Tell Me a Story

As Hollywood Goes Postmodern, Has Narrative Become Passé?

Magazine Issue
January/February 2009
Tell Me a Story

If you’re like me, you’ve noticed that movies don’t make as much sense as they used to. Of course, I may be going to too many of the wrong movies, but these days, I often find myself sitting helplessly in the dark, bombarded with ear-splitting noises, bizarre images that make my eyeballs ache, and random bits of interaction that stretch my ability to put them together, like scattered dreams at the moment of awakening.

Nevertheless, I suspect that there’s still an audience somewhere out there with an old-fashioned appetite for narrative coherence—an audience that wants a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; a story that inspires, instructs, and offers insights into the human condition. In the old Hollywood tradition, if you can remember back that far, filmmakers like Howard Hawks, John Ford, and Alfred Hitchcock specialized in tightly constructed tales of good guys and bad guys, love and hate, and gunfights at the O.K. Corral. These days, most of the responsibility for carrying on that tradition appears to have fallen on the aging shoulders of Clint Eastwood, a remarkably energetic septuagenarian, who manages to offer many of the joys of traditional movie storytelling while winning awards for his films and drawing moviegoers to the multiplex.

Lean, tall, and handsome, with a stride as assertively masculine as John Wayne’s, Eastwood came to fame in the 1960s as the laconic “Man With No Name” in spaghetti westerns, and then as the remorselessly brutal Dirty Harry, the upholder of law and order in a world on the edge of anarchy. But as he moved toward middle age, his movies took a surprisingly serious turn, zeroing in on the emotional consequence of violence, especially for its perpetrators.

His films typically hark back to classic storytelling conventions, based on a deep identification with central characters, played by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, Gene Hackman, and Eastwood himself, who find themselves making wrenching choices they’d never dreamed they’d face. In another late-career twist, this weathered oak of a macho hero has even shown himself able to peer with sensitivity into the heart of his female heroines: Meryl Streep, deciding not to leave her family and go off with a passing stranger in The Bridges of Madison County, and Hilary Swank, choosing to die, rather than to live out her life as a helpless quadriplegic in Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood’s latest film, Changeling, stars the ubiquitous Angelina Jolie, whose magnetic beauty always threatens to overwhelm any movie she appears in. At 33, she’s starved to perfection, siliconized beyond three dimensions, and impossibly gorgeous, with huge, pouty lips, somewhere between Mick Jagger and steel-belted radials. But here Eastwood shrinks her glamour and concentrates her intensity, keeping her still and mostly silent as he photographs her in striking profile against the backdrop of two overlapping stories, one about a lost child, and the other about a lost mother who finds her voice.

The story: in 1928, single-mother Christine Collins comes home from work and can’t find her 9-year-old son, Walter. The LAPD—embodied by the arrogantly dismissive police captain Jeffrey Donovan—is of no help, as he assures her that Walter will come home. Naturally submissive, she politely tries to keep the police on their toes even as she begins to recognize that the cops are more interested in covering their asses than looking for her son. Anxious to show the public how smoothly the investigation has gone, Donovan convenes a press conference to announce that Walter has at last been found. The only problem is that Christine denies that the boy who’s been found is her son. Embarrassed, the LAPD insists that Christine is a hysterical female too traumatized by her son’s disappearance to know him when he’s returned to her. The police, a psychiatrist, and other assorted professionals converge to assure her that the investigators have done their job, but she keeps insisting that something is terribly wrong.

When Christine refuses to stop stirring up trouble, the LAPD has her locked up in a psycho ward. Once there, she finds unexpected allies, especially a foul-mouthed hooker (Amy Ryan), who teaches her to find the toughness to tell off the men trying to drive her nuts. We watch as the retiring, victimized Christine becomes a steamroller of an activist and arouses the community into looking for lost kids. Another surprisingly resourceful Eastwood hero has been born. Along the way, we feel as though we’re looking through a succession of faded period photographs from the 1920s as the film encourages us to embrace Christine’s struggles. Changeling boasts the oldest of filmic virtues: a story that grips us and a central character impossible not to take to heart.

