Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Are Movies Therapy?

...and if so, should they be? A great deal of my professional work, from the earliest days right up to the present, has been in that elusive field of entertainment alchemy called "Story." After decades of it, it still strikes me as difficult as ever. "Story" is of course the essence of a movie experience and a great deal has been written, lectured, postulated, foisted and otherwise posed on (and by) people who make their living from it. I've read my share of books and been to my share of seminars, and there is a lot of good advice out there. But as with everything else, a healthy bit of skepticism can't hurt.

As a practicing (in every sense) "Story Guy", I myself have no advice to offer in general, because I think each individual story is unique and should be dealt with accordingly. It may very well be that the correct approach for one story would be absolutely ruinous to another. That said, here's a trend struck me as worth opening up for comments...

A few assignments back, I began to sense that "story sessions" and "brainstorms" sometimes felt like "group therapy" with team members sharing personal experiences that were supposed to be relevant to a story problem a project was wrestling with. To some extent, this is not really unique to any one project, and to another extent, I think it is actually desirable. The more personally "real" something feels (even if it's supposed to just be a joke), the better. That often makes it unique. There is of course a point where it can be over-indulgent and irrelevant, but on the whole it can be way preferable to the tedious trend of everyone simply quoting fragments from other movies and trying to reverse engineer how they can be applied to the problem at hand... (This is even more prevalent and odious than you think it is and that's even for those of you who think it's quite prevalent and odious...)

There's another kind of session however, which is similar to "group therapy" but a lot more limited in my view. I'd call it "Character Psych". By extension it becomes a kind of contrived "Audience Therapy" which runs a terrible risk of feeling disingenuous, condescending, or simply artificial. Probably because it seems to put the filmmakers in the role of "the analyst," and the audience in the role of "the patient" with the main character acting as surrogate. I guess it began with the original STAR WARS and remarks by George Lucas that his approach to the story was indebted to Joseph Campbell's lectures, books and ideas about Classical Mythology, culminating in Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" series.

These lectures are rich, authentic and legitimate, but in the aftermath of Luke Skywalker's monumental moneymaking success, they attained a holy grail like patina which devotees (some astute, some woefully less so) have ever since applied to every story, every character, every movie to the point of reducing the whole thing to a kind of crushingly academic dogma. Back when I was starting out, it seemed like whenever a movie was successful, one of Campbell's self-anointed acolytes would crawl out of the woodwork to trumpet how the key to it all was Uncle Joe's patented super secret story sauce. Never mind how many times the same thing could be just as scrupulously applied to a movie that tanked...

Worse still, the whole Campbell thing has sort of diffused and degenerated into a kind of pedantic, yet over-wrought psychoanalytical approach to how characters are supposed to act in movies, leading to an ever narrowing set of moral and ethical standards. This in turn can lead some participants over-identifying with the main character(s) to the point where they can't stand seeing them do anything less than "Ideal" or "Heroic" at any point in the story. In the end, we wind up with less of a story than a kind of canned 12-Step program starring idealized characters who have licked all the problems of life all while being generally flawless to begin with.

My earliest memories of watching non-cartoon movies are of seeing the Marx Bros. or W.C. Fields in old black and white B movie comedies that were in heavy rotation throughout the 1960's. My dad particularly loved these movies and we kids all enjoyed watching with him. Most of these films (even with commercials) ran under 90 minutes, at the end of which we were all happy and satisfied. DUCK SOUP and IT'S A GIFT are still two favorites of mine, and smack in the middle of this time period Dick Lester delivered a kind of "mod" homage to such loosely defined films with the Beatles' HELP!, another favorite. One of the things I love about all these movies is that they seem to be blissfully scrubbed of "the hero's journey" and other Campbellian mandates--they just deliver fun. There seems to be an aversion to this kind of thinking, ironically enough, especially in animated movies. I don't know why this is.

I know none of the movies I just mentioned are really "story movies",--they are more like vehicles for people who are already proven talents. Still, it is worth noting the way these movies embraced entertaining set pieces, seemingly arbitrary ideas and eccentric characters, simply for entertainment's sake. And each one progresses fluidly, with it's own kind of "logic" to a satisfactory end. Each one is uniquely non-imitable to the point of being pointless to copy. Which makes them more marvelous to me. Maybe the "Campbell" brand of story is easier to reverse engineer, deconstruct and generally theorize about than actual entertainment.

