Story is easy to talk about – it’s usually the only thing anyone wants to discuss, despite cinematography and editing being arguably more important. This often means that audiences are stumped by movies that avoid plot altogether, prioritising characters or visuals over conventional narrative plot-points. These films are essentially about nothing.
The Man From Earth is a good example; there’s no corporate espionage or action sequences – it’s essentially just a series of conversations between various characters. It’s about nothing in particular – which, despite what you may think – is actually pretty enthralling. These films have something to say, something important that has nothing to do with a larger narrative.
Martin Scorsese, for instance – on multiple occasions – has expressed a lack of interest in plot as opposed to visual storytelling, which involves conveying emotions and characterisations through reoccurring images and symbols. Taxi Driver is pretty much a character study with no plot to speak of. Here are 10 more just like it…
From director David Lynch, Eraserhead is a wonderfully strange and beautiful movie dealing with the pressures of responsibility, and the realities of childbirth. In the film, Henry (John Nance) moves in with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart) after getting her pregnant inadvertently. Straightforward enough, right? Well, the resulting infant is far from normal, appearing more akin to a lizard, or a mutated calf, or an extra-terrestrial.
Eraserhead’s not really about anything in particular. It’s absurd, but strangely disturbing – and, despite the humour and ridiculousness – there’s a sinister, uncanny atmosphere encapsulating the burgeoning, incomprehensible occurrences, each more nonsensical than the last. That said, there’s a strange sense of logic which pervades the narrative, which you eventually accept – which makes the seemingly random sequences make sense in a strange way.Advertisement
From Richard Linklater – the director of Boyhood – Slacker is an uncommonly structured film, following a whole host a characters as they go about their regular days. The characters include two conspiracy theorists, a women trying to sell a Madonna pap smear, an anarchist who befriends a man trying to rob him, and a talkative taxi passenger (played by Linklater himself).
What’s so great about Slacker is its lack of plot – the way it shifts focus sporadically, as if the filmmaker had suddenly gotten bored of the previous character and decided to pick someone else out at random and tell their story instead. Each moment is so estranged from the last that you might start to wonder whether or not they’re even set in the same universe, or whether or not it even matters.
Essentially a love story between a man and his OS, Her might have actually have suffered from a more conventional plot structure. After all, it’s about a man in love with his operating system – so, there’s already plenty of ways it could have been handled poorly. Instead, Spike Jonze demonstrates complete dedication to storytelling over plot, writing and directing the movie around universally relatable concepts such as love and heartbreak.
Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly – a divorcee looking for a love in a technologic future. His relationship with Samantha is almost completely accepted by society (with the exception of his ex-wife), and while there are difficulties to their being in love, there are also no reasons for them to avoid it.
Her isn’t about overcoming adversity (or shutting down a rogue AI); it’s about the nature of relationships, love and heart-break. The lack of plot keeps the focus on the characters and their developing understanding of one another, teasing some larger implication to OS intelligence, but emphasising the human aspect to the story at all times.
Napoleon Dynamite is about nothing. The titular protagonist (Jon Heder) spends most of the film unsuccessfully campaigning for his friend, Pedro (Efren Ramirez) to become class president – only to finally win over his fellow students with an impromptu dance routine.
Unconventional, hilarious and occasionally beautiful, Napoleon Dynamite is one of the best examples of just how exceptional a plotless film can be. It’s an eccentric love story set in an alternate dimension where people act irrationally – and love disco music from the 80s.
The film’s set in the early 2000s yet everything from the music to the clothing is anachronistic, better suited the 1980s and 90s than the previous decade. Napoleon Dynamite makes enough narrative sense; it’s just so abnormal that it feels like something created by aliens with only a partial comprehension of human beings. It’s this weirdness that makes the film so engaging – and part of that charm comes directly from its lack of plot.
In the end, everything sort of comes together despite itself.
The Breakfast Club
In detention, five students form an unlikely friendship in the process of writing an essay, entitled “Who do you think you are?” – which is exactly what The Breakfast Club is about: characters discovering things about themselves, as well as one another.
The Breakfast Club is set predominantly in a single location – the library, during detention. As the film progresses, the characters learn about each other’s lives outside school, sympathising with one another and forming closer friendships in the process.
