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Monday, April 04, 2011

In the Era of Snooki, Perhaps I Expect Too Much

The Death of Story

Everything you know and love, going the way of the dodo . . .

In the era of Snooki, perhaps I expect too much. Nothing against Snooki. I wish anyone who happens to find success continued success--as long as it's not to the detriment of others. The insidiousness of celebutants might be debatable, but I find it hard to begrudge anyone's *moment* in the spotlight. Not even the Olive Garden brand of performers out there: Enticing packaging, Insipid product. (Yes, Olive Garden is the epitome of big scale American commercial mediocrity. I said it.)

Where substance is lacking, I quickly stop paying attention. So, yes, let them all have their day in the sun. They are just a symptom, not the problem.

My lament is not about Snooki nor the current breed of pantless figurehead songstresses who are selling nothing substantive, just their legs. No, my lament is that . . . Art is dead. Entertainment, on its death bed. Writing, moribund. And I find it all to be terribly depressing. The way a Vaudevillian in the 1920s and 30s must have found watching everything he/she knows and loves die a slow death.

Vaudeville theater, c. 1900

I've pondered it and I reject the idea that I expect too much. I expect exactly what any consumer or artist should: quality and richness.

"A depressed guy smoking a cigarette is not a film." –Family Guy
90 minutes cobbled around 1 stellar scene is also not a film

My friend Steven Boone has had a beef with film editing of the past decade: e.g. start a film in the midst of an event and then progress with standard storytelling AFTER that scene (prime example: *The Dark Knight* or the currently airing *Kennedys* miniseries which follows this schema to near incoherence). He describes modern cinema as feats of engineering, spectacles of technology. My beef is MUCH more basic than that though on the same continuum. My beef is with the loss of writing. The muddling of storytelling.

Revenge of the Fallen
Quintessential Big Film
Big Film or chain-mentality film doesn't concern itself with character. Focus is on plot. Which is great. I love plot. I don't love "take plot, put it on a leash, work it out at the gym, and put it on steroids" or worse: "give it a hit of LSD." Who cares if your story or story elements or character actions make no sense at all as long as the whole thing is BIG? Maybe no one will notice.

Sorry, Thanks
Woeful Example of Little Film
Little Film or woe-is-me!-BEING-equals-drama is mired in believing that character IS plot. It can be . . . when your characters are developed and interesting. Existing is not drama. Quirk is not drama. Damage is not drama. And none of these amount to character development. Idiosyncracies and BEING are facts, characteristics, not noteworthy in and of themselves. Something needs to happen for them to be Story.

Goodbye Story. Embrace Fauxry.

To be clear, Story involves Beginning, Middle, and End (not necessarily in that order). No character (arc) means no story, just events. Half a character arc means incomplete, unsatisfying story. No end means incomplete, undersatisfying story. Muddled middle means . . . promising idea that could not be adequately sculpted into a story. (See any number of J-horror films/remakes.) Incoherent character means contrived story. Contrived plot means perverting Story to fit a theme. (See *Crash* (2004), the most ham-fisted movie in recent memory.) On and on and on.

You can get away with an abbreviated/elliptical beginning, implied ending, open end, but flaunt character development and the audience won't care. Make your characters and situations so randomly specific and atypical as to not be credible and guess what? Your audience won't care. (See most modern horror films.)

And what happens when you consistently dwell in Underwhelm? The audience will turn to formats that don't require writers or YOU: Reality, YouTube, themselves.

The Entertainment Creep || The Slippery Slope

Turn on a TV. The sitcom is basically dead, only a handful still being aired. The 1-hour drama is puffing its last breath, and generally only when centered on high-stakes professions: cop/lawyer/hospital/crime/prison-breakout procedurals--inherent situational tension. So, what's left when you take the TV out of TV? "Reality." Competition-based shows (i.e. built-in tension), check-out-this-crazy-footage shows (i.e. YouTube in Lunchables packaging), negative perspective shows (à la *Hoarders* or *Housewives of Insert City*). Confrontation = conflict = drama.

I watch reality shows. I understand why Reality is popular: cheap to make, quick to churn out, easy to watch (consistent premise/plot), easily relatable/self-substitutable given "everyday" people in "real-world" situations. And NO WRITERS or ACTORS (or even discernible talent) REQUIRED. (Important to note after the Writers' and Actors' strikes / potential strikes of the 00s.)

