Mariano Llinás’s storytelling feat.
It takes guts to make a four-hour movie, especially when one’s budget doesn’t stretch far. The astonishing thing about Extraordinary Stories is that the director’s vision is achieved because of the material limitations, and that the jagged narrative and unconventional storytelling stem directly from the lack of funds available to shoot the sprawling script. Taking its cue from some of the 20th century’s greatest literary provocateurs, this 245-minute long film manages to pull off its ambition with time to spare.
Loosely based on the tales of three men (portentously given the names H, X, Z), Extraordinary Stories shifts as fluidly as a Thomas Pynchon novel. The film’s melange of historical events, frequent narrative digressions, treasure hunts, conspiracy theories, constant movement, and mysterious strangers also add to the Pynchonian feel. Furthermore, the labyrinths within the narrative, the temporal instability, and the forking paths of the story also clearly bring to mind fellow Argentine Jorge Luis Borges. Through all this, the film never manages to collapse under the weight of its ‘literary’ leanings. Its multiple narratives remain compelling, the subplots frequently brilliant, while director Mariano Llinás is in complete control, even if the stories veer towards the incredulous at times.
Extraordinary Stories mostly utilises voiceover to drive the plot (c.f. Truffaut), and the distance afforded by these narrations complement the flat images. And while it may seem that the visuals are double percussive, in that they merely repeat the voiceover, Llinás subtly creates a “forked road” between what he’s telling us about the story, and what he’s showing us of the story. Small parts don’t match, or the visuals contradict what we’ve been told to think to such an extent that the narrator becomes as unreliable as a Borgesian one. These tiny fissures form part of a narrative that never resolves itself and seemingly has no logic if analysed externally (but most definitely so in the context of the film). If anything, the film would work better dubbed (which pains me to say), as the voiceover’s relationship to the visuals would have more resonance without having to read the subtitles.
For all its trickery, Extraordinary Stories is also a rich and emotionally engaging experience. All three protagonists are lonely, solitary men who find themselves immersed in other men’s lives as a way of compensating. The digressions—the architect who creates to justify his solitary existence, the woman who disappears because she craves the independence of loneliness—all reflect these perplexed, nomadic protagonists (with the exception of X, who becomes a hermit in his hotel room, relying on the routines and stasis of others for his vicarious pleasure). The ‘grammar’ of the film also constantly changes—from handheld, to short cuts, to long takes, to direct-to-camera address, to collage—creating an ad hoc yet inexorable rhythm that transcends the admittedly low-budget feel of the visuals. The four hours never felt long or an ordeal, and after watching this brilliant film, one can only hope that Llinás’s ambition isn’t beaten out of him in future projects.