Is Ollie Really “Overwhelmed?”

I’ve been out of the loop for a few days, in part thanks to some internet connectivity problems, but I’ve been finding myself mulling Paul Schrader’s recent Guardian column talking about the “exhaustion” of narrative and how it might affect cinematic storytelling.  Essentially Schrader, a longtime screenwriter, director, and critic, argues that media consumers are encountering a significantly larger number of audiovisual narratives than in the past and then asks about the implications of this condition, specifically as it affects the ability of screenwriters to produce “original” material.  Schrader, thankfully, resists the temptation to view this situation as a “crisis,” or even a “big deal.” It’s just the way things are.  Narrative will change, and the social role of cinema will change along with it.

I’ll start by pointing out that I’m less interested in (and somewhat unconvinced by) Schrader’s retelling of the “narrative exhaustion” argument, the idea that there are seven (or three or tewnty) basic plots that we constantly rework, reuse, or recycle (apparently storytelling has always been sustainable).  That claim, as Schrader’s own citation of Kipling implies, has been around for a long time.  And yet, storytelling, in whatever medium, remains vital.  If anything, the sheer proliferation of audioviusal forms that Schrader cites–blogs, vlogs, viral videos, movies, TV–is testament to the pleasures of producing and consuming narratives.  Henry Jenkins’ discussion of participatory culture helps to unpack the ongoing enjoyment (and deepening commodification) of telling and hearing stories.

I’m also somewhat skeptical of Schrader’s assertion that “the traditional concept of movies, a projected image in a dark room of viewers, feels increasingly old.”  To be sure, many of our most successful narratives now involve sprawling, diffuse texts that include websites, alternate-reality games, DVD extras, mashup videos, and other features that spill out well beyond the boundaries of the two-hour film.  In fact, given the long lines that circle my local multiplexes, it’s somewhat difficult to imagine that the big screen experience will go away anytime soon.  Many theatrical releases may be increasingly vapid and silly roller coaster rides, and fewer theatrical screens may be devoted to independent films, but theaters remain social hubs, not to mention relatively cheap entertainment options during an economic recession.  Box office numbers may change slightly from year to year, but to see this “traditional” version of moviegoing as old or archaic obscures quite a bit.  People still crave stories–even formulaic, predictable ones.

But one of my other big questions about Schrader’s argument is embedded in my title, the question of whether today’s  consumers–at least in industrialized western countries–are encountering “more” audiovisual narratives than ever before.  Similar arguments have been raised for at least a century.  Georg Simmel worried about the increasing stimuli encountered by the modern, urban subject caught in a stream of traffic, noise, movies, and commodities.  Walter Benjamin deepened that argument, worrying about the withering of the “aura” of the work of art but also found in movies, the “unconscious optics” that would allow modern subjects to see the world in new, potentially revolutionary, ways.  Schrader updates this by imagining a contemporary subject, Ollie Overwhelmed, who now encounters significantly more narratives than his father or grandmother.  To his credit, Schrader avoids making revolutionary claims about the supposed uptick in the number of narratives we encounter, but I have to admit that I’m somewhat skeptical about the general idea that we are watching a quantitatively larger number of narratives than we did in the past or how one would even go about measuring such a thing.  Certainly we could count the number of movies, books, TV shows, and viral videos that people consume (or the hours spent consuming them), but aren’t narratives often diffuse, rambling, ongoing?  In my book, I’ve speculated about the motivations behind these assertions about the “end of cinema” or the”end of narrative,” and I often find them lacking solid evidence and instead expressions of certain desires or fears.  Desire for what? Perhaps the ability to witness the end of something?

Despite these reservations, I think that Schrader offers an interesting diagnosis of some of the shifts that are taking place in the entertainment industry.  He’s right, of course, that storytelling has become a business, and in fact, I would argue that many of the changes he describes–the rise of reality TV in particular–are motivated by a desire on the part of entertainment conglomerates for cheap, easily digestible, often mobile, forms of entertainment. In other words, it’s less about a desire for “originality” than it is about finding ways to migrate content through a variety of forms so that viewers will remain hooked into a larger narrative, and in somes cases, so that we will become involved in telling and even reworking those stories ourselves, through viral videos, fan fiction or other textual forms.  In questioning some of Schrader’s arguments, I’m not suggesting that nothing has changed with the rise of digital media and these new modes of storytelling.  But whether that translates into a threat to originality or a felt sense of “narrative exhaustion” seems far less clear.

Thanks to J. J. Murphy for calling my attention to Schrader’s essay.

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