Tell Me a Story, Dammit!

October 17, 2011 — 17 Comments

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:

and 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.

17 responses to Tell Me a Story, Dammit!


    I wrote you a rebuttal. In essence, I hear what you’re saying but you’re completely wrong.


    I am with Alex on this one, I hear what you’re saying, but you’re completely wrong. You know I love ya Corey, but poems tell stories too. And what about “A picture is worth a thousand words”? Like Martin said on the forums, if you need that story, great, good for you, but I am perfectly content with being shown a string of pretty images. Often times they are my favorite types of films because it can allow for a certain level of reflection and participation in the film. By that I mean if there are holes in the narrative, I can fill them in with my personality which makes the film a closer, more personal experience sometimes. I certainly agree that at other times it can be alienating and frustrating, but not all the time.


      I think what I take the most issue with is this business of, “no, you don’t understand, it’s not supposed to have a story because it’s poetry.” That’s bullshit. That’s just an excuse for poor storytelling.


        Okay, I’m down with that logic.


        P.S. Why is my avatar thing a weird looking Christmas tree thing?


        “This hot dog tastes nothing like a hamburger”
        “Well, it’s not supposed to taste like a hamburger…?”
        “That’s bullshit, just an excuse for poor hamburger making.”

        Non-narrative cinema doesn’t aim to “tell a story” in the sense that you’re demanding. It’s fine to not enjoy that, but don’t criticize it for not being a thing it was never meant to be.


          There are two points to be made here. The first is that I think the work of Stan Brakhage uses the medium of film as a method of extending abstract painting and mixed-media art into the realm of motion. It’s likeness to “film” as we know them is non-existent except that they are both “moving pictures”. I can see that Brakhage’s shorts have certain value on a number of levels, but I would not call them films in the proper sense. A film tells some kind of story. I don’t demand those stories be told in any particular way. Simply that there be one.

          The second point would be how I extend that to the films I mentioned in the piece. Tree of Life most definitely has a story it’s telling. A kind of narrative progression. It’s not the usual kind, but it’s there, and for the most part I quite liked it. But many of the problems I had with the film came from a combination of self-indulgent images that didn’t add anything more to the story, as well as some of the ways in which Malick jumped from one thing to another. When I recently brought those issues up to a friend, he said that it’s because Malick is making it poetic. To me, that’s not a response. It doesn’t even make sense really. As I see it, that’s just a cover for the fact that Malick didn’t completely succeed at carrying his narrative and it’s themes using the images, music and editing at his disposal.

          My contention is that if a film is to be a film then is to have a narrative, and that narrative should be judged as such rather than falling back on “well the images convey such and such on their own.” If that’s the case, then edit together a bunch of beautiful quick clips shot by Malick and his DP and I’ll be happy as pie, but that wouldn’t make it a good film, and I don’t think it would make it a real film at all.


    I disagree with your definition of what film is/should be, but in terms of preference, I’m completely simpatico with your frustrations. I, too, expect cinema to deliver on its unique storytelling strengths.

    (I’d rather be a Christmas tree.)


    Well, that’s just like your opinion, man! The truth can be found over at my blog:


    Painting used to be all about storytelling as well (in the Middle Ages). And then someone thought, “What if it was all about concept? What if it was all about color?” and art headed into a new and innovative new direction.

    The fact is, to limit any art to one aspect of the art is simply limiting. The Tree of Life works because it is more than narrative, much more. It is a philosophy of how nature and humanity can unite. It is a masterpiece of beauty. It is a spiritual experience. And this is why it is a contender to speak to more than just this generation.

    You may look for only narrative, Corey. Perhaps you are satisfied with that. But that will only limit your film watching. Please don’t try to limit film that way. It will expand to the limits of the human consciousness, which is not limited by narrative, as powerful as that medium is.


    I don’t want to be that guy who only comments when he disagrees with you (I already have that role on Ryan’s site…B-) ), but we’ll just have to wait until the next post to change that…

    Most of the other comments have addressed my issues with your post – you’re trying to limit the art form. If you are making a narrative film, then I suppose a story should be one of your first priorities. It’s definitely a shame when you see something lose its way. But to push out Brakhage for the sake of a definition just ain’t right…Particularly because his work has influenced a great deal of other filmmakers – not just in visual techniques, but in how to use those techniques to build mood, character and, yes, even story.

    Film certainly is great for storytelling, but it can also be an excellent medium for creating character studies, thematic studies and can absolutely be poetic. Sure the term poetry can get thrown around a lot and certainly misused, but it doesn’t mean it also isn’t sometimes quite accurate.

    So what about Antonioni? He often sets up a central plot point or mystery and then essentially abandons it in order to focus on the themes he is digging out (isolation being a predominant one or in “Blowup” where it’s something along the lines of “reality is in the eye of the beholder”). Would “Blowup” have been a “better” film if he had actually properly resolved whether the central character witnessed a murder or not? Well, it would’ve been obviously more of a narrative film and likely many people (I’m guessing yourself included) would have enjoyed it more, but that also may have weakened his ability to fully play out his examination of what reality is. Personally I love it the way it is and consider it a fascinating work of art. Made in the medium of film.

    Sorry, but seeing you write “Just tell the damn story, get on with it!” gets me in a bit of a tizzy (a tizzy I tell you!). Can you imagine always having to rush through character moments to get back to the story. I haven’t seen Meek’s yet, but do they have to talk about important things? Can’t their chi-chat about mundane things also create a fuller picture of these people, their lives and their surroundings? Why is a film that provides mood and setting (ie. providing a representation of what it was like in a certain time or place and conveying that to the viewer) less of a thing than something that gets you from point A to point B?

    As for Tree Of Life, it certainly may have been a better movie for me if the story was constructed differently (Sean Penn’s character added little to nothing for me), but it would have been far far lesser a film without some of the stuff you would like to cut. The “endless summer” scenes could’ve gone on all day for me…They were truly evocative – not just of my own “youth”, but of my son’s as well. And it isn’t specifically related to the town in the film (we currently live in the city), but it’s the feeling those images evoke. And yeah, that is kinda like poetry.


      All I’ll really say is that I’ve got a retraction/response on the way.

      You make excellent points, most of which I can agree with, some of which I disagree with on specific terms, and some of which are really entirely subjective.


    Corey, you do make a good point about the overuse of certain terms like “poetic” to describe ambitious films. Some movies are just pretty pictures. However, I think you’re taking this premise and making the stretch that films are all about story. Yes, the effects and stunning visuals should serve the story, but it depends on the filmmaker’s intention. There are cases, especially with experimental films, where the story isn’t the goal. I think there’s a danger in placing movies in a box and saying they must serve a narrative function. That said, I think your post is interesting fodder for discussion and is leading to a lot of great comments (and other posts!)

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