Film is a storytelling medium. That’s what it has always been, and that’s what it will remain. I am tired of this crap about poetic films. The Tree of Life is not a poem. It’s a film, and it’s got a story. It’s a really threadbare story, and the film loses the story at a few points along the way in favour of self-indulgent imagery, but there is a story. Apocalypse Now is as poetic a film as has ever been made, but guess what, it tells an extremely compelling story, and everything in it serves the telling of that story. We need more of this. We need more filmmakers who realize that what they are doing is telling a story. This goes for blockbuster filmmakers. It goes for art house and indie directors. It goes for everyone.
I’ve seen a number of short films by the acclaimed Stan Brakhage. He’s a guy who made stuff like this:
Beautiful, aren’t they? Yeah, sure. But who give’s a shit? I don’t want to be that guy, but I call bullshit. There’s nothing there. Nothing to grasp. It’s a lot of pretty picture. If they’re done up right, maybe combined with some music, they might make you feel some tingling emotion deep down somewhere. But it’s totally ethereal. Weightless. And, in the end, meaningless. They are not stories. They are abstract paintings come to life. They may be presented on film, but they are not films.
Human beings are social creatures. We rely on communication to live. When we communicate, we do it through stories. “I did this, and then went there, and then felt like this.” The best stories, when told well, enter our souls and grab a hold of us. That’s what all the best art does. Art is not merely an aesthetic exercise. Even art that is not beautiful can be powerful. Paintings, and music, and even a few Brakhage films can take us on an emotional journey, and the best of them do so by giving us something tangible to latch onto. We recognize a bit of reality and that pulls us in.
That’s how filmmakers should be approaching their art. Where a film like The Tree of Life fell short a bit for me was that although it has a fairly involved narrative, it spends far too much time on minutiae that do nothing more than blend together and give a general impression of a setting. A setting is not enough. It needs to be tied to something we care about. Now, maybe if you grew up in the same sort of town as presented in the film, you might find that grounding on your own. The problem is, unless there is that distinct familiarity, the film doesn’t have much else to go on in some places.
The Tree of Life is a film that nearly made me cry. One scene. The father is playing piano and his son picks up a guitar and plays along. Beyond the familiarity of it, the scene fits into the narrative arc of these characters, and it all coalesces with a series of images and music that have stuck with me since I saw them months ago. There are some other moments in the film that work the same way. It’s usually when Malick loses sight of that story and those characters, that the film fails to work.
Or take another recent indie film, Meek’s Cutoff. I very much liked the film, but there was one aspect that bugged me to no end. Throughout the film there are several night scenes, where there is almost nothing at all visible on screen. What is the point of this? The characters are doing things like cooking and cleaning and doing their laundry, but we can’t see a damn thing. Are we supposed to believe that they aren’t seeing anything they’re going? And in many of those nighttime scenes, the characters aren’t talking about anything important. There’s little-to-no story momentum half the time. If you aren’t progressing the story and all we can see on the screen is some orange colouring from a fire, why the hell are we watching these scenes at all? Just tell the damn story, get on with it!
Like I said, this goes for blockbuster films as well. These films are usually the most interested in telling a straight story. But if that’s the case, why were the last two Transformers nigh incomprehensible? I can watch cool metal robots bashing each other for hours, just like I could watch the random beautiful images in The Tree of Life for hours, but that’s not enough. I need a story. A story with characters. A story that somehow makes logical sense. That doesn’t mean it has to be a linear story, or even a totally comprehensible story, so long as a get a general sense of progression that I can follow. The Tree of Life, for all its “poetry”, did have this. I’m still at a loss as to why Chicago was completely destroyed in Transformers 3, and why nobody in the rest of the world seemed to care. It doesn’t make any sense. I don’t know why any character is doing anything at any given moment, and so it’s nothing but a series of pretty pictures. Pretty, aesthetically pleasing, something viscerally engaging, but, as with those Brakhage shorts, weightless.
A filmmaker is not a painter. A filmmaker is not a composer. A filmmaker deals in a medium that is as perfectly suited for telling stories as the written or spoken word, sometimes even more so. Take advantage of that. Don’t lose sight of it. As a filmmaker, your duty is to tell a story that engages. Don’t sit back and rely on pretty pictures, or visual experimentation, or shiny special effects. All those things are nice, but they are completely useless if they are serving only themselves. They need to be serving a story. Film is about story. If you aren’t telling a story, you aren’t making a film.