beach. Great road movies like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, Terrence Malick’s Badlands or Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider start with characters who have…