(03/10/07) – The three-act plot structure that informs the vast majority of film production is so naturalised, despite decades of parallel experimentation, that the handful of films that ignore this rule of thumb still appear bold at this day and age. These days non-narrative cinema survives in the confines of art cinema shown in galleries. Independent cinema may disrupt the order of the three-act catechism, but it does not actually reject it, only plays around with it.
Focusing on American cinema that attempts to break the rules within the restrictions of a hyper commercial film culture under the shadow of Hollywood, J. J. Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work analyses the strategies adopted by independent Americans to create alternatives to the prescriptive cause-and- effect storytelling method.
Murphy correctly argues that the deployment of the three-act narrative template is motivated by commercial rather than aesthetic reasons. Along the years, the general public has been trained by various cultural industries and educational agents to expect a ‘story’ with beginning, middle and end. Anything that deviates from that is likely to attract a more specialist, niche audience, hence the ‘indie’ arms of the major studios to cater for those narrower, but still profitable, market segments.
Using cornerstone independent classics such as Jim Jamursch’s Stranger Than Paradise, Hal Hartley’s Trust and Harmony Korine’s Gummoas well as more recent efforts such as Gus Van Sant’s Elephant and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, among several others, Murphy uses them as case studies against the models purveyed by screenwriting manual writers like Syd Field, Robert McKee, Richard Walter and Linda Seger. Murphy carries out a study that is descendant of Vladimir Propp’s seminal analysis of the Russian fairy tale, Morphology of the Folktale(1928); he deconstructs narrative strategies in order to illuminate them.
Despite the somewhat insistent repetition of similar points throughout Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work is a useful reference, if not a manual, to aspiring screenwriters in search of alternative creative paradigms. These include concepts such as ambivalent, shifting and passive protagonists, multiple and subplots, ensemble structures, disregard for temporal linearity, free association and character-based structure, which are explored in depth with text examples from the films analysed. No ground-breaking theorising, but a good place to start for those looking to expand their horizons and find their own voice in the medium of film.
Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work is out now on Continuum Books. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.