Friday, January 22, 2010

The Story Myth- Bill

How many times have you heard the expression "all great films start with a great story"?

Talk about clichés! Well, I'm sick and tired of hearing that bull. Sure there are a wonderful films that are wonderful because of the story, but please give me a break! First of all, people describe great films as cinematic. What does it mean? It means it's a visual experience, something that has nothing to do with words. In fact, I love many films that have either no words, or very minimal script. For example, Jacques Tati films, or Triplets of Belleville, Georges Méliès, Charles Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Busby Berkeley. Or, for example, the films of the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields are essentially plotless, they are cavalcade of gag sequences strung together by a weak plot. Or take John Cassavetes, his films were essentially improvised in front of the camera.

And what the hell was the story for such classics as 2001, The Space Odyssey or Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke or Howl's Moving Castle? Did you understand anything in these films?

Some other great films that had no real story Citizen Kane (very cinematic), Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Woodstock. Yellow Submarine, the animated classic was begun without a script.

I could go on and on, but why beat a dead script? If I hear the expression "story is everything" one more time, I'll stick their tongue in my electric pencil sharpener - now that's cinematic!


  1. hahaha bill saves my butt with a more informed angle!!!

  2. Oh, dear. You're not really arguing that RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, CTIZEN KANE, and 2001 had no stories are you? :) These are three of the greatest screenplays of ALL TIME! Yeah, it helps visually just a bit when your movie is directed by Speilberg, Welles, or Kubrick! But what nonsense to suggest these amazing plots were improvised out of thin air by clever actors and directors. You don't actually believe that Stanley Kubrick arrived at the set each day and just made things up as he went along?

    No, story is not "everything," but film is primarily a storytelling medium. You have to have a point. Even if the story is "weak" - a series of Chaplin gags - that does not mean a story is not there, or is unimportant. Chaplin still needs a solid goal and a plot to guide him through those gags, just like Indiana Jones needs an Ark (one of the best plots ever, I might add) as an excuse for his adventures.

    C'mon, Bill, would you really prefer an abstract Annecy paint cartoon about absolutely nothing to a story by Quentin Tarantino?

  3. Bill -

    Didn't you make fun of storyless cartoons with your parody of the geometric line and moving ball animation? Did you have a change of heart?

  4. Haha! Awesome!!

    I think execution is maybe more important than story- with good timing and funny drawings, I feel like almost any idea could be entertaining.

    I like this blog!! Can't wait to read more!

  5. i think a perfect example of visuals/characters over plot would be any given terry gilliam movie

    i loved brazil but lord knows i couldnt make anything out of the plot

  6. The twisting plot of Brazil and its surprise ending is the only thing that keeps that movie going forward. Otherwise it would have drowned in endless visual overload. Gilliam's best films have solid plots that force him to focus. His worst films are an unstructured mess, and in turn, unwatchable (Brothers Grimm, anyone?)

  7. Hmmm, like Pat said in his previous post I think it might just be semantics at this point.

    I thought Pats main argument was that [with fantastic characters, it doesn’t even matter what they do in essence, simply putting them on the screen and having them act in their funny ways towards one another is enough.] (Which I agree with as far “it would be very entertaining”)

    But if you’re saying that Indiana Jones or Triplets of Belleville don’t have plots then I think we’re simply calling “plots” or “stories” by different names. To me the “series of coincidences that put your characters in specific locations to accomplish different things” is the, well, story. (Indiana Jones finding out different information in one area that LEADS him to the next area and eventual conclusion of his adventure, or that guy in the Triplets of Belleville being kidnapped and forced to ride those bike and the eventual escape scene that follows, etc) … I had always thought those were some damn clever STORIES. Maybe you guys are just referring to them as “actions taken by the characters.”

    But then, my question to both of you is … what, in your opinion, is the difference between “a situation the characters are in” and “story.” (Because let me tell you … were I talking with someone else about animated short films, I could make a damn good argument to them that “Puppet” and “Hot Dog” had some GREAT stories for short films.)

  8. PS … I wonder if that Princess Mononoke and Howls Moving Castle comparison works against you in this discussion. To me (and everyone I’ve talked to in America and Japan have had the same opinion) QUALITY-wise the 2 films are both great, but the “STORY” in Mononoke destroys the non-sensible, confusing plot in Howls … making it far superior. (Come on … clearly there’s a story in Mononoke. A group of people attacking the forest for personal gain which is, unknowingly to them, home to creatures that hold together the ecosystem of the world…. An obvious metaphor for how important it is to protect nature and how people are ignorant to its true importance) … how possibly is that not a story? I mean … I’ll tell you right now that a group of people spent months and months writing it …. So… again… how is that not a story?