30 Rock recently touched on the endangered state of the Writer when Liz Lemmon, head writer for TGS, is confronted with having to Plan B it as TGS faces cancellation. What’s a writer to do in the face of becoming obsolete? In a world where *Transformers 5* posters brazenly proclaim "WRITTEN BY NO ONE"--the 2nd having admittedly been shot without a script? Vie for a spot on a reality show with the likes of Oscar & Emmy-winning writer Aaron Sorkin.

If you could have Steinbeck, would you settle for Dan Brown?

Dan Brown is undoubtedly a Storyteller, able to spin complete and interesting tales. "Literary writer," I would be hard-pressed to extend, exhibiting a "style" somewhere between historical fiction and grammar school primer. Brown's film equivalent might be Michael Bay: a tactician, clearly adept at directing big action, not as strong at . . the rest. "Artful" would not be an apt description for either man.
Now, if you could have a John Steinbeck, would you settle for a Dan Brown?

John Ford's adaptation of John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath

As a producer, if drama can be had without employing a creative staff, ROI says invest in Reality over a laborious creative endeavor with all its potential headaches, hiccups, and lack of success in tow.

As a format, reality TV is keenly aware that mimicking classic storytelling elements, namely Character and Conflict, is the key to success. Conflict = drama. Character = drama.As a consumer, watching reality TV's simple but deft use of conflict as drama and character conflict leading to drama begs the question: why doesn't Little or Big Film do such as well? Why instead is it more of the same flailing formula? Subpar once is subpar twice. Subpar is not suddenly going to become stellar.

As an artist, the question is plain and simple: why does Filmdustry resist going back to basics? Writing complete STORIES that involve 3-dimensional characters in relatable situations--be they in outer space or on a farm. Escapism is great. Existentialism is great. 90 minutes of poorly thought out filler or self-stroking touted as the everyman's inner struggle is not great.

Can films meet somewhere between Tolstoy and pop-up book? Dr. Seuss and Akiva Goldsman? [Note: Dr. Seuss is the positive here.]

The Outlook

James L. Brooks' Broadcast News
An early scene in James L Brook's *Broadcast News* shows Holly Hunter's character, a news producer, giving a lecture to fellow news people about news integrity and the sapping of news from the News. Losing the crowd, Jane (Hunter's character) skips to a clip to illustrate her point: instead of reporting on a major policy change in nuclear disarmament talks, footage from a Domino championship aired simultaneously on all major networks. The hall cheers at the footage while hastily shuffling out of her lecture.

        "I know it's good film [footage].
        I know it's fun. I like fun. It's just not news."

Rebutting her disinterested peers Jane cries out:

       "Well, you're lucky you love it --
       you're going to get a lot more just like it."

To which a heckler mutters back, "Good."

And there you have it. That is the state of Story and Film and Writing today. Half-thoughts appears as news stories all over the internet. Articles get published online without seemingly having passed the Editorial Desk for content (forget about copy-editing). And the entertainment world couldn't care less about quality or Art.
Audiences can demand better films. And I believe they are in a way by rejecting all the old formats and models.

The industry could easily make better films by wanting to make better films instead of just pump & dump product/vanity projects.

We can all ask, "Where is this generation's Paddy Chayefksy?" Where are today's storytellers? Look at the magnificent and varied ouput in film from countries all over the world in the 1950s/60s. Fellini and Neorealism. Nouvelle Vague and Jean-Pierre Melville. Kurosawa, Teshigahara, Kobayashi. Bergman. Tarkovsky. Mikhail Kalatazov. Kubrick. Jules Dassin. David Lean. William Wyler. Billy Wilder. Stanley Kramer. Elia Kazan (Yes, Elia Kazan). To name a few. And US films from the 30s, 40s, and 70s are incredible. Excellence is not a illusion.

We can all ask, "Why aren't there more Miyazakis today?" More Jeunet et Caro? More Danny Boyles, Almodóvars, Tarantinos? Wes Andersons, PT Andersons, Charlie Kaufmans? Kusturicas, Zhang Yimou? Why are these such special and rare cases? Why do we make them such special and rare cases?

Or we can give up, lower expectations, continue the downward slide, and maintain the new status quo.

In which case, all I can say is:
I hope you love it because you're going to get a lot more like it.

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