Recently, I had a minor epiphany about myself and some of the films I’ve made over the years.
A question I’ve pondered from time to time regarding the whole activity of film making and story telling is how much do you focus on “message”–that is, the underlying meaning behind the plot and characters on the screen–as opposed to “story”. Naturally, there is no reason a film can’t be strong in both, but what should be my focus, especially in the writing and development stage?
As a Christian working in the arts, it’s a great temptation to want to inject strong message into my work, even to make sure that the message is clear and not subject to misinterpretation. That used to be more of a priority for me, but when I worked that way there was the tendency to create work that was obvious and preachy. When I was college an just beginning to learn about storytelling, I struggled with how to create a level of appropriate ambiguity in my work, while still dealing with the emotional and spiritual themes I was interested in.
In more recent years, my “professional” work (in quotes because it’s still all volunteer, maybe because of that I have a hard time thinking of myself as a professional, despite pursuing this vocation for nearly 20 years) has involved much film making expressly designed to communicate biblical principles and truths. As a parallel or even as a result, my personal work (making movies started as a hobby and has always continued to be one, regardless of whatever else I’ve been doing) seems to have moved away from “message” and toward “story.”
I think that’s fine. In fact, I think that’s good. Story is about how a character is impacted by and responds to events and relationships…which is where a lot of life’s meaning is actually found. And on top of that, there is much value that can be found in entertainment. Creating fun and laughter are meaningful pursuits, especially in the seemingly rare instances where it can be done without also creating moral compromise. Just look at Sullivan’s Travels for a film that explores that very idea.
What is maybe more worrisome for me, though, is that I see more and more that I am often leaving “Story” behind and focusing more on just “idea” or “concept.” Maybe it goes back to 24 Minutes (shot in 2009) in which every storytelling element was subservient to the structure of having 24 one-minute long real-time episodes. The story is fun but shallow because the emphasis is just on keeping things moving. It turned out to be a bit of a harbinger for other more recent projects that seemed to dwell on quirky concepts or twists, often related to the nature of filmmaking itself, more than anything else.
The most obvious example would be A Movie About Itself, which was my most major personal project for some time. It works pretty well as a film story, but ones ability to engage with it depends almost entirely on how willing you are to just go along with the inwardly-spiraling mental premise that the whole thing is built on. Some have enjoyed it, and others have not–including my wife. In fact, I remember lying in bed telling her about some of the ideas I had for the film. I was pretty excited about it, but she just kept telling me, “Stop, stop, stop talking about it, I can’t listen to this…” You know the advice about not having serious conversations after 10:00 pm? Well, turns out that applies to impenetrable storytelling ideas as well. And I can appreciate her perspective. There’s a way in which the film is an expression of me laughing at something in my head that is hard to explain to anyone else.
And that’s not the only example. Have a look at No Shame in the Grandma, which is a fake documentary about a sportsman who has resisted being sucked in by the celebrity that comes with being a professional athlete, and still enjoys the grass-roots heart of his game. It’s just that his game is called “Ice Arcing” and involves tossing a block of ice a couple of meters to see if you can break it on a pile of bricks, and he’s really, really passionate about it.
Or how about My Mise En Scène is Tingling, which is about two guys having a conversation while location scouting for a movie? This is a piece which contains almost no discernible story arc whatsoever, although somehow the emotional journey the two men make is still kind of satisfying.
Is that what I’ve turned into? A guy who no longer tells normal stories, but just makes movies about filmmakers making movies about film making? My professor in college told us all to not take so many film classes, that if we wanted to be filmmakers we needed to know about life so we’d have something to say. Thus, we should take art history classes, sociology classes and so on. I seem to have lost something of this, if I ever had it.
But as I said at the outset, I did have something of a realization about all this recently. It doesn’t necessarily make any of the films I’ve mentioned any better, but it is a bit of a theory into their origins. And that is that somehow, they are sort about geek culture.
Well, not exclusively geek culture, if that term is used to talk about fandom surrounding anime, comic books, zombies, super-heroes, wizards and the like. I mean more the whole experience of finding yourself caring about some area of interest way more than anyone else around you does. This can be about any topic, and indeed nowadays the word “geek” often just means anyone who is knowledgeable about and likes to discuss the minutia of just about anything. So you can be a geek about computers, but you can also be a geek about books, politics, audio engineering, coffee, the history of the pretzel…whatever.
And this is definitely me. I mean, I just finished a lengthy blog-series about Doctor Who, because I really like the show. And it was 47 days long because I’m geeky about the number 47. And if I’m not thoughtful about it I can plow over someone else’s movie opinions because I’m so confident of my own. And sometimes I’m in the trenches with others who are also kind of geeky about the same topic and I find myself in a subtle power-struggle to prove the superiority of my knowledge base. Which of course is as ridiculous as it sounds.
And there are other times where I find myself clearly outside of the pertinent geekdom. This was the case when I was recently hanging out with a group of friends watching an Australian Rules Football gamee. Now, first let’s be clear that sports (or “sport” as you would say in Australia) is mainstream enough that few would refer to it as something you’re “geeky” about, but the experience for me was much the same. There were about 10 people there, and while it was a lot of fun hanging out and watching the game, I didn’t have a clue what people were talking about most of the time. And there was a lot of things being said: comments about this player or that player or that maneuver or that team strategy or that rule or that mistake or that approach to the game, and the implications of this game for next week’s game and what everyone was doing wrong and what everyone was doing right and all the things that had happened in the season up until this point that explained how we got into this mess in the first place.
Really, if I could have bottled up all that dialogue and done some subtle pushes and tweaks to the characters, and added a little bit of a narrative arc hiding in the subtext of what everyone was saying, then I think it could have made a pretty fun short film. But that’s precisely what’s going on in My Mise En Scène is Tingling, except the conversation is about films & film making, inspired by four years of college classes as well as a real life conversation when I was scouting locations in Kyrgyzstan.
And if you look at A Movie About Itself and No Shame in the Grandma, they are cut from the same cloth. Now, it’s not that I’ve been deliberately commenting about geek culture, but I think the experience of being passionate about things that are of limited interest–or indeed are completely trivial and superficial–has sparked a creative response in film.
It’d probably sound impressive if I could say that that means they talk about isolation that exists between people, and the nature of loneliness. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s probably more to do with enjoying the connections that you do find with others over those things, even though it’ll always look weird to those on the outside. And if you don’t have that, persevering until you do.
So that’s interesting, right? Sure it is…but I could be reading into it. It could be that my films don’t “say” that at all, and instead they are just the cinematic equivalent of me chuckling at my own jokes. Discovering this little theory doesn’t change the fact that a work can be unapproachable if it’s too oblique, and it can be forgettable if it’s too shallow. So as a writer and a filmmaker, I need to make sure I’m in touch with the deeper experiences of relationships and life, and allowing that to find expression as well. If I can do that, than the attempt to share that make me laugh with others should only be more successful, and the invitation to laugh with me more appealing.
In the meantime, I still enjoy all the films I’ve been talking about, so feel free to click on the images below to go to their pages, if you haven’t watched them already. And if you dare.
A MOVIE ABOUT ITSELF
MY MISE EN SCÈNE IS TINGLING
NO SHAME IN THE GRANDMA