Storytelling Choices

Andre the Giant, in a still from The Princess Bride. This image taken from the site

It might have been in The Princess Bride that I first noticed it, but that surely can’t be right because I watched Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. years before that. Maybe it was from the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma.

I have become aware of storytelling choices.

In the film Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. there is a sub-plot where Jimmy Shergill is a young man stricken with cancer. And we revisit his story several times during the movie and then… well, I don’t want to give spoilers for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but his sub-plot becomes critical.

And it occurred to me some time after I’d watched the movie, to wonder how the film makers decided when to visit his story.

It probably came down to the script writer having made that decision, but the decision ultimately comes down to “do we do this scene next, or the other one”?

It’s a similar thing in scripted tv drama. Most tv shows these days have at least two stories running concurrently. Rumour has it that before Hill Street Blues this was never done but the fact is that nowadays it’s common. And someone has to sit down and choose when to cut back and forth between the stories.

That’s a storytelling choice.

I’ll give you another example. In the 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma there’s the scene where Christian Bale’s character temporarily loses control. And he talks Russell Crowe’s villainous character around, and I think everyone who’s seen the movie thinks that that single scene is the biggest flaw in the whole film. It undermines everything that’s happened to that point. Heck, the Write Brothers weekly email newsletter once linked to an article about the flaw, and how the sequence could have been written better.

To which my own response is: why not leave out that scene altogether and have Bale’s character get Crowe’s to the train without messing up?

Fact is, the inclusion of that scene was a storytelling choice. Not a good one, but a choice nonetheless.

Let’s move on to Cinema Paradiso. That’s one of the rare movies where the director’s cut isn’t nearly as good as the mainstream release. The movie was apparently a modest hit in Italy. Re-released with nearly an hour cut out, including most of the sequence in which the main character as an older man reunites with his old flame, it became a well-regarded classic. The shorter version is much, much better.

Again, that’s a storytelling choice. The director initially got it wrong.

All of which brings me to The Princess Bride, one of the few movies I can think of with no enemies. Everyone who’s seen it seems to love it. The quotation “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” is famous enough that I’d heard it before I ever saw the film.

And yet William Goldman, who wrote both the original novel and then the screenplay, uses a framing device. We repeatedly go back to Peter Falk as the grandfather reading the book to his grandson, played by Fred Savage.

William Goldman was a highly regarded writer and the use of the device intrigues me. I suspect he knew exactly what he was doing and put in those scenes to balance out problems with the pacing of the story.

In other words, while it would be possible to do a master cut with Falk and Savage excised, I suspect it just wouldn’t work as well. It would be reduced to merely a so-so film, not a much-loved classic.

Am I right? It’s hard to say. But either way, it was an intriguing storytelling choice.

The Melancholy Roman

Don’t do this pleasurable thing

If media reports are to be believed it is currently very crowded at Uluru. From 26 October climbing will be banned. A lot of people want to climb it so are rushing to do so while it is still permitted. Accommodation in Yulara resort and a lot of the surrounding areas is booked solid. If you haven’t already made arrangements it is probably too late.

The question of the climbing ban itself has been explained in terms of culture and I’ve heard more than one person say you can’t go climbing on Europe’s cathedrals. As an analogy it’s a bad one. I’ve climbed up inside St Pauls in London, St Peters in Rome and the cathedral in Cologne, went up in the towers of Notre Dame in Paris when you still could, and have been partway up one of the spires of La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. And I was literally in town on the wrong day to book the roof walking tour of the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where you really can go walking on the roof. Having said that, the real tourist attraction at that cathedral is the swinging of the giant censer known as the botafumeiro. And if you don’t think that that’s a tourist attraction, watch this video:

But I digress. One of the real reasons why climbing Uluru is going to be banned is the sheer amount of waste that careless visitors have left atop the rock.

During a visit to Uluru last year I eavesdropped on a guide near the Mutitjulu waterhole, on the south side of the monolith. She explained that while it was a popular traditional waterhole it had fallen into disuse. All sorts of nasties had washed down and polluted the water. Even a disposable nappy had washed down from the rock.

The only way to curb that sort of pollution is the obvious one: ban careless and insensitive visitors from climbing on and polluting the rock.

It’s an understandable and perhaps unavoidable response, but those who advocate a ban don’t tend to make this argument. Instead they argue that climbing Uluru is culturally insensitive.

But they also ask a question, one that’s just plain crazy: What, they ask, is the appeal of climbing the rock in the first place?

That’s a bit like asking why people do drugs.

It is in human nature to do pleasurable things. We often try to put restrictions on them. America famously banned alcohol, only to reverse Prohibition when it turned out that the effects of the ban were worse than the ban itself. People like drinking and will do so regardless of legal restrictions.

Every culture I can think of has social codes restricting intimate relations outside of marriage. Yes, we are also talking about reproduction, but it’s still ultimately the social rule that you should do the enjoyable thing only under carefully constrained circumstances. And yes, the rule is commonly ignored in the West but everyone still at least knows about it.

I have never tried illegal drugs, but surely the reason why the war on drugs has not met with success is that drugs themselves feel pretty good. Dangerous and addictive they may be, and that’s precisely why I won’t go near them, but the fact is that people enjoy them.

Which gets me back to Uluru. It’s no real mystery why people would want to climb it: it feels good. Climbing Uluru is a spectacular, enjoyable experience.

And it will soon be off-limits to most people, and that’s why there are currently crowds there.

The Melancholy Roman