Without getting too caught up in the semantics, I believe it is fair to say that within the realms of television and cinema there are essentially two types of narratives: those that are plot-driven, and those that lean upon character as the driver. This might sound absurd to some at first, but take Speed as an example. The entire premise is based around a bus that cannot go below a certain speed without setting off a bomb, and the characters consequently react around this setup. On the other hand, you have a film like Goodfellas where, yes, there is an overarching narrative, but it is more about how engaging characters rough and tumble through it, rather than being locked into one overall scenario.
Of course, this is not to say that in choosing one route a filmmaker must make sacrifices with the other (proven by both examples above), but sometimes a good film can lose sight of the other in pursuit of its primary means of storytelling. I can certainly name countless action films where the characters were weak, but the high octane story was enough to compensate, and that is not just Trumpian hyperbole!
A perfect example for the purposes of my argument is Michael Dowse’s 2003 release It’s All Gone Pete Tong. On the surface, It’s All Gone Pete Tong might seem plot-driven given its premise of acclaimed Ibiza DJ Frankie Wilde (Paul Kaye) who goes completely deaf, but this is simply not the case. Instead, the film is about a man who undergoes one of the most life-changing experiences imaginable, especially given his profession, and how he comes to terms with his disability, in the process becoming a better person and musician.
Right from the get-go, Frankie is established as the film’s central figure. Loud, obnoxious and arrogant, with a bad drug habit to boot, Frankie is neither likeable nor relatable in the first act of the film, but this is at the heart of Dowse’s genius here. Frankie is not supposed to be likeable or relatable, so that when he undergoes radical personal change in the latter half of the film, it is all the more profound.
The strong character development is deftly executed, proving to be more than the sum of its parts by It’s All Gone Pete Tong’s conclusion. Yet, the film only truly begins to reach its full potential upon the pivotal moment midway through, where Frankie realises he has no desire to die and thus begins making the changes necessary to adapt to his new circumstances.
Although, Dowse’s efforts to slot this character’s development into an ongoing plot proved problematic for the writer and director in the film’s first half, as he is faced with the dilemma of keeping audiences engaged without creating too much distance from Frankie with his larger than life persona; something Groundhog Day absolutely perfected with Bill Murray’s character.
Enter, then, the cocaine hound.
Said hound is a metaphorical manifestation of Frankie’s drug addiction, which is embodied by a person dressed in a full-body dog suit, donning a fairy outfit and cocaine-covered snout. Every time Frankie tries to kick his habit, the hound assaults Frankie until he succumbs to his addiction again and again. Forgive the pun, but this comes across as a little too on the nose, especially when it is revealed that it is Frankie himself under the mask. However, the cocaine hound’s greatest sin, aside from both its tonal and diegetic inconsistency with the rest of the film, is that Frankie’s development would be almost entirely unaffected by its absence, which only serves to further highlight Dowse’s initial conflict between character and plot.
Even the talking heads structure can be a dampening element of its plot, despite its capacity for chuckle-inducing comedy that admittedly serves the pacing well enough. Dowse, on more than one occasion, seemingly felt the need to spell out elements that could already be visually discerned. Though once again, it is only in the previously lauded second half that Dowse discovers the true potential of this plot device, offering vital context instead of unnecessary clarification for Frankie’s character.
Why is it, then, that the second half offers much of what was missing in its first half, aside from its consistently strong character development? It is precisely because of said character development, the essential driver of the film.
The second half is the payoff, where the character has already hit rock bottom, and can only redeem himself through self-perseverance and change, which are resonating features for any character-driven film. It also helps that Dowse has, by this point, discarded of any distracting plot-driven elements, and can focus solely on Frankie’s redemption, who by the conclusion has become a wholly different person with little to prove to others, and everything to prove to himself. He has become the plausible antithesis of his own former self, and that, to me, is compelling.
Character and plot have always been two symbiotic elements that play off one another, but from a cinematic perspective at least, one tends to predominate over the other. There are master works of cinema to be found on both sides, but then there are times when sacrifices are made in the name of facilitating the primary narrative course. The ultimate quality of a film, I believe, can oftentimes boil down to whether or not the accomplishments of the main mode of storytelling outweigh the shortcomings of the other. In this respect, It’s All Gone Pete Tong is only one such example. Maybe you have one of your own, so be sure to leave your mark in the comments section below.