Published on Thursday, September 13 2012
Written by Greg McIver
Last Friday, The Words debuted in theaters across the nation, telling the story of a famous author who tells a story about an author who steals a story, and then meets the man who actually wrote the story, and then listens to that man’s story. I know what you’re thinking -- for a movie called “The Words”, there is a serious lack of content regarding storytelling. To some, the idea of a movie about a story within a story within a story sounds a little odd, or a little like Inception if it was written by a bibliophile. Either way you slice it, The Words is not the first movie to come along featuring an unusual story about storytellers. I know that sounds impossible, but you’ll have to trust me. In fact, below are four classic movies about storytellers that are now staples of the genres they inhabit. (There are some big spoilers below so tread very cautiously!)
Annie Hall (1977)
Annie Hall is one of the greatest movies ever made because I said so. I’m sure other critics and film experts will try to jump on the bandwagon once they’ve read this, but you all will know who really said it first. The main character of Annie Hall is Alvy Singer. Annie Hall herself is, I think, featured in some scenes, but film historians have not been able to confirm nor deny that as of yet. Alvy (played in a surprisingly neurotic fashion by Woody Allen) tells us the story about the romantic relationship he formed with Annie and how it ultimately failed. We are seeing this story from the mind’s eye of a professional writer. As the movie progresses, we see the liberties that Alvy takes with the world that he is showing us. He talks to random people who inexplicably have insights into his current problems, and he is even able to pull people out of thin air when it suits his purpose. It is very obvious that Alvy is constructing an entertainment for us. But the movie never lets us forget that while Alvy is a professional storyteller, he's also just an ordinary man as well. The movie does this by jumping around to different points in their relationship, much like the mind of a frustrated lover might do when it’s mulling over a failed relationship. Many people have said that Annie Hall set the standard for nearly every romantic comedy going forward. It’s a very high standard, and one that I wish more romantic comedies strove to reach.
The Princess Bride
Every genie in the world had to stop saying “as you wish” after they saw this film. It was creating too many awkward moments. The interesting thing to me about The Princess Bride is that there is still the question of whose point of view we are getting this story from. Is the story onscreen coming from the imagination of the child who is listening to it, or is it coming from the imagination of the grandfather who is reading it? I find myself chuckling at the idea that Miracle Max and his wife being portrayed as a stereotypical, bickering Jewish couple came from the mind of a ten-year-old boy. As a story within a story, this one is pretty damn great. The tale being told is, of course, a fantasy in the traditional sense, but because we're viewing it through the eyes of a contemporary character, we are treated to some surprisingly funny and down-to-earth moments. Here’s a fun little experiment: watch the movie and imagine it from the point of view of the kid, then watch it again and imagine it from the point of view of the grandfather. See if you notice any significant differences. After you do that, spin around three times and say "Bloody Mary" into your bathroom mirror while chugging a diet soda. Actually, if you just want to skip the movie-watching part and go straight to that, I’d have absolutely no problem with that.
The Usual Suspects
"The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist." The greatest trick I ever pulled was writing a spoiler-filled article featuring The Usual Suspects that didn’t ruin the movie for at least one person. This movie is mostly told from the POV of Verbal Kint, played by Kevin Spacey. Pretty much everything he says, which is what most of the movie consists of, is a lie, and yet most people don’t feel cheated by this. The reason is that the yarn he spins is just so compelling and entertaining that most of us couldn’t really imagine it any other way. The characters are vivid and well-thought out, and the tension continues to build throughout the whole film. There is also a very subtle storybook aspect that the film contains as well. The director, Bryan Singer, said that he subtly infused a Wizard of Oz motif into the film. New York, where the first half of the film takes place, has a fairly dull and uninteresting look. When the action moves to L.A., he immediately brightened things up and even adds more colorful (not literally) characters to the mix. This makes sense when you consider that everything you are seeing is coming from the mind of a man who is probably amused by the fact that people are buying his story. The storyteller in this movie is a lying criminal, yet his real crime, in this instance, would’ve been to withhold that awesome lie from us.
Spoiler Alert: Jack Torrance doesn’t end up finishing his book. He does, however, knock out one hell of a sentence… several thousand times, that is. If you haven’t seen The Shining, then you’re a liar, because everyone has seen The Shining. You remember that pregnant woman you walked past the other day? Well, her unborn child has seen The Shining. Undiscovered tribes in the wilderness proudly feature the movie in their DVD collections. That is how popular that movie is. Jack Torrance (played very subtly and not at all over-the-top by Jack Nicholson) is a writer who takes a job as the winter caretaker at The Overlook Hotel. His goal is to use that peaceful time to finish his novel without any annoying distractions. His decision to bring his wife and child with him is clearly the wrong one, because they do prove to be occasional annoyances. Luckily, the evil forces that haunt the hotel provide Jack with a quick and easy solution to his problem. Jack Torrance is a storyteller, but he never really gets a chance to tell one. At the beginning of the movie, he is told the story about the previous caretaker who murdered his wife and child. He says he would never do anything like that, but eventually the powers that be sweep him up into a story that he originally had no desire to be a part of. Even at the end, we see him included in a photo of The Overlook from the 1920s. Unlike the previous 3 storytellers mentioned on this list, Jack Torrance loses his ability to construct and control events and becomes merely a character in one of the many tragic tales that center around The Overlook.
Another recent flick that deserves at least an Honorable Mention here (because I haven't actually seen it) is the indie flick Ruby Sparks, starring Paul Dano as a man besieged by writer's block and an even worse love life who is able to manifest the woman of his dreams (Zoe Kazan) by the sheer power of his writing. Check out the trailer here and YH's interview with Dano and co-star Chris Messina here!
Greg McIver currently resides in New York City. He is a lover of film ranging from the classic to the contemporary. You can check out his other movie reviews and articles on film at www.nerdtopiacast.com.