Storylines In Review

The Away-Break Crisis Storyline | Intro Page 

 

 

Storyline: During a trip abroad, the protagonist suffers a personal crisis.
This trip may be a holiday, a business trip, a health sabbatical, or one prompted
by some social obligation such as attending a funeral or wedding.
The destination, the setting, can be any place where the protagonist is without
their usual support structure - friends, family, daily routine. His or her surroundings
may be strange, unfamiliar. He or she is the proverbial fish out of water,
perhaps unable to speak the local language or understand the local culture.
The resulting crisis is more just a matter of physical survival, as in 'castaway'
storylines, where the protagonist is for instance shipwrecked and the struggle is
to survive physically, be rescued and return to civilisation. The crisis here is
an emotional or spiritual one, a test of character development, as in the motto
about the transformative power of travel, "He who returns will not be he who left."
If this is managed successfully, the trip may be ultimately a healing experience,
where the protagonist's pre-existing malaise is brought to a head and then overcome.
This may be done via involvement with a representative of this strange new culture,
someone who represents helps the protagonist overcome their 'culture shock' of exposure
to a different world-view. This is often part of the Romantic-school approach to the storyline,
where the outlook is an optimistic one, the experience one mainly one of adventure,
sexual romance or comedy.
However in the more realist approach, the challenge may be simply to confront oneself
and come to terms with one's own moral and spiritual resources in the face of a crisis
such as a medical diagnosis of terminal disease, and thus one's impending death.

Above: the background image is from the 2013 Polish film Ida, about a novice nun in 1960s Poland who is told she must leave the convent and go out into 'the world' to find her only living relative before she can take her vows.

The storyline has literary antecedents in the work of writers as diverse as Chekhov, Thomas Mann and Somerset Maugham. Illness was often a factor here, both for inspiration and setting. Chekhov's 1899 The Lady With The Dog was inspired by his own stay at the Black Sea resort of Yalta after he was diagnosed with the TB which killed him. Thomas Mann's 1912 novella Death In Venice was written during his stay in a Swiss TB sanatorium (the setting of his 1924 novel The Magic Mountain). Somerset Maugham's 1938 story Sanatorium was based on his own 1918 stay at a TB sanatorium in Scotland, using his literary persona the playwright Ashenden who like Maugham was an intelligence agent in Switzerland. Sartre’s 1938 La Nausee / Nausea deals not with a physical illness but an existential identity crisis during the writer-protagonist's stay, cut off and alone in an offseason seaside town (based on Le Havre, where Sartre then lived).



 

Left: screenshots from the 1950 film of Somerset Maugham's 1938 story Sanatorium.

However it proved difficult for cinema to match the novel's resources in dealing with such stories, even when they were knockabout comedies, as with Three Men In A Boat [1889]; works exploring human psychology, such as Sartre's Nausea or Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye, were impossible to tackle. When talkies arrived in the 1930s, the onscreen protagonist’s holiday crisis tended to be a domestic or marital one, as in Hitchcock’s 1931 part-talkie Rich And Strange, about a couple on a sea voyage, as well as in British working-class comedy-dramas like Hindle Wakes and Bank Holiday, both about complications arising from seaside holiday weekend activities. In the US, the 1933 Laurel and Hardy film Sons Of The Desert has a pair of henpecked husbands getting caught out lying about going on a sea voyage to Hawaii for health reasons, in order to honour their pledge to attend a masonic-style convention. (The liner they claimed to be aboard sinks in a typhoon.)  
World War Two
World War Two expanded the storyline to include crises that were more a matter of life and death, with some unique plot setups.

    

Thunder Rock (1942) has a political journalist hiding himself away in a lighthouse and communing with the ghostly presences of the drowned after his books fail to jolt the West out of their complacent isolationist prewar sensibility. The 1944 Ealing drama The Halfway House has assorted guests staying at a haunted Welsh guesthouse in wartime find they have gone back in time a year and hence are being given a second chance at life. The 1944 Powell & Pressburger film A Canterbury Tale has 3 modern wartime pilgrims meeting on the ancient Pilgrims' Way and receiving a blessing.
And Powell & Pressburger's 1945 'I Know Where I'm Going!' has the protagonist's self-satisfied materialist wilfulness seemingly stymied by Celtic force majeure when she is stranded in the Hebrides.

 

The Halfway House, set in Wales but filmed on Exmoor

A Canterbury Tale, 1944.
  
 
Postwar Development
Last Holiday (1950), from a JB Priestley script, returned to the 'spa' setting: the protagonist, diagnosed as terminally ill, goes off to stay at an exclusive spa hotel on England's south coast ("Pinebourne") - this time the plot being an exercise in irony.
Another 1950 British film, The Third Man, written by Graham Greene and set in Vienna in its postwar ruined state, was (along with I Know Where I'm Going, above) one of the first films to deal with the matter of culture shock. This is where the visitor’s crisis is brought about by his own inability to understand a different society; in this case he is an American whose thinking is that of a western pulp novelist. (Later examples of the role of culture shock would include Teahouse Of The August Moon
, Zorba The Greek and A Passage To India.)
 
