Shannon Plumb has shot over 200 short films, which have been exhibited in museums, galleries, and on international screens. She started by shooting herself as various characters, acting out three-minute situations using humor and silence as her vehicles for storytelling. In 2013, her first feature film, Towheads, premiered at MoMA as part of New Directors / New Films. You can see her short films at shannonplumb.com and Towheads is available on Netflix and iTunes. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, director Derek Cianfrance, and their two sons.
Once Upon A Time … in a land of directors and writers, there lived a storyteller by the name of Matteo Garrone who spun a Tale of Tales.
I’m not a fan of unwarranted violence in movies. My body has a reaction to the fourteenth splash of blood that squirts from a man’s brains in a Tarantino film. My frame goes boneless and collapses inside of itself. My skin folds inward like a ball of slime into a bucket. My eyes get buried. I blindly change the channel. I curse the directors for traumatizing their audience. What purpose is there for a masked man to kill 20 college students in a log cabin in the forest? Why do I have to be scared every time I go into the woods? Why do we need to see another rape scene? Is any of this teaching us something new?
Most of the time, violence in American films is for spectacle. It’s created by an insensitive director with a large ego. It’s unnecessarily graphic. It’s more than a regular human being needs to see. There is no lesson. It’s just a cheap thrill to instill fear for an hour and a half. We don’t live with fairy tales anymore. We live with massacres on screen. There are very few stories, fewer meanings. Directors want to scare people for control, not for morality.
But a fairy tale handles fear in a different way. A fairy tale doesn’t create fear, it confronts the fear that has been in our hearts forever. The fairy tale examines our concerns, our rights and wrongs that we have wrestled with since the beginning of time. A fairy tale rolls out our fear like Grandma rolls out the dough for a delicious pie. It’s homemade. It contains all the ingredients in our cupboards. The recipe is basic. A pinch of human feelings and a touch of universal experience. Then our choices – bitter, or sweet. A fairy tale is a story everyone identifies with. It’s as familiar as salt and pepper. And like Grandma, it is old and wise. It has real purpose.
Watching Tale of Tales, my body didn’t fold in on itself, I didn’t curse the director for traumatizing the audience. There was violence, but I only closed my eyes once.
A few stories were told. They were stories we can all identify with.
It made me think of women I know, who, much like the Queen, wish for babies.
I thought of a mother’s love for her son and how possessive it can become.
I thought of all the sleazy men in the world who can never get enough power or sex or sensation.
I thought of the flea in the movie. What a shame that the father gave more attention to his blood-sucking pet than to his own daughter.
When the king gives his word and can’t take it back, even at the risk of his daughter’s safety and sanity, I thought of our leaders. I thought of their pride in their positions of power. And how that pride gets in the way of smart decisions. Smart decisions that could have saved lives but didn’t.
I thought of the ogre and the one I once knew. I would have liked to get violent on him!
When the girl tries to escape her captor, the people who help her get killed. Here I thought of the victims of change who try to help but are crushed in their courageous efforts.
Tale of Tales offered all these thoughts and more. It was a feast of feeling, and ethics and consequences, smiles and frowns, warnings and celebrations, depth and justice.
I didn’t always get what the lesson was. I didn’t really understand the ending. But I could accept the Unresolved and my unanswered questions because of my son’s first-grade teacher. She explained fairy tales to me once. She said everyone interprets a tale differently. She asked that we not project our meanings onto our kids. “The stories will work on your children in their own way. The children will digest them and dream about them. The meanings are like seeds in the mind. When they grow and flower, the child will choose which one to pick.”
Wow. How magical fairy tales really are!
I went to bed shortly after watching Tale of Tales. Immediately I was dreaming of strange creatures and mind-boggling metaphors. My brain was picking those flowers. I woke up into a land of morality.
It was as if a spell from Tale of Tales had drifted over the skies of Brooklyn. The happenings in the concrete forest became tainted with fairytale dust.
Then I was faced with the Thorny Bush.
The lady next door asked if I could remove the bush from our front yard. Every time her friends visit, they get pricked by the thorny branches that spiral around her railing. They bleed on her steps. I thought it was a big thing to ask. We just moved here. The only other things in our front yard are a mound of dirt and a bag of coupons I haven’t picked up yet. So I thought I’d be neighborly and trim it. I got a pair of my boys’ scissors and started pruning the bush. I’d never pruned anything before. I got tangled in thorns, of course. Got bit by them a few times. But I managed to get just enough off her handrail and still maintain the “bushness” of the bush.
I saw her that day, going to her car. I was standing on the front steps.
Proud that I had rescued the bush and also granted her wish, I happily said, “Hey, I started trimming the bush.” I was expecting we’d become friends now. She’d invite me to her castle and I’d invite her to mine. She just looked at her iron railing which led to her iron door, which led to her brick house. “Hmmmm …,” she said and hung on it for a long time like a gospel note in a choir solo. Then she shook her head. Disapproval. I didn’t do her right.
She left and I fumed. I huffed about it. I was confused by it. There was no hello or goodbye, just that long “hmmmm …” note. I realized later that note was a moment of reflection for both of us.
I talked to myself then. I talked in a fairy tale voice. I said, “Once upon a time there was a neighborhood lady who was followed by a thorny bush all her life …” And so I said, “Shannon, you must go forth and examine that bush. Look into your heart. The decision you make could have a major impact on the world.” The bush was leaning over my neighbor’s railing and into her yard. It was getting ready to grow more branches and start another attack. The bush had strategically settled on my property, ready to penetrate the railing and invade her castle. Maybe I could be the hero of this story and tackle that thorn bush for her. She couldn’t fight this battle. By the law in this land, she could not attack my bush. I would have to slaughter the bush for her.
I got out a saw and sawed away. I cut off the branches that were armed with thorns, that reached for her railing. I cut the branches that were further away but still in pursuit of the railing. I cut the branches that when blown in the wind would land on her railing. The bush is pretty much not a bush anymore.
I haven’t seen her since. Might not see her till after you read this. So I don’t really know the moral of this story. But, as we speak, that bush is still growing. And it has in its mind to go after her again. Sometimes you can’t have mercy. I might have to annihilate that bush. Who needs a bush anyway?
My husband I and were walking together. We stopped to get a snack. He got a ham and cheese croissant. He chomped on it while we headed home.
As I told him about this article, he pulled a piece of paper out of his mouth. Then he pulled a piece of paper from the croissant. I asked him if he felt like he was in a fairy tale. He responded, “No way. This is reality. If it was a fairy tale, I’d be shitting out origami butterflies.”
Thank you, Matteo Garrone, for giving us something to digest and live with for more than just an hour and a half.