Introducing ‘The Murph Scale’
Our narratives that are all out of order. Sometimes culture-makers, even ones putting together a Best Picture nominee, have legitimate reasons for this. Sometimes they’re just being pretentious. And sometimes they have no idea what they’re doing, but it’s what everyone else is doing, so they do it too. The world is their puzzlebox.
Many HBO shows fall into this non-linear trap. Big Little Lies simply drowned, not in a literal ocean, but in a sea of coy flashbacks. Watchmen is the most recent example, a show that bounced around in time from decade to decade, maybe with good reason, but also because it could. That show used the non-linear puzzlebox approach as a way of signaling that it was an intelligent show, and therefore the audience must be intelligent, too.
Audiences are no longer wondering what’s going to happen next. They’re wondering, what the hell is happening now?
You can’t really say the same about The Witcher, which people watched because it had naked witches and cool monsters and Henry Cavill taking a bath. Yet its narrative bounced around in time over the course of about four decades, not because it was intelligent, but because it could. Audiences are no longer wondering what’s going to happen next. They’re wondering, what the hell is happening now?
Middle to Beginning to End To Middle Back To Beginning
The puzzlebox narrative dominates TV these days, but it has its roots in the cinema. From time to time, a little misdirection works. Sunset Boulevard famously begins with its narrator floating face-down dead in the swimming pool. Pulp Fiction, the progenitor of the postmodern puzzlebox movie, features its protagonist getting shot on the toilet about halfway through, yet coming back two scenes later to do other business in the past. Sunset Boulevard proceeds pretty linearly after its opening. Pulp Fiction doesn’t, but it’s so full of other delights and surprises that the “what’s going on now?” element doesn’t really bother. Narrative experimentation is its whole reason for existence.
But Christopher Nolan is the actual patient zero of our current problem. Sure, you can excuse Memento, which, after all, involved memory loss. But why did Interstellar, a pretty straightforward story about astronauts trying to save humanity, have to become a puzzlebox narrative? Because it could, and because no one tells the creator of Heath Ledger’s Joker no. Whether he’s a narrative magician or just someone besotted with his own cleverness, I still blame everything on him. At least his cross-cutting makes sense within the logical of his narratives. But now seemingly half our movies have turned into time-travel sagas, even if their stories don’t warrant the device.
So, with that in mind, here are all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees ranked on the “Murph Scale.” Murph was Nolan’s Magical Science Lady, played by Jessica Chastain, whose childhood instincts proved the key to saving the universe, in the corniest puzzlebox solution in movie history. Your mileage may vary on these films, but to my mind, lots of Murphs are BAD. To avoid puzzleboxing things, I’ll just do the movies in alphabetical order. Here goes:
You could certainly argue that Best Picture Nominee and probable winner 1917, which legitimately starts at the beginning of the story and follows it through straight to the end with no flashbacks, is the ultimate linear movie. Because that’s what it does. But Sam Mendes’s “one take” strategy, which is actually several long takes stitched together, definitely smells of directorial pretension. He takes video-game narrative style and slaps a varnish of quality onto it. This is mostly effective and may prove to be the most-copied innovation to come out of films this year. But still, he gets THREE MURPHS.
Ford Vs. Ferrari
Our next Best Picture Nominee is as straightforward a red-meat pole-to-pole narrative as Hollywood is capable of producing these days. After an opening scene that shows Carroll Shelby back in his racing days, Ford. Vs. Ferrari delivers the goods from beginning to middle to end. ONE MURPH.
Is this a meditation on aging or a story about what really happened to Jimmy Hoffa? How about both? How about we try to guess what year it is based on what kind of shirt Joe Pesci is wearing? Who is narrating this movie? Is he self-aware? Why is Robert DeNiro’s face 30 years old but his body 75 years old? Who told Martin Scorsese that a puzzlebox narrative was a good idea? SEVEN MURPHS.
Our next Best Picture nominee is the year’s most controversial. Joker is feared, despised, beloved, misunderstood, overunderstood, and a huge international box-office phenomenon. It’s also a little narratively confusing, as you never know if what’s happening is really happening or if it’s happening in the Joker’s head. There are also several misdirections about Joker’s parentage, but they serve mostly as standard narrative reveals. An extra Murph for having to watch Batman’s parents die again. FOUR MURPHS.
You can’t really call Jojo Rabbit pretension free. After all, it does end with a scene of Holocaust survivors dancing to “Heroes” by David Bowie. And imaginary Adolph Hitler is a central character. THREE MURPHS.
And now, let’s face it, the real reason for this travesty of an essay. Did Greta Gerwig really need to change the narrative order of Little Women, one of literature and Hollywood’s most timeworn and best-loved stories? If you’re familiar with the story, sure, you could piece together what was going on. But I’ve had more than one person say to me, “I tried to figure out where we were in the story based on what hairstyle the girls had.” Little Women is not a hairstyle puzzlebox! The postmodern ending suits the age in which we live. Telling the story out of order doesn’t. If you say, “I loved that,” then you are being pretentious. TEN MURPHS.
This Best Picture Nominee starts with the protagonists reading letters about what they “like” about the other person. Then they reveal this is going on in marriage counseling. That’s fine and cute but it does take about 15 minutes. From there the story proceeds more or less in linear fashion, though there appear to be major time jumps between scenes, possibly a year or longer, and the child in the story doesn’t age at all. FOUR MURPHS.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood
The Godfather of the modern trick narrative structure, Quentin Tarantino can do pretty much whatever he wants, and doesn’t he know it? Nevertheless, he plays it fairly close to the bone, for him, deploying only about 20 flashbacks, some of which may be fictional, and films within films, and TV clips, and narrators who come out of nowhere. I actually loved this movie almost as much as I love my dog, so I bought into the universe. Also, you can get away with this kind of stuff if it’s a fictional world that you create, as opposed to, say, a pseudo-artistic take on an existing narrative. EIGHT MURPHS.
This film pretty much goes wire to wire, the mystery and drama unfolding like classic Hitchcock. A couple of Murph points for the ambiguous ending. But ambiguous endings are fine as long as you don’t TELL LITTLE WOMEN OUT OF ORDER. Best Picture Nominee and possible winner Parasite gets TWO MURPHS.