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Losing Our Narrative--and Ourselves

September 10, 2000|Neal Gabler | Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

AMAGANSETT, N.Y. — We have come full circle. More than 100 years ago, audiences were held rapt by the first films of the French Lumiere brothers--a locomotive grinding into a station or parents feeding their baby--and by those of Thomas Alva Edison--a man sneezing or a couple robustly bussing. Simple quotidian gestures. This summer, audiences were held rapt by 16 people scavenging about a tropical island or 10 strangers trying to coexist in a California prefab. Maybe not exactly everyday life, but not high drama, either. We began a century ago with plain unvarnished realism; we have arrived at only slightly varnished realism.

But if you sense that something is missing from these entertainments, you're right. They are incidents, at best, episodes or, in the case of "Survivor" and "Big Brother," strings of episodes, but they are not what anyone would call well-crafted narratives of the sort traditionally associates with popular entertainment. After decades of attempting to create satisfying plots in movies, books and television programs, plots that would hold the attention of viewers and readers no longer beguiled by the novelty of new media and the transmission of raw reality, the mavens of popular culture have reversed field. Almost imperceptibly, we have been losing our stories. Look around the culture, from MTV to the latest movie blockbuster, and what you find is creeping plotlessness.

Not so long ago, narratives were integral to our entertainments. But plots were far more than hooks for the audience. The storylines of popular books and movies were archetypes that bound us together; there was enormous satisfaction in sitting in a theater with other viewers, all anticipating just how the story would resolve itself because the formulas had become familiar without yet becoming tired. These plots resonated. For decades, they expressed our values and told us who we were, which is why the decline in narratives is a cause for concern.

Narrative hasn't vanished from all media. John Grisham, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling, among other popular novelists, still provide old-fashioned plots, and there are occasional television series, like "The Sopranos," that feel like sagas, unspooling long narrative skeins. But where once every entertainment came fitted with a plot, today well-plotted entertainments are the exceptions that prove the rule. Even ostensibly conventional, which is to say storybound, movies and TV shows just seem to be going through the motions, feebly recycling tired old plots that have attenuated to wisps.

In truth, it is surprising that narrative has managed to last as long as it did. The assault on it began early in the last century, as part of the modernist movement. Increasingly, intellectuals and younger artists felt that plot itself was inadequate to convey the modern condition. Plot, by its nature, incorporated cause and effect. It assumed a sense of logic and order, which seemed appropriate to the 19th century, with its belief in progress and the perfectibility of man. But the 20th century wasn't about order; it was about fragmentation, dislocation, anomie, a sense not that man was progressing but that he was lurching aimlessly. Plot no longer sufficed. Just as visual artists invented Cubism to deconstruct reality and express the discontinuities of modern life in painting and sculpture, literary artists needed new devices to convey a new reality in poetry and prose.

The 20th century's answer to the great 19th-century plot-maker Leo Tolstoy was James Joyce, with his verbal tricks, his skewed literary architecture and his elongated sense of time. Say what you will about Joyce, an old-fashioned storyteller he wasn't. Yet, he shaped not one but three literary generations and counting, essentially convincing them that narrative was not only inadequate, it was a cop-out for timorous souls who hadn't the guts to take on the challenges of modern times. Many academics still make the same charges.

If narrative was undermined by intellectuals, it also received a jolt from a more surprising quarter: the producers of popular culture. They had always relied on narrative because it was the surest way of engaging an audience. After all, what were plots but mechanisms for inducing in audiences a heightened sense of the emotions and sensations that they feel in real life: fear, love, happiness, melancholy, exhilaration? Basically, plots were rigged to trigger the responses viewers presumably wanted to feel. That, indeed, was the major craft of plotting: Great narrative novelists and screenwriters were the ones with the skill to manipulate an audience.

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