Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Story in a Landscape:
An Essay on Narrative and Place

A few examples of my case-in-point: I could tell you a novel's worth of data from each set: 1:: The aftermath of Chernobyl on Children in the area. 2:: The isolated night time city walks of a recluse. 3:: A European country road leads to an ancient family vineyard. But who runs it? 4:: An impoverished ghetto in Brazil where living shoulder to shoulder yolks people together for life. 5:: An isolated pier disappears in the mist like the ships who used to use her. 6:: A spicy personality cafe owner dares to buck convention in a conservative town.

Mike and I had an email fight today. Nothing serious (it's gotten serious now), just a long debate over whether a place can tell a story. Mike is adamant that a place is a container for a story but tells nothing in itself without characters and events/actions. His is a perfectly reasonable assertion. But I feel it is thoroughly wrong.

I didn't start out feeling that way. Our discussion just got me thinking about it and as Mike got more and more entrenched in his pov I got more and more clear what was more true for me.

Below is essentially my side of the argument in snippets of the email exchange. Should be self-explanatory. It was a good exercise, one that gave me greater knowledge of why Halfland is so heavily weighted on the development of the place, on building the details of the Halfland world... In its Ambient Narrative...

No characters are needed for a story at all. The narrative is in the setting. And not by personifying the landscape or elements in it. Every setting has a feeling by its very nature. That feeling has a wealth of actions and emotions that come with it without adding any other players.

“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.”
                                                                                           --Henry Miller
And that world has plenty of data in it at once. It's like with language. A single brief poem can affect us as a longer form art like a movie. I'm seeing visuals the same as poetry and therefore I don't need characters. I don't need stories. In fact, I can get rather tired of them. Blah blah. Just give me the poem, as I mean that word. I'm talking about the exquisite eloquence beyond character and words. Insta-story.

"...What lies beyond man's word is eloquence of God."

What the difference is to you between the effect on you of a proper "story" and the effect on you of an evocative visual that inspires, provokes, etc. I maintain there is no difference of any consequence. How is the effect of that experience different to you than a narrative?

It's like the word Blue. Blue is a color, yes. But it's also a feeling. Same with the word Narrative. Same with the word Story. When I see a landscape it tells me--YES!---a narrative---a series of details that inform the setting and its story. I get as much from a bare landscape as from a plotline with characters. A lot happens in a landscape. Anyone could tell a story using landscapes/settings ALONE!!!! It's RIDICULOUS to say otherwise. I see the import of landscape/settings like I never would have before.

Further, the setting's story is wildly influential to the audience's subliminal experience of the overt plotline, my word for the linear events of a typical entertainment scenario. What you decried as my stupidity is actually my informed conviction of what it is to express an idea. I'd invite you to go ahead and try what I'm saying as part of our debate. Make a series of landscape/setting images in your mind that tell a narrative without a single thing happening nor character. You'll immediately see it's not only possible, but creatively rewarding.

The story in the landscape is there without an old man saying it. Because the way things are in a place, even on another planet, are that way because of events. The events are written in the place. The more the viewer knows about history and developments in the area the more information they get out of looking at a place. But even without knowing what's happened there or making up a story based on what little they know, a place tells volumes just by how it has grown/developed. The story it tells is of it's development and history, how it came to be through time, whether we know the story consciously or not. A world of story is in a blade of grass. You just need to listen to it.

But while story tellers are not stories, neither are landscapes merely vestiges of stories. The stories landscapes tell, to me, are as filled with data as a story with characters and things that happen. Probably because we can see the things that have taken place in the landscape. If we see the prairie degrade over centuries and the house be built and fall apart, by the time the setting is our story, we can feel/get what took place there in that example. Going further though, if I see a shot of the cold barren moon of Saturn however, I do feel the isolation, the vastness, the silence, etc. and those cues make me feel and think a certain way. Just as a story does. I think the kernel of our disagreement comes from my assertion that story isn't limited to the strict technical linguistic definition but broadens out to include things that make me feel and learn the same stories do. It's not calling it a hot dog to say that I can learn just as much from a series of settings as from a movie. Especially these days when commercial movies are so empty of any substance. For me everything I see is unequivocally a story in the sense of my learning and processing information.

