Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Forever's Applied Originality

Note: This post contains spoilers.

Storytelling surprises have been on my mind a lot lately. They seem to crop up everywhere and in every type of plot, from the creeping horror of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" to the twisty thrills of Pines to the dramedy Celeste and Jesse Forever, my most recent kid-free viewing with my wife. We went into the film expecting a light-hearted romantic comedy, but what we got was a movie that challenged genre conventions at every turn.

High-school sweethearts Jesse and Celeste married young, and they give every outward sign that they're crazy about one another. They banter. They kiss. They spruce up Celeste's house. Yet they've been separated for six months -- only without the whole, you know, separation part of it. As co-owner of a branding company and successful author, Celeste abhors Jesse's lack of ambition. For his part, Jesse wishes Celeste didn't feel the need to constantly be right about everything. Small cracks in the foundation, but over the years they've widened until their entire relationship threatens to tumble down.

If any film ought to be utterly predictable, it's Celeste and Jesse Forever. Hollywood has mined romantic comedies to the point that only the tiniest flecks of gold flicker in their dusty dross. Yet director Lee Toland Krieger manages to find a fresh vein, largely by taking the plot in directions viewers don't expect it to go. Nearly six minutes of running time go by before a public breakdown by a best friend reveals Celeste's marital troubles with Jessie. When a bitter argument finally forces Jesse out of the house at the twenty-five-minute mark, you might experience a moment of foreboding. What you probably wouldn't expect, though, is his later revelation to Celeste not only that he's met someone, but that a one-time dalliance soon after their troubles started resulted in a pregnancy -- and that he plans to make a go of it with the new lady. Celeste has her own set of surprises in store. When she finally lands a date with a well-mannered, handsome suitor, it fails fabulously when she discovers his cringeworthy fetish. Her branding mojo crumbles after she inadvertently introduces a ribald double entendre to the cover of a pop star's CD (although that misstep later opens up a whole new professional path for the singer). And despite every trope dictated by the genre, she never reunites with her husband.

Also, nothing in Celeste and Jesse Forever feels forced into some expectation-shattering mold. None of its surprises hew to the contours of the narrative twist. Instead of trying to blow viewers' minds, the film's writers just attempted something other than the usual at crucial points. That's great, because then surprise simply becomes applied originality.

(Picture: CC 2011 by Brandice Schnabel)


Chestertonian Rambler said...

This is part of why I loved Zero Dark 30 so much more than Argo. Where the latter fit the Hollywood format and pacing to a T (often by falsifying or predictably dramatizing real events), the former's use of real-world events to structure its narrative gave it an unpredictability and sense of urgency that was quite compelling. I'm quite adept at following typical Hollywood structures, which only made ZD30's fanfare-free divergence from expected patterns all the more effective.

This is also, I think, one of the reasons authors base works on reality, even when unacknowledged. (George R. R. Martin, for instance, acknowledges that his Song of Ice and Fire series is based on the War of the Roses.) External stories are resistant and surprising in ways that are hard to emulate.

Of course, when pure fiction *does* divert from the norm without being a self-congratulatory "twist ending story," all the better.

Loren Eaton said...

Of course, when pure fiction *does* divert from the norm without being a self-congratulatory "twist ending story," all the better.

"Self-congratulatory" is a great way to describe The Twist. Wish I'd thought of it myself.