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Tyranny of the Plot

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The Ladies Man by Jerry Lewis

I’ve often said that Hollywood films today are made in such a way as to make plot and character equivalent to authoritarian dictators. Every element of a film exists to support the plot or character development. (If it does not, a mistake must have been made.) This leaves little to no freedom for the other elements of a film. This approach is probably perfect for the assembly line type production that has always dominated Hollywood, but it limits the freedom of a filmmaker’s imagination.

What would a more democratic film in which all elements are not subordinated to the plot look like? I’ve just seen The Ladies Man directed by Jerry Lewis and would nominate it as such an example. The plot of that film merely exists to provide a container for the gags and actions of the characters. The giant dollhouse set does not exist to serve the plot or the gags. Sure, it helps organize the gags and scenes, but it’s a gag itself. Lewis calls attention to it again and again, and we are notice it unlike the set of the typical authoritarian film which is not meant to be noticed.

Within his million dollar giant set Lewis creates a world that has its own logic. This logic is similar to that of a very young child who has not yet understood the concept of real world causality. It is also a musical world. There are several scenes in the film that are based on musical type movements, something that is common in Lewis’ films in general, but the morning scene in the dollhouse in which the residents wake up to music is especially a knockout. (I did something similar in Intermezzo.) It, as is true of the film in general, exudes energy, a surprise for a scene that features people waking up.

Not everyone may find Lewis’ gags funny, but who cannot admire a live action film in which a dog can sound like a lion, then somehow end up as a literal lion without having to invoke any magic other than that of filmmaker Jerry Lewis.

Shooting Down Pictures sums it up nicely:

When Andrew Sarris complained that Lewis “never put one brilliant comedy from fade in to fade out,” he missed the point entirely. Being a Hollywood classicalist, Sarris couldn’t entertain the notion of a post-narrative comedy in the John Coltrane/Ornette Coleman era, where story comes second to the revelations of a spontaneous, inspired moment, as eruptive and unexpected as laughter itself.

Read more about the film here.

The entire film is currently on Youtube. However, this is a film that cries out to be seen on a big screen and with better image quality than Youtube offers. Also there’s an entry at Trailers for Hell on the film here.

UPDATE: 10/20/12

In The Way Hollywood Tells It, David Bordwell cites a study which concluded that those who had watched Judge Dredd (1995) liked “lots of blood,” “explosions,” and “good effects” far more than they cared about the plot.

Bordwell wonders why, then, movies bother with plot at all.

For the subculture that worships stars, we might make a movie that records Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts smiling coyly at each other for 90 minutes. For the viewers who love action, we might patch together a film consisting wholly of explosions. But each of these options would attract, to put it mildly, a restricted public. (The Way Hollywood Tells It; pp. 106-7)

This passage implies that most Hollywood films are made like legislation. There’s something for everyone, but no one likes the entire package. It’s a compromise. (Bordwell later (p. 107) says that while it sounds like a compromise, it’s not. Not convincing.) It also assumes that there was only a restricted public for the “pure” films it envisions. But is this assumption correct. First films that come to mind released before this book was published in 2005 are the That’s Entertainment series, films made up of musical segments cut from MGM musicals, linked together by various star hosts. And there have been plenty of other “excerpt” titles such as When Comedy Was King. And what about films such as Faces of Death? No plot at all to unite the various segments, just theme. Then there are feature length omnibus films. Some, such as Dead of Night and Tales from the Crypt, string together the separate stories by using a framing story as well as unifying theme, but others, such as Fantasia, have no framing story, only an MC/ringmaster figure (and theme) to unite everything. Given that they made several of these it’s hard not to conclude that the films found more than a “restricted public.” In any case, Youtube has produced several films, albeit short ones, which do consist entirely of explosions and other narrative-less actions. Millions of hits are the norm for many of them. Does this mean that Bordwell was wrong? That screenwriting manuals are likewise off the mark when they emphasize plot or even character over unmotivated action and explosions and effects and gags? What do we remember most from films? Is it most often the plot? Or is it the moments that could cut, distilled from the plot without losing much, if anything? What if the concept of “plot” has developed as the best way to smooth over the gaps between the disparate elements of a Hollywood film and make each of them appear to be necessary and natural, what Bordwell likes to call “motivated?”

There are many films with only a moment or two worth watching. Do we really need to watch the entire film to enjoy those moments. In the video tape era, it was common for certain films to wear out at a specific part of the tape again and again because everyone was fastforwarding to the part they wanted to watch, skipping the rest of the film entirely.


Written by David Kilmer

May 25, 2011 at 1:19 pm

One Response

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  1. […] agree with Andy Hendrickson. I’ve already written a piece in which I stated my position on the subject of the screenplay and the plot. In short, I think that […]

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