Sunday, June 1, 2014

When a Mystery is a Mystery



My starting point for exploring story structure was a class taught by a literary agent at the time, David Morgan, who had studied with Lajos Egri (The Art of Dramatic Writing!). Egri taught that a story has a premise, character+conflict=resolution. But my background in science fiction had shown me that some stories don't have human characters, or characters at all. In science fiction, some characters embody ideas, not human emotions in conflict. And in literary fiction, some stories also have characters who embody ideas (Camus' The Plague, how middle-class people deal with impending death).

I decided a premise would be a dramatic issue, movement, and the movement of that issue to fulfillment.

Later I found it easier for students to think of a story's core dramatic issue as its promise, and that a storyteller could begin a story with the introduction of its promise and moving it toward its fulfillment.

The science fiction film Under the Skin demonstrates how a story can revolve around ideas more than characters. The main character is an alien that takes on the body of a young female. She/it then goes out seducing young men into a liquid that dissolves their bodies into a slurry fed into a mostly hidden chamber. The alien has only a basic understanding of human communication.

When the alien picks up a young man who has a horribly disfigured face, the alien clearly can't tell the difference, but it does come to take pity on the young man, who is not killed and dissolved. This act of mercy separates the alien from its human male-appearing handlers. It goes off with a man it meets at a bus stop. When the man attempts to initiate sex, the alien has no idea how a male penis and female vagina interact. She runs off, is found in some woods by a rapist, who, when he pulls off some of the alien's human covering, comes back with a can of gas and sets the alien on fire. The alien appears to die, or at least the body it's in dies.

The film seems to be a story about how the alien developing feelings of human compassion doom it.

I'm sure others who watched the film could come to other, equally valid conclusions. This is a film where things happen with no explanation.

For this kind of film to work, a film maker needs to have something to say. The director has something to say, but he's not saying it in the traditional, Hollywood style film that typically offers an accessible main character with a clearly defined issue of human need who transports the story's audience to the fulfillment of its promise. Here, the viewer must interpret what happens and what it means.

Under the Skin does, in its own way, explore the ideas it generates, about how an alien might interact with humans, unlike a film like Prometheus that generates ideas (Jesus was an alien) but doesn't explore them.

Under the Skin is beautiful shot, directed, composed, acted, and edited, so it is a pleasure to experience while it unfolds on the screen. People who like challenging films should give this a view.

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To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.