Thursday, December 29, 2016

In Praise of Exposition: "Fantastic Beasts" and Too Much Plot

As Plot has come to occupy the throne of Zeus in the Mt. Olympus of Storytelling, poor, unwanted, and abused Exposition has all but been chased down the mountain's stony steeps.

The ascendance of the film franchise, the television serial, and the multi-volume literary series, has been accompanied by the phenomenon of spoiler hysteria, itself the natural consequence of the elevation of plot. If a spoiler truly can spoil a story, then it follows that plot, and plot alone, constitutes the essence of a story, to the detriment of character, world-building, setting, literary beauty, or any other element of storytelling.

For films, the adulation of plot drives further the retreat into a reliance on popular book or comic series for the simple reason that books, far roomier than a feature film, have a greater, though shrinking, luxury: the establishment of a fantastic world and fascinating characters to populate it. The viewer's familiarity with the material allows film and television adaptations to cut back on exposition.

Exposition is crucial. Without it, a plot has no meaning, no emotional resonance. Exposition establishes the frameworks over which the story is constructed and it delimits the bounds of the imagined world, thus permitting the viewer to perceive the 'rules' of that world. Exposition is equally important for the introduction of characters. If we do not see Frodo happy and contented in Hobbiton, the scale of his sacrifice and bravery is lost; he is simply an opaque hero. His motivations for treating Smeagol with respect are dim, his desperation to destroy the ring becomes nothing more than a symbol of uninteresting good pitted against uninteresting evil. Whether Frodo succeeds or not only matters if we care about Frodo, if we care about what he cares about.

One of the commonest criticisms of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the first of what will eventually be a five-film series set in J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World, was that it was a largely expository film, but on the contrary, I would argue that the film's greatest weakness was its lack of exposition. Fantastic Beasts runs a bit more than two hours and it is jam-packed with happenings. Luckily, over the course of the Harry Potter series, literary and cinematographic, the vast majority of viewers will be familiar with the rules of the Wizarding World. It makes sense to us that a wizard can keep a menagerie of magical animals in a suitcase or that a witch can bake a strudel with a few waves of her wand. Though I personally would happily watch hours of such things, details of the workings of magical world, the lack of world-building in Fantastic Beasts doesn't cripple the film, as it would without the prior series. Even so, the greatest pleasures are to be found precisely in those details: the newspaper headlines, the spells and heretofore unseen magical creatures, clever inventions that Rowling so excels in creating.

What weakens Fantastic Beasts is the lack of expository character-building. Eddie Redmayne's performance as Newt Scamander has been criticized as flat and uninteresting, but frankly I don't see that as Redmayne's fault. No sooner do we meet Scamander than we see him swept into a chase after a Niffler (kudos to the design and effects departments - they are highly charismatic). We get no sense of why he is passionately enamored of magical animals, only that he is. Tina (Katherne Waterston) is in trouble with the MACUSA, seemingly for on-the-job incompetence, but the revelation of the reasons for her demotion doesn't explain who she is, or why she acted as she did. The real problem here is that the characters are reduced to easily definable qualities, qualities that fail to add up to an irreducibly complex character that resembles a relatable human being.

If Redmayne's performance lacks charisma, it may very well be because the audience never has a chance to spend time with him. Newt, Tina, Jacob (Dan Fogler), and Queenie (Alison Sudol) are the 'good guys' because they are the characters we are following, not because they are relatable or struggling to make choices that force the viewer to ponder the implications of such choices. Moral decision-making in Fantastic Beasts can be collapsed into easy alternatives: help someone or harm someone, preserve wildlife or destroy it. This is surprising, given that few fantasy novels can boast of the moral, spiritual, and psychological complexity of the Harry Potter books (the movies were able to ride on the books' coattails, enriched by the audience's reading).

On the one hand, Fantastic Beasts is enormously fun and, for those who care only to know what happens next, a true treat. There is much to admire - the CGI is absolutely splendid, all design elements, from sets and costumes to creatures and magic, are stunning, unique, and witty. But on the other, I hope, very much, that subsequent films will offer more time to get to know the characters: not just that Newt is shy and awkward, but why and how he feels about the way he is perceived; not just that Tina gets herself into scrapes, but why and how she feels about it; not just that these two characters feel a kinship, but why and what that kinship is like. I trust Rowling as one of our best storytellers to have created brilliant, complex characters. Now I'm ready to get to know them, but until I can, I'm just watching what they do, not caring why they do it.

So, hooray for exposition and may we get substantially more of it in the films to come!

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