01 February 2009

The Difficulty of Telling a Good Story


Really good fiction and really good cinema attain excellence by not being obvious. A simple way of looking at it is that you generally don't know what's going to happen in the end. A movie like Slumdog Millionaire failed for me because there was nothing to interpret, nothing to think about. It was a visually exciting movie but it asked nothing of the audience. I want to be challenged. From that standpoint No Country For Old Men (2007) was brilliant. Sorting out the whys and wherefores of the character, Anton Chigurh was a meaty task in and of itself.

There's an important point: both fiction and film rely on characters and if they are one-dimensional then your story will be too. It's far too easy to make inflexible characters whose actions are quite predictable. Worse still you can create characters who commit acts that are inconsistent with their personalities. Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull (1980) always acts in accordance with who he is. But who is he? Why is he so true to his nature to the point that he alienates his wife and brother? Does he have no limits?

Michael Corleone, especially in the first Godfather (1972) film is one of the greatest characters of film because he is so complex. I recently posted a question about how and when he transforms from being a law abiding citizen to Mafia boss. It is a stunning and yet totally believable metamorphosis.

One of the things that makes Blonde Venus (1932) not mere entertainment but truly great cinema is Marlene Dietrich's character Helen Faraday. Like many great female performances of the 1930's, this is not just about a night club singer, or housewife, or sexpot, or mother. It's about all of these wrapped in a beautiful yet complicated persona.

The film itself is an utter joy to watch and similarly intriguing to discuss or contemplate.

Perhaps the greatest problem with films of the past 30 years is the over reliance not just on special effects but on a stock characters and a formula story -- something akin to the film serials of the late 1940s. Star Wars (1977) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) are wrongfully cited as to blame for this trend. But they appeared as something new or at least as an homage to those serials and other types of adventure films of yore. In their time both films were refreshing and interesting. They cannot be blamed for the ceaseless copying (saving those made by their own creators).

What stimulates our intellect is the unexpected or the expected presented in a new light. With a film like Milk many of us knew the arc of the main character's life. The task then was to tell us the story, not just to get easy cheers and and sobs but to get them the hard way. Audiences had to understand the main character in a new and more profound way. It is the prism through which we are asked to examine a story that causes it resonate.

A movie like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is linear and obvious. Meanwhile something like In Bruges zigs and zags. Ron Howard did his typically straight forward job of directing with Frost/Nixon but gave the two title characters so much depth that the story was ultimately compelling. He didn't create a hero in Frost or a villain in Nixon. He merely showed that, like the rest of us, they are complex individuals, though in their cases on an international stage.

Restraint is also important. Stephen Daldry couldn't reign in The Reader, letting the movie get away from him. Michael Cimino is a director who had that problem in spades. On the other hand directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Woody Allen have a wonderful economy to their pictures. Many great European directors like Jean Renoir, are similarly gifted. There are too many books that are big and fat and too many three hour films. Writers and directors are prone to excess. Just compare the original King Kong (1933), a masterpiece, to Peter Jackson's overblown monstrosity (no pun intended) of the same name from 2005. In the first it was plenty good enough to see the big ape whip a dinosaur. In Jackson's version one was never enough. He had to have Kong to take on a veritable army.

Dialogue is also central to meaningful film and fiction. One would think that getting the way people talk to each other would be easy. It's not. I don't know why but I do know that in bad stories conversation seems stilted and well, made up. The applicable phrase is that it doesn't ring true. Bad TV shows (which come to think of it is most of them) are positively filled with dialogue that sounds like it was written by someone else. Characters are too witty, too insightful, talk too fast and speak in absolute truths with no nuance. Many speak as if giving sound bytes or quoting from a speech they'd written. I risk infuriating my beloved missus but I positively cannot abide the phony baloney dialogue in one of her favorite shows, West Wing. My children watched a highly popular show called Gilmore Girls in which everyone spoke as if they'd just graduated from Princeton and were getting paid by the word.

For good dialogue watch and listen to a some of Woody Allen's recent films, particularly Vicky Christina Barcelona and Match Point (2005). Tom McCarthy's The Visitor had utterly believable dialogue from professors and immigrants. Billy Wilder films are another source of good dialogue as are most anything directed by Howard Hawks. But for the best in dialogue watch films from the 1970's like Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Taxi Driver (1976) or The Last Detail (1973) (pictured above).

In fiction F Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck and JD Salinger are all giants in large part because of dialogue. The midgets are plentiful.

Of course creating complex yet entertaining stories with complex and believable characters and realistic dialogue is not easy. That's what makes it so satisfying. Most things that are easy to do are not terribly fulfilling. As discerning readers and film goers, it is our task to sift through all the rubbish and find the gems and then share our discoveries.

