Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Loose ends and the hope of things to come

Stories may be lifelike, but not like life. After all they require a selectiveness about what to tell and what to withhold. That decision is fundamental to narrative success.

When you’re writing a piece of fiction, or for that matter a poem, the notion of form is metaphorical. You can choose to work within a recognisable genre, or verse form, (though even here the “form” cannot be a constraint in the way drawing within a rectangle might be). Or you can set your own terms and ask the reader or viewer to come with you. Readers or viewers will then come to their own judgements about whether this new thing you’ve offered is aesthetically or even emotionally satisfying.

Christopher Booker made a splash arguing an alternative view. His The Seven Basic Plots spends hundreds of pages trying to delineate seven archetypal narrative forms, which he suggests somehow correspond (in a Jungian way) to something deep in our consciousness. If you deviate from these forms, as old Modernists like James Joyce did, he argues you will produce something necessarily unsatisfying.

This strikes me as a lot of effort to give a psychobabbling and spurious apology for bourgeois art, but with that point made, I want to focus on the mainstream narrative of ITV’s Marcella, which just completed its first (and possibly only) series.

Marcella was written by Hans Rosenfeldt, who created and wrote The Bridge. You could say then he has form, which would happen to be a version of crime fiction with plots extended by multiple red herrings.

It worked after a fashion through most of Marcella, because through most of the series it was impossible to guess what was going on. There were just too many elements in play. This was useful for Rosenfeldt because it obscured the many implausibilities that were already running through the story.

In these circumstances implausibility really may not matter too much. You go along with the story (this is a version of writers being able to set their own terms).

The trouble is that what when you’re working in an established genre like TV crime fiction you also have to deal with a weight of audience expectation. We could accept and enjoy all these multiplying threads because the genre promised resolution in the end.

It seems though that the pleasure of this resolution depends on how much actually gets resolved. Marcella answered its main whodunnit question, with meta-narrative pretensions (some of the story’s red herrings had been put there by the killer to keep the police from his trail). I understand too that the series might have wanted to set itself up for a sequel, where further questions could be answered, but with the way it all worked out there were far too many loose ends for this to be acceptable.

It’s true that audience expectations are not set in stone, even when you choose to work in a mainstream genre like crime fiction. You can shift those expectations, recalibrate them, as David Lynch and Mark Frost did in an extreme way with Twin Peaks. The latter started off looking like a soap with a murder mystery thrown in, but it soon became clear that the pleasures it offered were going to be of a different kind, with the narrative constantly teetering on the edge of coherence (I think and hope David Lynch would take that as a compliment).

But you have to do the work for this. Marcella wanted to take us to a version of London where building companies murder local authority planners if they get in the way of a project. This might just about have been plausible had there been a gangland connection, but it didn’t seem to be that kind of story. None of the red herrings or minor plotlines conditioned our responses to expect anything other than a tying up of loose ends. Writers can set their own terms, but that takes a bit of effort, and on its own terms Marcella was sadly underwritten.

It’s illuminating to contrast this inadequate narrative management with the very finely calibrated conclusion of Great Expectations. Dickens had some problems with the ending. There was public pressure for a happier resolution, in which Pip finally got together with Estella. Dickens consequently rewrote the ending, with a carefully ambiguous sentence which allows the reader to hope for their eventual union. But it doesn’t actually offer that resolution, instead perpetuating the daft aspiration we were encouraged to share with Pip throughout the story, that he might marry this monstrous woman. Great Expectations is a novel about how romantic hope may overwhelm judgement, an idea which it formally embodies by playing on the romantic expectations we readily bring to these fictions. The ending cleverly leaves us in a state of irresolution, which is formally satisfying, just because it is frustrating for our sentimentality.

Marcella is not alone among recent TV productions in taking us for a ride then leavingt us short of the destination, bodging the end: Line of Duty is the most obvious high-profile culprit. The Dickens comparison shows that there’s a world of difference between a creative ambiguity and a tangle of loose ends or implausibility. Endings have the power to make or break or story, no matter what may have preceded them. I’ve found myself too often lately living in the hope of something better from TV drama.

