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When Plot Vanishes

The Project Treefingers blog seems to have died out, so I’m transporting my (substantial) posts from there over here.

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In moods where I’m prone to hyperbole, I like to make the claim that plot is the least important element of a film (or any work of narrative art). When I say this, I am considering the plot as an abstraction: what you would offer if you had to give a summary of what happened in the film. In this sense, two films could have identical plots but be vastly different, because the way the plot is filmed is immensely important. Of course, plot in this sense doesn’t strictly exist: it is an abstraction. What actually happens is constituted by all of the tiny details that are in part dependent on these other non-plot elements—in that sense, no two films can really instantiate the same plot, for then they would be identical films.

The point is that you can infer very little about what a film is doing from its plot—in the abstract sense—alone. This raises the question: what happens when, in watching a film, you cannot follow the plot at all? I had such an experience while watching Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai. I’m poor at recognizing faces to begin with, and having to watch with subtitles (which drew much of my attention) only exacerbated this. As such, I spent most of the film not knowing who was who or, as a result, what exactly was going on. By the end I could tell somewhat, but I was still largely in the dark, and certainly I was in the dark about what sorts of people the various characters were.

What happens when viewing a film under these conditions? One effect is that inanimate objects start becoming characters themselves. In this film, that was particularly true of the lamps and the opium pipes. With regard to the former, the lamps, which are present in virtually every scene, became the main actors. I noticed how many there were, whether they were on or off, what forces they emitted, how people stood or sat in relation to them, etc. In my favorite shot in the film, we see two characters, a man and a woman, reunited after having fought. For most of the shot, they are separated by an invisible barrier that stretches between two lit lamps, one in the foreground and one in the background. During this time, they do not talk. Only when the camera moves, changing its perspective such that the man—who has not moved himself—has crossed the barrier do they began to talk. In a shot like this, it feels as if the lamps themselves are the main arbiters of the action, controlling who does what, who can do what. The most dramatic moment in the film, for me, was the moment in which a lamp dropped to the floor and shattered. (I had this sense less strongly with respect to the pipes, but nevertheless they had a similar effect in their omnipresence.)

Equally, I noticed the minute shifts in the mood from scene to scene. I had a hard time telling whether the cinematography was any good since every object shown was so beautiful (my hyperbole is not so great here), and the arrangements and selection of these objects shot-by-shot gave Hou very fine control over the mood. Likewise, the atmosphere of the film was dominated by the use of a single piece of music, generally played quietly in the background at different volumes. It was non-diegetic music, but it infused everything until it was as much a feature of the objects as their color.

It’s hard for me to say just what these forces emitted by the objects and these minute shifts in tone were doing, precisely because I mostly failed to follow the plot. In effect, what I noticed was the environment of the film, and not the people moving within it. As such, I only half-watched the film, but even then, being able to inhabit that environment for two hours was a great privilege.

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