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.