Joseph Campbell was a great thinker and his insight is very useful in approaching and understanding storytelling, especially in a classical sense that applies to long, sophisticated stories with a tradition of seeking to unravel mysteries of life. And no offense to George Lucas for singling him out as an inspiration, he had every right to. But as an unfortunate by-product, Campbell's intelligence, scholarship, humor and humanity have often been reduced to a kind of dubious formula for manufacturing "hits." One that doesn't necessarily address every problem of the business of entertaining people as honestly, energetically and imaginatively as one can.


RooniMan said...

It's like your reading my mind.

Eric Noble said...

Excellent post. You definitely know how to get a man thinking. I have to say I agree with you. The type of stories described by Joseph Campbell are good, but they are not the only type of story out there. That is the unfortunate side-effect of a film like STAR WARS. Don't get me wrong, I love those films (well, the original trilogy that is), but that type of storytelling has become cliche in Hollywood.

Mainstream Animation should strive for different types of storytelling. That's why people lose interest in it and it degrades to levels like what happened in the seventies and eighties. The stories became cliche and it no longer held any relevance to peoples' lives. Thank yo for bringing this topic up. I would like to see more posts on this. I eat this kind of stuff up.

Celluloid Memories said...

Hah, funny you mentioned Duck Soup, I just reviewed it myself!

As for movies being therapeutic, I say they are. Often, the characters are seen as reflections of our own personalities, wills, fears, dreams and ambitions. If the character is able to overcome the obstacles we feel happy, because its as if WE made our dreams a reality. This often inspires the movie goer and feels good afterwards. Of course, this is sometimes temporary, but a great movie with a well told story can lift the spirits of the audience.

I also noticed that many of the greatest films are those made during the worst eras the world has ever seen, such as the Great Depression, the Cold war and World War I and II. Movies served as a means to escape the real world and delighted us with stories of perseverance, hopes, faith, dreams and happiness. It kept many people working hard and happy regardless of the reality they were facing.

I often wish movies were like this once more. We are so caught up in the sensationalism of the media that even inspirational stories tend to be very graphic and depressing.

Sorry for rambling, but this subject fascinates me since I love both movies and psychology.

gbeaudette said...

I've felt like these Hero's Journey and other such formulas gain so much traction because they give executives a sort of checklist so they can judge and be involved in the filmmaking process on their own analytical terms. No unlike in animation where they become the on-model police.

Movies being therapeutic seems like good thing that can easily be taken too far. Going from being more relatable and empathetic to just being preachy.

Will Finn said...

I'm not entirely happy the way this post came out, but I will weigh in again at this point to say that I think a "catharsis" (emotional and/or psychological) is a good natural goal for a story, but that sometimes "pop psychology" gets in the way.

For me, too much of the latter is like a post-modern version of the "morality play". I don't think a story has to be conclusive (the way a morality play tends to be) to be cathartic or good. Or, more importantly, entertaining.

Mike said...

Thanks for the post, Will! I've been waiting for animated films to tell stories from a more emotion-centric perspective -- i.e., let the story be somewhat scattered or episodic, but allow the viewer to draw a conclusion from the actions of the characters, which would give the film in question a subtler structure. I say "animated films" rather than "films" because too many live-action filmmakers have let their ideas sprawl and their craft wither, losing the abstract beauty that makes movies worth watching.

But as you just discussed, better to have more personal ideas than not enough. If we've seen a hero go from Point A to Point B in STAR WARS, we don't need to see it in anything else. To George Lucas's credit, Han Solo went through a redeeming character arc throughout the course of the trilogy (considering he totally shot first -- right, George?), and Luke had to make tougher decisions once he successfully nuked the Death Star.

I always loved it when Ralph Bakshi's films had a couple characters from outside the story discussing the current plight of their world, like the reluctant Ralph-voiced soldier in Wizards and the opening of Hey Good Lookin'. It gave you a larger picture and a break from the plot, both at once.

scott Caple said...


And did you take the Robert McKee Story Seminar when he was going around in the 90s? Something similar there: everyone ran out and applied all his stuff and there seemed to be a ton of very similar movies all of a sudden. (I know the other guys went when we were on Huncback..even Don, Gary, the Zondags and some others went to hear him in London while i was at the studio in Dublin...)

On another tack, i always loved the story in "Ferdinand the Bull", 'cause the hero never changed! One of the best of the SSs.

Floyd Norman said...

Good stuff, Will.

After some fifty years in the animation business There's one thing I've learned. Some people can tell stories, and most people can't. It's painful but true.

The best story instruction I ever received was sitting in the same room and getting chewed out by Walt Disney.