Friday, February 10, 2006

Forgetting Fundamentals

Is it possible to overthink a story?

At my son's basketball game the other day, something odd happened in the final quarter. The boys were down by twelve (which is a huge spread at his age) and suddenly all the team's discipline disappeared. I don't know enough about basketball to speak intelligently about it, but with three sons and twenty one collective seasons of watching peewee basketball, I could tell this much: there were holes all over the place. After the game, I asked my son what was different in the last quarter.

"Forget the fundamentals," the coach had said, "Don't think. Just play."

This was a dangerous move on the coach's part. Was he really telling them to ignore fundamentals? To forget their setups? Or, was he was trusting that the team knew the fundamentals well enough to play by instinct and not evaluate every move they made?

Creative Screenwriting last month had an article about The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada in which the writer, Guillermo Arriaga, gives his perspective on non-linear writing and explains why he doesn't care that the film has some inconclusive narrative threads.

"I'm against closing every story in a perfect way," CS quotes the writer. "I always like to have the sense of life, that it never ends."

His position is to focus on the perspectives of the primary characters. They won't get all the answers so apparently neither do we. If the protagonist is confused, Arriaga says he wants the audience to feel the same confusion.

Not having seen the movie, this whole "unfinished business" concept is perplexing to me. Isn't wrapping up loose ends a screenwriting fundamental? It seems like the audience would be unsatisfied by being left dangling at the jagged edge of an unfinished narrative. However, if the protagonist is satisfied and we're along for his ride from his POV, Arriaga seems to think it works.

Maybe Arriaga is an experienced enough writer that he instinctively knows when to cling to fundamentals and when not to. Not having seen Three Burials , I can't comment on how satisfying the conclusion is. But it worked in basketball. The boys won in final seconds of the game.


is that so wrong? said...

I think Arriaga's position about how he wants the audience to feel confusion is dangerous ground. Not only does he sound smug, but maybe a bit clumsy.... I got some great advice once from a fiction workshop leader I had a few years ago: if the reader (or the viewer/audience/whatever) is confused, it's more than likely a sign that the writer is confused. This isn't exactly always the case, but I found it to be true more often than not in the workshop circuit.

I think we should be able to see the protagonist's confusion, but not be confused by it ourselves.... particularly if there's no payoff because loose ends have not been tied up. Of course, I haven't seen Three Burials either, so what do I know.

The argument about being in too many workshops and getting brainwashed, though, is a valid one to have.

MaryAn Batchellor said...

A professional screenwriter once told me that if a writer doesn't understand his own story, he probably can't verbalize a convincing defense when he's challenged on portions of it. Arriaga sounds like he knows exactly what he wrote and why. On the other hand, some of his comments struck me as "Yes, I know my fly is open. It didn't suit my purpose to zip it."

deepstructure said...

well, having seen three burials (and worked on it a bit - tho only in breifly in post-production), i think arriaga knows exactly what he's doing. and given that he also wrote '21 grams' and 'amores perros,' i'd say that's a safe position to take.

i thought the film was very well done and an interesting film to watch, albeit a bit long and slow-paced. but then i'm not a slow-pace fan. it's a unique film with a unique narrative, which i appreciate since i believe mainstream narratives are far too conclusive and simply structured.

in many ways i think arriaga did an excellent job of leaving some threads loose in this film. it's not like the film ends on a cliff-hanger. it simply doesn't wrap everything up. so many films don't even give you one satisfying narrative thread - if a film is so rich in them as to be able to leave some unfinished, so much the better.