Screenplay Oscar Contenders Take Bold Experiments Mainstream

Scribes take bold narrative experiments to mainstream pictures

Screenplay Oscar Contenders
Tara Jacoby for Variety

‘Birdman” deserves kudos for the technical coup of seeming to have been filmed in one, uninterrupted two-hour take. But its quartet of scripters can take a bow for the film’s own coup: That single take encompasses three days and nights. So seamlessly are events arranged, the viewer may not even notice the time manipulation.

Alejandro G. Inarritu’s magic-realism fantasy is only one of a host of 2014 screenplays playing fast and loose with chronology. Challenging leaps, elisions and parallel narratives are becoming serious cinema’s norm, rather than the exception.

On one level, this was to be expected. Every art form dominated by straight narrative eventually fractures. Joyce, Proust and Faulkner broke apart the novel; Eliot, Pound and Yeats did the same to poetry. As Picasso and Braque were chopping portrait painting into unrecognizable shapes, Schoenberg and Stravinsky were infusing symphonic music with 12-tone atonality. Who can be surprised to find storytelling in a young and robust art form take a Cubist turn? But it’s still a jolt to see it not just at the cutting edge, but in popular fare.

Experiments with time take several forms. Sometimes the story is linear but “big” moments happen offscreen. In “Mr. Turner,” Mike Leigh drops in on his protagonist painter at unremarkable domestic moments. Bertrand Bonello’s “Saint Laurent” explored the costs of celebrity not through a linear narrative, but through two of the fashionista’s key collections, with flash-forwards to the man near death. By portraying telling moments instead of an extended linear story, Bonello takes a fractal approach to narrative, finding the whole in the part.

For “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater caught up with his fictional Austin family annually for 12 years, the narrative chips left to fall where they may. An alcoholic, abusive second husband might promise fireworks, but bam! the next year he’s history. These films presuppose an audience able and willing to connect the dots.

What accounts for this sophisticated time shifting? It could be seen as the natural maturation of devices pioneered by Godard, Chris Marker and New Wave colleagues: the experimental gone mainstream.
Sometimes the big moments are onscreen, but not in a traditional straight line. “Gone Girl” retraces the course of a marriage across parallel time periods. “The Imitation Game” goes farther, exploring tortured genius Alan Turing across three distinct periods. Though each string plays out linearly, scribe Graham Moore keeps shifting among them until we almost have to become “Turing machines” ourselves to keep up. Indeed, the childhood incident underlying the mathematician’s tragedy isn’t uncoded until the last 15 minutes. That might frustrate lazier moviegoers but should energize everyone else.

Even as mainstream a picture as “Interstellar,” tinkers with time onscreen. The script by Christopher and Jonathan Nolan dispenses with screen conventions that orient the viewer in time. Matthew McConaughey is in his pickup truck and then he’s in a rocket lifting off. Who knows how much time has passed? A few minutes of movie time later, we know two years have passed, but only because we see the spaceship passing the rings of Saturn. No “Captain’s log” in this star trek. (Even Kubrick had title cards saying “The Dawn of Man” and “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” to define chapters in his head-trippy “2001: A Space Odyssey.”) In a film that dwells so much on time, which passes at different rates in different places for different characters, the Nolans challenge us to examine our assumptions about time — even time within a film.

Such time trickery will likely become a fundamental part of the filmmaker’s vocabulary. The rules are changing for filmmakers and audiences alike. But only time will tell.