When you hear the word “experiment,” you usually think of something scientific: a guy in a lab coat mixing multicolor liquids from test tubes over a Bunsen burner, electrifying that corpse he’s got strapped to the table, or kidnapping strangers and throwing them into a deathtrap together to see how they react. Or maybe not, I don’t know what your high school science classes were like. But experiments don’t have to be scientific. In the arts, experiments can be a way to drive in new directions, inspiring new waves of creativity, and transforming storytelling. Movies were once an experiment: a melding of theater and photography to create something that had not existed before in any meaningful way. Repeating the experiment but replacing photography with hand-drawn art invented animation. Virtually every kind of story and every way a story can be told was an experiment at first, and that’s what makes it worthwhile to try. And while it’s possible to take chances within your art – in the message, in the characters, in the story itself – what I’m interested in today are those creations that take chances with the form of art, something that is created in an unusual way or presented to the audience in a fashion that they aren’t used to, because that kind of Mad Science Storytelling is what I find really inspiring.
The thing that brought this topic to my mind this week was Dracula Daily. Once a Tumblr blog and now a free Substack, Dracula Daily is presenting an old, familiar story in a fresh new form. The original Dracula by Bram Stoker was an epistolary novel, a story told through documents composed by the characters in the story. This can take lots of different forms – diary or journal entries, personal letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, and so forth. In a way, it’s kind of the grandparent of modern found footage movies. It was a highly popular format in Stoker’s time, and although not as dominant anymore, it still exists today.
What the team behind Dracula Daily is doing is taking the original novel and breaking it down by the dates on the “documents,” then sending those chunks out via email on the corresponding date. The earliest part of the novel chronologically, for example, is a journal entry by Jonathan Harker dated May 3, and Dracula Daily began up on that date, emailing Harker’s journal to everyone signed up for the list. This went on for a few days until May 9, when Mina Murray sent a letter to her friend Lucy Westenra, which was that day’s installment, and so forth. It’s a fun way to experience a familiar story, and if that sounds interesting to you, there’s plenty of time to catch up – only eight short installments have been sent out as of this writing, and the project will continue until the story’s end in November.
Dracula Daily brought experimental stories back to my mind, but the notion has hovered there for a while because of a few other experimental stories I watched earlier this year. The thing about experiments is that sometimes experiments can…well…fail. And as the point of this blog is to celebrate what I love, I didn’t want to talk about just negative examples without having positives as well. I’ll get back to a few cool positives in a bit, but first let me tell you about the two things that, in my opinion, fell a little flat, but at the very least, were interesting.
First was a movie from last year called The Seven Faces of Jane, starring Gillian Jacobs. This is a film attempt at creating an “exquisite corpse:” Seven filmmakers were given an opportunity to make a chapter of the story of Jane, played by Jacobs, over the course of a long weekend after she dropped off her child at camp. The experiment interested me, as did the fact that one of the chapters was directed by Jacobs’s Community co-star Ken Jeong and also featured another Community alumnus, Joel McHale. Community being one of the greatest TV shows of the century, I’ll peek at literally anything people involved in that show are up to. However, Jane uses a TRUE exquisite corpse format, meaning that the filmmakers had no idea what the stories being told either before or after their segments would be. As a result, we don’t really get a movie as much as seven short films starring Gillian Jacobs and a blue car. There’s no consistency, nothing to adhere the segments together. The segments come from different genres, have clashing tones, and the primary character seems to be a completely different person from one minute to the next. Anthology movies can work, but there’s usually some sort of unifying element or theme that the film rallies around. In this movie that’s supposed to be Jane, but the segments are so different from one another that it’s impossible to accept it as a unified weekend from the life of a real person. For God’s sake, there are three separate segments about her briefly reconnecting with the long-lost love of her life, and it’s a different long-lost love every time. That’s a hell of a weekend.
The other experiment that falls a little flat I’m going to be a bit kinder to, as I haven’t watched the whole thing…but if I thought the experiment was working, I would have watched it by now. I’m talking about the Netflix miniseries Kaleidoscope. The series tells the story of a heist, and heist movies are fun. The high concept, though, the thing that makes it experimental, is that the episodes can theoretically be watched in any order. Each episode (with a color-coded name, as befits the idea of a kaleidoscope) shows a segment in time relating to the heist, from the “Violet” episode set 24 years before through the “Pink” episode, six months after. When you hit the play button, Netflix randomizes the order of the episodes, with the only constant being the “White” episode – the story of the heist itself – coming last.
