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Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Monday, July 12, 2004

Troy

Ever since I saw a poster quite some time ago in one of Satyam�s corridors, I had wanted to see the film. The close shot of the bronze-god Achilles found perfect form in Brad Pitt.

I finally saw the film today; sitting between a talkative group of loud-ringtone, bright-cellphone Marwaris, and a couple of �large� Bengalis. The unusual cosmopolitanism in my seating unfortunately went on to only reinforce stereotypes (especially of rich and tasteless Marwari boys). As a disclaimer, I have to state that I do not subscribe to that stereotype as I know quite a few Marwari guys who are pretty intellectual and discreet.

Now onto the movie! To adapt the vivid Homer original one requires no imagination, but a lot of creativity. In this sense, I found the screenplay well done. I also like the fact that the screenwriter has taken many liberties with the storyline. That coupled with the careful deletion of all the �gods & goddesses� bits attempts to make the story more human and emotional. But alas it only attempts. If only Wolfgang Petersen had not turned out to be a Hollywood director, and shown at-least a little bit of the sensibility from Das Boot, this movie would have been even better. It is very easy for the immensity of the complex emotional drama in the Iliad to be lost in sweeping camera movements and computer-generated battles.

Brad Pitt definitely looks like the Homeric hero, but a combination of better shot selection with some creative direction and editing could have made his aggression during and at the end of the Hector battle more convincing. Troy is an engaging and good film, worth the money you pay, but I guess the classic poem is incomparably bigger.

I have wanted to make a point for a long time and have only randomly chosen to say it now: The �Cut� is a device unique to the film medium. Therefore, such a precious thing should not sprayed around and used without discretion. This seems to be the bane of most mainstream filmmakers. They envisage fragmented scenes and shots, and cut way too often to be able to let the visuals tell the story by themselves.

So getting back to our film, by my assessment, Troy = {Iliad + (a-lot-of-things) � (a-lot-of-other-things)} x (the trappings of Hollywood).


6:55 pm

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Comments to Troy

Hi Anand,
Nice to read your comments on the Film Troy. I think our audience need to know the film etiquette. I have experienced the same while watching many English movies. I have even tried to do the "Sshhhhh" which never had worked :)) It spoils the whole film watching experience.

BTW, wish you will find this interesting.
"The Iliad begins in a style known as "in media res". This Latin phrase literally translates to, in the middle of things, and this phrase therefore defines the manner in which Homer begins his epic poems, starting in the middle of a story that he along the way proceeds to fill-in details for."
Dont you think he was way ahead when it came to telling a story in non-linear way. :))

Cheers
Sree

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

12:05 pm, July 13, 2004
 

Sree: "in medias res" is a literary storytelling device that is born more out of necessity than innovation. In fact any story can be told only in medias res, if you take the hadrcore meaning of the term. In its general use, in medias res often refers to the narration of a story that starts off in the middle of an action wherein standard things such as character introduction, setting introduction are dispensed with. The characters/ setting are apparent from the actions or if they need to be explicitly stated are done so through the course of the narrative.
True that the Iliad starts 10 yrs into the trojan war and ends with the cremation of Hector: No Helen abduction, no Briseis abduction, no face-to-face argument between Agamemnon and Achilles, and later, no Achilles heel, no torjan horse etc. Therefore, we start with a brooding Achilles and a morale diminished Greek army. But the written /verbal narration form of Homer, allows a story starting off in medias res to work. He actually interrupts storytelling to elaborate on "the why" of things sometimes. But mostly, almost all readers / listeners of the Iliad knew the history/mythology to need any elaboration. The introduction of the Gods and godesses bits also helps the storytelling by glossing over/rationalizing of many plot details.

