Dramaturgery: The Lone Ranger and the Curse of the Framing Narrative

Posted: February 3, 2014 in Braak, poetics
Tags: , , ,

I saw this movie the other day.  It…could have been worse, I guess, but it also could have been better.  On the one hand, I guess if you’re going to use the Comanche as a plot point, it’s nice that the war is started entirely by greedy white guys, and propagated by a white guy who can’t admit that he did anything wrong.  That’s a step forward.  On the other hand, a hundred Comanche get massacred and it doesn’t have any bearing on the story at all, the Lone Ranger just wants to rescue that lady, Tonto just wants to get his revenge.  No Comanche massacre was required for either plot OR story in order for that to happen.

It’s especially galling because let’s be real, that entire movie was just a set up for an amazing 20-minute railroad battle climax set to Hans Zimmer’s orchestration of the William Tell Overture.  And that part was great!  It was fantastic!  But also literally every single minute before was interchangeable plot filler.  I heard that they were going to have werewolves in it originally, I wish there had been werewolves.  That’s the thing about this movie; if you’d taken out the Comanche massacre and put in some outlaw werewolves instead, it would have been exactly the same movie.

Anyway, I’m not going to talk about any of that, or even about why did Johnny Depp play Tonto, or any of it.  Instead, I’d like to take a few minutes and talk about Frame Stories.


You now what these are.  These are the stories that START the movie, and then at some point in the frame story some guy is all, “oh this reminds me of a time when I helped the Lone Ranger shoot some guys,” and then the actual movie starts.  These things are EVERYWHERE, and it makes me a little puzzled because I’m not sure that anyone who puts them into a movie has any idea what they are, or how they work, or WHY they’re there.

So, here is how framing narratives work.  This, incidentally, works for most narration in general, because narration (even just voiceover narration), is actually an implicit frame story in most cases; when the detective is telling you what he was thinking or what happened or speculating about what he didn’t know — especially if he’s doing it in the past tense — as an audience member you’re automatically going to presume some kind of condition for the narrator that is not within the context of the story.  He is outside the story, in other words, in another place, possibly telling this to you in retrospect.  It’s not as explicit as in Titanic, for instance, where there’s an actual story to the frame, but it implies all the same things that a frame story does.

Okay, okay, so here’s how storytelling works.  There are basically three privileges that we afford a narrator — three benefits of the doubt that, if they are not questioned, we will assume are true.

The first is that his story is real.  That is not to say that it’s a story about only things that COULD be real, but that, while we’re accepting the conditions of the story, we accept that they ARE real.  In other words, when we go into a movie theater, we make certain a certain deal with the filmmaker — we accept as conditionally true certain elements necessary for the story to happen.  When we go to see Transformers, we don’t go into the theater with the presumption that giant robots that turn into dinosaurs are not and CANNOT be true; we instead accept, however briefly, that they can be true while we’re watching the film.

But we accept not only that they can be true, but that they’re real.  When we imagine a story that we’re being told, we don’t envision actors playing roles in front of sets and carrying props.  We imagine the real thing, or what we think is the real thing.  When we watch a TV show that has chintzy special effects, we don’t look at the chintziness of those effects as a sign that the story is dishonest; instead, as a condition of watching the show, we agree to elide those effects, to accept them as representatives of things that are real.  (Sometimes this is easier than others, obviously.)

The second privilege we afford a narrator is that the narrator perceives the real things accurately.  This implies both omniscience — that the narrator knows everything that’s happening — and also an unmuddied perspective.  This is why third-person omniscient is a very common narrative, especially for big stories with lots of places and characters in them.  You don’t see Homer saying, “And then Achilles had a conversation with Priam, but I don’t know what they talked about, because I wasn’t there” — Homer wasn’t there for ANY of it, he’s making the story up, he can make up all the parts of the story.  There is nothing withheld from the guy who is inventing the narrative, and so the presumption when he tells us the story is that he knows all the things in it.

Similarly, we presume a kind of objectivity on behalf of the narrator — if the narrator of a story tells us, for instance, that a character is ugly, and it’s written in this standard third-person omniscient point of view — we don’t first imagine a narrator with his own particular character, who has a personal prejudice against (for instance) people with long noses.  We instead just imagine the ugly character that the narrator tells us about.  This is especially true in film; unless we’re told very specifically that this film is from someone’s perspective (and even if we are, we often forget it), the “narrator” (in this case, the filmmaker) is invisible, and what he or she is presenting to us looks like reality, so we don’t presume that it’s modified by some prejudices on behalf of the filmmaker.

