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Thread: Unresolved Stories and Open-Ended Narratives

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    Unresolved Stories and Open-Ended Narratives

    I need your help.

    I have started doing research for a book on films which have open endings or fail to clearly answer a major question elicited by the plot. Consequently, these films deny the viewer narrative closure. Some examples of what I have in mind...You know how by the end of L'avventura we still don't know what happened to the socialite who got lost island-hopping and became the subject of a search, and how there's no way of knowing if the man and the woman actually met Last Year at Marienbad, and whether or not Vero ran over the boy found dead on the side of the road in The Headless Woman? This type of narrative characteristic can be found, to varying degrees, in the works of these directors: Hitchcock (Suspicion,Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds), Antonioni, Resnais, Haneke (as of late), Kiarostami, Lynch, Duras, and a few others.

    Please share your thoughts and/or nominate any films you can think of that "fit the bill". Thanks!
    *If you cannot post, e-mail me at o.jubis@miami.edu

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    Very large topic, Oscar. I think it best to take a few examples and analyze rather than try to make a comprehensive list. Unresolved plots in movies include a lot of bad movies as well as the artistic and famous ones you mention; keep that in mind and note the difference.

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    The book will closely consider a relatively small number of films. However, I am beginning the exploration/research of the topic, a phase that will last about 15 months. It serves me well to be as inclusive as possible. A small sample can lead to problematic, narrow conclusions. Would you provide examples of these "bad movies with unresolved plots", please. Are these as common as you say? Notice that what I have in mind are movies that fail to answer major questions elicited by the plot. Thanks.

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    I see your point. I'll keep that in mind and let you know if I come up with new examples.

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    Thanks. Please do.

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    I think it is a good idea for you to list bad movies that have unresolved plots just because they're bad, while the great directors you list such as Haneke, Antonioni, Resnais, et al. use the unresolved quality intentionally. However I doubt that i can come up with more examples than you can, and I'm not much of an expert on bad movies. It's just my feeling that bad movies often have plots that don't quite make sense.

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    Thanks, Chris. There is plenty of good work on this subject but most of it comes from literary criticism. In fact, I will probably model my book on Marianna Torgovnick's seminal "Closure in the Novel" (1981) which has an introductory chapter in which she reviews the available criticism/research and chooses her terminology. It is followed by nine chapters, each dealing with one or two novels in depth.

    I am just beginning but it would seem that I must include at least one chapter dealing with a film in which the lack of closure due to unresolved plot elements seems gratuitous or lacking in purpose or poorly executed. Bad, in simple terms. But there is only one such movie that comes to mind: the French/Uruguayan co-production Orlando Vargas. I sat next to actor Aurelien Recoing (Cantet's Time Out) at the American premiere of this film, by the way. Maybe I just forget bad movies.
    And maybe Orlando Vargas will look better to me the second time around.
    Last edited by oscar jubis; 06-03-2011 at 10:17 PM.

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    Literary criticism has been there before. It's ironic that I began my career as a would-be film critic with a college essay "The Film Critic's Hornbook," urging writers about movies to eschew a literary approach, but I've come to realize that one has to talk about film to some extent the same way one talks about literature.

    I probably forget bad movies too, and forget good ones, though writing about them, I tend to remember them a bit better now.

    At one extreme, it becomes almost meaningless, because modern stories are fragmented to reflect the modern world and so almost no films have the tidy endings stories used to possess. You could argue that a "sophisticated" view of the world requires a film maker to forge work that's unsatisfying and unresolved?

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    It would be interesting for you to compare your writing in that college essay and your writing now and see how it differs, and whether that reflects changes in you as a person.

    On the one hand, a review of a film that borrows exclusively from literary and theatrical criticism is problematic, as far as I am concerned.
    But it would be a mistake for me to ignore the fact that literary criticism is often relevant to considerations of narrative in cinema. I am and will be reading not only film-centric writing but also literary criticism dealing with endings and closure. That's a lot of reading, mon ami: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Henry James, Forster, Frank Kermode, Barthes, Umberto Eco, Torgovnick, and several more recent works. If I end up with a book that makes a worthy contribution to the field, then it will be well worth it.

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    I think I wrote better when I was in college than I do now. However I may know a few things I didn't know then. At that time, I was particularly inspired to present my argument by reading reviews by a certain writer (and several others), which didn't reflect that the writing was about movies and coulld just as well have been about a short story or a novel. I think that probably remains true of most reviews today, but I'd have to study them to find out. Obviously a true writer about movies should never fail to take account of their "filmic" aspects, to use the word I used then. But in writing day to day reviews, I can see now from my own experience that it's easy not to, and my own training is in literary criticism.