The long con

The long con

The success of the Conservatives in the UK’s general election could be seen as a triumph of spin, or its last dying thrash. The future will depend on how well the progressive parties understand their failure, and how a more compelling and realistic narrative of the last forty years could better serve them.

The UK media will be awash for the next few days with political post-mortems, following the surprise election of David Cameron’s Conservatives. Not least because these blogs have a substantial US readership I don’t want to go too far along the same road, but I do want to reflect on some of the implications for political conduct generally in a representative democracy, and specifically what all this might mean for spin culture and its relation to political narratives.

Ignorance as virtue

The English are not a particularly well-educated nation. We’re no worse than the Americans perhaps, but we have to live here with a cultural suspicion of knowledge and learning, as well as a mainstream belief that politics is really for nerds and wonks, and that decent ordinary people for the most part keep away from it. I’m not suggesting that other countries are somehow more intelligent than the English, just that there’s a strong strain in English culture that sees political ignorance as a virtue rather than a problem.

The stereotype is benignly embodied in Clive Candy, Powell and Pressburger’s Colonel Blimp: decent, honourable, likeable and dim, he would have seen voting Tory not so much as a political act as simply what you do. This as I say is the benign view, though Powell and Pressburger’s immediate point was to suggest that such amiable buffoonery was not up to the horror of the Nazi threat.

It’s not like this in most other European countries: politicians might be seen as easily corrupt and venal everywhere, but most Europeans are not so detached from or ignorant about political issues as the English (I’m carefully not writing “British” because it’s become all too clear that the Scots are in a different position).

Our political system both reflects and reinforces this culture. “First past the post” developed in quite different conditions from where we find ourselves now and has proved itself repeatedly dysfunctional (if you believe that the purpose of democracy is to make governments accountable to public opinion). Both Labour and Tory governments have enjoyed large majorities on the back of minority shares of the vote. Minority views are routinely under-represented or excluded completely. Apologists for FPP argue strangely that it produces strong government, as if strong government could only occur by marginalising all but an unrepresentative single party’s voice, as if there would always be a problem if you demanded that politicians sought areas of agreement in the national interest.

It’s a reflection of Britain’s anti-political culture that a referendum four years ago on whether we should move to a fairer electoral system was met with substantial voter indifference. The British it seemed didn’t care to think too much about such technicalities: that’s one for the political wonks. Labour’s self-interested ambivalence about reform didn’t help.

The Scottish independence referendum marked a sea change in political activism, a change that has spilt out into this election. But the change is a Scottish rather than English phenomenon (the rise and falter of UKIP’s regressive nationalism is not comparable) and in any case beyond my scope here.

Tribalism and soundbites

For most of the last century Britain operated a two party system governed largely by tribal allegiances, again reflecting a political culture where people didn’t want to think too hard about the choices in front of them. This has proved a fertile breeding ground for spin, for the reduction of serious questions to trivial soundbites and slogans, fed by a populist (if patronising) media heavily entrenched on the Right. There are parallels with the US in all this, though I’ll leave it to others with more specific knowledge to explore them.

This was the political culture that the Blair project, drawing inspiration from Bill Clinton, sought to exploit by outplaying the hostile media at their own game. It was a project that sought to grab the parts of a right wing agenda that might be confusingly reassuring to its media, while sneaking social democratic reform beneath the radar. In electoral terms it was clearly successful, but it had two dire consequences. The first was that it drew those Labour administrations into such close continuity with their Conservative predecessors that they hardly scratched the surface of the structural reform we really needed (the upshot was Britain’s exposure to the fallout from the catastrophic failure of neoliberal market policies in the crash of 2008, an abject failure still barely acknowledged in British political narratives). The second was that winning elections became a game of spin, soundbites and story manipulation, lessons quickly understood by that ex-PR man and Blair admirer David Cameron.

