Life and death of the great American plot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WE HAVE come full circle. More than 100 years ago, audiences were held rapt by the first films of the French Lumiere brothers - a locomotive grinding into a station or parents feeding their baby - and by those of Thomas Alva Edison - a man sneezing or a couple robustly bussing. Simple quotidian gestures.

This summer, audiences were held rapt by 16 people scavenging about a tropical island or 10 strangers trying to coexist in a California prefab. Maybe not exactly everyday life, but not high drama, either. We began a century ago with plain unvarnished realism; we have arrived at only slightly varnished realism.

But if you sense that something is missing from these entertainments, you are right. They are incidents, at best, episodes (or in the case of "Survivor" and "Big Brother," strings of episodes); but they are not what anyone would call well-crafted narratives of the sort traditionally associated with popular entertainment.

After decades of attempting to create satisfying plots in movies, books and television programs, the mavens of popular culture have reversed field. Almost imperceptibly, we have been losing our stories. Look around the culture, from MTV to the latest movie blockbuster, and what you find is creeping plotlessness.

Narrative hasn't vanished from all media. John Grisham, Stephen King and J. K. Rowling, among other popular novelists, still provide old-fashioned plots, and occasional television series, such as "The Sopranos," feel like sagas, unspooling long narrative skeins. But where once every entertainment came fitted with a plot, today well-plotted entertainments are the exceptions that prove the rule. Even ostensibly conventional -- which is to say storybound -- movies and TV shows just go through the motions, feebly recycling tired plots that have attenuated to wisps.

In truth, it is surprising that narrative has managed to last as long as it did. The assault on it began early in the last century, as part of the modernist movement. Increasingly, intellectuals and younger artists felt that plot itself was inadequate to convey the modern condition. Plot, by its nature, incorporated cause and effect. It assumed a sense of logic and order, which seemed appropriate to the 19th century, with its belief in progress and the perfectibility of man.

But the 20th century wasn't about order; it was about fragmentation, dislocation, anomie, a sense not that man was progressing but that he was lurching aimlessly. Just as visual artists invented Cubism to deconstruct reality and express the discontinuities of modern life in painting and sculpture, literary artists needed new devices to convey a new reality in poetry and prose.

The 20th century's answer to the great 19th-century plot-maker Leo Tolstoy was James Joyce, with his verbal tricks, his skewed literary architecture and his elongated sense of time. An old-fashioned storyteller he wasn't. Yet he shaped not one but three literary generations, essentially convincing them that narrative was not only inadequate, it was a cop-out for timorous souls who hadn't the guts to take on the challenges of modern times. Many academics still make the same charges.

If narrative was undermined by intellectuals, it also received a jolt from the producers of popular culture. They had always relied on narrative because it was the surest way to engage an audience. After all, what were plots but mechanisms for inducing in audiences a heightened sense of the emotions and sensations that they feel in real life: fear, love, happiness, melancholy, exhilaration? Basically, plots were rigged to trigger the responses viewers presumably wanted to feel.

It was, however, a cumbersome and unreliable way to elicit responses precisely because it did require skill. What entertainers always sought was a less taxing, more dependable means of affecting the audience. Though it took a while, technology finally provided one. Through special effects and creative sound, filmmakers realized they could generate sensations in the audience without the need for a narrative.

Instead of routing through the emotional system, as movies traditionally had done, they could attack the viscera and avoid the narrative middleman. The result is that big American movies, which rake in most of the money now, are almost always sensation machines with only the most cursory plots to connect the effects and give the audience a small rooting interest.

Still, the most important source for narrative dissolution has been the audience itself. Whether or not the desire for narrative is a primal need, real appreciation of narratives is something acquired. Young viewers in particular - weaned on sensation through those movie noise-boxes, MTV and every other product of our bigger, faster, louder aesthetic - haven't had the opportunity to gain that kind of appreciation. My own kids even hesitate to watch a black-and-white movie, much less one that is densely plotted. Like almost everyone else in their generation, they have been conditioned by the media into a kind of "attention deficit disorder." Narratives are just too exhausting when you live within the jukebox of popular culture.

And the narratives that have survived do not have the appeal they had when they were freshly minted or when effort was routinely devoted to revivifying them. Take Nora Ephron's 1998 "You've Got Mail," a remake of the Ernst Lubitsch classic, "The Shop Around the Corner."

Ephron borrowed the basic situation: Two people fall in love with one another by exchanging letters ("Shop") or e-mail ("You've Got Mail"), without realizing that they know each other. But where the earlier film is highly nuanced with a range of emotions and a series of subplots, the later version shears off the subplots, broadens the emotions and goes directly for the tear ducts. Where the first film is delicate, the second is coarse.

One might attribute this to a failure of talent, but it is just as likely a failure of the audience to demand the kinds of subtleties and small narrative pleasures that former audiences took for granted. In part, they may be coarsened by the narratives they do get. In the 1930s and '40s, audiences might get three or four sharply written romantic comedies a year with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, or William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Ever since "Moonlighting" revived the basic matrix of quarreling lovers for television, audiences have been getting three or four romantic comedies a night. Virtually every program now comes equipped with a bickering couple, sometimes two or three.

In this case, however, quantity has not necessarily improved quality. Just as successive generations of videotape or film grow progressively blurrier, losing quality, so can successive generations of the same basic plots lose their spark. It is no wonder audiences suffer narrative fatigue and yearn for something new. The old plots have been worn out from overuse.

Ever resourceful, though, audiences have been finding the novelty they seem to crave in a most unusual place: life itself. While narrative has been leaching out of conventional entertainments, it has been expanding its reach in everyday reality. Our journalism, our politics, our education, even our own daily existences are increasingly and self-consciously organized by narrative patterns that often prove more intriguing than the faded narratives of our movies, books and TV shows.

That may be one reason why "Survivor" proved so popular. Narratively skimpy though it was, it was one of the few things we hadn't seen a hundred times before.

But despite the narrative richness of the world we live in, there is something disquieting about the fact that the great plots that once powered our entertainments now seem exhausted and a whole new generation may not even know enough about them to care. Somehow, our culture was borne by romantic comedies, Westerns, adventure films, fantasies and melodramas. These things defined us as surely as anything else in America. In a sense, they were our legacy.

Reality does have its compensations, but big narrative thrills aren't among them. Our plots are gone. The loss is ours.

Neal Gabler is the author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" and "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Con quered Reality." This article first ap peared in the Los Angeles Times.

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