Most of us like a really good story in real life and in the movies. So why is it so tough these days to find a really good story in the movies while we are surrounded by too many good stories in real life?
Before we go any further let’s be clear – by good we’re not necessarily talking about cheery, happy or life affirming. A GOOD story is a story that grabs you and doesn’t let go; that affects you emotionally and perhaps makes you cry; that makes you bust a gut laughing (no small feat) or perhaps merely amuses you in ways that make you pleased. For example, The Arab Spring contained many, many good emotional and affecting stories while the output of a filmmaker like Michael Bay (because he’s so easy to pick on and rich and famous) doesn’t. A screening of Adam Sandler’s performance in “Jack and Jill” has negative 24 belly laughs and doesn’t help tell a good story while watching Jon Stewart (yes, I know he isn’t a film or filmmaker but tough) skewer Sarah Palin’s recent performance on “Today” has more than a few chuckles and tells a very good but certainly not life-affirming story.
I suppose any or all of the stories or sub-stories contained in these films or a Jon Stewart monologue could ultimately be life affirming, cheery or happy. But if there are only one of those and no more it is more than likely that by our (my?) definition, it is not a good story.
Confused? Me too. And so are today’s story makers. There is a lot of disagreement in the ranks about what constitutes good storytelling in 2012, especially in film. For example, I have actually heard more than a few filmmakers say recently that story is just one of many tools to be used in narrative film (their words, not mine) and that many good movies these days don’t really need much plot or story to work at all. Really? Go back in time and tell that to Charlie Chaplin, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder or Francois Truffaut, just to name a few. Or perhaps stay on this plane of humanity and ring up Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Paul Thomas Anderson and Chris Nolan, and have a talk with them about it. Better yet (and because I doubt any of them has a hell mouth into the past or any of their phone numbers) – perhaps it would be worth it to sit down and watch some of their work and tell us – is there not a good story at work there? I mean, even “Tree of Life” has a story (Yeah, it does) whether you liked it or not. (And no, I am not going to endorse it, explain it or intensely dislike it so you can easily categorize me as the old-fashioned artistic philistine that I know you may be dying to do).
The fact is too many would be hipsters, especially in movies (and in life) today are overly interested in breaking the rules or taking advantage of the changing faces of technology in the digital age and not interested enough in truly understanding the very, very simple tenets of drama. In figuring out what, if anything, they actually have to say that’s worth watching, or even listening to and executing it in a way that tells a really good story.
As a writing teacher, if I have to try to interpret one more fractured narrative from students who don’t want to think a story through ,I’m going to scream. On the other hand – I greatly admire those who actually take the time to develop a story and a reason for telling a story out of order and will run right towards that project quicker than I run away from phony morning show hosts from small Alaskan towns who work in NY one year and brand it as the home of “lamestream” media the next. But I digress.
And that IS the point. Digression, that is. Let’s get it out there –
There is nothing wrong with beginnings, middle and endings. That means out of order, in order or somewhere in between. There is also nothing to be ashamed of if you are a writer who likes a story where there is a main character, conflict and an ending of some kind, or maybe a group of main characters who each make their way through 3 or 4 or 5 smaller somethings. Only – please – take me somewhere. Although not to Sofia Coppola’s last movie “Somewhere” because that truly was a movie to nowhere and exactly the kind of film I’m talking about. (Yes, I liked “Lost In Translation” and “Virgin Suicides”). Sofia (and you)- don’t hold my hand through a film – I’m over 13 (at least chronologically). But when you bring me into a candy store and ply me with samples don’t tell me when I want to buy a few boxes of something that you’re out of chocolates. I get really, really upset and likely will search the web for the latest episode of my guilty pleasure TV, play a round of my favorite video game (well, not me – but someone else will) or even consider reading a book or tablet or….wait for it…simply start talking to a person live in real time rather than giving anything else you have to say in the future another chance.
The obviousness of “300” or “The Hunger Games” is one thing. But watching a plethora of the out of order scenes that were “J Edgar” last year made me wonder how the story of one of the most compelling and aberrant figures of 20th century America could be rendered so deadly dull and muddled. There are many good stories to be told about his life but in trying to “hip up” the overall storytelling the filmmakers forgot one thing – the overall story.
At this point most of us don’t expect technologically driven films to get too deep and complicated. But isn’t that too easy? Why can’t “Avatar” have real three-dimensional characters with subtext in addition to images highlighted with endless backgrounds and foregrounds? I don’t need Errol Flynn, Bruce Willis or even Sigourney Weaver to kill aliens. But don’t make me watch a lazy film story like “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and – when audience and critics bring up confusing plot holes or its lack of commitment to an ending or point of view – cop out by claiming that it’s all about what’s “not there” and that the story is open to interpretation. Obviously, all good stories are open to interpretation – as is everything else in life. That’s what we human beings (and chairs) do all day – interpret actions, reactions and as ourselves act accordingly.
If this feels like a diatribe, well – I suppose it is. But as the modes of delivery of stories change so do the structure of the way most stories are told. As they have through time. Except, except — narrative stories are still about character and action and conflict. There is nothing wrong with a story whose ending is open to interpretation (watch “Blow Up”) but there is something afoot when the entire story feels just as confusing as the ending and you finish it up not really knowing or caring about most anyone or anything you’ve just seen. Yes, I’m talking to you “Hunger Games” and also to __________________ (fill in the blank with the disappointing films of your choice in the last few years).
Don’t get me wrong. I’m an indie film kind of chair. When “Back to the Future” came out (and please don’t hate me for this) I was a young writer and unabashedly kept telling people that it just felt like “a bunch of scenes on index cards that were perfectly shuffled together.” (Needless to say, that didn’t win me many Hollywood friends in the eighties). For me, it was “too perfect.” But I do also want to occasionally be thrown a bone. Film stories as diverse of Tarantino’s “Inglorious Bastards,” Charlie Kaufman’s “Adaptation” and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” have really, really strong characters and stories and gut busting humor (well, to me anyway), as well as unforgettable images.
Certainly, it’s unrealistic to expect every film to hit those storytelling heights. But it would be nice to think that the storytellers are at least trying to do so. And that audiences are vocal enough, with both their words and dollars, to demand it.