Revisiting That 'Narrative Exhaustion' Thing Thanks To George Clooney...
Photo Credit: S & A

Revisiting That 'Narrative Exhaustion' Thing Thanks To George Clooney...


“I had some understanding that Hitler was stealing shit,” Clooney says. “I didn’t understand he was taking all of it. They don’t teach that in school. That’s why I loved the story. We figured at this point, we’ve done so many WWII movies, there really aren’t any new ones. You have to get around to someone as smart as Quentin (Tarantino with ‘Inglourious Basterds’), who can burn Hitler in a movie theater to do something different.”

Reading the above from a longer Variety piece on George Clooney’s fight to get his latest, Monuments Men, made, reminded me of a 2009 article by veteran screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) that I highlighted on this blog years ago, that offered a POV on Hollywood’s indubitable tendency to recycle old material.

It might be an almost 5-year-old piece, but, given Clooney’s above comments, it still seems very relevant to the Hollywood studio film business today, and emphasizes what I feel is a really myopic view of the world and the plethora of stories it still has to tell – an inability to see beyond what’s familiar, beyond one own’s experience. Let’s just call it privilege – white male privilege in this case.

For Clooney to suggest that “we’ve done so many WWII movies” and as a result, “there really aren’t any new ones,” as he gives a nod to Quentin Tarantino for having the imagination to come up with Inglorious Basterds, is unfortunate. It’s also not very surprising. But if I had Clooney’s ear, I’d say, actually George, to start, there is a lot about that period in history that “they don’t teach… in school.” There are LOTS of stories about that period in our history that have yet to be told on film. We’ve barely scratched the surface on films about the African American contribution to WWII efforts – fighting a war abroad, and then returning to continue fighting one at home – specifically, the civil rights struggle. And let’s not forget the families they left behind, as well as the families they created abroad, and all of their own individual dramatic stories that have yet to be tackled on film.

There’s a wealth of real-life, straightforward tales to choose from about that period that one doesn’t need to fantasize about what could have been, as in Inglorious Basterds, or reach out of the proverbial box, whether structurally, stylistically, or narratively, in order to create something “different.”

So yes, there certainly have been many WWII movies produced over the years; BUT, the stories they’ve told have been primarily from the POV of characters who are both white and male (and heterosexual, I should add), which obviously does not make up the entire WWII experience.

I recall Paul Schrader’s explanation for why Hollywood continues to recycle old material (plus all the sequels, prequels, spin-offs, etc) – that the problem isn’t necessarily a lack of ideas, as many of us have previously and continually express frustration over; The real problem, according to Schrader, is what he deemed “narrative exhaustion.”

Schrader stated…

… It means that’s it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer’s expectations. Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He’s seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations. How does a writer capture the imagination of a viewer seeped in serial killer plot? Make it even gorier? Done that. More perverse? Seen that. Serial killer with humor? Been there. As parody? Yawn. The example of the serial killer subgenre is a bit facile, but what’s true for serial killer stories is true of all film subjects. Police families? Gay couples? Corrupt politicians? Charming misfits? Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Schrader offers no real solutions to this storytellers’ dilemma, other than to close with statements that remind us that we’re working with what is already an archaic form of media, even though it’s only about 100 years old – one that we can expect will evolve in form and structure, over time, unlike books, for example, which have maintained the same standard physical structure since the introduction of the printing press in the 1800s.

But clearly, reading a sentence like “almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively,” demonstrates that his POV is a myopic one, in that he’s white and male. So, from the lens through which he sees the world and thus cinema, yes, of course it feels like narrative exhaustion, because Hollywood’s story is a white, heterosexual male dominated narrative. So when he says “almost every possible subject” I’d add, “about white heterosexual men“… “has not only been covered but covered exhaustively.”

What Mr. Schrader seemingly fails to realize is that the dynamic of any random story can quickly change when a black person (or any other *minority*) is introduced (particularly as the lead character in the story), and since we’ve barely begun to really scratch the surface of what we call *black storytelling*, that “narrative shortage” he talks about eludes black filmmakers and audiences – as well as women, Latinos, Asians, members of the LGBTQ community and other so-called *minority* groups.

But as I said about Clooney’s comments, this kind of thinking isn’t so uncommon in the industry – a white male dominated industry – and it does indeed adversely affect the rest of us, unfortunately. So, as a screenwriter or filmmaker intent on a studio-backed career, as many are pursuing, your story (as an artist who isn’t a member of the old boys club) might be quickly dismissed with one of Schrader’s many yawns, because the exec may fail to see the *originality* in it.

Read the full Variety article on Clooney’s Monuments Men troubles HERE (and if he of all people had difficulties getting that film made, imagine just how much more challenging a *fresh* story set during the same time period, but centered around black characters, would be to get financed). 

The 2009 Paul Schrader piece can be found HERE.

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