Thursday, 1 February 2018

Thursday Movie Picks Meme: Story Within a Story

I haven't done one of these in a while, but I'm thinking it might be a good idea to start working on this again.

This week, the theme for Wanderer's Thursday Movie Picks is story within a story. Now this isn't always an easy topic to define. The simplest example I can give of a Story Within a Story is a framing narrative through which another story is related through flashback. In that sense, there are two stories. You have one narrative that sets up the film (though usually a secondary story) and another narrative that is relayed through the framing story.

Usually, this ties into the idea of plot and story, which are actually two separate if closely connected ideas. Of course, academics love to over-complicate everything and prefer to use the more confusing terms "fabula" and "syuzhet"(which originate from a Russian folklorist who was trying to study fairy tales), but they still have the same basic meaning. I love to use Citizen Kane as my example here.

The story is simply a linear timeline of events. This includes everything, right down to moments that we can infer happen (i.e. characters using the bathroom). The plot is how that story is presented to the viewer. To continue the Citizen Kane example, the story begins when Kane is taken away from his childhood home and ends when his sled is burned. The plot opens with Kane's death (an event that happens very late in the story) and uses a journalist's investigation to reveal the story of Kane's life through flashback.

To tie this back into the theme of Thursday Movie Picks, the story-within-a-story format is usually based on a plot which relies on one story to tell another. For instance, using the story of a journalist trying to understand Kane's last words to tell the story of Kane himself. The most straight forward way to do this is to have the modern plot relate past events through flashback.

Because of the theme of this week, I have chosen three films that feature stories-within-stories, and for convenience have made sure to include images of the secondary story for each one.

Citizen Kane (1942)

Orson Welles' famous pseudo-biopic inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst follows two parallel narratives at different points in time. The primary storyline is the rise and fall of newspaper-owner Charles Foster Kane, but the film actually opens with his death. Kane's dying words are "Rosebud" which leaves many people confused about what it could have meant. It then follows a journalist named Thompson who interviews people that knew Kane in the hopes of finding a clue as to what "Rosebud" is, and hoping that finding the answer will unlock some intriguing secret about Kane. This quest is ultimately unsuccessful, and in fact the secondary plot ends up leaves the viewer to speculate about its main story.

The Princess Bride 1987

This one is arguably a somewhat more literal variation of story within a story in that its actually presented as a man reading a book. Yes, the main story (the one most people usually watch it for) concerns the love story between Wesley and Buttercup and their various misadventures that introduce a variety of eccentric characters. But it both begins and ends with a very different story. We are introduced to an unnamed kid who is stuck in bed because of a cold. Peter Falk shows up as his grandfather and decides to read him a book that has a history of being read to members of the family when they were sick. That book is of course The Princess Bride. The storyline regularly gets interrupted by one or the other, resulting in commentary on the narrative as it progresses.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

This one takes the concept of "Story within a Story" to multiple levels, as it is arguably a story within a story within a story. The main story concerns the unlikely relationship between Ralph Fiennes' Monsieur Gustave, a Basil Faulty-eque hotel manager; and Zero Moustafa, his lobby boy. The two become unlikely friends and share a series of convoluted misadventures surrounding a conspiracy linking back to a recently deceased patient just before the start of World War II. However, that is also framed within a story surrounding the writer played by Jude Law, who visits the hotel several decades later and describes his relationship with an older Zero. And then that is also framed as a girl reading said author's book in the present day.


  1. Citizen Kane is a great movie and I enjoyed The Princess Bride, but The Grand Budapest Hotel is something else. That film is so beautiful and the storytelling is brilliant. Great picks!

  2. Three terrific choices that all fit so well. Kane is a masterwork that I can't say I'm as fond of as some. It's an excellent film just not one I return to very often. Grand Budapest Hotel is beautifully done but again I don't love it as much as others. The Princess Bride however is a charmer that is endlessly rewatchable with a group of actors that are both perfectly cast and really jump into the spirit of the film.

    This was a harder theme since the scope was narrow but I managed to come up with these three.

    Hellzapoppin’ (1941)- Projectionist Shemp Howard (ya one of the Three Stooges) is running a filmed dance number that turns into a funhouse ride collapsing into Hell where the dancers are tortured by demons until comics Olsen & Johnson arrive in a taxi and disrupt the scene. They call the scriptwriter in and we discover we’re in Miracle Pictures Studios (their slogan “If it’s a good picture, it’s a Miracle!”) where the boys are attempting to translate their Broadway hit show into a movie. Crazy patchwork quilt of a film throws everything, including a kitchen sink! into the mix and comes up with unrestrained lunacy that might make little linear sense since it bounces back and forth between stories but adds up to a very enjoyable viewing experience. Good cast with a standout Martha Raye. The source play was the longest running musical in history up to that point.

    The Locket (1946) - Because of a false accusation of theft as a young girl a woman (Laraine Day) sets out for revenge on the world becoming a kleptomaniac, chronic liar, and eventually a murderess. The story is told in layered flashbacks (flashbacks within flashbacks) from different points of view. Complex thriller has many noirish touches and a good cast including a young Robert Mitchum.

    The Fall (2006)-In a hospital ward in 20’s Los Angeles a young girl with a broken arm meets a seriously injured stunt man (Lee Pace) who as their friendship grows weaves elaborate stories in extravagant settings of different men who share a mission. As each story ends he asks her to forage in the hospital infirmary for morphine to help him endure his pain. Cryptic and challenging.

    1. I've seen the Locket. That was quite the film, with its intricate stories in stories.

      I'd actually agree with you on Citizen Kane. Don't get me wrong, it's a really well-made film. It totally deserves the detailed analysis its received and it's not hard to see why it was so influential. I just wouldn't place it at the very top of my favorite movies list.

  3. I really love Citizen Kane and had a ball with The Grand Budapest Hotel. Really nice picks. Haven't seen The Princess Bride, sadly.

    1. You haven't? That's very unusual. It's definitely worth watching when you get the chance.

      I remember not being entirely sure what to expect from the Grand Budapest Hotel at first, but being pretty amazed with what I got. Between the Fawlty Towers-esque humor and the weirdly convoluted but somehow still very engaging plot it turned out to be a lot of fun.

  4. Welcome back! Hope school went well. I am so happy you picked Citizen Kane because it is a masterwork even though it is not one of my favourites but I still love it. The Prince’s Bride is a fun story and I love watching it. The Grand Budapest is a great film and Ralph Fiennes deserved an Oscar and it showcased is comical side so well