“A rocking chair by the window that looked out to the harbor so he’d know if someone was coming and two chairs at the table so he’d be ready if they did.”
—from “The Blow” Benjamin Weinberg
I saw a movie called The French Cancan once. It was put on by a local film lover’s society group club thingy, and the dude who was, like, the poo-bah of the group gave us an introduction to the film. It was a film of historical interest, because it was written by Jean Renoir, who was son to the painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Jean Renoir has gone onto my list of interesting historical figures. He was apparently sort of multi-talented, because he was a painter, like his dad, and a fairly good writer, if The French Cancan demonstrates his talents at all. An interesting fellow.
The guy who gave us the historical information regarding Jean Renoir and The French Cancan regarded especially Jean’s approach to storytelling and his approach to color, and it all stuck with me because it rankled hard against what I’ve always been taught about writing compelling stories.
What it came down to was that a story that’s about people, where most of the conflict rises from people interacting with other people, needs to have a protagonist and an antagonist. I was always taught that experiments with this form usually don’t work. Inside the contrived confines of fictitious plot development, somebody needs to be striving to “win,” and somebody else needs to be there to get in the way. The person getting in the way can be a thing, but the state of affairs needs to be dualistic.
This isn’t true to life, obviously. But that’s not the point, because it’s fiction. Fiction is sensible where reality goes wobbly.
In describing Jean Renoir’s approach to storytelling, the historical commentator at the beginning of our viewing of the movie said that Jean never wrote villains into his movies. That made red flares shoot up everywhere in my brain. I tried not to roll my eyes, but I’m sure I did roll my eyes. In every way, I prepared for a dull, abstract, art piece kind of film, where questions like, “Well, why did he…?” couldn’t be answered and shouldn’t be asked, because they weren’t supposed to apply. Some people like films like that. I do sometimes. But I have a very specific threshold for them, and most abstract art films just don’t do it for me. Not knocking the genre, just telling it like I sees it.
I readied myself for that.
A couple hours later, I forgot feeling that way. Because, like…I don’t know. The French Cancan is a satisfying narrative experience, with character arcs that make sense and feel justified, and good pacing, and generally good tension. It was just a good film, taken all in all, and I recommend it to anybody with the patience for it.
Got my noggin niggling, though, because the nebbish fellow who talked about Jean Renoir before the film started was right: there were no bad guys. There was no truly vilified system. There was no faceless entity trying to cause downfalls here and there. No bad guys in the film at all. There was a total void where bad guys ought to be, even though the fictitious arc was still there. It was like…I don’t know, like getting a chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream cone and eating all the chocolate ice cream without even touching the vanilla.
Without going too deeply into it, because I could wax exhaustive on this pretty swiftly, I think how it worked was like this: Jean Renoir caught a firm grasp on the real depth of the human condition. He managed to write characters who were about as close to real people as a piece of fiction can hold. Even most historical fiction, taking all its cues from supposed “real” life doesn’t always manage this, because the historian who’s also trying to tell a compelling story still falls into patterns of finding driving force and over-arching conflict.
The fact of the truth of it is, our lives aren’t like that. Real people, no matter how saint-like or detestable, do not compartmentalize so simply. Most real conflicts with real people don’t come out of conveniently dualistic moralizing.
Jean figured out how to represent this, and figured out how to paint a compelling drama that was, I think, truly art mirroring life, in all its tearful twisted warmth, rather than making any easily-reduced sensationalized snippet of emotional blithering.
Which makes me think of Shakespeare, which is why I’ll stop now, because I know I could go on like this for hours. You know? Stories imitating life imitating stories—it’s a fascinating cycle, and for me the argument never ends.
The whole thing only felt weird when I thought about it hard.
So it felt weird right away. I think hard about most things.
I thought about Jean Renoir and what I knew about him; I wondered about this man’s ability to make a piece of representational art from a film script, a thing rarely done. Movie-goers seem to be better attracted by simple messages with exciting skins and easy-to-grasp moral dichotomy. Movie-goers, whether they realize it or not, drive a market of impressionism in film, rather than realism, at least in terms of emotional breadth and depth.
I think I came to a good conclusion. Vastly oversimplified, probably, and far off-center of the truths involved in a professional and experienced writer making storytelling choices, certainly. But I still think it’s a good conclusion.
My conclusion goes…
Paintings do not have antagonists.
Although I have never met Jean Renoir to ask him about it, I would not be surprised if he applied some of the same tools to writing as he might have to painting.
Paintings—or, indeed, any piece of graphic art—do not, as I said, have an antagonist. I would concede that some graphic art is combative. I would go so far as to see the merit in an art theory argument that proposed that all graphic art is itself a protagonist, setting itself in passive opposition against myself, the observer, and the society where I live. I would accept the idea that all graphic art is an actor delivering an experience to me and opposing my lack of patience or willingness to accept that message and be transformed. I would concede those arguments.
That said, a piece of graphic art is, usually, one, passive actor. It does not, usually, have interacting parts. A painting especially doesn’t. It sits there, but sits there in a way that ought to deliver a whole emotional experience without the aid of anything except a little light and a receptive soul.
Unless Jean Renoir was an entirely thick-headed person, which I’m not prepared to believe, then I imagine that he at least considered allowing what he knew about painting to influence how he wrote. If he’s a writer anything like most of the writers I have ever met or heard of, then he’s a writer who’s eager to leverage every little trick he can to grift meaning out of these chicken-scratchings we so patiently and pleadingly refer to as words.
Delivering emotional satisfaction in a narrative without antagonism delivered by identifiable agents is a difficult puzzle. It’s a difficult thing to say, even.
But it’s not impossible. Some people do it beautifully, and they paint colorless pictures out of runes and thoughts, and I admire them.
This story brought to you by “The Blow” by Benjamin Weinberg.
Image: Lian Jonkman | Unsplash
Share this Post