So I blame Simon Templar.
Yeah, so he’s a fictional character, but when I was fairly young I caught the end of an episode of The Saint. Now I barely remember it, but it left enough of an impression that I’ve been kind of obsessed with the character since then. And by extension, caper shows/movies/books.
Okay, so I don’t want to spend the entire post trying to explain what I mean by caper stories. So I’ll sum it up without going into too much detail. A caper story centers on the commission of one particular crime (usually a robbery). It usually features characters who are slightly over the top, but still believable. Think Snatch, Ocean’s Eleven, The Perfect Score, Confidence, etc. Granted, it sometimes happens that one crime sets off another crime, but generally it starts with a single crime.
So it isn’t really surprising that I downloaded “Baccano!” and bought Lupin the Third (Dead or Alive and The Book of Nostradamus to be exact). But what makes the two of them so interesting is how they’re on opposite ends of the trend in caper shows. (Some people might disagree with my classification of “Baccano!” as a caper show. But in a lot of ways it looks like one to start.) And all of this got me thinking about magic tricks.
Yeah, that’s a non-sequitur right there. But bear with me for a moment. So all story-telling is illusion in its own way. With a magician it’s his job to make the audience believe something that is blatantly not true. Essentially he does this by misdirection or in a way creating a fiction on the stage. Storytellers do the same thing. They create an illusion through images. Make the audience buy into it, through creating believable characters that the audience wants to invest their time in to. Then puts the characters into a situation which creates tension. So in essence, a story is an illusion told through words or pictures and dialogue.
Oh yeah, and narrative. This is what I’ve been thinking a lot about watching both “Baccano!” and Lupin the Third.
The classic caper narrative vs. the new caper narrative
So the classic caper narrative starts with the reason for the crime. In the Italian Job it was revenge. But mostly it’s usually about money (Ocean’s Eleven) or the thrill (The Thomas Crowne Affair). Then it moves in a linear direction. The hero collects his crew, faces some complications and then the story climaxes and it ends. In a lot of ways this is the storytelling equivalent of pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a woman in half. The audience knows that the story is supposed to go in that direction and doesn’t have to work to figure out what’s going on.
Lupin the Third is that kind of narrative. In fact both stories had almost the same plot structure. Now that doesn’t mean they had the same plot, but the way the narrative arc started with the problem, added rising action, built up to a climax, had a resolution and then the denouement was the same. (Although I could do an entire post on the missing denouement in anime).
Now, the new caper narrative is (in my opinion) largely the work of Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarrantino. Essentially the story starts wherever it feels like starting. Pulp Fiction, for instance, starts at the climax and goes back to the introduction, then has some rising action, the denouement and then some more rising action and then goes back to the climax and resolution. Now in the case of Pulp Fiction it’s a deceptively tricky set up. Essentially there are several different classic stories built around one set of characters. Now other stories have taken the idea and run with it (with mixed results). Then Guy Ritchie came along then with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and added fancy camera work to the mix – jump cuts, time lapse, time stop (with interior monologue), and some other stuff. This again has become part of the canon for the new crime/caper narrative.
Ironically, I can’t decide whether “Baccano!” starts with the denouement or with the introduction or whether that section of the story serves both purposes. Then it moves backward and forward through time, changing POVs (another trick of the broken narrative), until eventually it sorts itself out into a selection of stories. It has moments of denouement sprinkled into the story. It isn’t as broken as say 28 Grams but it comes close.
Now in a lot of ways, this is the storytelling equivalent to making the Statue of Liberty disappear or escaping from a block of ice. It’s risky. It’s flashy. It gets a whole lot of attention.
But when it fails, it fails hard.
Which one is better
Now if you’ve been reading this blog long enough, you’ve probably figured out that I’m a bit of a traditionalist. I like my stories without a whole lot of fancy tricks. But I do make a little bit of an exception when it comes to the broken narrative. I like it… sometimes.
There is a good reason why the broken narrative has become so prevalent in crime/caper stories and that’s because there’s a limited amount of plots that you can have. Essentially the Hope Diamond can only get stolen so many times before people start saying, “Yeah… it’s another one of those movies.” The broken narrative works to add a bit of tension to a story on the part of the audience. We have to piece together what’s going on from the dribs and drabs of information that we’re given until we can get a picture of what’s going on.
The problem is that much like Guy Ritchie’s jump cuts, it’s just storytelling trickery. Now in the case of “Baccano!” it worked because of something I mentioned with Pulp Fiction that the parts of the stories were in themselves their own stories. “Baccano!” used a similar method with breaking down each scene into its own mini-story and having each of the episodes focused around a particular set of characters (almost creating an arc within the arc).
But whenever I see one of these type of tricks employed I wonder how much more they could have done if they just told the story straight. That’s the limitation of the broken narrative (especially when it jumps between storylines and POVs), is that it leaves characters less developed then they would have been if the story was told straight. So while I don’t mind it, I’m not in love with it either.
I mean who really cares whether the Statue of Liberty disappeared. It’s still just smoke and mirrors.