Truth be told

It’s axiomatic both in political life, and in wider professional communication circles, that every political party needs to find its narrative. It’s a lesson that to some extent politicians have learned from businesses, even if businesses themselves don’t face the same pressure to simplify that has fallen on politicians. Also in the commercial world the growth of the internet, of uncontrollable scrutiny in social media and alternative commentary has created a real pressure on business narratives to ground themselves in truth rather than wishful thinking and the platitudes of spin. It’s an idea businesses are still exploring, however hard it is for them to let go of old habits.

This change is overdue in politics. The English are not just often ignorant about politics. They are also generally cynical, with some justice feeling that life in the Westminster village is completely detached from their own. That cynicism is fuelled by politicians’ own apparent readiness to treat the idea of truth as a matter of interpretation.

Politicians have long been blamed for making promises they don’t keep, and then being evasive when challenged. But this election campaign hit new lows in the way the Tories peddled downright lies about Labour, and Labour’s failure to counter the biggest lie of all is almost certainly the reason why they failed to regain the support of middle England.

Tony Blair and his supporters are already saying that Labour’s failure lay in their abandonment of the centre ground, and their lurch to the left. This is dangerous claptrap, partly because their centrist position clearly didn’t help the Liberal Democrats at all, partly because Miliband’s flagship populist policies (raising the minimum wage, clamping down on energy prices, ending the non-dom tax anomaly) were only “red” in the hysterical doublespeak of right wing media.

For their part it has to be said that the Tory campaign was a shambles, pitching around for any idea that might lift their apparently frozen approval rating, even throwing in an unfunded pledge to protect NHS spending which undermined whatever claims they were making for fiscal rectitude (and with it what little they have in the way of a positive narrative for their programme).

But none of this mattered because they were able to draw on a single, overarching idea, historically and apparently still currently fatal to Labour.

It’s the economy, stupid.

And it’s also the biggest lie in post war British politics, but there you go. It’s quite true that Labour is always likely to favour more state involvement in national life than the Tories, and so are ideologically inclined to favour higher public spending than any party on the Right, but the consequent and pervasive notion that every time Labour takes power the Tories have to clean up their mess is the mirror opposite of the truth. In the 1960s Roy Jenkins and in the 1970s Denis Healey were far more competent chancellors than their Tory predecessors, though both took the rap for the hard decisions they had to make to rectify the mistakes of those predecessors. To be fair in the 90s it was the Tory Kenneth Clarke who began to pick up the pieces from the failures of his party colleagues Nigel Lawson and Norman Lamont, a job continued by Gordon Brown.

The return to form

The critical change for Labour in the Blair years was that they seemed to upend this core (and false) narrative about economic competence. In this they were probably lucky: Britain’s exit from the EU exchange rate mechanism under Norman Lamont in 1992 had taken on a totemic importance. I doubt many people understood its real causes or what it meant, but it offered a ready peg on which to hang an accusation of Tory economic incompetence, and until the crash of 2008 that accusation stuck.

Until the crash the Tories’ ideas about the economy had barely deviated from Gordon Brown’s. It’s hard for politicians to argue with what looked like a successful formula. If pushed (though no one has even tried to do that) I don’t suppose David Cameron or George Osborne would really argue that Brown’s government had caused the banking crisis. What they would say is that his policies had weakened the UK’s ability to withstand such a shock. Never mind that before the crash the Tories themselves had put forward no ideas or policies that would have made any difference, or the inconvenient truth that between the crash and the 2010 election Brown and his chancellor Alistair Darling had already achieved the first movement towards a recovery, a movement quickly squashed by the Coalition’s own incompetent economic management.

We were back with the familiar story. In fact, the Coalition leaders were quite happy to imply that the crash had been caused by Labour incompetence, by Gordon Brown’s reckless spending, and the public seemed to revert to the default view of Labour as wreckers of the British economy, even if (as usual) the policies then being pursued by the Tory led coalition have demonstrably hampered recovery.

