Why are stories essential? What is storytelling? And how do photographs and films serve those best?
The tension between fact and story in both media is interesting and telling. While photographic competitions regularly dismiss work that has been edited and is thought not to convey some sort of sanctified truth, many photographers today are claiming to be storytelling-first artists. And, while high-profit cinema blockbusters mostly follow very conventional story formats sprinkled with huge amounts of special effects, it’s often the documentary work that frequently captures the hearts of critics and dedicated followers of filmmaking. Documentary which, by the very admissions of its authors, has more to do with personal viewpoint than absolute fact. Oh dear. How do we unravel all this?
Here’s my attempt at rationalizing what many other articles talk about but rarely define accurately.
We all have worldviews. Christ, Buddha, Trump, that guy eating nachos off his belly watching the game while the wife does the washing, you, me. Worldviews help us navigate our environment, decide who to vote for, what brands to patronize and which to boycott, who to hang with, what jobs we accept, what companies we agree to do business with or not, which artists we follow …
An engulfing, and tragic worldview can be “I am hungry and helpless in a famine stricken country”. This leaves little room for a interest in Avengers. Another, a fragment that has been tested in the minds of many lately, can be “democracy is more important than victory”. Another can be “I don’t care about anyone else but myself”. Or “nature matters more than anything else on the planet”. Or “all lives matter, I will never eat another animal again”. Or “All politicians are evil”. Worldviews are not truths. They are things we tell ourselves and believe in to position ourselves relative to events of life. We all have them and someone else’s feel good or jarring to us depending on how well they match ours.
I’d argue that worldview is more powerful than religion when it comes to creating or breaking up communities, forging countries or dissolving continents. What companies struggle with so badly when trying to convey their vision, mission, values, becomes far simpler when examined as simple worldview.
Stories confront our worldviews with reality. That is their purpose.
A story typically presents a protagonist with a situation in a way that forces him or her to search for a solution, try to achieve some goal or undertake a journey (physical or not). The hurdles along the road are there to test the protagonist’s determination and worldview.
George Lucas explains why Disney’s Star Wars pictures are bad this way: while the first trilogies were all about the conflict between kindness / generosity and selfishness / fear, Disney steered the third trilogy away from any meaningful worldview, initially borrowing those of previous episodes, and towards spectacular scenes with algorithmically-correct doses of inclusivity. To me, the disappointingly poor Episode 9 was an excruciating mash up of the top 10 most iconic scenes of the previous films, joined by baffling stuff such as horse-back fights on the wings (sic) of starships and characters with no lines or arc (evolution of worldview). When the second trilogy was announced, peaceful mini-riots self-organized in the streets, whith storm troopers play-fighting wookies in bars. Today, no one in this galaxy or any other, far far away, gives a rat’s arse about the next Star Wars movie, if ever there’s another. While some of the recent films might have been box office successes, as a franchise, Star Wars is a terrible waste, because the recent stories deliberatly shunned any sort of firm worldview.
Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces are sometimes more about shining in defeat than winning badly. Worldview : honour trumps victory. The recent Joker incarnations also highlight the various approaches to worldview. Suicide Squad? Forget it. None, zilch. Terrible. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is a philosopher with a strong worldview about free will, which he proves by burning mountains of money and tries to imprint in Batman’s monolithic mind. That conflict between these two strong willed individuals – which often mirrors our own – is what makes the story such a success. Even if you want law and order to triumph you can’t help feeling deep respect for a vilain with such strong convictions about freedom and the cynicism of society. Compared to this, the more recent Joker – however brilliant from compositional and colourist points of view – is merely about a weak guy getting beaten up and angry. There’s little in the way of philosophical foundation and it would be hard to build a sequel on that. It kinda works as a standalone, as it plays on our own frustrations (but frustrations are not as powerful as worldviews) and many storytellers and most politicians know how eminently bankable a victim can be in the short term.
Luke, in his training swamp on Dagobah, is made to choose between immense personal power (by becoming a jedi) or saving his friends. He chooses the second option, against the advice of the strongest source of wisdom in the Galaxy (Yoda) and knowing full-well he is falling into a trap. This is a stylized version of the hard decisions we – puny spectators – have to make day in, day out. “Do I make this report as good as it can be or do I spend time with my kids?” Without us even realising, Luke’s choices make us feel good/bad about ourselves, inspired, regretful, hopeful, wiser …
That is the purpose of stories. The archetypal conflicts and struggles faced by the protagonists (heroes and anti-heroes alike) reflect ours in a more or less subtle way. We all know Weasleys and Malefoys in the real world. Starks and Lannisters. Whether we enjoy the corresponding stories is merely a matter of which camp we see ourselves in. And personal growth comes from the ability to let go of some aspects of our worldview and adopt healthier ones, usually based on the power of stories.
When good actors perform badly on set, that usually reveals a lack of worldview in the story, or a mismatch between the screenwriter’s worldview and the actor’s. In the opposite situation, we can relate so very deeply, even with a robot, because of its profound humanity.