    It's interesting that in your declaration of faith as a film lover you talked about your great willingness to appreciate films that do not tell a story at all, and yet t you've chosen to focus on one of the most obvious narrative elements in films and to consider it as if it were a necessity and when it's absent, it's unusual.

    Of course literary criticism provides the primary, and highly developed, language for talking about narrative.

    I often forget how movies end. i tend to think the middle is more interesting and more important. But of course if a filmmaker doesn't know how to end the movie it's an obvious weakness. And fairly often the film has multiple endings, because they weren't satisfied with the first one, and have to keep tacking on more.

    In my review of the Russian director Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy (NYFF) I quoted a paragraph from Mike D'Angelo writing for Onion AV Club from Cannes 2010. I like the way D'Angelo describes his viewing experience and the sense he may get of being betrayed or redeemed or disappointed; and he tends to have a keen sense of structuire, which is what narrative is. What I quoted is this:

    "For about an hour I was sure I was witnessing an exciting new talent, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what the hell was going on. Following a nondescript truck driver en route to deliver a load of flour, My Joy (WARNING: titular irony) initially has an engaging shaggy-dog quality, as the trucker's encounters with folks along the road — an elderly hitchhiker, a scarily young hooker — spin off into unrelated mini-narratives of their own... About an hour in, however, the film goes well beyond discursive and becomes almost completely random, abandoning the trucker entirely (in a startling way) and flitting around without even that vague semblance of a narrative skeleton."

    That's what happens: Sergei Loznitsa abandons his viewer, switching from one narrative and viewpoint to another without warning and without point.

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    I think I wrote better when I was in college than I do now.

    Did you write less than you do now? I think you are extremely prolific.

    It's interesting that in your declaration of faith as a film lover you talked about your great willingness to appreciate films that do not tell a story at all, and yet t you've chosen to focus on one of the most obvious narrative elements in films and to consider it as if it were a necessity and when it's absent, it's unusual.

    Thanks for calling attention to it. I don't have it saved so I had to dig it out from an old thread here (which was not easy). Now I have it saved as a document :) Here's what I wrote in 2004:

    *Cinema is a lot more than storytelling.
    I harbor no contempt towards the average filmgoer who goes to the movies only to be told an entertaining story. However, I don’t make such requirements of a film. Plot and narrative can be dispensed with, in the service of characterization, mood, exposition of ideas, abstract beauty, etc. A film doesn't have to be inspired by a novel or short story. A great film can be akin to a filmed essay or poem.


    What I had in mind were films like Godard output between '68 and '75 and the poetic contemplation of some Sokurov films like Mother and Son. The avant garde also. This is a small sub-segment of films I appreciate, but don't prefer to narrative films. As you point out, I am currently concerned only with narrative, fiction films of a very particular shall we say "modernist-as-opposed-to-classical" kind.

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    I saved your credo too though I might have trouble finding it on my computer (different computer than the one I'm on now so I can't check yet). That seemed to me one of the more dubious of your assertions--maybe just in the way you put it -- "Plot and narrative can be dispensed with." As it turns out they rarely can, though obviously they can sometimes. Tree of LIfe is a notable recent film that is not really out to tell a coherent story. And it may get across some emotional messages better as a result of that disregard. Polemical films like Godard's are not really chronological narratives, it's quite true. Sokorov's may be a lot like Malick's.

    I don't know if I write more now than in college. Maybe so. I was an English major. That did require writing. But I was smarter and wittier and quicker then. Swift said of his youthful masterpiece The Battle of the Books, "What a genius I had when I wrote that book," and I know what he meant. We slow down. But hopefully (a word I would not have used) I'm more broad-minded and kinder now. One of my teachers wrote on a paper about Jane Austen's Middlemardh (which unfortunately I've lost), "Why don't you grow up and develop some literary taste. A+"

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    That statement merely reflects an inclusiveness in my taste for film. I labeled the little piece a "disclosure". It is not meant to be polemical or make strong claims.

    I took note of your comments about My Joy and decided I should try to watch it to try to make sense of the director's decisions re: narrative.

    I write better in English now than when I was in college. What is interesting is that I also write better in Spanish than when I was an undergrad even though I haven't written a word of Spanish in 34 years. Then I took this doctoral-level course in Latin American Thought and was forced to write in Spanish again with very encouraging results.

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    I would say you write better here than you did eight years ago, and if your writing in both languages is improving, that shows it's worthwhile for you to be back in school. I think college was an opportunity to do what I had it in me to do.

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    Thank you.

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