But coming to the visual medium, it seems to be extremely difficult for filmmakers to not take "attendance" (roll call of names and character relations) right in the beginning of the film. That is, in Tamil cinema terms, how Balachandar starts his movies. This does not do justice to the value of in medias res in its general meaning.
In the movie Troy, whenever each new character is shown (all main characters appear on screen in the first few minutes of the movie itself), he or she is immediately called by name and then the character's relationship with the others are explicity stated. This seems to be an almost unavoidable thing, as unlike written text, there can never be separate stanzas or paraghraps than can go pff on a tangent to explain each and every character and backstory. But the way it is doen is what is irritatingly hollywood. All introductions bunched together and gotten rid off within the first 30 mins of the film so that the audience is clear with everything once the actual story (the war) starts. This is very easy and convenient especially for an ensemble cast movie, but it also demonstrates a lack of imagination and is very formulaic.
It is definitely a challenge to evolve alternative forms of exposition, but not totally impossible. Look how deftly Coppola did it in the ensemble Godfather. He used a wedding and random conversations to set out most of the characters, but not in a trite roll-call fashion.
To give another example from mainstream cinema, take Jurassic Park. The technical intricasies of how the dino DNA is acquired and cloned is deftly and succintly put by Speilberg in a single animated sequence that fits into the narrative superbly. That is in medias res as far as film is concerned.
Sree, nice of you to have introduced the topic.

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:06 pm, July 13, 2004
 

Dear Anand
It was nice of you to explain to me in detail about "in medias res". Looking forward to hearing from you more on such interesting information on film story telling / or in general film techniques. BTW, are you planning to make a film?

Cheers
Sree

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

1:37 am, July 14, 2004
 

hello anand:
congrats! heard about the big move. all the very best.
- dragon

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

12:48 pm, July 17, 2004
 

hi anand

why no mention of hector? (eric bana)he was amazing...
and ofcourse all the other minor characters were portrayed
very well
orlando bloom was just the pretty boy
probably it was intentional to keep his character
superficial!!!

i wld hv expected a slightly more drawn out review from
you than the one posted, were u in a hurry by any chance ;-)

cheers

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

1:38 am, July 18, 2004
 

Hi cheery anynymous person,
What I have written is what I have to say. Of course, I might be vain enough to infer from your statement that I have worked up a considerable reputation to raise expectations. Ah! The perils of celebrity... sorry had to dissappoint you on this review! :p
Nevertheless on a less flippant note, I have to say that no one reviewer can put across all points. That is why it is important to read many peoples' ideas and democratically form opinions. That is the intelligence and initiative typical of the discerning film-audience.
Thanks for you comments. :)

posted by Blogger Anand 

10:54 am, July 18, 2004
 

Right said Anand on the equation of troy.

Also in media res was informative. can be put in the blog as a post. Was Virumandi taking in the 'in medias res' way. when i read your note, it was virumandi that came to my mind.

posted by Blogger lazy geek 

11:52 am, July 19, 2004
 

Lazy.. Virumandi.. I dont think has an in medias res visual narration. Maybe the written story would start off in the middle, but it is mostly "non-linear", rather than "in the middle of things". For, in "in the middle of things" narration, the plot should have already begun to unfold before the narration begins. In Virumandi, there seems to be two separate stories to be told. 1. The flashback(s) and 2. The ensuing jail sequences. It all depends on what you take as the primary story. Yet, there are still elements of introductions and phatic element that are vestigial to the story but important to the narration. And these things happen not as the story unfolds, but in a lull period between the two stories. So it does not start off in the middle of the action. In the visual medium, to set up characters and introduce plot elements, one either does a "roll call" of characters or goes on flash-backs to flesh out the back stories. Doing these thing creatively is what constitutes storytelling genius, and not in using these "words" to describe what would seem rather regular but for the "jargonification" (there is a more authentic word in English that I cant seem to remember right now).

