In the mid-to-late ’90s, it seemed impossible to make a movie about a single character. The explosive success and influence of Pulp Fiction not only had every character talking about breakfast cereal but also filled movies with sprawling casts and stories with only the seemingly random, life changing, preconceived-notion-shattering chance encounter as protagonist.
The genre reached its bloated apotheosis with Crash, a movie where everyone is racist and everyone learns just how racist they are. Sound banal? It won the Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay.
This year at TIFF, the sprawling celebrity monster that will charitably get called an ensemble drama is Cloud Atlas, a movie that “explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another.” And while the opening credits will feature more famous names than an average episode of TMZ (Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant), it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider how this form became a dominant narrative mode in American film.
Of course, the character came back. But not before this form could splinter into several sub-genres.
The Teen Sprawl – The exact same formula is followed – lives intersecting at random points, meaningless encounters changing everything – except people don’t learn how racist they are. They just change their ipod playlists or finally kiss a girl.
See: Go, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, 200 Cigarettes
The Sprawling RomCom – This one was sort of a no-brainer. It is like those parties in high school where everyone is expected to hook-up at the end of the night. Except instead of being awkward high school kids they are all beautiful people playing quirky personality malfunctions. And unlike high school, everyone hooks up in the end (even if it means realizing that your longtime manager is your only true friend).
See: Love Actually, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve, Four Weddings and a Funeral, any Tyler Perry Movie
The Moral Sprawl – This one is easy. Pick a theme (drugs effect every aspect of American life, Americans should be careful how they behave in the world, everyone is racist) and have 12 characters act out a version of it. Maybe they pass each other in the supermarket, maybe the drugs that get smuggled into the country end up with the senator’s daughter, maybe everyone is racist – just so long as all the characters brush against one another and everyone is racist.
See: Crash, Babel, Gomorrah, 21 Grams, Traffic, Syriana
The Good Sprawl – This is the one where it actually makes sense. Sprawl is not just used as a device to pack the credits with celebs while saving a writer the hardship of coming up with a character. These are films with unique structure and sharply drawn characters that use chance and coincidence without exploiting them…
See: Pulp Fiction, Nashville, Shortcuts