Narrative Dinosaurs Complain about Cinematic Evolution

by James Harleman

Apparently David Kirkpatrick thinks that “the story” is in serious danger. I think he’s glossing over the past and afraid of the future.

A recent New York Times Article reports that M.I.T. is setting up a media lab to “examine whether the old way of telling stories — particularly those delivered to the millions on screen, with a beginning, a middle and an end — is in serious trouble.”

I don’t just disagree with the article because Peter Guber disses Transformers. I disagree with their limited framework for storytelling and their insistence that any of them or their compatriots have new ideas. David Kirkpatrick says their “mission is not small. “The idea, as we move forward with 21st-century storytelling, is to try to keep meaning alive”. I think he’s missing the deeper meaning of storytelling.

First of all, Hollywood never had any new ideas. I dealt with the folly of “original storytelling” in a previous post entitled Man in a Hole – Who Throws the Rope. Moreover, audiences and the moneymen have had negative impacts on cinematic storytelling since the early days; for a great example, albeit exaggerated, see a decent little film about the making of Citizen Kane called RKO 281.

The article naturally rips on franchises; “A common gripe is that gamelike, open-ended series like “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Spider-Man” have eroded filmmakers’ ability to wrap up their movies in the third act. Another is that a preference for proven, outside stories like the Harry Potter books is killing Hollywood’s appetite for original storytelling.”

There is nothing new under the sun, but the theaters are experimenting with other forms of storytelling developing with television and other mediums. Ongoing storylines are providing plenty of compelling stories with astounding narrative and lots of unexpected twists and turns. As I write this, The Shield is only one episode away from completing one of the greatest dramatic series on television with an ongoing narrative of intertwined lives seemingly headed for inevitable destruction. The notion that a great piece of cinema in the movie theater can’t or shouldn’t follow this format, or that an audience can’t maintain a cohesive storyline simply because the next episode takes two years instead of seven days, underestimates the audience and perhaps reveals a medium bias. Likewise, there have been adapted books and pulp stories since film’s inception, so modern vehicles like Potter and Narnia are nothing new either. 

Are there bad films? Surely. Does the glut of cinematic offerings cloud the issue? Yes, but Kirkpatrick and Guber are pointing fingers in the wrong places. I agree with Ken Brecher of the Sundance Institute: ““Storytelling is flourishing in the world at a level I can’t even begin to understand”.

Lastly, as a Christian I believe that all of life is a grand metanarrative, and all the stories and lives that permeate our existence are merely chapters. My life is a chapter, Hamlet is a chapter, David Kirkpatrick is a chapter, and Spider-man is a chapter. They are all pieces of a larger whole, real and fictional pieces reflecting or distorting a larger truth. The beginnings, middles, and ends are ultimately all middle, and in the end only one storyteller gets to say Alpha and Omega.

  1. Randall S Chrisman

    Beautifully and wonderfully said, Pastor J.

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