Some time ago (feb 21st to be exact) I felt compelled to start a thread at the SMA message board comparing and contrasting two great stopmotion films - the classic masterpiece Street of Crocodiles by the inimitable (but so often copied) Brothers Quay, and the fresh masterpiece of the Clyde Henry production company Madame Tutli-Putli. Here's the result if anyone's interested in reading a lengthy mess of a preliminary alnalysis:
"Surrealism versus narrative.... let's brainstorm"
It isn't necessary to read that in order to understand this post though (I hope you didn't just wade through the whole thing!) At that point I was vaguely aware of a certain difference between the two films that interested me. There's a certain similarity as well - otherwise I would never have felt the urge to compare them to understand the differences. But for some reason I felt like it was important for me to try to understand WHY they're different, and why to me Street of Crocodiles seems to work better structurally. There was a lot of misunderstanding on that thread, as there tends to be when I do these analyses. Most people don't seem to understand that an analysis isn't a blanket statement of whether you like a film or not... it's a detailed study of some particular part of it (in this case the structure). Comparison and contrast is a powerful tool to help gain insight into matters that would otherwise remain elusive, and when I say that Street seems to work better overall than MTP, it doesn't mean I"m condemning the film or that it sucks or anything... just that I don't feel the structure is coherent. So I state right here - I absolutely LOVE both films, and in spite of any esoteric problems with the structure of one of them, I have bought it in several forms (the original DVD, only available to Canadians, which was extremely difficult to get ahold of let me tell you, and then the iTunes version to have on my computer) as well as writing about it multiple times and lavishing it with praise - a lot more so than anyone else on the board has done. So please, I don't want to hear any whining here about "Hey you @$$hole... I LIKE that movie!" - please let's take off our emotional hats and put on the student hats for a while, ok? I like it too, but this comparison serves the valuable purpose of helping me to understand the underlying structure of poetic films. You have to tear something apart in order to understand it, and at least for me, this doesn't lessen its value - in fact it deepens it.
Ok, so to business then!!
My entire understanding of poetic film and poetic fiction has changed dramatically since I delved into Theatre of the Absurd. That's because, prior to that study, I knew almost nothing about it... just vague intuitions. Little did I realize how important that particular study would prove to be.... and it's not that I necessarily LIKE Theatre of the Absurd all that much... I don't care for most of the plays I've seen versions of, but I love the ideas behind it and in particular the essential study done by Martin Esslin in his book of the same name. It's this book that gave me the underpinnings of a greater comprehension of what poetic fiction is. Not that I completely understand it now... but I have a much better grasp than I did before. And in light of that greater understanding, I now have a more clear idea of what it is that bugs me about Madame Tutli-Putli's structure, and why I don't have the same reservations about Street of Crocodiles.
One of the major problems with MTP for me is the fact that, while it seems to be an attempt at poetic film, it comes across more as a mess of narrative fragments that don't add up to a whole. Now I know --- I just did a post about what I call Poetic Narrative, but here's the problem --- if you're going to do a narrative (poetic OR straightforward), then you need to address the concerns of narrative - IE wrap up loose ends and make sure everything fits. MTP starts one narrative thread, then just drops it and switches to a different one without resolving anything in the first thread. Characters are introduced elaborately, and when this is done you expect them to figure into the story in some way, but as soon as they're introduced they quite literally just disappear and we enter the second narrative thread. The first thread began with an elaborate shot of MTP's excessive baggage, which seems symbolic (baggage in the emotional sense). Possibly it's meant to be taken in that sense... in fact I'm pretty sure it is, but once that idea is introduced, it like the extraneous characters also just disappears. Whether you're doing straightforward narrative OR poetic film It seems to me if you introduce something (idea, character, theme, whatever) you should follow up on it... it should prove to be some part of the overall concept of the piece. Especially if that introduction is elaborate and drawn out, giving it great import in the eyes of the viewer. When a viewer has been really hit over the head with something it takes on special significance... and they'll keep thinking about it throughout the film trying to understand what part it plays. In my studies of film form, I learned that any image or sound that's repeated is what's known as a motif - and simply because it's repeated it takes on extra significance and becomes a powerful element that viewers feel they should know more about. This is true also of any element that is given particular attention by the filmmakers.