Astonishingly the Labour front bench seemed unwilling to counter. Perhaps they lacked faith in themselves. Perhaps they believed the standard PR idea that to engage with such a false argument would only give it credence. It was a catastrophic misjudgement, giving the Coalition ample opportunity to turn a lie into received wisdom. It seems then with hindsight, that Labour lost the 2015 election somewhere around 2011.

Simple, clear, and wrong

There’s a miserable paradox at work here. Electoral appeal really is about the economy (stupid), but the English don’t have a political culture in which economic issues can be intelligently or adequately discussed. By swinging to the Tories last week did the English prove that on the whole they are as selfish and vicious as the ideology of the party they have just elected? I doubt they thought about it that deeply, being led (and inevitably misled) by an instinctive reaching for managerial reassurance.

Changing that core narrative once more is going to be tough. Blair and Brown were able to capitalise on the memory of Black Wednesday and the ERM exit. Such a totemic failure may well crop up again in the next five years, or it may not, and in its absence progressive parties are going need to find a better and more enduring way than in the past of showing that their ideas offer a more reliable route to sustainable prosperity.

Doing this probably means moving beyond distinctive party political narratives. Arguably it’s about putting over and embedding a more truthful narrative about what’s happened in the UK and beyond in the last forty years. It’s a narrative in which inequality is not seen as an inevitable and necessary by-product of sensible political behaviour, but as an economic problem in itself, a problem that threatens both social cohesion and commercial productivity, a sign that capital itself is no longer supporting productivity and competitiveness.

Does it matter that this narrative is strictly truthful? After all, respect for veracity has hardly held the Tories back. Having truth on your side is clearly not enough, but then it seems that putting a progressive case against the grain of England’s embedded political culture is going to need all the help it can get.

Ironically I think Miliband’s camp was well aware of the need to push this different narrative, but never found the means or created the space to articulate it in terms that the politically indifferent English would understand and accept. It’s apparent too that a leader needs more than decency and integrity (qualities Miliband had in spades) to put such a narrative across. It needs charisma too. Such charisma was Bill Clinton’s special gift. Obama is probably the better orator, but he’s never been as liked, and therefore trusted. Blair too had some of the same gift, though his political vision was so narrow that it never served anything but his desire to win.

Old ideas die slowly. The fact that the English have clambered onto what they mistakenly see as safe ground doesn’t mean they will be able to stay there. An old lie has served David Cameron well, but the next five years are going to be turbulent to say the least. The big electoral issue in five years’ time will still be the economy, but at this stage it’s impossible to say how much that issue will have been reshaped or indeed further distorted by the resurgent nationalist forces witlessly unleashed by the Tories in their campaign. But just as businesses are having to learn to deal with reality in how they see and speak of themselves, so too will the pressure of political reality (and a more grounded narrative about the state we’re in) assert itself. The question for progressive parties is whether they want to sit around waiting for that to happen, in the meantime indulging themselves with old and irrelevant factional battles, or whether they work to take hold of that real narrative, make it their own, and somehow lead the English to understand it’s their story too.

The Fall, the visual and the verbal

The Fall, the visual and the verbal

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.

Bonds, myths, and keeping it real

Bonds, myths, and keeping it real

It says something about the respective self-images of our cultures that the American superhero archetype is a cross between a high school football jock and Francis of Assisi (in tights), while here in Britain we favour a near-psychopath and compulsive womaniser (in a tux, as our American cousins would have it).

The myth of James Bond easily brings out the nerd in me. Thanks to a useful secondhand bookshop and a shared enterprise with my friend Nigel I had read all the Fleming books before I left primary school. At a push I could probably still name them in chronological order.

Perhaps that’s the best age to read them (I haven’t looked at them since), when the “dirty bits” could still seem exciting, when you’re not too critical. Perhaps they are better written than I remember (you’d have to hope so if the likes of Kingsley Amis and Sebastian Faulks could be persuaded to continue the canon), and to be fair there are the strange books, You Only Live Twice and The Spy Who Loved Me, which seem to have sprung from some inner trouble in Fleming.