It’s a fascinating concept, and nonlinear storytelling is certainly an interesting thing to experiment with, as the thousands of film students who have worshiped Quentin Tarantino for 30 years will vehemently attest. But the problem is that by randomizing the episodes, you’re also pretty much requiring every single episode be a good jumping-on point for the story, and that’s what didn’t work for me. I was randomly assigned the “Orange” episode (three weeks before the heist) as my introduction, and I just felt lost. I didn’t know who the characters were and, much worse, I didn’t care. Having a confused audience isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as they’re compelled to follow along until the confusion is alleviated. I wasn’t compelled.
To date I’ve only watched the one episode of Kaleidoscope, and it’s possible that further watching would change how I feel, but with so many other TV shows competing for my time, I need a really compelling reason to give a second chance to one that left me so flat. In the interest of fairness, though, there are a lot of people who disagree with me. I can say that the Orange episode isn’t a good place to start, which in and of itself seems to indicate that the randomizing option isn’t entirely successful, but a quick Google search will show you that virtually everyone who has watched the entire series has a different opinion as to which is the best order to watch the episodes in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out if this proves that the experiment was a failure or a success that I’m just not seeing.
So after those two duds, I was really excited about experimentation, but I needed to find better examples. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch came to mind, as it’s an “interactive movie” which requires that the viewer make decisions for the character at various points in the story, leading to several possible endings. It’s a fun movie and well-made, but ultimately it’s a filmed version of one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books that 80s kids like me grew up loving. Yes, it’s an experiment, but it’s kind of an old one, like growing a bean in a paper cup in elementary school science class. It’s fun because it’s new to you, because it’s your bean, but it’s not something that you can really point to as innovative.
I asked friends on social media to suggest other experimental works, and the one that kept coming up was Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which is an examination of a documentary that doesn’t exist unless maybe it does about a house that…well, it’s complicated. But the book is pieced together in a very unorthodox way, in a semi-epistolary format that also plays with things like the color of the printing and the orientation of the page. Because of these elements, it’s the sort of book that you can’t read on your phone or a tablet, you have to have an actual physical copy on hand, and it’s mainly for that reason that I haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. In fact, I haven’t even got far enough into it to make an educated statement about its effectiveness either way. I’ve got a five-year-old son, people, what do you want from me? I promise I’ll try to read it eventually and, when I do, I’ll tell you what I thought.
Then another movie came across my radar, a little indie film called Jethica. Directed by Pete Ohs, this quick movie tells about a pair of old high school friends who reconnect after several years. One of them tells the other about a struggle she had with a stalker, and how that trauma is following her, quite literally. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to spoil the movie (available on the Fandor app or to check out from Hoopla), but also because as good as the movie is, it’s the way it was made that really fascinates me. I learned about the film when Ohs was a guest on The Movie Crypt podcast, and the description of how the film was made blew my mind. Ohs brought his cast together and rented out a trailer for two weeks, went there with a rough outline of the first half of the story, and then the five of them got together once a day to work out what the next scenes to be filmed would be, how to tell the story, and write a script as a team. Halfway through the shoot they took a day off from filming to figure out the rest of the story, then repeated the process to get to the end.
As a writer and as someone who has directed theater productions (although never a film, I concede), this is one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever heard of. First of all, the fact that he began making the movie without even knowing the ending blows my mind. I’ve often said that when it comes to writing I’m more of a gardener than an architect – I plant seeds and cultivate them rather than planning out everything in advance – but I still have to have an idea of where it’s going to go before I start. I’m willing to take detours and change my mind along the way, but I still need some endpoint to march towards.
Second, the degree of collaboration is astonishing. I love collaborating with other creative people. I feel like I’m at my best when there are other artistic types around me, that the creative energy allows us to feed off each other. But the degree of trust that Ohs had in his cast is truly next level. The film’s script is credited to Ohs and the four members of the cast, all as co-writers, and that’s darn near magic.
And as if that wasn’t enough, Ohs then explained that this is how he always makes his movies.
The guts to try something different is really the essence of experimental storytelling. If you’re not taking a risk, after all, where’s the experiment? And that brings me to the last example I want to bring up today, Kyle Higgins’s excellent superhero comic book from Image, Radiant Black. The story of a disillusioned young man who comes into possession of a mysterious and powerful suit of armor has been a big hit for Image and has even launched a new shared universe, both with spinoffs of Radiant Black and through crossovers with other books like Ryan Parrott’s Rogue Sun (which also did a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” timey-wimey issue a while back). But all of that stuff is standard in superhero comics. What makes Radiant Black an interesting experiment is the degree of connectivity Higgins has with his audience, finding ways to surprise the reader and make them involved that mainstream comics don’t often do.
