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.