Now let us take our very own favourite: Ponniyin Selvan. It seems to start in the middle of things with Vanthiyathevan at Veeranam on the way to meet the king with a message from Kancheepuram. We start off with the image of a man on horseback near the lake, while we are filled in with the rest of the info including his name, his background, his skills, his mission, his benefactors, etc as the story progresses. This is jolly well allowed in the written book. So technically, in medias res is not too tough. But to tell the story visually, it takes some creativity if one needs to avoid excessive details and flashback, or even a voice-over narration like in "The Usual Suspects".
The other issue is, when we take up the specific understanding of "in medias res", that of what is the action? If Vanthiyathevan's travel down south is the original action, then what bearing does it have on the overall superstory? It seems to be of little consequence at all if he did stop at Veeranam. Yes, he has a glimpse of the Pazhuvur entourage, but the stuff of real consequence starts off in Kadambur.
By the general definition, Ponniyin Selvan too starts off in medias res, but, does not have a non-linear structure. The written form allows for that. Lets say that the story starts off in Kadambur, then we can talk about it being in medias res, and still not make it non-linear because the things that happened before are not of much consequence, except for the fact that Vanthiyathevan started off with a message from Kanchi. (this does not exactly require a flash back to narrate). The detail can be included in a conversation, or can be revealed only at Thanjavur (The second option can also keep the audience guessing of who the young man is and why he is travelling to Thanjavur) Ok now let us forget all that.

Let us say that Ponniyin Selvan starts off with Vanthiyathevan in the secret passage. That would be bloody well "in medias res" by all standards. Now how do we visually tell things like who is he, what is he doing there, what is this place, what are the threats, who are the others etc.? Verbally it is easy with just a few paragraphs of writing while the story is kept on hold. But to do that in visuals with the help of flashbacks or narration would not be that intelligent or new.

Non-linear storytelling might be all the rage, but is it creative at all? It might be imaginative, but with a very small shelf-life. Only two more films and we can be tired with it. True genius filmmaking /narration is not only innovative, but also relevantly innovative. There should be a reason why a story has to start off in medias res. It should add some value to the narration. By starting off in the middle of things and more importantly, by avoiding earlier plot elements and character introductions, are you adding value to the narration? Are you bringing in a "surprise" element that would be unsurprising if the story did not begin in medias res. Or are you having selective flash-backs, selective back stories and selective /partial introduction of characters and settings to bring in a "suspense" element? More fundamental still, does this story need to have suspense and surprise elements at all? Would it add to or detract from the core of the story?

Ah! I have rambled enough. I had promised Mahesh (http://theshapeofherbite.blogspot.com/) with an exercise in written-to-visual translation of a story. I think it is time I came up with one online where many people can participate. A long term idea would be in a wiki. Let us see how things work out.

And before I forget...
Thanks for the wishes D.

posted by Blogger Anand 

1:57 pm, July 20, 2004
 

HUGE. And yes, now after you linking to Ponniyin Selvan, I am able to visualise it a lot better.

Let me link this write it from my blog.

posted by Blogger lazy geek 

11:50 pm, July 20, 2004
 

Speaking about non-linear story-telling, the opening sequences in Avargal is a true KB/Ananthu masterpiece. Sujatha is travelling in the train from Bombay to Madras and her initial story is told in a series of flashbacks which are in a reverse chronological order. And the family sitting in the same compartment help a lot to seamlessly move back and forth and stitch the various flashbacks together.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

7:02 am, July 21, 2004
 

In media res � variations

Maybe the following films of the famed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu have already caught your attention:- Amorres Perros and 21 grams. The former is in Spanish and the latter is an �indie� film starring Naomi Watts, Benicio Del Torro and Sean Penn. Of course the preoccupation with this director�s (almost masturbatory) passion for non-linear narratives is apparent in both of these films.

Both of these films employ an inciting incident to concoct and bridge three different stories of protagonists who are in turn connected through this one incident. These cases mimic the irony of life, where in regular people do exist individually (or in some sort of unconscious inter dependence) with little or no earth-shattering influence with others around them. This is a technique also employed deftly by Mani Ratnam employed in his recent Aayutha Ezhuthu.

