New Styles of Storytelling
Atlantic Monthly, November 1969
I am suspicious of the discovery of “new art forms” (especially when announced by the artist himself), as well as of the many “breakthroughs” we are always hearing about in one field or another. Without sounding any such cataclysmic cultural alarm, I would like to call attention to some recent movies that seem to be to represent, in their different ways, new styles of storytelling for commercially produced Hollywood movies.
For several years there has been proud talk of the “New Hollywood” by people in Hollywood, though even the most ardent upholders of the concept find it difficult to pin down, and as far as I was able to translate the disconnected definitions of it, the general idea seems to be that Hollywood need no longer be ashamed of being Hollywood because it is doing such daring new stuff, real artistic and all, just like the Europeans; and Darlings, we shouldn’t feel guilty anymore.
Since the end of World War II there indeed have been innovations and new departures in American moviemaking, but not in the area of what I think of as “storytelling.” There of course have been great advances in color, lighting, wide screens, photography, and many technical aspects of production. There was talk of a “new kind of movie” in the fifties, but that was primarily a different kind of acting style, made popular by James Dean, Marlon Brando, and the many other talented acolytes of Strasberg’s version of Stanislavski’s Method. But the American movies thought of as bold and daring in that era were ones like On the Waterfront, in which, despite all of Brando’s introspective and untraditional (for Hollywood) acting style, the story itself followed the same conventional Hollywood plot form of fast-paced beginning, middle, and inevitably victorious and glorious (happy) end. In the sixties the American commercial movies that were hailed as bold and daring most often have been regarded as such because of the theme, the dealing with controversial subjects such as a white girl marrying a Negro (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner), a college girl getting a diaphram (Goodbye, Columbus, whose theme is really out of the fifties when the story was written and is now outdated by the Pill), a crackpot SAC general going off his rocker and ordering atomic war (Dr. Strangelove), a teen-age girl getting laid by a wide and wild assortment of older men (Candy), and a nice young housewife getting knocked up by the devil (Rosemary’s Baby).
Despite some taboo-breaking in themes, however, most of these movies pretty faithfully stuck to conventional plotting techniques, the linear progress from beginning to middle to end (though in some cases the end wasn’t happy/victorious), with all elements fitting neatly into place and building with traditional momentum to the wrap-up climax that tied all the threads of the story together.
European film-makers have broken out of these standard conventions and experimented with new storytelling techniques for some time now (with varying degrees of success) in works such as Truffaut’s imaginative love-murder story Shoot the Piano Player, Fellini’s dreamlike, autobiographical 8½, and Antonioni’s self-consciously pretentious mod murder fable Blow-Up.
Most of our own allegedly daring commercial movies have adhered to traditional storytelling conventions (with a few recent exceptions in the loose, somewhat improvisational story of Easy Rider, and the almost nonstory of 2001: A Space Odyssey), but several new ones make definite departures from the norm in imaginative, unpretentious ways that hopefully mean an opening up of new possibilities for American moviemakers.
When I first heard the general idea of Medium Cool – the mixing of “real” documentary footage of the Chicago riots, the Democratic convention, and other public events of 1968 into a fictional story of the life of a young TV cameraman – I feared that the actors and the story would seem like thinly veiled devices to make an excuse for using the documentary material in a feature movie. To my pleasant surprise, that obvious pitfall was artfully avoided, and the story of the young TV cameraman, played superbly by Robert Forster, is unusually convincing.
Through most of the movie (right up to a tacked-on ending), the only plot is the cameraman’s growing conflict about the uses of his work, its influence on the public, the corruption of the media, and his own responsibilities to his job, his beliefs, and the people whose lives he is influencing by his own life and work. But you are anxious to know what happens next, as deeply as in the most face-paced thriller, because you have a sense that this is what a particular person’s real life and concerns are actually like.
At least part of the authenticity comes from perfectly realized interiors, like the bachelor-cameraman’s casual, comfortable pad with all the right posters and mementos and modern mix of furniture, its aura of a place where one man lives and brings home his casual women. The cameraman becomes accidentally involved with a young Vietnam War widow from the West Virginia hills and her young son. Her own plain, cramped apartment, where the kitchen is headquarters, is again just right. So is Verna Bloom, who plays the part of the widow with complete charm and naïveté, not glamorous but pretty, not intellectual but smart. There are unhurried, wonderful scenes of these people, talking, touching, eating, wondering.
The authenticity of the whole movie is of course enforced and deepened by the scenes of the actual demonstrations and clubbings of the crown by the Chicago police, and the inside of the Democratic convention during the proceedings. Director-photographer Haskell Wexler set his actors into these “live” scenes – at considerable physical risk to them and to him. The mixture of art and life that Wexler comes up with is eerie and powerful, and continually fascinating.
© Dan Wakefield/Atlantic Monthly
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