Posted at 2:01 PM on March 6, 2007
by Euan Kerr
David Denby is one of those critics who can either stagger you with his brilliance, or be like nails down a blackboard with his petulance.
His recent piece in the New Yorker "The New Disorder: Adventures in Film Narrative" exhibits both traits.
In it he uses the time-twisting of Inarritu's "Babel" as a launch-pad for a discussion of the history of narrative story-telling in the movies. It's an interesting read where he points out the advantages of what he calls disordered narratives, and how they can go wrong. In fact he makes a particular case for the idea that a small error in a film with multiple disjointed narratives can quickly poison the rest of the stories, much more than in the case of a straight ahead telling of a tale.
Denby gives Inarritu's "21 Grams" as an example, and it's clear he thinks "Babel" is also a failed experiment.
He comes around to championing straight narrative, pointing to "The Lives of Others" as an example.
"And what is the device that gives 'The Lives of Others' its shattering power?" he asks. "Straightforward chronology driven by cross-cutting among parallel actions, a technique that was invented by D.W.Griffith almost a hundred years ago. It still may be the best way of leading us to the paradise of a morally complicated but flawlessly told story."
Denby isn't rejecting disjointed narratives, indeed he lauds the deliberately confusing structure of "Pulp Fiction" where a major character dies, and then reappears hale and hearty soon after. He is however discouraging them.
That's unfortunate because whatever the flaws, perceived or otherwise, of films like "Amores Perros," "Memento," "Adaptation," and "Babel," they all make a welcome intellectual challenge from the usual Hollywood formulas. Perhaps disjointed narratives will become formulaic in time, but for now they are often the reason that makes movie-going worthwhile.
I vote NAILS ON A BLACKBOARD. I don't know what happened to Denby, but it's to the point where I can't even read him. I only wish Stanley Kaufmann could get such long pieces published.