Location filming was key here, and as it became more common postwar, setting assumed a larger role. Several Ingmar Bergman films put Sweden’s coast and countryside on the filmic map here. His Sommarlek / Summer Interlude / Illicit Interlude (1951) and Sommaren Med Monika / Summer With Monika (1953) were both stories of doomed love affairs set in the Stockholm Archipelago, while his Smultronstället / Wild Strawberries (1957) employed a road-trip story-setup to allow the protagonist to come to terms with his impending demise. Italy was the setting for several notable English-language films -the realist Viaggio In Italia / Journey To Italy, and the more romantic Roman Holiday, Beat The Devil (all 1953), and the Technicolor Summer Madness / Summertime (1955), set in Venice, which balanced realism and romance.

 

Left: Smultronstället / Wild Strawberries (1957)

Location filming, usually in widescreen colour, became a popular Hollywood 'production value' as the technology developed postwar, and stories were set in tourist destinations such as Paris (The Sun Also Rises), the Caribbean (Island In The Sun), the Med (Three Coins In The Fountain) and the Pacific (Teahouse Of The August Moon), as well as Africa's 'safari country' (The Snows Of Kilimanjaro). However the location work was often limited to establishing shots, shot by a 2nd unit, with the actors' dialogue scenes shot on a soundstage or backlot. One can see the limitations of the Hollywood postwar approach in the patchwork appearance of films like the 1956 Around The World In 80 Days.
Right: The Snows Of Kilimanjaro, 1952. A writer on safari lies possibly dying from a gangrenous leg. Typically, the actors did not go to Africa, their scenes shot on a soundstage, with rear projection and cycloramas to disguise this, the only location work being 2nd unit footage using doubles.



Left: The 1947 British film Black Narcissus was a pioneer in combining studio interiors and backlot sets with painted matte shots etc to substitute for location filming, which was difficult in early Technicolor. Set in the Himalayas, the actors got no nearer than a subtropical garden in Sussex.
Below: However David Lean promoted the use of location filming in Technicolor as an integral part of the drama, starting with his 1955 Summertime, set in Venice.

Left: In Three Coins In The Fountain [1954], the location filming in Rome in widescreen colour sustained a trite plot about three American secretarial workers hoping to marry.

European filmmakers took a more mature approach - less of a touristy view of a country, since they were working in their own native cultures. This can be seen in Antonioni's 'alienation' dramas Il Grido [1957] and L'Avventura [1960]. Felllini also used the storyline for his Otto e Mezzo / 8½ [1963], about an 'auteur' filmmaker undergoing a creative crisis at a luxury spa hotel near Rome as he tries to make his 9th film an 'all-in' autobiographically inspired one.  
A now-standard scene is to have the protagonists posed against a background of scenic Greek or Roman ruins. This was first used to good effect by Roberto Rossellini in his 1953 Viaggio In Italy / Journey To Italy set around Naples and Pompeii, where it had a role in the story. [Pictured right, screenshot with Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders]. Antonioni also used architecture from earlier periods of history in his 1960 L'Avventura - in this case from the Fascist era, when massive building projects were undertaken in 'brutalist' style. But often these lovers-amidst-the-ruins scenes seem more designed to appear as 'production values' or for publicity purposes, as in the 1963 Cliff Richards road-trip musical Summer Holiday, where the Athens Acropolis is used as a backdrop for his final solo song, expressing romantic regret. The Acropolis remains the firm favourite location here among film producers - cf My Life In Ruins, The Two Faces Of January, The Little Drummer Girl.
Bernardo Bertolucci adapted the storyline from Italian to international settings. Strategia del ragno / The Spider's Stratagem, based on a Borges story, has a protagonist stranded in a small town when he tries to uncover the truth of his father's killing by Fascists. Il Conformista / The Conformist has his 1930s Fascist protagonist honeymoon in Paris under orders to commit political assassination. The Sheltering Sky, from a Paul Bowles novel, has its American-tourist protagonists adrift and stranded in Morocco. Stealing Beauty has a young woman staying with an international group of bohemian types at a country house in Tuscany trying to discover the identity of her father. In The Dreamers, an American student staying in Paris is ensnared by a kinky menage-a-trois while the 1968 Paris student riots begin outside.
 