The third privilege we afford a narrator is that the narrator is telling us the truth.  This is the place that we start from with a story.  When a storyteller is telling you something that you know they’re making up, anyway — i.e., when they’re relating fiction — it doesn’t make any sense to think that they’re lying about what happens in it.  The storyteller is making it up, so none of it is really true; and the purpose of the story is to convey this made-up narrative, so obfuscating it serves no essential purpose.

Again, you don’t see Homer saying, “Oh, remember when I said Odysseus and Achilles had that conversation before?  Well, I lied about what they talked about, actually they said THIS.”  What?  Why wouldn’t he have just told us the truth before?  (There are reasons, but this is the starting point, remember, the presumption that we begin with.)  When we go into a story, and ESPECIALLY when we go into a film, we always start from a place that tells us that what we’re watching is the honest portrayal of the thing — a fact served by the way that movies (especially modern American blockbusters) have such a high degree of technical verisimilitude (that is to say not that they are portraying things that only exist in real life, but that they go to great effort and expense to portray those things as though they existed in real life).

So, those are the three privileges of narration: reality, accuracy, and honesty.

The only reason you’d use a frame story — or any kind of specific narration — is if one of those things isn’t true.

The Dishonest Narrator

This one is a pretty common idea, and as soon as I described the privilege of honesty you probably immediately thought of, “But what about unreliable narrators?”  Right, what indeed.  The best example of this is The Usual Suspects, and let’s think about how that works, right?

The Usual Suspects has two storytellers.  It’s got Bryan Singer, who made the movie (and Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote it), and it’s got Verbal Kint, who’s relating the story of the context in the movie.  So, in The Usual Suspects, it’s only Verbal Kint who’s the unreliable narrator — Bryan Singer is actually still a completely honest storyteller, in the sense that he is honestly portraying the lies that Verbal Kint is telling.  What he’s done is use the frame story to pull a kind of narrative slight of hand, but letting us conflate Verbal Kint with Bryan Singer, and letting us conflate Chaz Palmentieri with ourselves — Chaz is Kint’s audience, we are Bryan Singer’s.

In this conflation, we have taken the privileges of reality, accuracy, and especially honesty which we have correctly applied to Bryan Singer (as a condition of watching the movie in the first place) and accidentally ALSO applied them to Verbal Kint, even though within the context of the movie, we’ve got not actual reason to do this.  All of this is for the sort of visceral frisson that we experience when, at the end of the movie, those conflated ideas are forcibly separated; we realize the mistake that we made, in allowing ourselves to imagine one storyteller instead of two, and we’re astonished and delighted to realize that the movie that we saw from one perspective was actually two, very carefully overlapping perspectives.

You can see what this needs in order to work, though, right?  Bryan Singer does it with two storytellers:  himself (an independent, objective observe) and Kint (a liar).  But it’s also important that Kint has someone to lie to.  The story doesn’t make half so much sense if Kint were simply lying to us, because we have no vested interest in arresting him, or arresting Kaiser Socze, or anything like that — we have a neutral relationship with the characters onscreen, so Kint could just as easily have told US the truth about what was going on.

It’s not completely necessary, though — Fallen pulls a similar trick; the opening narration of the movie is by the demon Azazel, who’s presented as an antagonist, and we’re permitted, over the movie’s course, to forget that the demon is telling the story, only to be surprised when we think the story is resolved at the end.  It works in this case because Azazel, in the first place, isn’t specifically lying to us, so much as it’s letting us be misled by the story, and in the second place because Azazel’s status as the story’s antagonist is clear from the beginning.  We DON’T have a neutral relationship with Azazel; he’s the badguy, we don’t like him, and he doesn’t like us, so it’s reasonable that he’s going to mislead us with his story.

The Limited Narrator

This is another one that’s a pretty common idea — narration from the perspective of someone who doesn’t have the whole story.  It’s especially common in mysteries, for obvious reasons:  the experience of the mystery story is also the experience of being the detective.  We don’t watch mysteries because we want to specifically know the answer to who committed the murder, but because we want to go along with the experience of solving the murder.  To that purpose, the storyteller is often the person trying to solve the mystery.  There’s a way in which the narrator is telling the story to himself; he’s his own audience, and we’re permitted to conflate ourselves with him.  We have limited knowledge of the events of the story because he has limited knowledge of the events of the story, but more importantly, he has limited knowledge of the events of the story so that we will have limited knowledge as well.

