An Apology, a Retraction, and the Power of Storytelling

October 19, 2011 — 4 Comments

First, I have to apologize. On Monday I published a piece that, first and foremost, was poorly written. I should not have published it for that reason alone. It sparked discussion, both here, at Alex Thompson’s blogJames Ewing’s blogs, and on the Filmspotting forum. Worse still, I wrote a post specifically designed to draw a reaction without consideration of the meaning of my words. The idea was to write an article that James could then respond to, thus starting a bit of a back and forth. I certainly succeeded at this, but I staked out a position so extreme that it lacked any semblance of logic or reasonability.

This is where the retraction comes in. Many of the things I said in that piece, most notably the idea that only narrative films are “real” films, were not representative of what I truly believe. I was playing provocateur, and doing so poorly. I was pushing some legitimate views to a disingenuous extreme, like a cinephilic Mitt Romney selling out my integrity to sound like a Tea Partier. It was stupid, and I take it all back.

Well, not quite all of it. There were, of course, kernels of truth to which I can still attach myself. Primarily, the power and importance of storytelling in cinema. Now, let’s see if we can go ahead and talk about it reasonably.

In that original article I made the stupendous and stupid claim that to be considered a proper film, the film in question needed a narrative or a story. I’m not even going to get into the stupidity of that logic, which I think is quite clear. I will make another claim though. There are many artistic traditions that have developed around the medium of film and moving pictures. There are genre traditions, format traditions, stylistic traditions. We can break it all up endlessly. But I think there are two traditions that encompass nearly all of the cinematic arts.

The first is a tradition, as seen in the Brakhage films I previously maligned, which stems from a form of abstract expression. This is a tradition entirely unconcerned with telling a story. It is a presentation of ideas and themes through powerful single images rather than focusing on the scenes those image present.

The second tradition, the dominant tradition in film, is a descendant of a different kind of expression. It is an extension of storytelling that goes all the way back ages before the written word, when humans told stories around the fire. Telling a story is an art. It is also an incredibly all-encompassing art. Where abstract expression can easily exist on its own through various media—spoken word, dance, poetry, prose, painting, sculpture, mixed media, photography, film, etc—storytelling is an art that incorporates these other media, often mixing them all together like some sort of artistic blender. When we tell a story we may use all the other various artistic traditions and media in order to do it.

It may seem like a pointless distinction to make, that a film is a film is a film. I’d agree with that to a point, but just as separating films into genres can be helpful in our understand of the cultural development of the medium, making distinctions between artistic traditions within the medium can be extremely helpful. It’s also important to understand that the two can be mixed to great effect.

Abstract, non-narrative films can incorporate images and scenes that tell tiny stories which fit into the overall abstract thematic exercise. A good example of this would be Koyaanisqatsi, which can only rightfully be described as a tone poem on film. It uses all sorts of filmed images, juxtaposed and stitched together to build an extremely powerful expression of theme. But within that abstract construction, there are individual “scenes”. They do not present a true narrative, but they do tell tiny, self-contained “storie” which serve the overall ideas being developed. Koyaanisqatsi is not a narrative film, but it incorporates elements of storytelling in its impressive collage.

Narrative films are extremely open to incorporating elements of the abstract. Take The Tree of Life for example. Call it poetic all you want, but it is very much a piece of cinematic storytelling. Don’t believe me? Well, let me break it down. The Tree of Life tells the story of a man evaluating his life and his place in the universe by looking back, recalling the memories of his childhood growing up in a small suburban town. It’s a fairly simple story, one that could have been told any number of ways. The Tree of Life could easily have been a fairly straightforward, Oscar-bait sort of film with a more involved plot, more dialogue and all that jazz. That’s not what the film is, however. Instead, Malick chose to incorporate the abstract, to build his film around the abstract, in fact. The story is still there, and the story is what ties the films images and music and themes together. It’s the base of everything we see in the film, but the film is not tethered to it in the conventional way. Malick allows the film to discover its meaning through lingering on images, and finding an impressionistic lens through editing. He is taking on the non-storytelling traditions in art and putting them front and centre in order to give his story more meaning.

