Yesterday afternoon I saw a film called Land Ho! at a local movie house called the Quad Cinema. Directed by Aaron Katz and Martha Stephens, this independent feature charts the journey of two senior citizens/ex-brothers-in-law (Paul Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson) who go on a vacation to Iceland. Much of the film is devoted to scenic images of Iceland’s mountain landscapes, hot springs, grassy fields filled with sheep, etc. All of this got me thinking: what constitutes a movie plot? What does it mean for a movie to “have things happen”? Shouldn’t it be enough just to enjoy good character development and also those adorable sheep?
A similar concern occurred to me a number of years ago when I discovered the films of Jacques Tati. I found them delightful, whereas my mother fell asleep during Mon Oncle (1958). The reason: “Nothing happened [in the film].” So long as the characters are carrying out actions, though, don’t those actions count as things that are happening in the narrative? Even if the thing is a conversation and not a more physical movement like walking or running, I think that it can count as something happening and, depending on the film, whatever it is might be well worth seeing. Tati’s Mr. Hulot does not do much more in Mon Oncle than stop in at his rented room (which we never see the interior of), ride his bike, visit his nephew and try to understand the changing technology of the late 1950s. But because Hulot is such an engaging figure, all of those actions, mundane as they might seem to viewers, are delightful to watch.
Play Time (1967) takes this idea even further. Buildings are characters as much as people are; we spend time watching people watch TV, the focus of which is their lack of interaction with one another rather than what the program is; connected scenes at the opening night of a Parisian restaurant take up 45 minutes of the film’s running time. To some, the idea of a 45-minute-long dinner scene would be atrocious, but if you are interested in the details of the film’s construction (and what a marvelously nutty restaurant it is!), along with the innumerable interesting characters populating the eatery, then the scenes are not boring at all. There is little to no conflict – a deficiency which would perhaps make some screenwriters run for the nearest exit – but everything happening onscreen is happening for a reason. Every frame of film there tells a story.
Take a listen to John Cassavetes’ views on audiences and filmmakers. Sometimes it’s those “different” movies that really stay with us. Maybe that explains why I liked his film Shadows (1959): to some it is boring, but to me, it has things that happen. And I like that.