Imagine you're sitting in a bar and the guy next to you begins making elaborate, magicianlike gestures with his hands, pulls some object from his pocket, and says "hey buddy... check THIS out! Ever seen anything like it?" --- then he just puts it back in his pocket and walks out, leaving you wondering what all the fuss was. And it was nothing special... just maybe a rock or a bean or something. Frustrating because he set up powerful expectations and then failed to deliver on them. The Clyde Henrys do this repeatedly in their film.
The second narrative thread also introduces new characters, making them even more important than the more ordinary characters from thread one. We never find out who they are, what they're doing, or what part they play in the story (if there is one) or in the poetic image (if there is one).
So the lesson I've gained is.... it doesn't matter if your narrative is straightforward or poetic, if you use narrative at all in a film you must obey the laws of narrative. You can bend the hell out of them, distort them to no end, but you must obey them. if you introduce an idea... and especially if you favor it with extra significance, then FOLLOW UP ON IT. This applies really even if you're doing a poetic piece with no narrative. You still have to follow up on any ideas you introduce, especially if they're in boldface and flashing neon colors.
Finally, here's one of the major reasons MTP feels like narrative and not poetry --- it's a JOURNEY film. Not only does it take place on a train, but there's a distinct sense of beginning (MTP waiting for the train, boarding) middle (journey itself) and end (literally). Even if otherwise it was handled in a purely poetic fashion, this whole journey device is a staple of narrative. It gives narrative structure. It may be the biggest flaw, though the introduction of then unused characters and ideas comes in a close second.
Street of Crocodiles doesn't suffer from any of these problems because the overall structure is purely poetic. Not only is it not contained within a stereotypical narrative framework like a train journey, the entire thing takes place INSDE a small machine -- going nowhere. It's a frozen tableau, an idee fixe. And even the box, the housing in which the action takes place, is a mere representation of "The Zone", which is a stagnant part of an ancient city.... another sense of "going nowhere"... literally stagnating. There's no exhilarating forward rush of movement to relieve the fixed idea of the poetic image. Also the puppets don't represent real people - and in fact don't really represent people AT ALL except in the loosest most metaphorical sense. It's largely the sheer REALISM of MTP that works against it's being poetic. Another factor.... Street is a film framed within a film. The intro and closing take us to a different work=ld which seems metaphorical/symbolic. MTP is presented as a straight movie.
I don't think it's NECESSARY for a poetic film to take place in a static environment, but honestly I can't think of an Absurdist play set on anything like a moving train, or with a sense of the plot (or anything else) moving forward. Progress by it's very nature is narrative. I COULD see a poetic film set on a train, but in a very different manner.... possibly beginning and ending inside the oppressive train itself, never getting out into the fresh air, not seeing the passengers boarding or disembarking... only trapped inside playing out their static roles. This would be a microcosm -- train interior as small version of the world, representing the world of the character(s). I think the old fashioned notion of forward progress (for humankind and for individuals, evolution etc) has been pretty much obliterated by more modern thinking. And I"m not only referring to stagnancy as a metaphor for a depressing life. I don't think poetic fiction need necessarily be depressing. But it does seem to rely on a still setting. A Poetic Image sounds to me like a still image, or one with limited movement (ha! Imagine assembling an animated GIF!). I see narrative as a forward progression through a storyline, and poetry as the study of items arranged on a table like a still life or the pieces of a puzzle.
Ok, here's the part where I soothe any raw nerves I might have roughed up. In all honesty, I really do love Madame Tutli-Putli. I love many films in spite of any problems they may have and I don't know of any perfect movies. Even Street of Crocodiles, which comes pretty close for me, is incomprehensible and vague, but it does offer fascination that makes up for that. Good points in the favor of MTP -- some of the absolutely FINEST design, fabrication, and animation I've ever beheld bar NONE!!! Character animation like I've never seen before, brought to a completely new level, and not entirely just thanks to the innovative and breathtaking use of composited eyes (which is another fantastic feature of the film). My vast enjoyment of the film is only slightly disturbed by my vague sense of something wrong under the surface, a nagging hint that only revealed its nature under close scrutiny. I know from all my writing about "What's Wrong With Madame Tutli-Putli" it must seem like I hate it, but let me assure you that's the farthest thing from the truth. I only write so much about it in my efforts to understand, because I know it's these vague feelings that will lead me to my own way of filmmaking. It's these soft inner voices we MUST heed over all others... follow wherever they lead.
Ok, I"m done. Wow, is it just me, or did I get REALLY wordy on this one?!??!?! Sorry about that!