The Rosebud “Plot Hole”, Controversies Over Objectivity in Criticism and the Reader’s Responsibilities.

Spoilers for; ‘Batman v Superman’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ and ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’.

Since the release of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, significant controversy has arisen, within what might loosely be termed the pop-culture criticism/analysis community on YouTube, over issues of nitpicking, objectivity versus subjectivity and theme versus continuity. The side (typically coming out in defence of TLJ) can be accused of wanting to have its cake and eat it too; saying that the film’s critics are wrong about various plot holes but also that plot holes don’t actually matter (one should focus solely on the broader themes of a story, or on its cultural context).

The main arguments seem to me to be:

  1. The continuity of a story is secondary to the themes and metaphors which it communicates.
  2. Plot holes can be explained away by using your imagination.
  3. All films have plot holes.

I’ll tackle them in reverse order.

“All films have plot holes.”

The point here is usually that either films in the same category as ‘The Last Jedi’ (like ‘The Original Trilogy’ and other sci-fi/fantasy properties) are, by their nature, riddled with plot holes, or that one could take a fine-tooth comb to even the greats of cinema and find fault with them. This latter version takes us to the “Rosebud” plot hole.

So it goes, even the greatest film ever made (‘Citizen Kane’) contains a glaring plot hole and in its first scene no less. Charlie utters his last word “rosebud” before dying and, then, the nurse comes to check on him. The events of the plot (the investigation of Charlie’s life) are then sent into motion by the fixation on said final word. However, no one was in the room to hear it.

Now, first things first, this is a gap rather than a contradiction. Both ideas are invoked when one is discussing plot holes and it is important to distinguish between the two. This represents the first major error in Patrick Willems’ video essay (titled: ‘Shut Up About Plot Holes’ – all caps).

At the 1:30 mark, he asserts that “Things That Happen Off-Screen” are not plot holes after conveniently leaving out the idea of a gap in the narrative from his definition of a plot hole. He says that Batman’s inexplicable return to Gotham in ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ is an example of montage, rather than a plot hole (he even says that people who were confused are not “reasonably intelligent”). He is wrong because this gap in the story generates an implausibility. It ignores two key plot points:

  1. Batman has been stripped of his resources, stranded and disabled.
  2. Gotham has been cut off from access to the outside world.

He later goes on to criticise the plot point (from ‘Batman v Superman’) that Martha Kent and Martha Wayne share a first name as “contrived”. So, to Willems, two women born in the same country and time period sharing a common name is more contrived than a man, whose broken back has just healed, showing up in a city that has been cut off from the world by a military blockade.

This betrays the fact that we are all guilty of being less forgiving with the story-telling errors present in works we dislike and vice versa. The solution of course, is to view every critique on its own merits.

So, back to “rosebud”. Does the gap generate an implausibility? I don’t think it does. Here’s all that would need to be overcome: Kane would have to have spoken this word to the last person he spoke to before he died. That’s it. A dying man, evidently fixating on one word, would have to have spoken that word to someone.

This naturally brings us to…

“Plot holes can be explained away by using your imagination.”

This is what I have done with “rosebud”. I have invented an explanation which was not given in the film. Willems, sort of, did this with ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ by asserting that Batman got to Gotham “off-screen”. The question then presents itself, why should the audience come up with explanations on their own? The fact is that the reader/watcher is already trying to help the story-teller. This is called “the willing suspension of disbelief”.

We agree to accept that the events we are witnessing are actually happening, and in return the story-teller agrees not to test the limits of this arrangement (in a typical story at least – the exception proves the rule, and so on). It is indicative of lazy writing, therefore, to rely on the audience to fill in the gaps or, even worse, to resolve contradictions. JJ Abrams is most well-known for this; he elucidates this in his infamous Ted Talk on his childhood fascination with ‘the Mystery Box’, a purchase from a magic shop which could have contained anything but actually contained random crap.

The idea of the reader engaging with a work creatively might seem appealing on paper but becomes less so when one realises that it rewards lazy writing. It is not entirely without purpose, however, as it can come in handy when a work contains only a few blemishes or when an author hands over a portion of the work to his fan base (as in, “my story focuses on this part of the world, so why not dream up some ideas for this other part of the world”).

The most fundamental question is this: Why purchase a story, if you’ll be asked to write it yourself?

“The continuity of a story is secondary to the themes and metaphors which it communicates.”

This argument is the most understandable but also requires the least push back. The conceit here is that one should overlook the events of the story, in favour of the themes that the work conveys. In practice, this means reading the story as an allegory or metaphor for some other thing. At its most absurd, this manifests itself in Bob Chipman’s defence of the film; that it serves as a metaphor for the Star Wars fandom (an incoherent and contradictory premise tacked onto an already confusing film). The trouble here is that doing such a thing would be to abandon any attempt at criticism.

One is permitted to “analyse” the film, sure, but only in order to make it fit into a more coherent narrative. You cannot say that the writing is good or bad, since that’s all besides the point; you merely have to describe how it made you feel. You are not permitted, however, to say that it made you feel frustrated and confused. Any attempt to tie this into a genuine critique of the film is doomed to failure.

The philosophy channel Wisecrack, for instance, identified the theme of “letting go of the past” and asserted that the film would have been more satisfying if Rey had agreed to Kylo’s offer of an alliance. That’s right, we’re told, the lead protagonist should have agreed to murder all of her friends on the pretext of moving forward.

What knocks this argument aside, however, is a simple question: Why should a good theme or metaphor necessitate throwing out the internal consistency of the world or the continuity of the plot? The answer is that it shouldn’t. In fact, all that fixing plot holes and other inconsistencies would do is make the work stronger. If it would dramatically alter your intended theme/message/metaphor then did you really think it through very well in the first place?

Anyway, these were an example of my “stray thoughts”. I thought it best to break ground of this blog with something quick and thrown-together, to give any readers some insight into my perspective ahead of the more structured pieces to follow.

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