But it’s not common only to mysteries; Rashomon is a good example of not story information that is withheld from the storyteller, but of storytellers with specifically limited perspectives that affect how they relate the story.  Indeed, Rashomon is an exercise in demonstrating how the character of a storyteller affects the relation of a story.

By contrast, remember Ghosts of Mars? (hahaha, no you don’t, no one watched Ghosts of Mars)  Anyway, there’s a part in Ghosts of Mars where the guys all split up, have different adventures, then meet back up and relate the adventures that they had.  The problem with this is that there’s nothing to suggest that the people telling the stories are either lying, or incorrect in their evaluation of events (neither at the time of the telling, nor at any point in the narrative later) — so, why didn’t we just see these events happen?  What’s the point of having someone tell a story, if their relation of the story isn’t going to be any different from the story that we presume our omniscient third-person storyteller is going to tell?  Well, the answer is, “there’s no point.  There was no point to that,” which is a good summary of Ghosts of Mars in general.

The Narrator of the Unreal

This third kind of narrator is actually a pretty unusual one.  I think the best example is probably The Princess Bride.  Remember the frame story in The Princess Bride, where Peter Falk is telling the story to Fred Savage?  Well, there’s a reason why The Princess Bride is The Princess Bride, and Stardust (for example) isn’t, and is never going to be.  It’s the reason why no advances in special effects or handsome actors or better music or sets or anything like that will result in a movie that will eclipse The Princess Bride.

The reason for that is that the story-within-a-story of The Princess Bride is very purposefully not real.  The sets are fake, the music is corny, the characters — while they don’t seem to KNOW they’re in a story — are very clearly in a story.  That’s because the story of The Princess Bride isn’t really about Westley getting his girl back, it’s about Peter Falk bonding with his grandson — The Princess Bride is about how we use stories to connect with each other, to tell us what our values are (note Fred Savage’s initial distaste for the kissing scenes, and how he comes around again?  He is learning what is valuable in life — love — through the act of storytelling).  Because of this, The Princess Bride is actually served by the fakeness of its story-within-a-story.  It specifically draws attention to its own unrealness, to make a commentary about what fantasy is for.

Such a thing is less rare in the theater — the word “Brechtian” basically means this exact thing — because actual verisimilitude in the theater is almost impossible anyway.  Still, movies are often well-served by it, because the contrast between the real and the unreal can be made to be so stark.

Be It Concluded

Be it concluded, what the hell was the point of the Tonto frame story in The Lone Ranger?  Tonto didn’t lie to us, as far as we can tell — he’s got no apparent reason to lie in the first place, he never goes back over anything that he said and reveals that what actually happened was something different (and, even if he had done this, there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it in the framing story).  He never is held up by the fact that he doesn’t have all the information for his story (and, indeed, even seems to relate scenes that he couldn’t possibly have been present for — and we’re given no reason to doubt what occurred in those scenes).

It’s possible that you could make an argument, I suppose, that what he’s relating is so clearly fantastic, that he’s become a narrator of the unreal.  And you could further make an argument that he’s doing this to inspire something in that boy that he’s talking to — but what?  The movie’s notion of justice and inspiration is so muddled that it’s not clear what the boy would be inspired to do besides “admire the Lone Ranger”.  And while the portrayal of events in the film is fantastic, no attention is paid to their unreality.  The boy disbelieves some of the things that happen in the plot, but never things like the Lone Ranger’s horse leaping up onto the top of a barn or something, or how the Lone Ranger caught a bullet out of midair to shoot at another man, or why there were cannibal rabbits.  In fact, the exciting adventure scenes in the Lone Ranger are portrayed with exactly the same commitment to verisimilitude as all improbable action sequences are, anywhere, ever, so there’s no real reason to doubt the “fact” of what Tonto is relating either.

So what’s it there for?  What’s it supposed to do?  Well, nothing it seems to me, so they should have cut it out and made more room for werewolves.

Incidentally, The Lone Ranger isn’t the only movie that has this problem — John Carter (of Mars) — also had a frame story (actually maybe two frame stories?), that seemed to serve no purpose.  Oh, I mean, there was a PLOT purpose (John Carter had to lure the evil guys to the tomb so he could kill them, or something), but as I’ve mentioned before, plot purpose in and of itself is rarely very important.  That plot point doesn’t serve to illustrate anything, and thus the frame story — as it is real, accurate, and honest — doesn’t serve any actual purpose.

The conclusion then, I suppose, is that if you have an instinct to say, “oh, this story needs some kind of frame around it”, STOP.  You are already thinking about it the wrong way.

