During my four years of studying film at Ithaca College, I was subjected to more student films than one human being should ever have to endure–picture the brainwashing scene from A Clockwork Orange, but with less violent images and more mediocre ones. While these short films spanned a wide range of genres and styles, I began to notice that they all had something in common. Each film was tied up into a perfectly neat little narrative package, like a meticulously wrapped Christmas present… and not in a good way. These were the kinds of stories that felt they were produced after months of memorizing basic screenwriting textbooks. This is the world of bowtie cinema.
‘Bowtie cinema’ is a term I often use to describe the kinds of films that are too neatly constructed. On paper, that may sound like a counterproductive criticism. After all, films like Back to the Future have been rightfully hailed for their perfectly rounded screenplays. A story like that relies on a scrupulous script as its entire pay off is based around all of its moving parts clicking into place. But in many other cases, this kind of cinematic cleanliness often presents a multitude of problems that can hold a great work back.
To better help describe this phenomenon, look to this year’s Sundance winner, Fruitvale Station. Ryan Coogler’s debut feature is a powerful film anchored by an excellent lead performance from Michael B. Jordan. It’s also a prime example of bowtie cinema, with various plot threads coming together in obligatory ways. For example, Jordan’s character, Oscar Grant, has a charming moment early on where he helps a stranger plan for a fish fry. The confused woman admits that she has no idea what she’s doing, so Grant calls his grandmother and puts her on the line with the shopper. It’s a lovely little scene that quickly characterizes Grant as a genuinely nice guy who wants to help people. A few minutes of conversation go by and it’s over.
That is, until the third act when Grant randomly bumps into the shopper again on a crowded train that serves as the film’s climactic set piece. Whereas the character’s first appearance is sweet and meaningful, her second inspires little more than an eye-roll. It feels as though Coogler only included this unnecessary second run-in to ‘tie up’ a plot thread that needed no further tying. It comes off as an overly cautious measure, one which cheapens a beautiful little moment by giving it a punchline.
Similarly, one of the film’s tensest moments is weakened by another too-convenient character return. In a flashback to his time in jail, Grant gets in a brief verbal altercation with another prisoner. The quick scene serves as a way to reveal Grant’s dark side and act as a catalyst between him and his mother. But of course, this former prisoner happens to appear on the train as well, inciting a major conflict. What should be dramatic moment nearly becomes laughable by the sheer absurdity of coincidence.
Sure, there are certain stories where scenes like this would feasibly work, but Fruitvale Station is not one of those stories. Critics have hailed the film as a celebration of life, yet this kind of strict plot tightening feels far removed from our reality. Oscar Grant’s last day is reduced to little more than a series of manufactured coincidences. This is entirely counter intuitive to the true story the film is based on. In actuality, Grant was the victim of an entirely random event; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. Nothing is neatly wrapped, and that’s what makes the real story so striking and tragic. This style of writing simply doesn’t fit here in the way that it does for Back to the Future.
Ultimately, this bowtie style of screenwriting becomes a nasty crutch for writers. It gives off the illusion that a script is tight and clean. In actuality, the story often becomes uninteresting. It isn’t necessarily that the story becomes ‘predictable,’ though that’s certainly a byproduct. It’s more that scenes and sequences just feel obvious once they happen. You may not be expecting the grocery shopper to return, yet the second she appears on screen again invokes an “oh, of course” moment. Sometimes a sigh is all it takes to derail a scene.
So perhaps this is a plea to writers. It may seem elementary to tie everything up into a cute package, but always consider your content. Ask yourself: Is this the type of story where a perfectly neat narrative serves the theme? As Fruitvale Station proves, the answer is not always yes.