Jean Luc Godard's influential Le Mepris / Contempt (1963), filmed in Rome and on Capri, has the protagonists staying there for a film adaptation of Homer's Odyssey. The scriptwriter's wife comes to despise him when he seems to usher her towards the film's lecherous American producer, and their marriage winds up on the rocks. Though nominally based on a Moravia novel, the film may have an autobiographical angle: French New Wave directors had a reputation for handing their female companions around when they tired of them.  
Ingmar Bergman continued to use the Swedish landscape in his Såsom i en spegel / Through A Glass Darkly [1961], Tystnaden / The Silence [1963], Persona [1967], Vargtimmen / Hour Of The Wolf [1968] and En Passion / The Passion Of Anna [1969]. With one exception [Tystnaden] these films have their protagonists in crisis while staying at remote locations on the Baltic coast. There they encounter isolation, mental illness and erotic fantasy. Tystnaden has two sisters, one with a son, travelling by train through Eastern Europe trapped in an unnamed strife-ridden state where they cannot speak the language; the younger sister indulges herself sexually in their hotel while her older sister falls victim to a fatal illness. [Pictured right, Persona and Tystnaden.]  
British cinema also yielded examples from the 1960s on. Catch Us If You Can / Having A Wild Weekend and Charlie Bubbles both deal with the protagonists' failed road-trip attempts to escape their position in society. Pulp has a pulp-crime novelist trapped in a situation involving real-life murders when he accepts a ghostwriting job on Malta. The Michael Powell film Age Of Consent has a painter caught up in a dangerous liaison when he drops out of society to adopt an Australian beachcomber lifestyle. Don't Look Now has an English couple, on holiday in Venice to recover from the drowning of their child, caught up in an eerie situation foretold by a psychic.
Hotel du Lac, from the Anita Brookner novel, has a romance novelist forced into temporary exile at a Swiss resort hotel after she abruptly pulls out of her wedding. A Room With A View and A Passage To India both deal with young English female tourists who have led sheltered lives getting into difficulties abroad. Withnail And I has two drug-addled Londoners, unemployed actors, freaking out while staying at a rundown country cottage. The Mike Leigh satire Nuts In May has a patronising London couple on holiday in deepest Dorset. Clockwise, written by Michael Frayn, has a headmaster's away-day to attend a conference go disastrously wrong. Sexy Beast has the home of a gangster and his wife, retired to a holiday villa in Spain, invaded by a psychopathic former associate. Peter's Friends combines the country-house-weekend and college-friends-reunion setups to explore the characters' various midlife crises.
 
Above: Catch Us If You Can [1965] and Charlie Bubbles [1967]
Below:
Age Of Consent [1969]
and Hotel du Lac [1986].


Pictured left: Stand By Me and Sexy Beast, and right, Peter's Friends and The Big Chill.

American cinema took up the storyline with a variety of plot setups. The Night Of The Iguana, adapted from a Tennessee Williams play, has a defrocked minister turned bus-tour guide having a breakdown when he is stranded in a Mexican seaside village. Westworld, from a Michael Crichton script, has the protagonists trapped in an automated theme park when the robots rebel. Romancing The Stone has a romance-adventure writer become involved in a less clean-cut travel adventure of her own, while Stand By Me has a writer looking back on a preteen rite-of-passage camping-weekend hike. The 1980 indie Return Of The Secaucus Seven established the 60s-generation peer-group reunion as a plot setup, inspiring the more mainstream The Big Chill (1983). The Woody Allen film Stardust Memories, inspired by 8½, has a filmmaker fighting midlife crisis at a film-fest of his work. White Hunter Black Heart uses an African location shoot (inspired by The African Queen's) as a framework. The offbeat comedy Joe Versus The Volcano has its protagonist, told he is terminally ill, tricked into a sea voyage which is really a suicide pact. Groundhog Day uses a time-loop to trap its arrogant protagonist in a small town until he matures. The American has its assassin protagonist finding himself doomed by his past when he tries to start over in an Italian hill town. Moonrise Kingdom focuses on the crisis in a 1960s island community caused by a preteen runaway couple. The Way (2010) has a father completing the Santiago de Compostela pilgrim route with the ashes of his son, who died en route. The autobiographically-based Wild has its troubled protagonist struggle trying to use a long-distance mountain hike as a healing experience after her mother dies. ("I want to walk myself back to the woman my mother thought I was.")


Above: Romancing The Stone

 

Below: Groundhog Day

The most extended, extensive use of the storyline must be the 'Before' trilogy [1995-2013], written by director Richard Linklater and actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. Each entry in this multi-award-winning low-budget independent film series was made 9 years apart, each set in a different city. Before Sunrise [1995] is set in Vienna, with the characters stopping there overnight, while the 2004 sequel, Before Sunset, is set in Paris during a brief reunion before he is to fly home, and the last instalment, Before Midnight, is set around a writers' resort in Greece, where the couple have only a few hours left to salvage their relationship. [We have a background feature on the trilogy, here.]

 

Setting The Scene
Setting is a key element here, because of the nature of the storyline. Often the protagonist is waylaid by the allure of the setting - most popularly the sunny Mediterranean, the Scottish Highlands, or the bright lights of Paris.

Left: Beat The Devil, 1953, set and filmed on Italy's Amalfi coast
Above: Avanti!, 1972, set and filmed in the Bay of Naples

 
 
Above: Death In Venice (dir Luchino Visconti 1971)
Left: Mediterraneo (dir Gabriele Salvatores, 1991), set in the Greek islands

Left: The Scottish Highlands in 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (1945)
Above: in Local Hero (1982) and What We Did On Our Holiday (2014)
Among urban settings, Paris is the storyline's most popular.
Below: the bright lights of Paris
in CinemaScope in The Sun Also Rises, 1957. 


Above: Paris Blues (1961) and In The French Style (1962).

 

Midnight In Paris [2011] reflects filmmaker Woody Allen's lifelong fascination with the city: A wannabe American writer visiting Paris finds his life destabilised after he is magically transported back in time one night to 1920s Paris, meeting Hemingway et al.

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