Then there were the films. Connery was (and remains) the perfect Bond, cold, a little cruel, athletic, twinkly enough to be charming, and shallow. Back in the 1960s, being too young I didn’t have easy access to the films: they were certificate A, which meant that if you were under 16 you had to be taken by an adult. I’m still not quite sure what this supposed to achieve. Was the adult supposed to put his or her hands over your eyes at the sight of a bottom? (While we’re on the subject, isn’t it strange that the bottom has long been considered somehow less risqué than frontal nudity? I suppose it’s because we all have bottoms, though this only highlights the strangeness of our inhibitions.) Anyway an adult did take me to see You Only Live Twice, before I read the book, so when I got round to the novel I realised quickly what liberties the films were taking: just about the only thing that survives from the original in Roald Dahl’s screenplay is the Japanese setting.

By that time the films were beginning to be overtaken by their own mythology, the gadgets, the epic scale. The earlier films (above all From Russia with Love, still the best of them) had managed a compelling balance of fantasy and grittiness. By the time Roger Moore came along they had collapsed into comic book absurdity. I daresay Moore was right for the producers’ concept of what a Bond film should be like. I couldn’t stand those films, but as I say, when it comes to Bond, the 10 year old nerd in me wakes up. I wanted to see my Bond.

Dalton and Brosnan were both much better, though both of them a little too soft, a little too sympathetic, and I wasn’t really interested. Then came what we’re supposed to call the franchise reboot with Casino Royale and Daniel Craig. Craig so obviously looked wrong for the part that I was intrigued, and happily so. Casino Royale was probably the best Bond film since From Russia with Love. Craig’s acting skills overcame any doubts about the way he looked. The script gave him a chance to reinvent Bond for the 21st Century, edgy and ruthless, but with enough vulnerability to make his attachment to Eva Green’s Vesper credible. They had the wit to ditch the overt fantasy silliness, leaving us with a pumped up version of a spy thriller to match the Bourne franchise.

Quantum of Solace was a high octane mess, but you could just about forgive that (Bond after all was supposed to be a tad messed up by the death of his girlfriend). Having finally caught up with Skyfall it seems it wasn’t a blip after all, but part of a downward slide.

Skyfall has the same scriptwriters as Casino Royale, and I don’t know what they’ve been smoking, because the script is an absolute stinker. Not least there’s the pretty obvious problem that it makes no sense whatsoever.

In his published conversations with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock popularised the idea of the McGuffin, a notional objective that drove the plot. Hitchcock’s point about McGuffins is that they don’t have to be that serious, don’t have to have the weight of Aristotle’s notion of action, because they would quickly become swamped by everything else going on in the film. Skyfall suggests that there are limits to how trivial the McGuffin can be.

To start with, it’s not even a credible McGuffin. Apparently a hard drive has been stolen containing the identities of all the undercover spies working for MI6. I know the security services can be lax about security, but it beggars belief that such a list could exist in a single location. The worst of it is that it’s completely unnecessary to the plot, which turns out to be a fairly simple revenge tale, made to look complex by the ridiculous machinations of the villain.

(I appreciate that the Javier Bardem character wanted to show how far he was in control, how easily he could humiliate MI6, but he could have done that without the stupid plot devices that drive this film, which of course are so flaky that the villain is bound to fail.)

All of this speaks to a cynicism in the writers and producers, or at least a mistaken belief that we will become so wrapped up in the fantasy of the film that we won’t bother to question its premises, which isn’t quite what Hitchcock meant. It seems apparent that if you push the limits of credibility too far, the real world intrudes and exposes the fantasy for what it is. Strangely the mainstream critics seemed to have loved the film, perhaps dazzled by its impressive cast and great photography, but the chatterati on the Internet complained loudly about the silliness of the plot, quite rightly, some dismissing the film as the worst ever in the series. Not least Craig’s version of Bond seemed marooned by the tonal uncertainty: Bond still gets to go to bed with three beautiful women, and moves on from two of them without a blink of regret, but this is is the old male wish fulfilment nonsense, which the new generation was supposed to have rebalanced with a grittier realism.