26 comments:

Jibbyville said...

great article man, just caught it on IMDB, very well done!

Jason said...

Man, you want to talk about dialogue "written by someone else"... the girls' dialogue in Vicky Cristina Barcelona in my opinion was straight out of Woody's mouth. Painful.

bojana said...

Couldn't agree more...

Eric said...

Here, Here!

You hit the nail on the head and hammered it home in one blow. Let's hope more writers are reading and taking your advice.

Thanks... and congrats on the Heisman!

Jeff Frowney said...

I guess making a more 3-dimensional character is really simple, yet it seems the concept seems to be unknown to many screenwriters and producers. What's different to Indiana Jones' (the Raiders version) cardboard ancestors is that they lack (an) inner conflict, they're all or mostly outer conflict. What works great in fairy tales or in many comic books often fails in movies. Why a 2D character seems to be fine with comic books etc. but doesn't deliver in movies I don't know. In Raiders Of The Lost Ark Indiana Jones is - as it is also explained by his adversary Belloq to him - a mere graverobber, yes, he's on the side of the "good guys", but only just enough to stay there. I miss that in todays movies. A strong and worthy antagonist who brings out the best of the protagonist, who is forced to show his true inner self - not the one he may pretend to be - under the pressure of the near impossible tasks the antagonist (and "fate) present him. So Indiana Jones is as flat as anybody else, but he has an antagonist who's even a little better than him. In Steven Seagal-Movies (I'm using poor old Stevie for this now) his counterparts are predictable, shoe box villains. It's easy to be better than them. But it's really difficult to go against a sophisticated french who is backed up by one of the best trained and best equipped armies of the world. (hope that was t o o off topic^^)

Byron the afro-filmviewer said...

nice piece. i liked it. plus your a gunners fan so you get brownie points.

Sebastian said...

Good article, though I disagree that a movie has to be "challenging" in order to be good. Maybe it is just your personal taste, but I think movies can be challenging on one hand (No Country for Old Men, The Return, any Haneke movie) or just "simply" create a certain prism of emotions, like in Slumdog Millionaire or The Wrestler, both excellent movies in my opinion. I like what you say about dialogue in TV shows.

You wrote that you prefer not to know what happens in the end, but I think that a well developed story with a somewhat predictable ending can also constitute a good movie.

Nowadays if someone makes a "complex" movie in Hollywood, what comes out is mostly something like "The Reader"...

Anil Usumezbas said...

To me, the major difficulty of telling a good cinematic story is writers/directors who are slaves to literary narrative, ignoring most of the opportunities made available to them by the unique language of cinema. Peter Greenaway has a little short film which criticizes this trend; it's basically a man reading a story from a paper and during the whole film, you see the papers on screen and nothing else. "If you care so much about story and literature, you might as well do this." Unfortunately, I forgot the name of the movie.

Needless to say, cinema is a unique form of art and being imprisoned in another medium's conventions is an unfortunate waste. The situation is clear when two distinct forms of art, such as literature and classical music, are concerned; but when it comes to cinema and some other medium, it's often disregarded.

Regarding the King Kong commentary, I wholeheartedly believe Jackson's version is superior for the very reasons why you loved No Country For Old Men and not Slumdog Millionaire. The old version, despite being more groundbreaking for its time than the new one, is a simpler and less significant of a film which merely consists of action and a constantly screaming woman. Everything in the story is much more complex and multi-layered in Jackson's adaptation (no surprise a lot of people found the film overtly long and tedious)

Finally, as a reply to one of the above commentators, Haneke films are quite far away from being complex. He makes good use of cinematic language, for which he should be praised, but just because he tells things in an unconventional way or does not orient his films according to the needs of a certain plot, does not immediately make his films complicated. They are still nothing more than simple, underdeveloped statements about a couple of things such as violence and/or bourgeois life, and at the end of the day are quite easy to understand. Compare that to Kubrick (let's say Eyes Wide Shut, his masterpiece) and you should see the difference.

Anonymous said...

Love your blog. Check it daily. This piece was particularly good. Not sure I'd say that Network had such great dialogue but you're spot on about the others.

Ellen Armstrong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Elan said...

I love every article you write and am always excited when I notice that you've been featured on IMDB. Keep it up.

Anonymous said...

What about kevin smith? You want to talk about realistic and good dialouge you've gotta include this man. I work at a video store and I find myself have the exact same conversations with my coworkers that they had in the film. All of his stuff is very grounded and feels natural.

