Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Start Making Sense (Again); Why Cinema Narrative Still Matters (And Always Will)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 4, 2012

A few weeks ago, my 15-year-old nephew and I were watching Reefer Madness on Netflix streaming. He had heard of its reputation as a cult film and was curious about it, so naturally I encouraged him to watch it. I didn’t tell him much about it beforehand, only that it was an anti-marijuana propaganda film. Even though the film was made in 1936, it wasn’t difficult for him to follow the story and “get the joke” fairly quickly. While the narrative of Reefer Madness is a relatively clumsy one, relying mainly on coincidence and exaggeration to get its point across, the narrative is still there nonetheless, so that even a teenage boy can understand its inherent ridiculousness 75-plus years later. Almost a century after its release, Reefer Madness is still Reefer Madness.

Now let’s imagine that Reefer Madness was a series of random images chosen without rhyme or reason, with maybe some inappropriately chosen music playing on its soundtrack. Let’s throw in some flashing lights and clicking sounds at random intervals. No plot, no characters, no actors, no message, no point. Would it still be Reefer Madness? Of course not. Would people still be watching it 75 years later? I seriously doubt it. Yet that kind of thing is what some people insist is the future of cinema. Really.

There seems to be a serious anti-narrative movement going on in some circles, spurred on in part by the advent of digital and 3D cinema, and in part by certain lazy filmmakers who seemingly can no longer be bothered to actually write scripts that make logical sense. I don’t buy for a second that this is what audiences actually want movies to be like, but I’ll get to that later. What blows my mind is that some critics are actually supporting this anti-narrative, anti-logic, anti-sense movement as if it’s a good thing, as if cinema wasn’t founded on professionalism and the establishment of narrative language. Yes, cinema is a visual medium and always will be; but if you don’t make people care, they have no reason to buy a ticket. It’s gotten to the point where even well-known filmmakers like the Wachowskis declared in a recent interview that “narrative is not the future of cinema”. Yeah, I beg to differ with that. Strongly. I think we’ve all seen the audience response to Cloud Atlas, so if that’s the future, no one in the present seems to want it.

I think people still want a good story and always will. Whatever the current technology is, people still say, let’s go to a movie. No one says, let’s go see a 3D digital hologram. And what are they saying when they say, let’s go to a movie? They’re saying, tell me a story. Entertain me. Give me a satisfying experience. Make me feel something. What they’re not saying is, Confuse me. Baffle me. Make me wonder why I wasted my time and money. Give me a shitty ending that doesn’t make any fucking sense. Don’t bother to explain anything that’s going on. Make me never want to watch another movie you ever make. Unfortunately, too many films lately are provoking the latter reactions rather than the former. I can’t tell you how many movies I’ve watched lately (mainly indie and horror films, sadly) that just don’t make any damn sense. I’m not talking about the usual “plot holes”, I’m talking about plot gaps, like the filmmakers just couldn’t be bothered to fill in any details that would explain what the hell’s happening on screen. You shouldn’t have to read a goddamn dissertation to understand a fucking movie.

Sure, there will always be people who are attracted to the flashy and superficial in movies (just as they are in other things in life), but I think there are just as many people who want something that feels solid and substantial and real. Even more than actor, director and even genre, I think a lot of moviegoers are attracted by subject matter. What’s it about? That’s the first question that a lot of people ask. Why do people love Looper so much (myself included)? Is it any more technologically advanced than any other movie out there? No, they love it because it’s a great story that’s incredibly well told. All of your questions are answered by the time the end credits roll. “Oh, he did that because…” “Ohhh, that’s why…” It’s incredibly well-directed and well-written by Rian Johnson. Why is Argo doing so well at the boxoffice? Is it because people just love Ben Affleck that much? I don’t think so. It’s because, again, it’s a great story that people are interested in seeing. Great stories generate word-of-mouth. No matter how technology advances, no matter how things change, people always want a great story. A great story doesn’t have to be in 3D or digital or what the fuck ever to get people to see it. It just has to be a great story that satisfies the audience.