The virtues of Changeling couldn’t be further from those exemplified by the movies Charles Kaufman has written: the quirky, hard-to-summarize, and utterly mind-blowing Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Kaufman’s first directorial effort, Synecdoche, New York, which he also wrote, is a comedy about the repetitive mundaneness of life and the humbling inescapability of death.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays a depressive theater director in Schenectady, who’s rehearsing a peculiar Death of a Salesman with an incongruously youthful cast of twentysomethings. His neglectful artist-wife, Catherine Keener, devotes most of her attention to painting portraits so tiny they must be seen through a magnifying glass. Fed up with his constant existential crises, she reports cheerful dreams of his death to their narcissistic couples therapist (Hope Davis), who applauds her for her “authenticity.” Finally, she packs up their 4-year-old daughter (who, absorbing her parent’s self-absorption, is fascinated with her own “radioactive” green poop) and heads off to Berlin to become famous. Meanwhile, Hoffman, lost in his daily routine and his pursuit of cures for an unending series of maladies, real and imagined, fails to notice for several years that his family has left.

From there, it’s hard to pick out anything resembling a plot, but the rest of the film is set in motion when, out of nowhere, Hoffman receives a MacArthur “genius” grant, which he uses to stage a play based on his life in an enormous warehouse in New York. He invites a small army of actors to play themselves, him, and one another in an endlessly self-reflexive recreation of his life and theirs. Along the way, he enlists a double (Tom Noonan), a new wife (Michelle Williams), an on-and-off-again girlfriend to grow old with (Samantha Morton), and an assistant (Emily Watson) both to play his on-and-off-again girlfriend and keep him somewhat structured. Dianne Wiest shows up as a maid with theatrical aspirations who eventually moves on to direct Hoffman and give fleeting focus to his rambling, emotionally incoherent production.

And so it goes through the various characters’ illnesses and deaths and suicides and marriages and divorces, as Hoffman agonizes about making his play “real” and “authentic,” trying to relieve his despair over the utter ordinariness of his own life. As the actors go on and on, they must face the myth that the world is an audience that can validate their quest to be the stars of their own lives. Instead, they have to face the less luminous prospect that they’re merely, like everyone else, supporting players in each other’s lives.

This postmodern movie makes no pretense of trying to tell anything like a conventional story, but it reflects back to us a lot about ourselves, providing a cavalcade of private banalities that we all share but rarely acknowledge. The jumbled crowd scenes and overlapping conversations may seem chaotic, and the interchangeably self-replicating casting bewildering, but the human condition is recognizably poignant and absurd.

Classic Hollywood filmmaking, of which Eastwood is probably the foremost current practitioner, is about discovering deeper truths and new identities through life’s crises. In contrast, Kaufman is amused by the idea that anyone might have a “core identity.” His characters are caught up in a frenetic, irresolvable search to discover “who they really are,” while they strive to stay afloat in a media-saturated, hyperstimulated world—one that mocks the very possibility of finding a fixed, bedrock core. For Kaufman, our “inner self” is better conceived as a restless inner population of alternative selves, an ever-shifting amalgam of family lore, movies we’ve seen, and celebrities we’ve used as models for being human.

As Kaufman sees it, we’re all alone, endlessly rehearsing new versions of “reality.” None of us has a single, authentic self to be excavated and advertised to attract the world’s attention. We endlessly keep trying out scenarios that interest mainly ourselves. While we might like to imagine that some collective, all-seeing consciousness somewhere looks on, admiring our efforts, grading our performance, in fact, nobody’s watching—except us.

With my lifelong fondness for the Hollywood dream machine and its ability to glamorize and mythologize everyday human experience, I must admit that I squirmed through much of Kaufman’s ingenious, if remarkably deflating, film: it cut too close to the bone. In its refusal to turn away from the petty details of life, and in the relentless pleasure it takes in pointing out the excesses of human self-delusion and vanity, it revealed too much that’s embarrassing about my own everyday reveries. Leaving the theater, I found myself longing for Clint Eastwood to come to my rescue and tell me a story about heroism.


Frank Pittman

Frank Pittman, MD, was a longtime contributing editor to The Family Therapy Networker.