This article was inspired by an interview with Martin Scorsese discussing story vs. plot, he only talks about this for about two minutes but I feel it is very important in the creation of a great film. He explains how the films that held up over the years for him where not due to plot as once the film had been viewed once you know the plot. But with story in creates a sense of character to the film. This is something I completely agree with; by having a focus on story it makes the film feel more alive. A focus on plot causes all the actions in a film to be based around pushing the plot forward giving the films a very linear feel that are as enjoyable to watch. However a bigger focus on story cause the film to be more like a roller coaster with twists and turns making the film more an experience than a plot. This also makes the film much more enjoyable to re-watch as they feel different every time, something some of the best directors are very good at. This can however be taken too far, for example the work of Harmony Korine has an over focus on story and almost no plot. Although I personally find many of his films enjoyable, it does alienate many audiences members as they are not accustom to films with almost no plot and therefor no direction. It is getting the interplay of plot and story right that creates a really great film. I shall be exploring this concept of story vs. plot in three films that I consider to be example of excellent filmmaking; Taxi Driver, Full Metal Jacket and The Big Lebowski. Before I begin, be warned that each one shall contain quite a few spoilers so feel free to skip any of the films you have not seen or are not interested in.
Starting off with a film by the man who inspired this article we shall look at Martin Scorsese 1976 masterpiece Taxi Driver. The Film is loaded with examples where story is more important than plot and he plays with this idea very well. The plot of the film dictates that Travis should kill senator Palantine as there are a lot of elements that lead up to this, which in many other films would be examples of actions leading plot. However he fails in his attempt to kill him then changing everything he has been leading up to doing by “saving” Iris. This change means that everything leading up to the attempted assassination of Senator Palantine becomes story rather than plot. It helps us as audience understand Travis better as we are not just going from plot forwarding event to plot forwarding event but experiencing Travis everyday life. This means when re-watching this film it says very fresh as the plot is not the focus.
This does mean that some parts of the film on first viewing may seem arbitrary to an audience who are not open to this type of film making. For example the scene in which Scorsese has his cameo as the passenger whose wife is cheating on him. It may seem pointless as it is not pushing the plot forward in anyway. However this scene does a lot of interesting things, first of all it shows us the world that Travis lives in and the people he has to deal with. Also the way in which he deals with the situation helps us understand him as a character better than simply following him through plot events. It helps add a sense of realism as everyone has arbitrary conversations that have no real point. This leads onto a scene that has the same effect that appears directly after this one where the other taxi drivers are sitting in the coffee shop talking about midgets. It appears pointless at first but helps develop story.
The film creates a sense of being inside Travis head through a mix of editing and camera work, the camera sometimes even acting as Travis’s eyes. Trying to portray this idea of being in Travis’s head the film does some very unique things that films that focus on plot do not. For example after the infamous “Are you talking to me” scene we hear a narration from Travis stating “Listen, you fuckers, you screw-heads. Here is a man who would not take it anymore. Who would not let—“ before messing up what he is saying and starting over, the shot even cuts back as he starts over(See for yourself in clip below). This is a great example of being in Travis’s head and story being more important than plot; he himself doesn’t really know what he wants. This all pushes towards the concept of social isolation and depression that Travis feels rather than towards a more traditional plot structure. This causes the film to be more powerful and enjoyable on subsequent viewings as the film holds so much more than just plot.
Full Metal Jacket
Now we shall focus on Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 Full Metal Jacket that I feel blends plot and story in a very interesting way. You hear from a lot of average viewers after watch that they really like the first half (referring to the training) and not so much the second (Vietnam). However most Kubrick Fans like me enjoy the film as a whole but there is a reason for this. The first half of the film is very easy to follow and is an almost perfect blend of story and plot. The Plot is simple Sergeant Hartman has the job of teaching the recruits; meaning there is clear direction as this segment will end once the recruits have been trained. However story is weaved into this fabric for example Hartman’s conversations at the start with Snowball, Joker, Cowboy and Pyle all add to story rather than plot. These act as story with the direction of a plot in the form of Hartman trying to train them. Examples of this can be seen through the whole of the training segment and its clear why many people find this part of the film most enjoyable.