For all their bangs and whistles, most Marvel movies work well because the characters – in spite of their huge power – are deeply human and relatable. Their personalities, and the struggles with reality these generate, are very simple and basic, like ours, in our daily lives. It’s interesting that some experts find the camera work and editing in these films lazy (repetitive and formulaic) and uninspired, yet the movies repeatedly draw the crowds. A movie such as Civil War can only work because those guys and gals with superpowers and a common goal have very different worldviews. A movie such as Endgame fails because the sheer number of characters present means that some arcs have to be butchered.
When we find a film/book/exhibition meaningful, but fail to understand the meaning of “meaningful” (strange loop alert), we are intuitively referring to a match between the work’s worldviews and ours. In a world where short-term profit subsumes all other values, stories have never been more essential. Interestingly, Elon Musk is the richest man in human history because of his storytelling abilities and the very strong worldviews he communicates through his products and enterprises.
Disney Studios cannot be blamed too harshly for producing those movies in a world that survives intellectually on a regimen of 200 characters texts or 6 second videos strung up by the delusional “content is free” principle. Content is work. Someone made it. In that context, it takes cojones of steel to release anything that might hurt one of the ever more numerous and vocal minorities with a different worldview from theirs.
Today, it’s hard to keep a reader’s attention for the 3 minutes it takes to go through a post (DS stats indicate an average stay of 2 minutes, nuff said). So, to me, the guys at Disney and other content creators are actually superheroes (whether I enjoy their work or not) for their ability to keep audiences captivated for two hours or more and make them pay for the privilege.
They manage that tour de force through storytelling. Stories are essential to our well-being and that of our societies. Dan Simmon’s masterpiece Hyperion is largely a story about stories and how they shape civilisations. The rules of storytelling are what help convey stories to the audience. And that’s what episode 2 of this story will be about. Stay tuned.
Update : Episode 3 is now online.
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Oh dear – will the world ever be the same again?
Actually all this stuff has been going on ever since mankind [that’s an “oxymoron” – man isn’t!] started hurling sticks & stones around the place.
When I was a child, stories were generally about nice people – or better still, animals – and anyone who wasn’t nice “copped it”. Most of them had a moral. And we were enjoined to behave better, like the book told us.
Reading your introduction, I’ve discovered that since I left off reading (except, for the most part, technical stuff) the theme has drifted. I am appalled. I think I will give up stories and go back to pictures. One thing George Lucas and his cohorts can’t do to a picture is make it boring – because it would simply be instantly ignored and discarded.
A friend of mine wastes all her spare time watching movies like that, and I simply cannot understand what is “of interest” in the “story-line” they have. Or don’t have – which is a bit closer to the truth.
The acid test for me is quite simple. After sitting in the cinema for – what? – 90 minutes? – do I stagger out into the sunshine, blinking, and muttering darkly “thank God that’s over – my ass was getting SO sore – I thought it would NEVER end!” Or instead, do I sit back as the credits at the end of the movie roll up the screen and disappear into the curtain, thinking “OMG – it’s over, already? – how did that happen?”
Or with the other kind of picture – the stationary type. Does it make me stop dead in my tracks? – rooted to the spot? – unable to move? – until some kindly guard steps up and says politely “excuse me sir, we’re closing in 5 minutes, you’ll have to make your way to the exit”? Or instead, do I just shudder, thinking “what a waste of paint!”, and not even pause .
Over the past 7 decades, I’ve been confronted with both experiences – with both kinds of picture. Frequently.
So let the games begin. Bring on the angry horses!
Let’s hope the horses won’t be too angry 😉
If you think back to those movies that made you regret the time spent in the dark and those that made you regret they were over so soon, can you think of the single most importance between the two ?
Photographs are a bit different (see part 3) as we can be drawn in by the sheer production quality. But, often, good storytelling will still be at the heart of the attraction.
PS – dunno how you plan to squeeze a movie format “picture” into this medium, Pascal.
Ah, they will be quite small vertically 😉
A great introduction to a difficult topic. I’m very curious about the next parts. What I would like to read in the future are some practical tips about how to improve the story-telling in short videos (or photography) and what should better be avoided. But preferred things that are very easy to realize and don’t need a huge effort or a lot of planning.
Thank you Boris. I will do my best 🙂
Wonderful post, Pascal! The subject is so intriguing that I woke up in the middle of the night with my answer to the question “which is better for story telling, photography or film”? Of course I didn’t write down my answer, so I’ll attempt to recreate it here: both are visual arts, of course; both can tell a story. However, a film (most films!) lays out the story in a way that we experience life in general. Each scene flows into the next, dialogue and even music move the story along. In general, it takes less thinking to absorb the storyline. In contrast, a group of images which are arranged in a manner to relate a story are a bigger challenge. The viewer must study the images carefully to discover a common story, without the benefit of dialogue or music. Of course, the images may be titled or captioned to help lead the viewer along. So, in essence, the viewer must become more involved with the process of discovering what the photographer is trying to relate, by “reading” the meaning of each image. Obviously, the viewer can often come up with a completely different storyline than was intended! Just like the difference between reading and watching TV, reading takes more brain power. Anyway, thanks for sharing.
Thank you very much, Nancee. That is indeed the direciton the next posts are going. At least in my mind, and I just hope I haven’t bitten more than I can chew, here 😉