It doesn’t help either that the script labours tediously around some kind of notion that Bond specifically and MI6 generally are anachronisms in an age of cyber crime. We’ve had this dinosaur notion since Judi Dench first joined the cast but the films don’t seem to have much idea about what to do with it (except somehow to vindicate Bond as an effective killing machine – “these computer thingummies are all very well but they can’t strangle people with their bare hands can they?”).

Then there’s a peculiar period in the first part of the film where everyone seems to be saying “bloody” (as in the swear word). It’s as though the writers suddenly decided that we needed to have some reassurance that these characters really were British, but it rings quite false. It’s as though this particular feast is being stalked by the ghost, not of Sean Connery, but that other great 60s icon Alf Garnett.

It’s just a Bond film, but the carelessness around achieving even a semblance of credibility in the plot has become a widespread disease, in film and TV, infecting the end even of the generally meticulous Breaking Bad. Enjoying any fiction requires the willing suspension of disbelief, but that suspension itself demands the maintenance of some kind of internal logic. Writers, directors and producers who ignore this truth apparently believe that their audiences are too dull or stupid to notice their laziness in plot construction. But we are not that stupid, and stories can only be compelling if at some level they ring true.

Stories, cheating, ending

Stories, cheating, ending

The US spy drama Homeland chugs on, probably losing viewers even as the story picks up, but you could say that it’s getting what it deserves since it cheated so comprehensively in the first few episodes, all for the sake of a dramatic twist.

In the first few episodes we saw our heroine Carrie apparently being sold down the river by her boss, the usually sympathetic Saul. Later we discovered this was all part of a cunning plan to entrap an Iranian terrorist mastermind.

But the root of our anger with Saul was a shared emotion with Carrie, when she sat apparently on her own, apparently reacting with disbelief as she took in the news that she had been betrayed. This could not have happened if, as we now know, Carrie was in on it all along. Now I feel betrayed, not by the CIA, but by the programme makes, the storytellers.

It’s not the first time, and this cheating can take subtle forms, some more satisfying than others. There’s the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, a great film in many ways and unfairly pilloried for its alleged sentimentality. I suspect the sugary music soundtrack is responsible for that misapprehension of sentimentality, and Spielberg must take some blame for approving it (all the more ironic given that the sound design is one of the most powerful elements of the astonishing opening with the Normandy beach assault), but I think he is successful in his stated aim of honouring what those soldiers did, giving us an unflinching narrative of what they went through, and rightly, literally saluting them without embarrassment at the end.

I admire the film so I don’t knock it lightly, but it does cheat, by way of a camera convention. At the beginning we see an old man shuffling through a war cemetery, falling on his knees in front of a cross. We are not shown the name on the grave and the camera zooms in close to the man’s eyes, then the film cuts to the Omaha beach landing in 1944. By cinematic convention that close up to the eyes suggests that what we’re now seeing is the old man’s memories, and because the camera next focuses on Tom Hanks’ trembling hands we conventionally assume that he is the younger incarnation of that older man. So we spend the rest of the film in some confidence that our hero will survive. The cheat can be justified partly because it makes Hanks’ eventual death more shocking and so gives more force to the revelation that the older man is in fact Private Ryan, who was saved by Hanks. It is (like Homeland) deliberately misleading, though it has more integrity than Homeland: it never shows anything that could not have happened, but instead simply manipulates our emotions through the conventions of film storytelling.

You could say with justice that all stories are selective in what they choose to tell and the order in which they tell things, and that they do this to manipulate our emotions. This is is what stories do, and it’s potentially what makes them so powerful: we call people who are particularly good at this manipulation, who can always carry us with them, “master storytellers” and we admire them. But we submit to this manipulation in the expectation that there will be a reward, that the journey will take us on a journey we enjoy and that there will be some satisfaction at the end of it.

