Trusting one’s own narrative arc
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - February 19, 2018 - 12:00am

The more famous the subject is, and the more complex his life story, the more necessary the decisions on what to include in this narrative arc. As Zeneida‘Bibot’ Amador loved to say, ‘Art is selection.’

Conversing with my movie date after enjoying The Greatest Showman, we realized that we had both read a critical review that started with “I have a fundamental problem with this movie…” And which went on to stress that actual controversies involving P.T. Barnum — as an alleged fraud who exploited the marginalized — had been papered over. Thus, the film couldn’t be “good.”

Well, more than halfway through Wolverine’s, er, Hugh Jackman’s, commendable song-and-dance performance, I had wondered if Barnum’s partner Bailey would ever be introduced. But simply shrugged off his total absence.

Often, when watching biopics, we tend to labor over previous knowledge of the subject, as if the exclusion of certain parts of what could be voluminous source materials necessarily diminishes our appreciation of what’s left and offered. This is true as well with transpositions from books to films.

Well, I’ve long held the view that unfair expectations should hardly be a factor when evaluating the worth of crossover material. The simple yardstick ought to be a reckoning of whether a filmmaker achieved her/his objective. After studied collaboration with producer and scriptwriter, the narrative arc decided upon can only be held up against its eventual effectivity.

In particular, biopics present a challenge. The more famous the subject is, and the more complex his life story, the more necessary the decisions on what to include in this narrative arc.

As my former film-reviewing colleague Zeneida “Bibot” Amador loved to say, “Art is selection.” Essential to the process is determining what is to be accomplished, what goes into the picture. The success of the final product depends on meeting that goal, given the creative choices, and certainly not in satisfying an audience’s expectation of fulfillment with regard familiarity with the projected material.

With film, compression and condensation are the hallmarks that fit in with the medium and its standard length. Full coverage of a life story just isn’t possible. Besides, much of that would be dull since inherently quotidian. Fidelity to biographical fact must make way for the demands of narrative rhythm and dramatic value.

In Darkest Hour, a showcase for Gary Oldman’s thespic brilliance, only the most dramatic and inspiring phase of Winston Churchill’s life was chosen as the brief narrative arc. It was a veritable rendering of our Amador’s “Art is selection” truism.  

With The Greatest Showman, it’s acknowledged as being only loosely based on P.T. Barnum’s life story and his concept of entertainment, fraught as that might have been with occasional fraudulence. He had another word for hoaxes: “humbug.” One of the four books he authored (not mentioned at all in the film, as his having also been an elected politician, temperance lecturer, etc.) was titled The Humbugs of the World.

He actually entered the circus business at the age of 60, and didn’t get to partner with James Bailey until over a decade later. For a musical’s tidy narrative that would fit in thematic songs and show-stopping performance numbers, it was Barnum’s zeal as a showman (to the extent of mounting freak shows) that became important. Thus, Tom Thumb gets to meet Queen Victoria in London, as happened in real life.

What’s also dramatized, and embroidered upon, is Barnum’s successful stint as an impresario when he bankrolled Swedish singer Jenny Lind’s concert tour in America. In real life, she didn’t turn into a temptress, which in the film results in Barnum’s validation of his values as a man faithful to his wife and family.

Can a scriptwriter and director do that? Why, yes, they’re within their rights, and privileges, as their own storytellers. It isn’t quite fake news that’s purveyed, but a fictional enhancement seen as a possible plus for the narrative arc. 

I understand that Ang Larawan starts out quite differently from Nick Joaquin’s play, Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. It was well within director Loy Arcenas’ right and privilege to decide on his own tack apropos the character Bitoy Camacho’s lengthy opening monologue on Intramuros. As a filmmaker, Arcenas chose to transpose it in accordance with cinematic demands.

Historical figures aren’t exempt from any art medium’s creative license. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get entertained by the dark fantasy horror film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which was originally a novel. Adaptation into film may have lost parts of the book, but it gained in cinematic efficacy.

And when a book is adapted as film, we shouldn’t expect all the pages we’re familiar with to be kept intact. I enjoyed Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita despite the omissions. We appreciate Game of Thrones despite the condensation.

We can revel in any new medium, as long as the artist behind the retelling succeeds independently in trusting the selected parts and rhythms of what has become a fresh narrative.

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