A place, every place, is exactly a series of events. How the place came to be required loads of things to happen, including creation. As Carl Sagan said... If you want to make an apple pie you first have to create the universe." A story is told by simply a place's very existence.

It isn't a stage. It is the play itself. Another story can be told on top of a landscape, but there already is much story in the setting choice itself. For me.

Learning comes into it because that is the end result of interacting with a story. They edify. They expand knowing. Even when they are in the guise of entertainment they educate on many levels, from cultural, moral, to philosophical. Mood is story as much as plot.

I was just watching the dance clips posted here recently, truly the finest moments in dance ever captured. And I was struck by how much "story" was taking place in the second dance especially. Clearly ecstatic emotion, serious meaning, beauty, forceful anguish, and persuasive feelings of sympathy were being transmitted through just a single body's movements in a bare black landscape. I could experience the vein of emotional cues the dancer was expressing even though there was no narrative nor action in the typical sense. Sometimes these types of dances are called abstracts, with no costume or text as with more classical story ballets. And yet, I was struck by how articulate his was in terms of genuine story telling. I knew what human story he was expressing. Volumes of it.

I'm going to term the kind of abstract emotional cues inherent in a landscape the Ambient Narrative.

Update:: An article from a highly experienced photographer that supports my pov on this as well:  "...Immerse yourself in a situation, and then take enough photographs to properly tell the story." Telling the story does not necessarily mean producing a sequence of frames, but rather exploring the situation in enough depth to be able to extract the one or two definitive frames that capture the essence of the situation... this is one of the reasons that I photograph — not, as one photographer put it, "to find out what I've seen", but rather "to be more fully in the moment" — to experience what there is to see and feel all the more intensely. And to do so means not being passive and waiting for something to happen, but rather to be an active participant; looking, thinking, and feeling the moments as they happen..."
Update:: A long article by an experienced artist that supports the notion of visuals telling a story as well: "A painting always tells a story. But just because it can be told does not make a story worth telling.... There are also stories that remind one of truths about human beings in general, or about life, that one would just as soon not be reminded of. One knows them well enough, perhaps all too well, and someone insisting on telling them irritates everyone...."


  1. Your both right!!

    but I Know that any enviroment in any film I love has always used the backgrounds to not only expand the narrative being told....but to tell a story....even if I conjured up the whole thing myself..



  2. Hi Justin, thanks for responding. What you're saying, is all I was trying to say. But Mike refused to acknowledge that story was in any way part of the setting. Oh well.

  3. So the story is not only in the setting, but in the details that make it up! That's fascinating. Now that I think about it, there is a lot of storytelling in the scratches on an alien drone ship, or the markings in the wall of a Greek emperor.

    I admittedly don't really know how to tell a good story, so I'll be tuning into the channel in the hopes of maybe understanding the whole process better. It's like baking a delicious cake; part ingredients (formula), part skill and personal taste (technique).

  4. Oops, "wall" was supposed to be "hall". Oh well.

  5. I love your comment, Don. Great metaphor!

    I've recently become even MORE certain that place is story. I like tales without plot or drama of any kind!

    I loved Tarsem's The Fall (so much) but would love even more if he hadn't had all the drama in it. He says in the making of feature that without the drama he would have only had a long form "music video" not a movie. I understand that pov.

    It has made me think for weeks/months about this. Just yesterday--I realized--YES!!!!!__ it *should* have been a long form "music Video, if you will. A 90 minute cascade of remarkable imagery and poetic visuals. He could have characters. The characters could interact. But nothing dramatic needs to happen for me. NOTHING.

    Halfland may become the Seinfeld of stop motion!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!