I very much enjoyed The Tree of Life, both on an aesthetic level and a thematic level. I do feel the film is flawed, however. I feel that Malick’s attempts to highlight the abstract often caused him to lose sight of how his story tied in with that. As stunning as the creation sequence is, there is a lack of narrative development within it, and this causes it to fail the larger story by failing to provide the true cosmic context being set up by its lead-in narration. Similarly, though more crucially, the afterlife sequence in the film presents a beautiful thematic idea in a stunning, visually beautiful abstract manner. Unfortunately, the lack of narrative development in the sequences featuring Sean Penn causes this abstract sequence to feel contrived, not in theme, but in the theme’s relation to the larger story being told.

I say all this, not to disregard the attempt to employ a form of abstract expression in film, but to highlight how the abstract relates to storytelling. In fact, employing the abstract and abstract expression is entirely unavoidable even in the small scale. Editing itself requires the interplay of the abstract ideas which even literal images can represent. Instrumental score can be called expression in the abstract, as could the mixing of song and image. All narrative film uses elements of the abstract to tell a story because all stories require the translation of abstract concept into a comprehensible and meaningful train of thought. As successful and beautiful as The Tree of Life is, I do find that it sometimes allows itself to get carried away by the beauty of abstraction expression in certain scenes, which while effective on their own, do not as effectively contribute to the cohesion of the film as a single piece, as a single story.

Drawing the line between a narrative and non-narrative film is not always clear. The line can often get blurred. But when it comes right down to it, if a film fits into the overall tradition of storytelling then it is through that lens that we should be assessing it. The storytelling is its fundamental base. This does not mean that the story itself needs to be great, or complex or anything like that. I’m not talking about the specifics of plot or narrative or story. I am talking about storytelling, “telling” being the key. The success of a narrative film, to me, is judged on the effectiveness with which that narrative is told and the way the film is able to expand from and relate back to that telling.

One of my favourite films of the year is Joe Wright’s Hanna. I think the story in that film is fine. It’s serviceable. It’s also an extremely expressive, beautiful looking, exciting film. It brings a level of visceral energy to its story in such a way that it transcends the details of that story. Through its visual cues and style it also manages to explore themes of good and evil and parenthood and childhood and growth. It’s a decent story that’s amazingly well told. It’s great storytelling and so it’s a great narrative film.

I also stand by the another assertion. Obviously, as I make clear in this piece, narrative films are not the be all and end all of quality artistic filmmaking. I don’t care for Brakhage, but I can see the artistic value for those who do, and I appreciate the artistic influence he has had on the film world at larger. I similarly appreciate and even enjoy some of the more abstract works by people like Luis Buñuel. I love Koyaanisqatsi and Baraka and similar works of abstract filmmaking. Having said all that, I do think that the potential power of narrative filmmaking cannot be beat.

There are many incredible, iconic images or works of art that attain that power without the need for narrative. Yet, I think the mesmerizing power of the best films lies in their ability to incorporate the power of those non-narrative arts. Narrative can take powerful single images and attach them to a story, giving those images new dimension and context and association for an audience.

Consider this image from Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

It’s one of the most iconic single images in the history of cinema, and for good reason. It’s amazingly expressive. Just looking at this one image we can take in the composition and colour and we see a amazing expression of the curiosity of childhood and all the beauty and danger that goes along with it. But that image does not actually stand on its own. It has context within a story, and that story lends the image even more power and vice versa. They work together to give an understanding of the meaning of wonder and exploration. We also see this image within the context of a mother trying to protect her child from those dangers.

That sort of coalescence of abstract expression with narrative tradition is what makes narrative film extremely powerful on a uniquely high-impact level. Storytelling provides the framework and context to lend even the most powerful pieces of abstract artistic work another layer of meaning and power. There are plenty of bad films, both narrative and non-narrative, but the way I see it, the potential of narrative film gives it an edge. It may be an unfair edge, but it is an edge nonetheless and it’s the reason almost all the very best films I’ve seen, the films I love the most and that speak to me the most powerfully, also fall into the narrative tradition.