Anonymous said...

3/4 movies from the '70's that you mention had one thing in common - a visionary director in Sydney Lumet ... you missed out 2 of his other masterpieces from the same decade (Murder on the Orient Express & Serpico) which woulod also fit in rather neatly with all your suppositions. A person who 50 yrs apart made movies like 12 Angry Men ('57) & Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007). If you haven't guessed it thus far - he's my favorite Director of all time alongside Billy Wilder!

Anonymous said...

Actually a film with fantastic dialogue, due not only to what the characters said but what they did not say, Gus Van Zant's Paranoid Park! The kids in that film spoke exactly like any teenager I've over heard talking,today! that film I think is amazing anyway. if any of you have not watched it pick it up.

Anonymous said...

Woody Allen's movies are bone dry, only he could truly enjoy his films. You want good dialogue??? may be you should try some good foreign films. Or is too much to stomach? As for Hemingway, the world wouldn't miss him if he hadnt existed... he's pathetic.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that the dialogue in His Girl Friday is just as stylized and polished as that of The West Wing or Gilmore Girls, if not more so.

Eve said...

Anonymous at 12:15 claims that no one enjoys Woody Allen films except himself.There were alot of people enjoying it when I saw Vicky Christina and Match point and many others of his films. Sales of his DVDs also indicate others enjoy him.
And I read this blog regularly and the author not only stomachs but loves foreign films. You're an idiot.

deckardcanine said...

Well, I'm sorry you didn't like SM or TWW. But it rarely takes just one factor to get me not to like a movie or show. If you pick one aspect at random, I probably love at least one movie that fails in that department. Basically, the only thing that's essential to entertainment is entertainment.

BTW, I find it odd that you restrict "fiction" to literature. I think of it as any imagined story in any medium.

Faith said...

I actually think that "Network" has extremely unbelievable dialogue. It feels very overwritten, in my mind.

Love the inclusion of "Dog Day Afternoon", though! It's always nice to see that movie recognized.

Joshua Ziesel said...

I agree with most of your article, but you've got to be kidding me that Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Match Point had good dialogue. In fact, when you were talking about bad dialogue, the first thing I thought of was VCB having AWFUL dialogue. Almost all of Woody Allen's movie sound like him talking to himself. Blurg.

I completely agree that Slumdog was tepid compared to greats like No Country, though.

Joel said...

"Slumdog Millionaire" is essentially a modern day fairy tale; dismissing it because it doesn't have deep characterization or a complex villain with obscure motives would also dismiss films like "The Wizard of Oz" or "Singin' in the Rain."

You forget that entertainment is at the heart of storytelling (Indeed, isn't that why humans first began telling stories?). And the tale of the poor boy from Mumbai-- with his unlikely game show success, his diverging path from his brother, and his enduring love for his childhood sweetheart-- was the most entertaining and uplifting film of the year.
The story was great, Danny Boyle's direction was excellent (frenetic and yet stylish), and the soundtrack was absolutely enthralling. I really think you should give it another shot.

Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with Joel. Complex stories are great, but not every story needs to be complex to be great. As Joel has already said, SDM was meant to be taken as a modern-day fairy tale, so you can't say that you're dissappointed by the fact that it wasn't that complex a story. In fact, I personally thought that the simplicity of the story was what made me like it.
The only criticism I'd agree with you on are the dialogues...It bugged me a lot that a kid growing in up the slums would suddenly learn how to speak English, but I've read in interviews with Boyle that the studio made them keep most of the film in English.

Travis White said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David said...

You had me until you suggested that the dialogue in "Network" and in the films of Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks is realistic. (At least, that's what I understand you're implying when you talk about "phony baloney"/overly insightful/hyper-witty TV shows and then list the aforementioned films and filmmakers as examples of "good" dialogue.)

Nobody speaks as cleverly (or as quickly) as Bogart in "The Big Sleep" or Edward G. Robinson in "Double Indemnity." Not even in the 1940s was wit that abundant. I love those movies and I think the dialogue is fantasticly-written, but it's also just that- written. It's stylistic but it's entertaining. The same could be said of Shakespeare.

Like them or not (and I'm not a particularly big fan, myself), Aaron Sorkin and whoever wrote "Gilmore Girls" are the direct descendants of those great old Hollywood screenwriters.

Jonathan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
The Kid In The Front Row said...

Really love this article. And yes, I think there is a very distinct difference between what is natural, and what is good dialogue- which is exactly what my last blog entry was about, just not written as eloquently or as expertly as you.

Also agree with many of the comments, and it does make me cringe a little when I hear Woody's voice in female characters.