Writers and filmmakers are mostly bound by a common love of storytelling, but watching The Fall as it reached the conclusion of its second series on BBC2 last week brought home the ways the skills required in verbal and visual media temptingly coincide and yet diverge.
The Fall was by and large one of the most compelling and effective pieces of television drama I’ve seen for a while. Although it’s been criticised for what those critics see as a prurient interest in the spectacle of a sexually-driven murderer, it was in truth unusually intelligent in the way it played on our common fascination with the appalling, as well as the evasions and self-deception that can distort male sexual relationships.
The second series was directed as well as written by its creator Allan Cubitt, and for the most part the combination worked very well, but the moments that didn’t work bore all the signs of what can go wrong when writers, who are primarily verbal in their imagination, get behind the camera. The most distinguished example is Dennis Potter, one of the greatest small screen dramatists of the last fifty years, but whose self-directed Blackeyes was mostly embarrassing. The same could be said of Hugo Blick’s The Shadow Line, which was unwatchable in its plodding portentousness despite having a great cast (things got a lot better with this year’s The Honourable Woman, though it still might have benefitted from a second pair of eyes). Don’t get me started on Stephen Poliakoff.
A writer’s desire to direct is understandable. One of the great things about telling a story in prose (or poetry) is that all the levers are in your hands. What’s more, even though you might be working with verbal effects, a conjuring of the visual is one of the most important effects you can deploy. There’s an interesting thesis to be written about how cinematic editing might have affected the way people write stories, though you’d have to note from the start that great writers like Dickens have always commanded a cinematic quality in the movement of their prose.
Here probably is the root of the temptation to take directorial control of your own script; I’m not a scriptwriter but I don’t suppose you can write a script without imagining how each scene must play out, imagining camera angles and lighting as well as the delivery of the lines you’ve written. It would seem natural then to try to realise that imagining in the production, but too often it doesn’t work.
I’m not suggesting that directors should not write their own scripts; Welles, Mallick and Scorcese all might have something to say about that. But whatever else it is that they have, these are people for whom the totality of film rather than the written word is their primary medium. It might well be that the “totality of film” demands primarily a visual imagination, a fluency with moving images which might still use and contain words, but which works to a different rhythm from the flow of words on a page.
Writer/directors (as opposed to director/writers) may still be visually imaginative, and are very likely to lay great emphasis on the visual in their work, but it’s always the visual that doesn’t quite work, the visual which might seem misplaced, tied to problems with pacing. Allan Cubitt’s direction was mostly at least a rung above these problems, but every so often they would lunge up and drag him down, perhaps with a meaningless lingering on an exit from a corridor, or a shot left suspended over some rotting wallpaper. I imagine these details were supposed to extend tension or evoke an atmosphere, but they have a superfluity, a sense of something over-egged, which you don’t usually get in the work of a good director/writer, let alone a good director working on someone else’s script.
By chance, and at an opposite extreme, I’ve also just watched the first part of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. I’ll reserve judgement on the film as a whole until I’ve seen the second half. For the moment I’d say it’s certainly extraordinary, whether that proves to be extraordinarily good or extraordinarily bad.
I’m not speaking of the explicit sex. The hardcore sex is provocative certainly, though no more so than in other European art house films like Baise Moi (and it’s usually disturbing, rarely titillating, so it’s hard to call it pornographic even though some have). But what’s primarily striking is the exuberance of the visual sensibility at work, an exuberance which sits as an unsettling counterpoint to the depression running through the film’s narrative. Right now I’m thinking that it works.
From the outset von Trier sets up his own terms, moving unhurriedly from a black screen through a meandering tour of wet brickwork and high alleys, a burst of grinding metal music, to a careful narrative setup in the conversation between Skellan Skarsgard and Charlotte Gainsbourg. The film then falls (as so often with von Trier) into an explicit literary device, dividing itself into chapters, while playing with the impact of literal representation, so when characters seek analogies or comparisons to explain something, it’s the comparative image that often appears against the words. You could say that von Trier is deconstructing or unsettling conventional film handling of the relationship between words and images but if this is true it is not (as artspeak would have it) to ask unanswered questions about that relationship; it’s to use the disconcerting effect to heighten the experience, making the experience of watching the film more like being moved by music than following a narrative.
von Trier film sets out its own terms, and builds its own world. The first part seems to be largely set in 1970s Britain, with a lot of attention to detail, for instance in the badges of the railway staff or the cars people drive, and yet the trains themselves and some of the street scenes seems to have come from elsewhere in Europe. In this light Shia LaBeouf’s attempt at an English accent moves from the merely laughable to the convincingly strange, and that’s quite an achievement. This is a film which in some ways is meticulous in its realism, but which is not especially interested in literal or conventional realism, rather like Bunuel’s That Obscure Object of Desire. (It’s also happily distant from the Calvinistic technical dogma of the Dogme 95 group which von Trier was once part of.) That seems appropriate when you’re dealing with sex, a reality shot through with dreams and fantasy.
von Trier is working outside the mainstream, despite his ability to attract and involve mainstream Hollywood stars. TV by and large has to meet more conventional expectations. It’s ironic then that the ending of The Fall should have failed those expectations not because of some artistic intent, but because Cubitt and the producers wanted to leave open the possibility of a sequel, a decision which lies outside their hands. That’s an unwelcome intrusion of commercial constraint on narrative integrity. Whether rendered through a visual or verbal imagination, the integrity of the storytelling is always paramount, and in this respect The Fall faltered at the final hurdle.
When asked whether he thought films should have a beginning, a middle and an end, Jean-Luc Godard famously answered “yes but not necessarily in that order”. It’s a good joke but it’s not true, because the one rule of narrative is that whatever you do at the end determines how the audience will feel about everything that went before. Having invoked a narrative structure, a structure overtly concerned with explanation, analogy and understanding, I’ll be curious to see which way von Trier goes in the second part of Nymphomaniac, though if the ending of Antichrist, (the last von Trier film I watched), is anything to go by I fear I may yet be disappointed.