Are We Sick Of Serial Killers?


Paul Schrader is one of the most significant American screenwriters of the last four decades with cultural touchstones such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull to his name. The many scripts he’s written and directed himself, including Patty Hearst, American Gigolo, Mishima, Cat People and Light Sleeper don’t occupy quite such sanctified ground but nonetheless form a significant — and never less than deeply interesting — body of work. So when Schrader decided in a recent article for The Guardian that screenwriters had now reached a state of "narrative exhaustion", it was hard not to be intrigued and alarmed.

Storytelling has always consisted of variations on a handful of popular templates, something that Schrader acknowledges straight off the bat. "What is new," he writes, "is the omnipresence and ubiquity of plot created by media proliferation. We are inundated by narrative. We are swimming in storylines."

This means that for a storyteller "it is increasingly difficult to get out in front of a viewer’s expectations," he continues. "Almost every possible subject has not only been covered but covered exhaustively. How many hours of serial killer plot has the average viewer seen? Fifty? A hundred? He’s seen the basic plots, the permutations of those plotlines, the imitations of the permutations of those plotlines and the permutations of the imitations…"

The rise to popularity of such audio-visual alternatives as reality TV, videogames, YouTube clips and documentaries are all responses to this crisis of originality, the filmmaker suggests.

It’s tempting to nod along to all of this. For a start, Hollywood seems to agree. Every week it inundates our movie screens with remakes of old films and foreign movies, adaptations of comic books, kids’ bestsellers and cheesy TV series.

And sure, Schrader’s example of serial killer plots makes perfect sense. Each time I walk into the room when my partner is watching some US or UK crime series, it takes me about 30 seconds before I ask, "hey, didn’t you watch this episode last week?". Every episode of just about every crime drama seems to be about some outwardly normal psycho who kidnaps, murders, rapes and mutilates women. The cops of course are in hot pursuit using the same old tired methods — psychological profiling and forensics. (Yeah, only yesterday, these seemed like new exciting techniques but — Ye Gods! — how quickly they’ve become clichés.)

But none of this evidence proves Schrader’s thesis. All it demonstrates is that there’s an awful lot of formularised crap on free-to-air TV — and that serial killer tales should have been laid to rest by now. Someone with a keen interest in this area is UK cultural theorist Richard Dyer. Around eight years ago he told me the serial killer sub-genre was at the end of its cycle. Note that being at the end of a particular type of story is hardly evidence of the exhaustion of screen storytelling per se.

Here’s what I think. Schrader’s idea of narrative exhaustion is initially appealing to those attracted to grand overarching theories, and it may have some limited application when applied to particular genres or forms. At heart, though, it’s bunk. It possibly reveals more about Schrader’s own creative exhaustion at the end of a lifetime of screenwriting than it does about the state of storytelling in general.

I’m optimistic abut the future of screen storytelling, and this is why. Great film and TV drama and comedy does not only narrative but also character — not to mention atmosphere and mood, sensuality and sensation. Look at human beings. We all share certain characteristics, yet each one of us bafflingly different and unpredictable — from day to day, from moment to moment. How can that ever become dull?

Leading on from this, it ain’t the story you tell, it’s the way that you tell it. Michael Mann first told the story at the heart of his crime masterpiece Heat as a TV drama featuring little-known actors. Only one of the two dramas — very similar in narrative terms — is an acknowledged screen masterpiece. It was the way he retold it.

Furthermore, there has never been a golden age of narrative originality. Shakespeare lifted virtually all of his plots from earlier storytellers. If he was around today, he would be plagued by plagiarism suits. Hamlet was originally a Viking revenge saga called Amlet. But a simple act of narrative subversion — a hero who now tragically prevaricated over his vengeance — turned this tired old fireside tale into a new story with a different meaning. There are more opportunities for subverting established narratives than there are stories in the world.

Finding these stories might sometimes, however, require a dash of genius. The amount of storytelling activity may have increased due to new technology and corporate desire for profits in an information economy but the percentage of writers who are seriously talented always remains about the same, as NSW media lecturer Susie Eisenhuth just told me she likes to remind her students. Storytelling is hard and only a small number of folks can do it really well, and even then, not all of the time. That’s not the same as narrative exhaustion.

Narratives are always reactions to a specific time and place and specific "tribes" (social groups with binding characteristics that set them apart). Change the circumstances, change the details, and you alter the outcome. Disney animation The Lion King recycles the plot of Hamlet. Is going to see The Lion King the same as watching Shakespeare? Of course not.

If screenwriters have truly emptied the well, how come we’re living through an age of golden TV drama? The best of this genre is reaching new heights of sophistication, depth, narrative and thematic complexity and yes, originality. I’m thinking here of The Wire, Six Feet Under, Life on Mars, The Sopranos … — heck, any of those shows that come in huge boxed sets and take over your life because they’re so damn gripping.

Some literary genres have been scarcely touched by Hollywood and TV yet. Fantasy remains fixated at the family and kids level. Yet there remains a huge genre of popular adult fantasy penned by authors like Sara Douglass and Ian Irvine that remains essentially unexplored by Hollywood.

Mass audiences — as opposed to the minority audiences for arthouse films and HBO teleseries — don’t actually want too much originality. When he was head of 20th Century Fox, Bill Mechanic told me he felt the studio’s audiences always wanted something with which they were familiar, but with just enough of a twist to make it feel new. I suspect he was right.

Finally let’s not forget that at least 90 per cent of everything is always crap. Always has been, always will be. If there’s a greater volume of tripe now, it’s because there’s a greater amount of material being produced around the world than ever before. Of course most of it seems tired.

So Paul — maybe you’re tired too. That’s OK. You’ve earned the right to be exhausted. But must you be so needlessly apocalyptic about the rest of the world’s storytelling?

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