Three weeks ago I read in this publication an interesting guest column, written by Becca Edelman ’14, that drew a distinction between cinematic story and style. As Edelman argued, stylistic films have carried and should continue to carry the day in Hollywood, thrusting aside more moderately-tempered movies for bold, daring narratives told in bold, daring ways. Of course this is absolutely correct. We should support innovative films and look at cheaper efforts with a great deal more criticism. But that does not at all mean cinematic style is somehow more meaningful than story. To be perfectly honest, the two aren’t even measurably close.
People forget that art forms, specifically literature, film and theater, are constructed for the benefit of an audience. You’re supposed to enjoy what you’re watching, and while style no doubt plays a major role in appealing to a viewer’s senses, it’s still just a tool subservient to some higher purpose. You can’t have a novel or a play or a movie without a basic and coherent plot. Something must be happening, and that something has got to be engaging. Once those simple needs are met you’re free to run a little wilder.
The problem with all of this is that it’s too easy to think otherwise, especially with the alluring potential for humanities-influenced over-examination sprouting at our fingertips. I, for one, love analyzing novels and films: It’s fun sifting through disparate paragraphs and scenes, hunting for a select phrase or through-line that will in turn illuminate an entire thematic construction just below the surface of the page or screen. But even that paradigm has its limitations. In this case it’s pretty simple: at the end of the day if there’s no story propping up your artistic mass, everything is bound to collapse.
That’s why it becomes really difficult trying to evaluate movies these days. On the one hand it’s far too easy to disparage works for being too derivative or hokey. But by that same token getting lost in conventions of style is just as possible. Take last year’s big Oscar winner for example: “The Artist” won Best Picture due to weak competition and poor scrutiny. It’s an alarmingly simple tale that people accepted because of how it was presented, and while the film was definitely fun and entertaining, it was not worth an Oscar.
The fact of the matter is you need a compelling story to warrant whatever stylistic license you’re willing to take, though many people raised in today’s aesthetic-obsessed generation would probably disagree with me. They would point to the Stanley Kubricksand Quentin Tarentinos and Wes Andersons of the cinemascape as proof that story need not always triumph over style. But that logic is flawed.
“2001: A Space Odyssey” is one of the most critically-acclaimed stylistic films ever made, but it’s in fact an examination of the pitfalls of technology set against a very real backdrop of a routine space voyage. In this case Kubrick’s technical sensibilities contribute mightily to the story, but it’s not the other way around. We could similarly look at “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction,” “The Royal Tenenbaums” and so forth in much the same way: they’re all stylistically impressive films, but they resonate at their foundation thanks to their stories, however ridiculous they may happen to be.
That core feeling is really what it comes down to. Watching films isn’t just supposed to be about marveling at what’s on the screen, though that’s incredibly important in its own right. Instead, think about what you’re watching on some human level. What’s the drama? What’s the comedy? What are the characters doing and why? These are simple questions that demand complex answers that many “artsy” directors, critics and students somehow overthink and underappreciate at the exact same time. We are, as individuals, extraordinarily intricate physical units motivated by equally complicated desires, and to forget that reality for the sake of a neat camera angle or voiceover would be to deny the very thing bringing you to the movie theater in the first place: your humanity.