  9. well, actually, if that is your real name(??????)

    i think i worded my comment wrong

    what i meant was that, while brazil does have a great plot and ending, the film is more about character development and visuals than the actual plot.

    i think a better example is fear and loathing in las vegas.

  10. There is a world of difference between "story" and "storytelling"...

  11. So I'd like to see the script of Triplets of Bellville. In Fact a lot of Hollywood people won't deal with me because I have no script.
    There is no way i could write a script for my film because there are no words. It's all storyboards.
    It's purely visual storytelling.
    That's what I mean when I say "the script doesn't mean everything!"

  12. Dude. Bill. What was the story to 2001? The timeline alone is like a dissertation. 5 acts of pure story- relations- diplomatic subterfuge- plot- character-space travel-ETs. Mononoke? Let me see- Lady Eboshi has more backstory than any single one of your features, and she's not even the main character. She's the wife of a former pirate- hence her males' clothes, and alpha role, saving lepers and building guns to protect her city of ex-prostitutes from warring political factions. She's the center of the conflict for Ashitaka and the Gods. That doesn't even scrape the surface of the story in Mononoke Hime. Shinto gods, Man vs. Nature. Ashitaka's exile from his tribe. There's history in these films. Research. Original narrative. STORY. Same with Spirited Away. Howl's Moving Castle. I'd love to read those scripts- because they're probably beautiful writing telling fantastic stories.

    I know, you love gag reels. But cinema is more than a big gag reel. The great thing about Belleville is that it had BOTH, man, and each played off each other. Hell, I've seen Mutant Aliens, your features have narrative and dramatic arcs. But you enjoy your sandbox all the while. I get it.

    I love ya, but don't be down on scripts and story. Hollywood would never work for you because Hollywood is full of c****s, it has nothing to do with words or screenplays.

    You're putting sandbox gags of animators against Kubrick and Arthur Clarke... They spent months cracking out that story- together. A collaboration of fine narrative. I have that screenplay- in some cases it only has a slug and a few sentences per page. But each movement serves the story. Every character has a place in the narrative. As each good visual "gag" does as well. Kubrick was an all-out story man, his house was full of fiction and research... All to serve story.

    Of course the script doesn't mean everything- but neither does the look or the sound. They've all got to work together. What's
    Belleville without the mother looking for her kidnapped son? The mafiosos have GREAT rectangular geometry, and all the dons being little babies- brilliant! BUT! without the underground casino threatening to kill her brainwashed son what's at stake? What does the audience root for without the bloody story? Come offit, man! Story, character, gags, dramatic beats- they're interchangeable. Do what you like, but my next film is a STORY- and for the first time, I didn't even write a script for it. I can see what you mean about open-ended production, but too often in animation, people put meaning and content second to execution. Sometimes art that has boundaries can be more focused and affective than art that has none.

    Besides, 80-90% of sandbox animation wastes my bloody time. A laugh is a laugh is a laugh, Bill. I can get them anywhere these days. It happens that I like yours, so I'm holding back a bit-- when you use 2001 (my favorite movie) as a cinematic example of no plot, well...If you think that movie had no plot, you didn't understand it.

    Now, to find something that moves me- EVOKES. Inspires. That's something most kiddies can't build in a sandbox. 2001 still moves me- because of the scope, range, and brilliance of its story.

  13. What a relief to hear you saying this. I love good stories, but people that overemphasize plot, don´t understand anything about film. It´s such a narrow view.

  14. my guess is, hisko, is that the people you're talking about that overemphasize plot... aren't actually filmmakers themselves.

  15. No, they tend to be critics.
    I watched some Star Wars films yesterday with my son, and I remembered the reviews that never discussed the excellent compositions, colors, sound and music, but always focused on the weak ´story´. A good film should be a total-experience, and the lack of a good story is sometimes compensated by great visuals, or good acting.
    Every filmmaker knows that ´God is in the details´.

  16. *nods*

    I know what you mean. One of my favorite things David Lynch did was put Ebert's review quote of "Two Thumbs Down!" at the top of a theatrical poster for Lost Highway.

    Some people just aren't comfortable without a coherent story that tells them what happens next. I suppose that's to be expected. If this is the notion that Bill is attacking, I commend it. But most US animators can't tell a worthwhile story to save their life- so I am wary of detractors.

    And you've got to admit... The stories in the Star Wars prequels were awful... Just awful...

  17. O.k. o.k. the stories in the Star Wars prequels are horrible.
    You are right. And if anything is missing in the animated short world, it is proper storytelling.
    And the music sucks a lot. I really loved the music in Patricks Puppet, by the way. That was one of the exceptions.

  18. Haha..of course story isn't everything. It's just one of the ingredients. I guess it depends on each individual's taste.
    I think a film is good as long as it doesn't put me to sleep whilst watching it (It happened to me while I was watching transformer 2 and toy story 2)