Ok, the reason I point these out is because they lend themselves as excellent examples of visual stories using Flash back & Flash Forward (as In Virumaandi) within the context of a REVERSE In Media Res! This because, the story (especially 21 grams) is weaved such that the climax, then the beginning and finally the �middle� is narrated in fragments at the end. And believe me; serving the best for first is not so bad, as depicted by these films especially 21 grams. We all know that serving the McGuffin right at the start is almost like waging your stakes very high; yet Inarittu doesn�t disappoint. This because, when the climax is served in the first act, there is not time to attach ourselves to the protagonist. And as the entire film proceeds, audiences automatically attach themselves to the plot and the protagonist; and when the director serves the epiphany again, (this time) the audience perceives the drama unfold with a blasting paradigm shift that makes for great viewing experience. The �why� after the �what��

In such a narrative device, the bulk of what ensues from the Mcguffin (in the first act) should justify the circumstances leading to it as the rest of the movie progresses. Realistically speaking it reverses classical theory of writing which suggests that the climax should be the most riveting part of the narrative! This is what failed in Aayutha Ezhuthu in my opinion. The inciting incident which connected the three characters in some way or another was more powerful than the redemption envisioned for each of them by Ratnam. Honestly, there was no filmic time allowed for a connection to the cause (Student politics) that Surya�s character advocates in the film. Therefore the last scene lost all significance when analyzed in the scale of �was all that fuss in Napier�s bridge and the build up really worth it?�

More later�Carpel Tunnel Syndrome acting up�

posted by Blogger Mitochondria 

12:47 am, July 22, 2004
 

Mitochondria: You have once again proved that a complex protein can be very insightful.
Coming to the point, I very sheepishly have to admit, that for various reasons, I have not watched the movies that you have referred to, but am very much aware of what you are pointing out. I can also, if I am right, refer to another movie that I have not seen: Memento. I have heard of the storytelling and if I am right, it too works in reverse.

(aside)
Again defining In medias res, it usually means starting in the middle of things. Therefore a non-linear story would not have any obvious relevance if not started in the middle of an important happening. An inconsequential opening is hardly going to stress the importance of the non-linear narration. Case in point, the opening of the Usual Suspects. By way of selectively foreshadowing a climactic moment of the film, the film begins in medias res. This selective foreshadowing somehow makes the audience think that the unknown parts of this climactic event will actually piece together the mystery. And the movie works well even on repeated screenings. I think I am rambling now! The best way to really appreciate such things is to read this book: "Story and Discourse - Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film" by Seymour Chatman. It is out of print, but is very valuable to get the fundas in much better language than mine.
(aside ends)

You refer to the masturbatory instinct of the director in making non-linear narratives. I do not know how others feel about masturbation, but I understand it as an entirely pleasurable, easy, and yet unproductive attempt at sex. Therefore, it seems to be a means with an end in itself.
This is fine, nothing wrong with it, but non-linearity in storytelling makes for little point unless there is a purpose for it. This is what I wanted to say the last time I replied to a comment.
Again I have to agree with your analysis of how a change of order can change things like audience identification, sequential closure (Freudian secondary-elaboration even) and eventually give a deeper or layered understanding, which the straight narrative cannot provide. If such a purpose is met by toying with what has by default and convention become the standard narrative structure, then great! But starting the plot straight, and then cosmetically rearranging the narrative works badly.
This is where I feel, and as you seem to know as well, the visual medium works differently. The traditional way of storytelling for cinema is to translate it from another medium, say from the written form. While translation is fundamental to good method, the true genuis of creative art is in evolving storytelling exclusively for the medium.

In this regard, you might be interested in something I wrote some time ago that is here: http://mdeii.blogspot.com/2003_08_01_mdeii_archive.html#106156787113580244
I hope the link still works. Otherwise look for the second post on 22 August 2003 titled "Translations"

While I was going through an old offline backup of my blog in my archives I also came across something that would interest Hemanth.
http://mdeii.blogspot.com/2003_04_01_mdeii_archive.html#93535483 This is a post from 30 April 2003.

posted by Blogger Anand 

11:58 pm, July 22, 2004
 

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