The first time I noticed Higgins taking a chance with the book came in issue #15, in which Radiant Black discovers a movie crew making a fan film about him. A cute concept, one that I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen in comics before, but the surprise came on the last page where there was a QR code. Scanning the code brought you to a YouTube video, an animated short of the film that was made in the comic you just finished reading (and featuring the voice of Batman Beyond star Will Friedle). It was a clever way to bring the readers into the world of the comic, make it a little more “real,” and include them in the process.
But in the most recent issue, #24, he did something much more surprising, which is kind of spoilery, so if you’re reading Radiant Black and you haven’t caught up yet, go catch up before you read the rest of this.
Alright, if you’re still reading I assume either you’re caught up or you’re not worried about the spoiler. It’s on you. Radiant Black pulled a bait-and-switch a few issues in, where the main character, Nathan, was put into a coma and the armor was passed to his best friend, Marshall. Marshall was Radiant Black for a while until Nathan awoke from his coma and they discovered the ability to pass the armor back and forth between the two of them. This has been the status quo in the book for some time, leading up to the end of issue #24 where a proclamation is made by one of those cosmic-type beings that occasionally make proclamations in comic books: the armor can no longer be shared! Nathan and Marshall must choose which of them will be the sole Radiant Black from now on!
And in the middle of that last page…ANOTHER QR CODE. This one takes you to a webpage where you vote on which of the two friends will be the permanent Radiant Black.
Again, it’s about the writer having guts. No doubt he has plans for both characters, an idea of where the series is going to go no matter which way the vote goes, but think of the implications of that. This means Higgins has taken the time to map out and develop two different storylines, having the faith that both of them are worthy of telling and knowing that one of them will have to be abandoned. It’s hard enough to come up with one story that you believe in enough to tell. Doing two with the intention of junking one? Mr. Higgins, I salute you.
Now this isn’t the first time that comic book fans have voted on the fate of a character. There was the infamous Batman: A Death in the Family storyline from 1988, in which the second Robin, Jason Todd, was caught in an explosion after being beaten nearly to death by the Joker. Fans were asked to call a 900 number (ask your parents, kids) to vote on whether he would survive or not. Fans chose “not.” (This book, by the way, also inspired a Choose Your Own Adventure version, the Death in the Family animated movie, which came out a few years ago. You see why I couldn’t call Bandersnatch a proper experiment on its own merits?)
More recently, Marvel has used the internet to poll fans for the last few years to occasionally realign the lineup of their X-Men characters, having the readers vote on the final member of the team. And of course in the ancient times (by which I mean the 1960s), DC Comics allowed fans to mail in their votes for the leaders of the Legion of Super-Heroes. None of these are as gutsy as what Higgins has done, though. In the case of the Legion, the question of who was technically leading the team at the time rarely had relevance to the stories being told – it was simple to swap out one for another as the story demanded. The same goes for X-Men – with so many characters in the book, having wiggle room for the last one isn’t problematic. Whether Robin lived or died, of course, was a much bigger deal, but Batman was also a much bigger book and then came with a smaller risk. You know Batman and the X-Men aren’t going to be canceled. The writer might get fired, sure. The book might be overhauled or renamed or it may start over with a new first issue because it’s Wednesday and they haven’t had one in a while, but one way or another that book is still going to be published next month.
Radiant Black, like most Image titles, is creator-owned, and if it crashes, that’s kind of the end of it. But Higgins isn’t just a good enough writer to launch a new popular superhero title in a crowded landscape with a dwindling audience. He’s a confident enough writer to do it in a unique, creative, and risky way that still entertains his readers. It’s that confidence, I think, that impresses me the most. “Confidence” seems to be his middle name. It’s mine too, but in my case it’s preceded by “Complete Lack Of.”
People have been telling stories for so long and have found so many different ways to do it that it seems almost impossible that there are any methods still waiting to be found. Even when an experiment doesn’t quite work, like Jane or Kaleidoscope, the people who tried it get my respect for the attempt. But when something new does work, that’s when a creator is going to make me a part of the audience for the long haul.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is accepting suggestions for other experimental stories all the time. Let’s have ‘em! What should he be reading or watching? He swears, he WILL get around to House of Leaves one of these days.