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Filmism.net Dispatch July 2, 2012

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Movies should be about stories. How many times have you heard that line? Don't worry, I'm not here to disagree, but this week it was bought into sharp relief.

Most people will agree movies start with storytelling, and the people who tell stories for the commercial markets have a unique cultural legitimacy. When Hollywood writers go on strike the kind of people who don't support them are the same kind who don't support gay marriage. It's not only true, it's politically correct.

You'd think it was a given that movies are about stories, but you don't realise how true it is until you see a movie that isn't about a story. There aren't many feature films that don't have stories at all (though they do exist), but sometimes a movie makes you realise the story was the least important aspect to the filmmaker.

Movies exist for all sorts of reasons, as I realised to myself watching a went-nowhere movie called Bellflower this week. One of the most common reasons is because the director and his cinematographic team (opposed to his storytelling team) consider themselves designers and aesthetes more than raconteurs, more enamoured with what you can do with image as a concept that spinning a gripping yarn.

Among high falutin' film school graduate types, loving movies because of the stories is given lip service, but it's a minority opinion, closely related to the whole 'if it's popular it can't be good' mindset. As a famously contrite author once said in a Stephen King foreword when he was talking about the most important part of writing a book 'Story, dammit! Story! Story! Story!'

Personally, I think the great artistry in any movie is the tale being told, and that's why things catch on, from the 3500 year old Indian Vedas to Twilight. Of course there's a huge amount of 'if it's so special I want to see it too', especially when it comes to the power of media saturation, but it's the plight of some character that connects with people. Look at the popularity of the love story, which captures our imaginations as much in digital 3D as it did on papyrus scrolls.

I want to be told something I don't know and haven't seen before. I want to feel I've learned something new (another minority position) and been exposed to a new idea. That's what art's supposed to be about. It's why the superhero movies were getting so boring. Captain America: The First Avenger, Thor, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man were all different quality but they all followed the same essential plot of the hero gaining his powers and finding his place in the world because of them after some climactic battle. All that changed were the costumes and budgets.

Not to discount Joss Whedon's skill as a storyteller, but it's why The Avengers was so good. It didn't have to do the same old thing because it was about characters for whom it had all been done.

For much more erudite arguments about the same idea, you can find blog posts all over the internet about the importance of story. Here's just one excellent example. And while everything I've written here seems obvious, test it for yourself. If you see enough movies you must be able to think of one where it looked like the director (or even the scriptwriter) was more interested in visual experimentation than sitting you down and beginning with 'once upon a time...'

Once again my brain's reeling after too much thematic deconstruction of the art form. If it's too much for you too, go see Magic Mike, the new film from my favourite director. Soderbergh just couldn't make a bad film if he tried.

And if you're a fan of The Hangover, Bridesmaids, The 40 Year Old Virgin and their ilk, go back in time and see some old Marx Brothers' movies, like I did this week in watching Duck Soup. It's neither worse nor better than modern comedy, but it's an exercise in screen education to see how the art form and the conventions of the genre have changed. Or just laugh yourself silly as Groucho tells some woman at a party to take a card. She does so and asks what to do next, expecting a card trick, and Groucho pockets the pack and says 'you keep it, I've got 51 left. Now, what were you saying?'

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