Humans are a complicated species. We seem to be so obsessed with advanced alien beings coming to Earth, but I think that maybe we are the advanced alien beings, and we’re just looking at things from the wrong side. We don’t have flying spaceships yet, but we have unlimited instant access to every bit of information humanity has ever discovered. We haven’t solved every mystery of medicine and biology, but we can communicate with each other in milliseconds by making a reference to a reference to a joke on a TV show that is based on a book, and actually understand it. Even those shortcomings we have are becoming less short. Every day we learn something new about technology or politics or media or nature. If anything, the aliens are going to be the ones struggling to keep up.
Two things however, have stuck out to me through the rapid whirlwind of human progression: empathy, and storytelling. Both are essential to the other. Both are responsible for pretty much every aspect of humanity’s survival thus far, minus maybe the ability to eat pretty much anything. From mushrooms, both garden variety to hallucinogenic, to McDonalds to strange insects, if it can go in our mouths, it can go out our asses. Yucky, but true.
Besides that though, storytelling is central to what we are about as a species. We talk to each other all the time. Even those of us who don’t get out much find ways of consuming stories on a regular basis. We read, we watch Netflix, we dream and inhabit fantasy worlds, we play video games, we talk to our pets. Everything we do is steeped in our ability to tell stories, and our ability to empathize. Want to get anything you want? Learn how to make someone feel sorry for you, or understand your position, or step into your shoes. Empathy is so powerful that you can watch a series of photographs flashing before your eyes and then genuinely feel pain when your favourite character dies.
So if film is the ultimate form, thus far, of realizing and utilizing storytelling in an urgent, dramatic way, then film as metaphor is the highest step the form can take to actualization. A movie can be a story but it can also be a stand-in for governmental politics, or religion, or addiction, or any deeper, more spiritual meaning that it wants to be. A movie about an oil tycoon can also be a metaphor for the dangers of American capitalism. A movie about a pub crawl can represent the unfiltered reality of the nature of alcoholism and addiction. A movie about zombies can deal with serve as a collective therapy session to a nations post-911 grief. It’s amazing what storytelling can do, and how far the medium of film and TV can take it.
Yet I feel that we’re losing that possibility. It seems that movies are playing it safer these days, settling to be popcorn flicks that, yes, are fun but don’t serve any deeper purpose than keeping you entertained for two hours if that. Is Hollywood to blame? The economy? The nation’s shorter attention spans? An overabundance of movies? Maybe a combination? I think there’s some truth each option. Hollywood might be panicking because movies don’t make as much money as they used to. Nobody wants to go to the movies as much as they used to. Things are changing, all of this is true. Perhaps though, one reality is that people aren’t as informed about movies. Movies have become a series of meta references, sort of a spot-the-homage game to play with friends.
We’ve become too familiar with the way movies function without understanding the mechanics behind these functions, and as a result, we glaze over the deeper meanings that are supposed to be much more obvious to us. Let’s use an example. Everyone knows what dream sequences are. Why? Because we’ve seen them all the time. Remember, when dream sequences were invented, it took a while to figure out but everyone eventually had to because otherwise the whole sequence didn’t make any sense. There was that Aha! moment that made everything fall into place. But first you had to think about the movie, and then you got to think about your reinterpretation of the movie with your new knowledge of the dream sequence. Nowadays, we practically expect any unexpected twist to involve a dream sequence. They’ve become ingrained in our collective consciousness to the point we don’t even think twice. “It was all a dream” used to elicit groans just a couple years ago. Now it barely warrants a shrug.
The same goes for montages, will they/won’t they relationships, true love’s kiss, twist endings, and so on. What was once a novelty is now a convention. This is unavoidable as a technique becomes familiar. Audiences may start off not being privy to how a movie works, but eventually they can start to figure it out. It can’t be helped. What you can do, is find new ways to do things again. Storytelling requires constant reinvention. It demands new interpretations, new methods, even if the fundamentals stay the same. That’s not to say storytelling is made up of smoke and mirror techniques to distract you from the man behind the curtain. 3D might be just a show, but so was widescreen, and so was colour film. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these techniques because ultimately, they don’t really change anything. They have an effect, absolutely, but they are not the point. I’m not trying to highlight them. I’m referring to the ways we process storytelling information. The way filmmakers have become to reliant on tricks and techniques and have forgotten that audiences can’t help but be smarter than they get credit for.
Hollywood relies way too heavily on 3-Act Structure because it is traditional. First of all, there’s no such thing as 3-Act Structure, it’s just a theory about the nature of dramatic narrative that somehow got misinterpreted as a set of storytelling rules, but secondly, using it just because it worked in the past isn’t really good enough anymore. The traditional narrative is getting tired, but a new model hasn’t come in yet. This happened in the 70s with the boom of independent films and it worked great. Then we went back to the traditional narrative pattern again, then eschewed it once more, then returned. It’s a cycle. The thing is, that cycle has a purpose, namely, to keep audiences from becoming overly familiar with patterns to the point that they can see too deeply into the inner workings of a story. It’s like a joke you’ve heard before. As soon as someone starts telling it, you already know where it’s going, and it’s not as funny this time around.
Still, storytelling and empathy remain humanity’s greatest strengths. So why doesn’t anyone actually seem to use that anymore? Movies have proven to be capable of reaching much further than most people could ever have anticipated into the deepest reaches of our souls, provoking exploration of philosophy, science, religion, the nature of relationships, even literal explorations of our planet and the depths of space. Storytelling is powerful. We should be using that power more, but for some reason, we don’t.
I think a big reason for it is because we’ve forgotten how to use stories as metaphors to make audiences think about what they are consuming. I know, I come home some days and just want to watch something dumb so I can forget about my life for a little bit, and maybe laugh or cry or feel whatever it is that I want to feel at that moment. There’s so much more that film can be though. Why not take advantage of that? Audiences are already way too familiar with how stories work because we’ve settled for little more than traditional arcs and typical design. Let’s forget what we know for a little while and venture into the unknown. Find some new methods of evoking emotions, of encouraging empathy and getting us out of our known worlds.
It’s difficult to be different if you think you have to stand out. It’s a lot easier to be different if you have no idea that everyone else isn’t exactly like you. It’s time to realize we don’t have it all figured out and that’s completely okay. Time to put aside what we do know and embrace what we don’t. We might find something new and be able to approach stories differently, and if we can do that, we can approach ourselves differently. That can start a domino effect and there’s no telling where we could end up. We might be able to realize the potential that film has for stories all over again. It’s exciting, really.
Humans are complicated. Good. Let’s start there and see where we end up.