It’s entirely character driven – meaning there’s nothing in the way of story/plot connecting everything together, besides the basic premise. By the end, nothing’s really changed; they’re the same characters, complete with the same problems – only now they have a greater appreciation for their fellow classmates, who are in completely relatable situations.
Shot on a shoestring budget, Clerks is a handout movie about nothing in particular – it’s about a group of co-workers hanging out on their day-off.
It’s set predominantly in the same location, and is essentially just a series of prolonged conversations, broken up by the occasional transitions. Though the characters and their relationships change over the course of the film, there’s no real plot to speak of.
Dante – the protagonist – is eventually confronted about his lack of direction or ambition – but, despite this minor revelation – demonstrates no serious evolution. There’s a sense of narrative culmination, but none of the events leading up to this conclusion are connected in any meaningful way whatsoever – in fact, it’s almost like a montage.
If the characters would stop making poor decisions, there would be no movie – because the movie is about the character’s poor decisions, which certainly isn’t grounds for a plot.
The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski revolves around the character, Jeffery ‘The Dude’ Lewbowski – who is mistaken for a man with the same name and becomes involved in a hostage ransoming. Though that sound plot-worthy, the events of the film are so randomly tied together that it feels more like a parody of storytelling than a genuine attempt at plot.
Joel and Ethan Coen have said themselves, The Big Lebowski does have a plot – it’s just a “hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant”. It’s there because it’s expected to be there for this kind of film, but it’s more of a formality than anything substantial. The plot keeps the action moving and the characters motivated, nothing more.
In fact, some of the events in the film are so arbitrarily connected that they may as well be completely random. The only reason Lebowski find the missing girl is because he’s thrown out of a moving taxi at an opportune time. While these events are technically linked, the sheer improbability of the encounter renders the plot completely irrelevant.
Un Chien Andalou
A silent film from the late-twenties, Un Chien Andalou doesn’t have a plot – at least not in the conventional sense. Based on a series of dreams of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou is essentially just a series of unconnected images, tied loosely together by a bizarre dreamlike non-logic that pervade the entire film.
One moment you’ll be watching two characters embrace on a balcony observing the moon, and the next scene will be a women’s eye being cut in half, or a man’s hand erupting into swarms of ants.
The film almost challenges you to try and piece everything together, but it’s no use. Both Buñuel and Dali have stated that Un Chien Andalou isn’t supposed to make any sense. It’s just a series of striking images woven together like a dream – one shot into the next with little in the way of plot to justify anything that’s happening.
Inside Llewyn Davis
Following the story of a fictional folk artist, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about financial and personal struggle in the pursuit of artistry. Set over the course of a single week, Llewyn spends the majority of the film homeless and reliant on his friends and family for support, bouncing between sofas as he tries to get his life together.
Though the protagonist (Oscar Isaacs) certainly has a clear goal – to make it as a musician –his journey is less about acquiring fame and recognition, and more about all the many personal and practical issues that get in his way. Over the course of the film, he’s beaten up and almost arrested – all in the space of seven days. Though that may sound pretty bleak, there’s actually a fair amount of humour that keeps the film from becoming melancholic, sprinkling in little comedic moments to keep the atmosphere light.
Inside Llewyn Davis is essentially about a musician who can’t quite catch a break – travelling throughout the city of New York with his guitar and learning a few things about himself along the way. The lack of conventional plot is actually what makes this film so enjoyable. It’s a character piece in its purest form – an exploration of a principle figure who forms the foundation for the rest of the movie.
Lost in Translation
Essentially the story of two lonely individuals who meet in Tokyo and form an unconventional friendship, Lost in Translation is a touching film that has absolutely no semblance of a plot. Instead, it’s about chance encounters and the overwhelming sense of isolation that a person can experience in an unfamiliar setting – especially one as vastly dissimilar as Japan.
The cinematography alone makes this one worth watching, but what really sells Lost in Translation as an experience is the relationship between the two principle characters – played by Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. Though each character evolves dramatically, their character arcs aren’t motivated by dramatic moments of revelation or startling realisation, but rather mutual understanding. They come to sympathise and relate to one another, and though the film teases a possible romantic dimension to their relation, it never quite happens.
It’s this level of maturity that marks Lost in Translation as a stand out film. It’s not about two characters who fall in love and begin an affair, run away together and take complete ownership over their lives, it’s about being alone and coming to terms with that.
At least, that’s my interpretation.