Episode 290: The In Medias Res of Choice

The Overthinkers confuse narrative complexity with podcasting good.

Matthew Belinkie, Peter Fenzel, and Matthew Wrather confuse narrative complexity with podcasting good.

→ Download Episode 290 (MP3)

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22 Comments on “Episode 290: The In Medias Res of Choice”

  1. Hudsucker #

    I feel like the first half of this episode is missing. Is this some kind of meta performance art?


    • Hudsucker #

      Nevermind, you clever, clever Overthinkers.s


  2. Organism #

    Wow. That was amazing – I don’t want to specify what I’m talking about because that will spoil it…


  3. Chris Morgan #

    Yeah, imagine the absurdity of a mobster movie starting in medias res. I mean, if something happened, like, a dude was in the trunk of a car, and then there was some sort of opening narration. Something about the main character always wanting to be a gangster. There is certainly no way anybody would enjoy such a movie, and no self-respecting director would ever do that.


  4. cat #

    This was a lot of fun. I’m not sure what prompted the topic but feel free to do classics/epic poetry episodes whenever you don’t feel like covering the movies in theatres. Did you just really not feel like talking about jack Ryan or ride along?


  5. Tulse #

    I can’t wait for your show on Memento, or Primer.


    • JoeM #

      I would absolutely love to hear these guys talk about primer.


  6. AndrewB #

    …was on my bed with my tablet. Unfortunately I dozed off (because your voices are that of angels) so I thought I may have missed something important.


    The opening of the podcast threw me as I was on my bed with my tablet when I started listening. Unfortunately I dozed off…


    …so I thought I may have missed something important. It wasn’t until I got to my PC that I understood what you were doing.


  7. MEGR #

    I think we learned from this that In Medias Res doesn’t work for podcasts. Probably because podcasts are conversations, not narratives.


    • fenzel OTI Staff #

      I dunno, while we were obviously poking some fun at us and the form, I thought it let us do some interesting things. I especially loved all the differences that came up when we repeated the material from the beginning a second time. A fair number of them were purposeful and meaningful — both in terms of offering additional insights by the comparison and I think even kind of poetic.

      I especially liked how I summarized the point of The Usual Suspects totally differently the first and second time. That was on purpose.


      • Wizardy #

        I found the second version of the conversation much easier to listen to. I’m all for spontaneity but for some of the harder topics, having it “prepared” in advance seemed to help focus the conversation more.


    • Matthew Wrather OTI Staff #

      I suppose that what “works” depends on your definition of “work.”


  8. Chris Moyer #

    I think this was one of my favorite episodes in recent episodes. I love the schtick, but generally loved the conversation. (Heck, it’s the first one in a very long time where I’ve come to comment.)

    First off, the show prompted me to spend some time thinking about the difference between the written word and cinema. Two of the books I read in the past year played with timelines and I remember them as two of my recent favorites: Cloud Atlas and Infinite Jest.

    Cloud Atlas was recently translated to film (which I didn’t see, but will gladly talk about) and I remember often here the criticism that the literary technique used (of a sandwiched set of narratives) did not translate to film. I wonder if there is something to that.

    Infinite Jest on the other hand wasn’t really In Media Res, so much as it started with events after the end of the book and left it up to the reader to fill in the gaps.

    I think both of these worked for me because they fit the description of all reading being detection. Cloud Atlas I spent much of my reading carefully considering how this part fit in with the last, looking for clues about where they would connect and trying to make deductions. Infinite Jest created a similar experience. I think in a work of literature, these techniques encourage thoughtful reading, and can really work.

    This is not to say that there aren’t movies where these techniques also work, but my mind was drawn to more contemporary literary comparisons.

    And speaking of literary comparisons, this episode really made me feel out of my league regarding classical literature. I think we read parts of Odyssey in High School, but I only have a vague plot synopsis of that, The Illiad, Aeneid, etc in my head. Anyone able to point to a good translation of one of these (in digital book format) to start with?


  9. PotatoKnight #

    Any podcast that involves speed-recitations of Shakespeare is fine by me. Gives me happy High School debate flashbacks.

    An unstated premise that I think is worth examining further runs through the podcast. The premise is that there are some techniques that are legitimate for artists to build interest and engagement and other techniques that are illegitimate (i.e. cheap tricks).

