Losing the plot

Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath, Amazon Prime Video via New York Times
Billy Bob Thornton in Goliath, Amazon Prime Video via New York Times

Pity the New York Times‘ TV critic Mike Hales, who recently reviewed the first few episodes of Amazon’s new series Goliath. As The Drum reports, Hales complained of the series having a “needlessly complicated structure”.

… presumably because the first episode leaves so much unanswered, the next jumps back in time to fill in the history of the case — and when the second episode ends, the story hasn’t even caught up to where it started. The narrative juggling has the feel of stretching — of starting with a story suited for an episode of traditional TV or maybe a feature film and extending it to more than nine hours. Final judgment on that will have to wait until all 10 episodes are available.

Four days after his review appeared in print and online a correction was published. The hapless critic had watched the first two episodes in the wrong order. Sadly the original review has now disappeared and one which understands Goliath in the order its creators intended has taken its place.

Disordered films used to be more common in the days of reels. When films came in a number of cans, rather than as one digital file, then there were opportunities for confusion. The cans would be numbered sequentially, in most cases, but it was possible for a reel to be put in the wrong can, or for two reels to be spliced or printed in the wrong order when making up a double reel. An alert projectionist would pick up on such errors in prepping the films before a screening, but occasional slips were made.

It was fascinating to see a film shown in the wrong order (when you did not know that this was what you were going to see), because – like Mike Hales – the brain endeavours to rationalise what is put before it. I can remember watching a British 1930s feature some years ago at the Museum of London, where reels three and four of a seven-reel feature were shown in the wrong order. Puzzled, but nevertheless determined, the audience did its best to comprehend what was unfolding before it. Characters who had been part of the action were subsequently introduced to us for the first time. Mishaps occurred after their consequences. The dead were seen to walk again.

What was interesting is that we didn’t think “this film is in the wrong order”; instead we made the best sense that we could out of what we could see. We excused the absurdities and rationalised the rest, juggling the disordered elements in our heads so that things made sense.

The brain must be doing interesting things in such circumstances. It will be searching for reassurance. We watch such stories in part for their cause and effect, and cause and effect are something that the brain is good at linking up. It sees an action, predicts the consequences based on prior knowledge, then matches that cause with its expected effect. This tells us all is right with our world. But stories are more than just a sequences of causes and effects. They present complex situations within particular landscapes, through which characters operate. There has been much exciting work done in recent years on now the brain enables us to process the actions and stories that we seen on a screen, such as Tim J. Smith‘s studies into visual cognition using empirical methods such as eye-tracking, or work by the supremely well-named James Cutting on perceptual and cognitive processing and how these relate film editing and narrative.

But none of this, nor any of the works on memory and mind studies that I have read, quite explain to me how the brain can make sense of a film that is in the wrong order. It’s not just about making sense out of (partial) nonsense; it’s about finding reassurance in whatever narrative is put before us. So the issue not just about knowing how films work, but why we need them to work. We need to understand where we are, however confusing the territory may be. It’s the same thing when some people feel discomfited by a film when they can’t work out what is going on – the need for sense is not just conservatism, it’s vital. This seems to be key to the success of film as an art form – not that it shows us something new each time, but that it continually provides us with the familiar. We keep watching the stories to be certain of things. It’s what comes of being sentient creatures, caught in time.

The Seven Basic Plots (note the film can, by the way)
The Seven Basic Plots (note the film can, by the way)

It is this understanding of the purpose of stories that underpins Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (2004). For Booker, stories are not something invented each time by authors but instead each conform to archetypal forms grounded in mankind’s understanding of itself. As he says, “the real key to understanding stories lies in seeing how they are ultimately rooted in a level of the unconscious which is collective to all humanity”. Booker’s work is contentious, not least in his insistence on the universality of his seven basic plots and some Jungian psychological fancifulness, but the underlying conception seems sound. We need stories, because we think in stories: cause and effect, reward and punishment, beginning and an end.

Films in reels are largely a thing of the past, so Mike Hales’s error was rather heartening because it shows that in the digital age we have new ways of mixing up stories. Hales saw tricky narrative structure because as a critic he was on the look-out for such strategies. What his brain experienced conformed to his expectations, as a critic and as a consumer of stories. He needed to know where he was. We all do.

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