This can make ending itself problematic: there is a contract to be fulfilled. We feel frustrated if a story ends without resolving the different strands it may have introduced, unless it ends like The Sopranos, which doesn’t so much end as stop mid-sentence, forcing us to reflect on the artificiality of endings, the folly of our own desire for resolution. Shakespeare as so often has his finger on this particular pulse, when Antony hears of the (faked) death of Cleopatra and says to his lieutenant “Unarm Eros/For the long day’s task is done and we must sleep.” Antony is being vain (as so often) characterising his life as a task, and this sad vanity puts a pressure on that single word “done”, which then itself spans the distance between something which is finished and something that’s simply over (the word means both things).

Perhaps surprisingly, on reflection The Sopranos’ ending feels right. It is at least aesthetically satisfying. The series self-consciously drew on soap operas, spinning multiple storylines that threaded the banality of ordinary life with extraordinary violence. One of the reasons I can’t bear soap operas is that they don’t have an ending; they go on and on like a pub bore. The Sopranos turned that tedium on its head, telling stories of domestic tensions within a world where antagonism was routinely fatal.

Not everyone was so satisfied, and after the final episode the interwebs were buzzing with people speculating on what might have happened next, eking out hints from the smallest clues as if they could be significant, all of which missed the point: the story was over and whatever happened next is beyond the story, beyond what we could reasonably expect to know.

In this light I see the proliferation of fan fiction on the internet as a kind of collective derangement. We like stories partly because they come to an end and yes that may be a wrench (think of Dickens’ wistful letting go of his own story at the beginning of David Copperfield), but it is part of the pleasure, the experience of something achieved. I guess you could see the desire to continue a story as a kind of tribute, but it’s one that shows scant insight into whatever made the story entrancing in the first place.

On the other hand we have all seen films or TV dramas that end frustratingly up in the air, and which then feel like acts of bad faith by the writers. The worst example in recent TV history must be the successful French supernatural series Les Revenants: I sat through eight episodes spellbound, but part of that spell was the belief that sooner or later the mysteries of what was going on would be explained (that seems to me part of the viewers’ contract with the programme makers). I suppose you could say that the series was remarkable in that it ended without explaining a single thing, but I felt more irritation than admiration, and though the prospect of a second series might promise that deferred insight, I’ve already lost my trust in the writers to reward my attention.

There is after all the example of Lost. I stayed with the first series, watching the increasing complication of the present day narrative and the back stories, enthralled by the prospect that all these different strands might be tied together. American fiction has form here, in the greatness of the hard boiled detective genre, particularly in the hands of Hammett and Chandler, where every element of the plot proves significant (and contrast it to the flaccid plotting of English writers like Agatha Christie, loaded with red herrings). Unfortunately it became increasingly clear in Lost that this was not going to happen, that the writers were making it up as they went along. I stopped watching. I let those other lives go, and I’m glad I did so.

I’ll stick with Homeland for the time being. I understand that a fourth series has already been commissioned, but if that series is going to command my attention it will need to go in a radically different direction. Plots often have a very determinate shelf life. I think this is what Aristotle meant in his Poetics, when he distinguished “action” from “plot”, with the action being whatever it is that drives the particular train of events, the plot being the sequence of events. The action is like the spirit that must make itself material in the plot. Though he’s hardly been in the third series, Homeland is still running on the emotional energy created by the idea that the hero Brody might betray his country; it’s an energy that continues to drive interesting questions of allegiance and truth among the other characters, but it’s almost used up (and has been squandered by pursuing the utterly uninteresting story of Brody’s suicidal daughter, rather than more relevant questions about the fidelities within Brody’s marriage and friendships). A fourth series is going to need to find a new “action”.

This one could run and run. In future blogs I’ll be exploring ideas about storytelling in business, what goes wrong and what goes right, and how those corporate stories can play on our sense of ourselves.