“But dude, wait a second”, I can hear people saying. “You like films by David Lynch and David Cronenberg and Terry Gilliam and people like that, and they make weird-ass films that mainstream audiences hate. Aren’t you being hypocritical?” That’s a fair question, actually. But here’s the thing:


I never said that movies couldn’t be weird. Good god, no. I’m not Robert McKee. I just said they had to be satisfying and make sense. That’s a

different issue. Movies like Blue Velvet and Videodrome make perfect sense to me. No, really! By the time the end credits roll, we know what happened, we know who did what to whom, and we know why. What’s not to understand? I’m not even saying that events have to take place in chronological order – look at Tarantino’s work, for example. He certainly plays with narrative structure – but the narrative itself is still there. Sometimes he even gives us more details than we really need, but I’m all for that, because the more details we have, the more we buy into the worlds he creates. No one said you can’t play around with structure, as long as there is still a narrative. (And by the way, getting back on David Lynch, if you’re not David Lynch, you’re not David Lynch. Only David Lynch is David Lynch. If you’re not David Lynch, tell the fuckin’ story properly.)

So here are some tips for all you young filmmakers out there, coming from the perspective of an audience member. Hopefully you will get some idea as to why story and narrative are still important:

Details are important. Details are what help the audience “buy into” the world you’re creating. The more details we process, the more we believe what we’re seeing. If we are not given consistent details about the story, the characters or the world we are watching, we are pulled out of the film and we do not buy into it. We become too aware that we are “watching a movie” and cannot buy into the reality of what you are presenting. Plot details are especially important. We need to know what is going on and why. Don’t just pull stuff out of your collective asses either. Consistency is necessary.

Endings are crucial. Have you ever read a novel you were really enjoying, and then the ending just totally blew it? The same principle applies with movies. No matter what, you gotta stick the landing or the plane crashes. And again, don’t just pull something out of your asses. Know where you’re going before you get there. An abrupt cut to black is not an ending. It’s surrender. It’s saying to the audience, “we don’t know how to end this, so we’re just going to stop.” It’s horseshit, and you know it. If you don’t have an ending, you don’t have a movie.

Bad twists do not work. We’ve all come to expect the “twist ending” by now. It’s become a cliche, and it’s gotten to the point that filmmakers are just throwing it in there whether or not it makes sense. Stop it already. You can’t just say, “OK, so-and-so is the bad guy now, surprise, thanks for coming” or “guess what, the guy’s wife was in on it the whole time!” and expect us to just buy it without some consistent character development leading up to that point. It feels like you’re just making shit up as you go along, because, well, you are. Knock if off. If a twist doesn’t make any logical sense, don’t use it. Unless you actually want the audience reaction to be, “wait a minute, whaaaaat?” And that’s not the reaction you want. Trust me.

Are we really supposed to believe that at some point in the future, film lovers are just going to abandon cinema history and start watching mind-numbing, random bullshit? We’re all going to stop watching Hitchcock, Chaplin, Keaton, Hawks, Sturges, Ford, Wilder, Ray, Lumet, Frankenheimer, Scorsese, Coppola, DePalma, Spielberg, Tarantino, the endless list of great narrative directors, and we’re all going to start watching the equivalent of multimedia art projects?? I don’t think so. I don’t ever, ever, ever see that happening. Not now, not 100 years from now. That’s not cinema. That’s fucking YouTube. Yes, cinema narrative has evolved and changed over the years, as it should be. It is certainly different now than it was in the silent film era. But I don’t believe it will ever disappear. People will always want a great story. I believe that with all my heart and soul. You know what my nephew did last week? Raided my DVD collection. Never mind that DVDs are supposedly useless now. Here’s what he borrowed: The Godfather I & II, the LOTR trilogy, the Bourne trilogy, JFK, Slumdog Millionaire, RoboCop and Inglorious Bastards. That’s just what he could carry out of my apartment.

Are you going to tell that kid that storytelling is dead? I’m pretty sure he’d laugh in your face. And rightfully so. Long live narrative, you silly bastards.

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