    What is interesting about this claim is that, on its face, it is not stating that these “cheap tricks” don’t work to make a piece of art more exciting. But we usually want our art to be exciting and interesting. Why don’t we paraphrase Deng and say it doesn’t matter if the screenwriting technique is black or white, so long as it catches mice?

    Taken literally, it seems to posit that if a technique is too easy for the author to execute, it is less legitimate than a technique that is more difficult to execute. Basically, that we grade art on gymnastics rules–determine a degree of difficulty and then scale our grading from there. Do the overthinkers agree with that formulation–that the problem with the structure of starting with an exciting moment and coming back up to it has too low a degree of difficulty? Or is there something else going in here?


    • Chris Moyer #

      I almost got the sense that Belinkie (who seemed to be the most anti-in media res) was objecting more to the overuse in modern cinema. Not that it’s too easy or cheap, but that directors are diluting the value by using it all the time, trying to be the next JJ Abrams.


      • Tulse #

        The sense I got was that the technique can be used as a way to deepen a piece artistically, or just to add excitement, and that the former was preferable to the latter.


        • Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

          Yeah, my point was it has to serve a purpose beyond just getting things started with a bang. But maybe even that is too harsh. The underrated Mel Gibson comedy Maverick starts out with him about to be hanged. Then the first person narration kicks in, “It had been a shitty week to begin with…” It’s a cute beginning, but I don’t think it serves any purpose beyond creating some dramatic tension right off the bat.

          But hey, what’s wrong with creating dramatic tension right off the bat? Sounds better than the alternative. So maybe I’m just over thinking it. STILL, my point is that ANY movie ever made could do this trick, but that doesn’t mean they all SHOULD.

          I do feel like the American Hustle beginning was sort of questionable. Sure, it was cool watching Christian Bale do his combover, but he does that EVERY day. You don’t need to show the in media res to show that.


          • PotatoKnight #

            So, pushing down further, what you are arguing could be one or both of the following:

            The technique is better when it isn’t ubiquitous. This makes sense–lots of techniques for building drama are better when not everybody is doing the same thing.

            The technique is better used when it BOTH creates dramatic tension AND achieves some other artistic purpose. This is a pretty defensible claim–techniques that achieve more than one goal are better-used than those that achieve only one goal. Memento’s order creates dramatic tension–you don’t know what happens but you know someone is getting shot. But it also serves the function of putting is in a similar position as the main character. In Double Indemnity, we see the protagonist shot which gives a sense of excitement to come. But the framing of the confession also gives the film tense, psychiatric tone throughout. Knowing where things are going also duplicates the sense of dread of the Greek tragedies whose audiences knew the endings.

            I would push back on the assertion that any movie could use this technique. To use it in the way you are suggesting, a film basically has to have a high level of drama at some point in the chronologically-arranged narrative and a comparatively low level of drama at the beginning of the chronologically-arranged narrative. It would be a little silly to take a scene from the middle of the new Dawn of the Dead and stick it at the beginning, because the beginning is already pretty dramatic. Many action films (James Bond being the most famous example) stick an action sequence barely if at all related to the main plot at the beginning and therefore don’t need the flash-forward. Non-M:I:III Mission:Impossible films largely use the James Bond technique–M:I:III being the exception probably because at the beginning of the film Ethan Hunt is a happily married trainer retired from field work.

  10. BruceWayneBrady #

    This is one of my favorite episodes of this show! I really can’t think of the last time I heard something so creative. Thank you, OTI, for keeping your audience on it’s toes!


  11. clayschuldt #

    Is the Star Wars saga an a good example? The saga did start in the middle with the fourth episode.


    • Mark Lee OTI Staff #

      The Wikipedia article on in medias res addresses this specifically:

      In medias res should not be confused with a self-contained story that later has a prequel, although either a prequel or the techniques accompanying in medias res, such as flashback or exposition, may help to explain the original story’s context and backstory. For example, much of the backstory of Lord of the Rings is later filled in Tolkien’s The Silmarillion, but this would not make Rings an example of in medias res writing.

      Some stories like this do begin in medias res but that is not what makes them so. Star Wars IV: A New Hope has been described as in medias res, what makes this so is that it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene explained by a prose prologue, not because it has subsequent prequels. The Iliad and The Odyssey begin in medias res. Both are parts of a longer epic cycle, but that is not what makes them in medias res.



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