In some ways, few ways, Star Wars 9 is the best movie I have seen in the series. In some ways, many ways, it’s the worst. And the baffling aspect is that all the negatives come down to poor storytelling. This, under the direction of Disney, the absolute, undisputed masters of the art. Or so I believed.
Slightly off topic, at least for the first half. And riddled with spoilers. You have been warned (but, hey, it’s been a while since the release, c’mon).
Watch lots of interviews of adventurers, particularly in personal-story centered venues such as TEDx, and you’ll discover the exact same narrative underlying every presentation. Whether the guest speakers are all coached to present in the exact same way, or actually are telling an eerily similar story, I don’t know. But you only have to change a few words to switch from one to the other.
That narrative is the Hero’s Journey, popularised by Joseph Campbell, but studied long before him :
Luke, quietly picking mushrooms in his uncle’s farm when the Empire blows it to pieces and a old bloke with a beard and a scary arse neon guides him through all sorts of heroic – and self affirming – adventures. Rey, quietly scavenging leftovers from Empire ships, when the First Order blows her market to smithereens and a grumpy old bloke with a scary arse hairy wooky guides her through heroic – and self affirming – adventures. Harry, quietly breathing the dust under the Dursley staircase, when a serial killer wizard reappears and a bearded old bloke with a scairy arse sense of humour guides him through heroic – and self affirming – adventures.
On TEDx, the goals are less ambitious. No Death Star is going to blow up a planet. No Nazi order is going to take over the universe (well … it is, but that’s not what the guest speaker is going to tackle). No pure blood klan is going to mass murder infidels (well … it is, but ditto).
The story goes : I was living my life, doing this menial thing that kept me safe, then this major catastrophe happens (my brother dies, my best friend dies, I nearly die, …) and I change my life forever. This being a marketing stage, the speakers then offer to guide others rather than describe those who guided them. Sometimes, no one guided them and the story went awry. But the idea is the same.
And the structure is essentially the same. Has been for eons. There are others, tens of other narrative frameworks that work more or less well in storytelling. But the Hero’s Journey is the one we most resonate with as a species, because it mirrors our everyday struggle between safety (that menial job, that “great” carreer, that predetermined school/college/job/marriage/house/kid life path …) and our true aspirations, represented (and aided) by adventure. Because humans are part animal (safety first) and partly weird thing that aspires to move upwards (whether that be a religion, a philosophy, something more personal) most human beings feel that call to the Hero’s Journey. Who doesn’t want to be a hero?
Yet, I feel Disney messed it up. Huge time.
Now, they’ve had some practise. You can’t mess up that spledidly without a bit of rehearsing. Solo. Han Solo. Best character in the franchise for me, and many others. The link between animal and spiritual, between venal and selfless. The hinge between us spectators and them heroes. A character about whom a great set of books had been written. Just adapt those to film – 3 books, 3 films – and voilà. Sure winner. But no, somehow, the Solo prequel was butchered into a post-adolescent ramble with no roots in canon, no substance, not a single link with the first trilogy character except for the name and not a single nod to the hero’s journey. Instead of the recipe (intrinsic quality) Disney blamed excessive frequency (quantitative measurement) for the Solo movie’s lack of success. To me, this was an epochal moment in the company’s existence.
Cue Star Wars 9. In my eyes, the most endeering aspect of the latest trilogy is introducing Adam Driver (to me, at least). What an actor!!!! He brings so much class and nuance to the role. And this, even when forced to play a death scene that would not have been out of place in Blake Edward’s The Party. I want to watch the trilogy again just for him. Rey’s great but Ben’s character is so much more tortured. At any rate two cool performances.
But my understanding of the recipe for SW9, oh dear:
The really sad part? A standing ovation at the end. Sabers flashing, wookies awooking.
So, yeah. It’s powerful entertainment and is probably raking in tons of money – today’s only metric for quality. But my guess is poor Walt is squirming in his grave.
And yes, it has been modernised. We have heroes from all areas of the globe, that lesbian kiss that was always going to make the headlines, … And Rey is fantastic. And it really is cool to have heros that aren’t all white dudes in their 20s.
But I can’t help feeling Disney – like so many other large corporations – have lost the plot altogether. “So busy chasing big data and fashion trends they are, that understand the fundamentals, they do no more.” Shouldn’d Disney be worried that I’m just one of many raving fans who found this amateur fan movie more interesting than the official releases?
And I can’t help but notice the film being hailed as really poor by quite a few credible sources.
Does that matter? Not really. It’s just a movie. But from the beloved home of powerful and poetic storytelling, this comes as a shock.
At this point, you ask: What’s that got to do with photography? 😉
Everything (said with Yoda’s voice). Plus I need text to place my pics, right ? 🙂
Photography is an artform dedicated to communicating ideas and feelings to others. Storytelling is how humans communicate information. Not the best way, the only way. Today’s news? All stories. Today’s NYSE level? You won’t find it without a small narative attached. How the kids did at school today? Do you have 90 minutes to listen to all the stories? How to set up your printer? It starts with imagery of what happens if you put your fingers in the mains, because some people do that, apparently, and because short, visual, stories communicate information very efficiently. Cue photos. And their potential use as storytelling tools.
I find a lot of inspiration for photography in movies. My numerous rants against video features polluting my photo camera don’t mean I wouldn’t love to try video with an actual, dedicated video camera. Movies are wonderful when they tell good stories. And photographs can do the same, with a very different emphasis on time.
The fundamentals of storytelling are the same in photography and cinematography. These are basic human psychology. And those fundamentals will only change significantly when we evolve significantly as a species. You have plenty of time to practise, trust me. Obviously, how you tell a story differs between the two artforms. But that is a matter of technique, not of foundation.
What story you should tell, I can’t say. When you’re walking about a place, what feelings or meaning does that bring up? That’s your story. Contributor Lad has told me many stories about a local trail (the Chessie Trail) and what it means to him and his local community. That’s a great story which he tells in calendars, in photo series … Whatever drives you to a place is a story. Whether that story is “I saw it on Instawham and want my 15 microseconds of celebrity too” or “my grandmother died defending this place, I want to honor that memory” is your decision entirely.
A series of photographs makes the meaning simpler to convey, but a photograph must be able to stand alone. Lighting and colour set the mood. Exposure can suggest movement. Focal length creates perspective. And, most crucially, composition creates tension or balance between protagonists. And, in a series, using the same idea, same focal length, same PP helps make the point stronger and clearer.
When in doubt, KISS! The series of photographs on this page is all about the flow of little local river. Nothing more. It’s a simple story. No heroics. Nothing life altering. But something most of us can relate to and care about. Everything from the framing, to the exposure length and aperture, to post processing is there to highlight the flow of water.
I could have added Greta-friendly messaging in the form of dried-out pools or plastic floating in the stream. But why would I? This would only muddled the story (it would be a story all of its own, and a valid one, just not the one I tuned into on that day, plus there was no plastic, no dry pools around). Besides, that story would just have been a temporary one. In a few decades, we’ll have cleaned up our act or disappeared. Water, on the other hand, will flow for as long as there is water around.
The plan, then, is easy: go deep (in meaning), keep it simple (in execution). What say you?
(tech info: all photos made with a Hasselblad X1D and XCD 30 lens at speeds between 1/10s and 1/60s, processed in Phocus and Lightroom).
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