So there you have it. My apology for writing a poor article meant only to provoke, my retraction of the false commentary that I don’t even subscribe to personally, and a more serious explanation of my views on the nature of abstract and narrative traditions in cinema, the way the two meet and interact, the way I approach their assessment, and the reason I tend to prize one over the other. I hope I managed to sound reasonable, and maybe even a little intelligent. And I hope that I have given you some things to really think about rather than some idiotic controversial statements that do nothing more than provoke a response. Let me know if I succeeded this time.

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4 responses to An Apology, a Retraction, and the Power of Storytelling

  1. 

    Well, I appreciate this article much more. I don’t know if an apology is necessary, after all, the conversation was fun.

    Here is where you are wrong about Tree of Life: It is not a poorly told narrative film, but rather a conceptual/spiritual vision with a narrative element to it. For those who hook only into the storytelling aspect of it, it might be seen as a confused mess. I mean, you take a 20 minute break from the “real” story in order to talk about the creation of the world and dinosaurs? In a narrative film, many of these choices make no sense. But in a film about an idea with many different approaches to communicating that idea, I think it works masterfully.

    Still, great article, and good insights on ToL, even though you’re still watching it wrong ;)

    • 

      I wouldn’t say that Tree of Life is poorly told. It’s still a very good film. It’s just that I do think it falters at a few points in the telling, and as such it didn’t have that overwhelming impact on me that many others have described. Individual moments did, and the film as a whole almost got there, but not quite.

      I reject the notion that it’s simply a “conceptual/spiritual vision with a narrative element to it.” The whole film follows a narrative. Even the creation sequence, which itself is a narrative, is relayed and given context within the larger narrative through voice over. I wouldn’t say that the narrative is the most important thing about the film. It is about more than just its surface story (like many great films are, including Close Encounters, which I brought up). On that point I’d agree with you. But I still think my problems with the film came from its inability to reconcile some of its grand, abstract ideas with the story. Give me the creation sequence on its own and it’s beautiful and wonderful and powerful. Same with the afterlife sequence, actually. But within the context of the larger film, the larger story, they don’t quite gel. At least I don’t think they do.

  2. 

    Nice clarifications, good sir. I might possibly draw out some distinctions, one of them being is that I think there’s a third tradition of cinema that never reached fruition in the montage theory of Eisenstein.

    That being said, I still don’t know if I give privileged to narrative in and of itself. It’s the most popular and hence the most refined, but I certainly think there are other ways of moving audiences. Some more abstract films or moments outside the context of any narrative have proven far more moving to me than the narrative climax of some of the more dramatic and emotional films I’ve seen.

    • 

      Montage theory was probably too focused in concept to really spawn its own tradition. Really it was an idea used by both the abstract and the narrative.

      And I don’t think that I’d give privilege to narrative in and of itself. If that were the case I’d probably say Hanna was a mediocre film. I’m not really concerned with the actual narrative so much as how that narrative is conveyed through film and all the tools at the medium’s disposal. As such, narrative climax is not the only place where you can be moved.

      I’m sure you’d agree with me that film is primarily a visual medium. This leaves all doors open to visual abstraction and singularly powerful visual images. I have seen some Monet paintings that moved me more than almost any narrative film, but that’s when I’m talking about the films as a whole. If one of those Monet paintings was incorporated into a film and given the context of a narrative, there is all potential for that emotional connection to dig even deeper within me. It’s within the power of communication and storytelling to elevate even the most beautiful non-narrative ideas or images or sounds.

      Another good example, taken from Close Encounters, would be the score. Even just that five-note theme. On it’s own it’s a fairly beautiful little theme, but given context in the film it takes on vast meaning and becomes more moving and beautiful as a result. Now, not every film will make every abstract image better, this wold assume that narrative on it’s own is always better. This is not the case. But the potential is there, and that’s what fascinates me.

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