Knowing the Plot
The other night I was at the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg's production of "Life and Fate -- I'll post my roundup of the Lincoln Center Festival's Eastern European theater early next week, after I've seen Pushkin's "Boris Godunov" on Sunday -- and I found myself eagerly devouring the scene-by-scene plot synopsis in the program. It was useful, too, especially for those of us who had not read Vasily Grossman's sprawling historical novel. Multiple stories played on the same set, and I found it helpful to sort out the criss-crossing characters.
But afterwards I began to brood. A frequent, not to say harping, complaint of mine is about movie critics who give away away too many plot twists in their reviews. Why, wondered I, was I eager to know something in advance about "Life and Fate" and equally determined to enter a movie theater with my mind a blank slate?
Forget synopses or reviews for a minute: If either a film or a theater piece is based on a novel, reading the novel beforehand is itself problematic. You find out way more than you might want to know, and in any case a stage or screen piece is not prose. If you judge an adaptation negatively because it fails to replicate a novel, you're missing at least part of the point. The playwright or film auteur is making a different work of art that must make sense on its own terms.
In a movie, I want to be surprised by every narrative twist, not to speak of the hyper-personal, larger-than-life screen impact of the actors. With "Life and Fate," you had a Russian-language play boiled down from a long novel with a myriad characters, none familiar. To be fair, I did regret knowing a couple of plot twists from reading the summary -- the fact that Stalin called (we're in the early 1940's), savlaging the caeer of a Jewish physicist in his anti-Semitic institute and ant-Semitic country, and that at the end he betrays all his principles by signing a document meant for Western consumption attesting to a lack of political incarceration and torture in Russia.
But ultimately I stick with my guns, and with reading unfamiliar opera and ballet plot summaries, too. Films operate in a set of basically naturalistic conventions. Even when the plot is arcane and convoluted -- as in "Synedoche, New York," a movie I loved -- most films, especlally American films, even indie films, present the narrative weirdness in a naturalistic way, one that makes the plot more accessible. Strangenesss arising from normalcy is arguably more powerful, anyhow.
"Life and Fate" was performed in Russian with projected supertitles, by no means complete and partially obscured for some unhappy audience members on the far left. So are foreign films (or operas in foreign languages) less susceptible to my whining about premature plot revelation? Maybe, but most film subtitles do a good job, and again, even the more outre films usually present fantastical happenings arising from a naturalistic context.
For example, Almodovar's "Talk to Me," which I saw recently in the wake of Pina Bausch's death, with its fantasy of a miniature man crawling into his lover's vagina and thereby making her very happy. With more overtly avant-garde films, the issue recedes because the importance of a conventional narrative arc has receded. Moody atmospherics a la Antonioni are hardly undercut by knowing the plot, which could probably be summarized in a sentence or two.
With long foreign plays (or with Shakespeare, for that matter), or an unfamliar opera, or a long ballet from which most of the explanatory mime has been excised, knowing the plot provides a guideline for negotiating your way through the evening. In an opera or ballet, the rewards of the music or dance may be the main point, or better the blend of music/dance and drama that is hardly ruined by knowing the bare, textual plot in advance.
In both movies and films, I also like to know what I'm in for in terms of time. Most movies are around two hours, and you know roughly how long they will last by knowing the time separating screenings. With dance, opera and theater, I ask the ushers going in how long the show will be. That way I can orient myself temporally as the action, gripping or otherwise, unfolds.
In the end, though, I think my resistance to knowing movie plots speaks to the everyday nature of cinematic conventions. Movies are part of our lives in a way that older art forms are not. Most of us, given the choice, would resist knowing future details of our own lives, like the time and manner of our deaths. Movies are so close to us that the same rules apply. We want to let life and film come at us unannounced, thrilling and diasappointing us by surprise.
For an ongoing conversation and news reports about arts journalism, go to the blog of the National Arts Journalism Program, here.