Rules of storytelling and cinematic fast food

Well this is handy: the same week I start a blog about storytelling, Richard Brody of The New Yorker complains about a focus on “storytelling” (he puts it in quotation marks) ruining movies.

Brody refers to “a crisis that is endemic to the modern cinema, that is, in fact, one of the strange, unintended consequences of cinematic modernity: the very notion of “storytelling” and the obsession with characters and whether they’re admirable or likable.”

The problem, he says, is not so much with classical cinema’s relying on narrative, but that story should be “a basis, not a goal […] merely a starting point for a significant work, not a result.” This is worse than simply a missed opportunity: the focus on story not only precludes invention in other aspects of cinema, but saps the energy of story itself. The rules around storytelling have become so stringently normalized that the movies become “a delivery system for a uniform set of emotional juicings, and the result, whether for C.G.I. or for live-action films, is a sort of cyborg cinema, a prefabricated simulacrum of experience and emotion that feels like the nexus of pornography and propaganda.”

That’s my best try at summarizing an argument that I find unconvincing. (I have skipped some speculation about how this state of affairs came to be and what the popularity of such content means for society.) So we have two related problems: an allegedly restrictive list of storytelling “rules” resulting in the cinematic equivalent of fast food; and the focus on those rules precluding invention in other aspects of cinema. And neither of them are real problems.

The rules he cites as examples (which the author of the list, Emma Coats, calls “story basics” rather than rules) are not at all restrictive. Things like making sure the stakes for the main character are high, and giving us a reason to side with him or her. If these rules are ruinously restrictive, then we are writing off all of classical cinema.

There may be an argument to be made that these broad rules are being followed in narrow, unimaginative ways, that a good portion of films being released are formulaic. But I don’t see how this is a problem specific to “modern cinema” unless by modern Brody means since the 1910s. Really inventive films have always been rare.

As to the idea that formulaic films evoke a mere simulacrum of emotion in the audience, the equivalent of audio-visual fast food, Brody expands on that point later in the piece to say that the emotion he primarily refers to is the false relief of the collective feeling of isolation we moderns carry around with us. It’s an interesting and somewhat baffling hypothesis I would like to see supported.

The main problem here is that Brody confuses a focus on story and character with a myopic focus on script. He hints at this when he complains “[W]hen the script has been built with such solidity and has become an object of obsession for a year or more, it becomes not the springboard for filmmaking but its objective, and constrains the filmmaker to be its illustrator.” No argument here. If a director does nothing but cover the script, the movie will probably limp along. But script and story are not the same thing.

Brody thinks that a strong filmmaker approaches a script with an attitude of “creative destruction.” But a director’s inventiveness must be organized around something — a principle or skeleton that ensures a cohesive whole. The theorist Roman Jakobson called this thing “the dominant.” In classical cinema, the dominant is the narrative. (There are filmmaking traditions outside Hollywood — and mostly outside the West entirely — for which the story is not the dominant. But I don’t think Brody’s aim is to get us to write off all of Western cinema.)

Think of a formally daring filmmaker like Welles. His unusual camera positions don’t just look cool — they make a character big or small at certain points in the plot. His lighting evokes moods that echo characterization. His decisions serve the story. A focus on story does not preclude inventiveness; it enables its success by providing both a grounding and an opportunity for embellishment. The key is not to deviate from the script but to go above and beyond it.

4 thoughts on “Rules of storytelling and cinematic fast food

  1. I agree with you, Will. When Brody was making complaints about the formula to conduct storytelling in cinema, my first thought was, “Doesn’t literature have similar formulas/steps/elements when creating a story?” I would think what agitates Brody, as you already stated, is this formula is used in narrow and unimaginative ways. However, most films are like this and a true game changer does not appear that often.

    I could not get through Brody’s entire article, because, mainly, I thought his argument was weak. Though his comparison to junk food might be true, I don’t know if that is necessarily a bad thing. During the Great Depression people went to the movies to find a sense of fulfillment when they could not get a job. People, during WWII, where energized by the American propaganda that encouraged the war effort. The whole point of a movie is to escape/find a relatable character/and on a rare occasion gain some sense of fulfilment. I ok with this being achieved by repition of some basic story telling steps.

  2. Good points from both Will and Burket. Storytelling as a basis for a film is no more limiting than a musical form to a composer. The Rondo form can be used by anyone from Bach to McCartney. It helps the music go somewhere. Telling a story, and following some rules of good storytelling, does the same thing for film.

  3. I guess part of the question is where the draw the line between the “basic story telling steps” you mention, Burket — and your metaphor of rondo form, Barry — and the more rigid “formula.” I predict the difference between norm and formula will come up in a later post.

  4. Pingback: Universals, norms, and “rules” | William Comfort Anderson

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