The training (act 1 of 3) ends around the 45 minutes mark as the film moves into the second act. This part of the film that runs from the “me so horny” prostitute to the Lusthogs arguing over the price of a prostitute, is almost all made up of story with virtually no plot. This is part of the reason many viewers who do not understand Kubrick’s work and find the first act more enjoyable as this part of the film lacks any real direction. Although this section has almost no plot it does hold some of the most iconic and my personal favourite moments of the film:
- The “Me so Horny” prostitute
- The soldiers talking about “the shit”
- The Door Gunner “Get Some” in the helicopter than transports Joker and Rafterman
- The Colonel’s conversation with Joker about his peace symbol and having “Born to Kill” on this helmet.
- Meeting the Lusthogs
- The camera crew filming the conflict as Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen plays
- The Interviews with the soldiers
- The Lusthogs arguing like school boys over the price and who gets to go first on the prostitute.
All these elements add nothing to the plot of the film but similar to Taxi Driver they help us; the audience understand the characters and the things they go through.
This leads me onto the final act of the film that begins around 1:25 and due to the second act having a focus on story we are more invested with the characters. This is important as this final act probably has the most plot in the film featuring very little story. During patrol, Crazy Earl, the squad leader, is killed by a booby trap, leaving Cowboy in command. The squad becomes lost and Cowboy orders Eightball to scout the area. A Viet Cong sniper wounds Eightball and the squad medic, Doc Jay, is wounded himself in an attempt to save him against orders. The plot then follows the rest of the squad hunting down and killing the sniper. The films switches its focus of plot and story throughout to create a very engaging film on first viewing but one that develops the more you watch it, something that can be seen in a lot of Kubrick’s work.
The Big Lebowski
Finally we are going to look at one of the best examples of story over plot in the Coen Brothers 1998 The Big Lebowski. After seeing this film once or twice you will realise that the plot acts as a passive misdirect and is not important at all. The characters and they journey they take all envelop this feeling of story we have been speaking about. At the end after Donny dies Walter and The Dude don’t even learn anything with the simple “fuck it man lets go bowling” showing that nothing has changed since the start of the film confirmed by “the dude abides”. Bowling could be considered as the plot of this film but then we don’t even get to see our main character bowl. This has caused many including myself to not enjoy the film on first viewing but now I see it as one of my favourites and an all-time great. The film acts as a noir film but with a twist (the Coen Brothers are very good at playing with and combining genre), normally in noir films the character we follow is smart or has something very interesting about them but these traits don’t quite apply to The Dude. He has a poor vocabulary and just wings most of what he does throughout the film. Making bad assumptions such as that the kid stole the money which lead him to a worse situation each time. It means plot is not important but it creates a very interesting story with some very interesting characters.
The film is loaded with examples where it feels like we are getting close to some sort of plot before getting shot down for the sake of story. I would love to go over all of the examples but I simply don’t have time so we shall focus on the opening ten minutes. The western voiced narrator combined with the camera following a tumble weed and the music that goes along with this may lead people to believe the plot is going to be based on a western. This idea is shot down pretty fast as we see a modern day LA. The narrator himself even shows that the plot is not that important ending him opening narration with “Aw. Lost my train of thought here. But… Aw, Hell. I’ve done introduced him enough.” This really doesn’t matter though as the film lacks plot we get to see The Dude in a wide range of situations and this causes his character to really come alive. This leads onto The Dude returning home from the shop to get milk to find Jackie Treehorn’s thugs waiting for him in his apartment. This whole interaction is down to mistaken identity. This causes The Dude, Walter and Donny to discuss the man peeing on his rug. The two minute conversation that goes on extends this idea of story being more important than the plot, with a lot of back and forth; character talking over each other, this conversation in any other film would have been 10 seconds. But it’s the conversation and sense of developing character which is enjoyable and this continues throughout the whole film.(See the clip below)
I have only scratched the surface of this concept as there are countless examples of it in countless films. I feel I have shown the importance of how story can be more important than plot but that interplay between the two is essential. I have also not even come close to saying all I want about these three films as they are three of my favorites and I look forward to writing more on them and the directors who made them in the near future.