  1. Jeff Holland says:

    Here’s the only reason I can possibly think of for the Old Senile Tonto frame: it’s how they decided to get around some of the odd story flourishes that had previously been explained by having actual magic in the movie until Disney cut their budget – the inexplicable capabilities of Silver, the brief appearance of glowing feral rabbits, etc. Somehow, adding 10 minutes of “This Old Tonto’s telling one caraaaazy story, maybe he’s making some of it up!” made more sense to them than actually cutting things that shouldn’t be in there.

    ORRRR, maybe nobody quite knew what the hell they were doing with this thing at all, but what are you gonna do, NOT blow millions making a poorly-conceived Lone Ranger movie?

  2. braak says:

    I guess that’s true, not throwing millions of dollars in a big fucking pit was probably not an option.

  3. To me, the entire point of the framing device is for the very last shot, the stinger throughout the credits in which Depp walks away slowly into scrubland and disappears from shot. I normally don’t like this kind of framing – its inherent schmaltziness takes the bite out of movies like Saving Private Ryan, for instance. It can be done well – it’s the entire point in Life of Pi – but it’s rare. I was on the fence about its use in Lone Ranger until that very last shot, and then it hit me like a brick.

    Perhaps it wouldn’t have hit me so hard, or so overwhelmingly, if any other major film had invested the same amount of time or care to say the same thing about the Native American community.

    The massacre sequence wasn’t so much for the massacre, it’s for the image of the Lone Ranger being guided, blindfolded through it, completely ignorant of what’s happening around him. He’s been the only one, throughout the plot, who holds onto the idea that the world can actually work in an idealistic, black-and-white, good vs. evil fashion. Whether the image works or not is worth arguing, but I absolutely think it had intent. He’s the rest of us, the audience, the one with faith in the system, amid all the power players, blind to the repercussions around him. I can’t think of many directors who would even attempt that. I do agree that Verbinski plays fast and loose with his tonal shifts, especially with the horse in the tree bit right afterward. They wouldn’t work so well without Depp and I’m not sure that particular one does.

    If The Lone Ranger reminds me of any other single film, it’s Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. While Tarantino’s craftsmanship is certainly tighter, I think Verbinski has something more important to point out. Like I said, beyond a tiny Canadian production or a Native American film a handful of people see, there hasn’t been any film that bothers to mention the fact our country’s founded upon the genocide of entire peoples, let alone make it the driving point. That there’s now one that made $90 million…even if it lost heaps of money, a lot of people saw it, and that means a great deal.

  4. braak says:

    So, I don’t disagree that the last image was really good, but I do disagree that the frame story was necessary in order to accommodate it. In particular, creating a framing narrative just for the ending raises a whole bunch of issues that are never addressed, either in the narrative itself, or sort of contextually as a relevant point about narrative. (For instance: how does Tonto tell parts of the story that he wasn’t present for? Why does the kid ask about the railroad in the desert, but not how Tonto knows what happened at the meeting with the railroad executives?) In fact, the framing narrative is largely forgotten except when the movie specifically draws attention to it, and then draws attention to it for no reason (see the bit with the rails: “Rails in the desert? I don’t believe that!” “Actually, here is a logical explanation for it provided by the narrative.” “Oh. Well. Nevermind, then.”

    It seems to me that if you’re going to mostly forget about the framing narrative, then you don’t actually need it for anything. By way of contrast, there’s no reason that the movie couldn’t have just ended with Tonto telling the story to the kid — it’s a perfectly comprehensible epilogue to a story, finding out the whole thing was being related in retrospect, and it achieves the same purpose as it does in the film, without creating beforehand the expectation that the framing narrative is going to be relevant.

    Similarly, while I agree that parts of the use of the Comanche massacre were good, it still seems to me that when it’s introduced, the notion is owed a lot more than what they ended up doing with it — owed more than just that one scene, for instance. (Furthermore, while it may be that the Lone Ranger is the only one with a black-and-white morality and faith in the system, it should be pointed out that the movie clearly delineates these as two seperate things: at no point does The Lone Ranger suggest moral ambiguity about any of these actions — we’re not given to understand, for example, that any of the bad guys had moral or moral-seeming reasons for their actions; they are all pretty much narcissistic sociopaths. The problem is the Lone Ranger’s faith in the judicial system providing justice in a world that has an actual black-and-white morality, which turns out to be simply wrong — the system does not provide justice for anyone; daring, I like it, but it’s another notion that deserves more attention than what we got.)

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