18 December 2009

The Campbell Effect

It's going to be an old-fashioned story post today mostly inspired by news that Neill Blomkamp isn't the only filmmaker from a country not traditionally known for its film industry who can attract the Hollywood buck with a showreel. The BBC carries an item about a Uruguayan filmmaker, Fede Alvarez, who has been courted by Hollywood after posting his SF short Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!) on YouTube.

What's got my story senses tingling is not so much the news that the internet is putting people in touch with one another in ways hitherto unimaginable; after all Blomkamp's story tells us that. What's baking my noodle today is the number of people who've been complaining about its lack of a story.

It would be easy to rant about how this is a filmmaker's technical reel, not a story-based submission and in fact many have on YouTube and also on snarker's paradise Slashdot. However such a swift rebuttal fails to account for one important thing. People are showing, in a mystic, hippie, "wisdom of crowds" kind of a way that they're becoming fed up to the back teeth with hollow spectacle or narrative pretensions. They want the two combined.

The basic reason the two often fail to go hand in hand is that the more money goes into making a film the less experimental the producers feel like being with the story. Also, it seems, if a director is tagged as an "effects" director then a decent enough story and/or dialogue is seen as a bonus rather than something to shoot for.

The holy trinity of narrative, dialogue and effects rarely come together to the extent that when they do, such as in feature films like the original Matrix, it changes the way people even view the art of cinema. The best reviewers routinely look at the three together. Even movies like Pulp Fiction change the landscape because what I've lazily classified as "effects" really adds up to "visual language" which may or may not require the addition of special effects.

The sad fact is that examples of movies like Pulp Fiction and The Matrix are too few and far between and even then they always leave something to be desired. Some people find Pulp Fiction's dialogue to be too mannered. Some people find The Matrix's dialogue too much like a sophomoric philosophy essay. One thing seems to be agreed upon: Narrative can survive a lack of visual language or top notch dialogue for many but without coherent and satisfying narrative the other two elements are left out in the cold.

The big problem here for Hollywood is something I'm going to dub the Campbell effect, which I only wish was a reference to Bruce Campbell. The Campbell effect refers to anthropologist Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, the basis for all movies since Star Wars changed the game in the 70s.

What defeated conventional wisdom then was that Star Wars came across to someone with an ear for dialogue like a generic firework display, yet it captured the imagination of a generation. Harrison Ford was not alone in feeling Lucas could write dialogue, but it might be best not to subsequently attempt to perform that dialogue as speech spoken by a coherent sentient being. The surprise success of Star Wars in spite of hideous dialogue made Alec Guiness bitter and has been a constant irritation to writers of natural language from that day until The Phantom Menace nose-dived in the popular imagination and labelled the Star Wars saga a disappointment that had once held much promise.

So what's the issue? I don't know if I'm qualified to answer that question. Only two or three people on the planet have ever experienced my best narrative work to date and it isn't even finished yet. I think it's really good, not in an egotistical way, I'm surprised I wrote such a great narrative myself. I don't know that it's great, though. The writing needs more work and then, once finished I need people to read it and love it in order to know that I've hit the nail on the head.

So my opinion remains that of a consumer rather than a producer of content, and it is simply this: I think that in order to write an effective narrative you need more than a basic understanding of some 12 step plan for making "every great story ever written". What you need  is an emotional depth enough to recognise what it is that qualifies as a sympathetic fulfilment of each of those steps in turn.

It's not enough to produce the convincing facade of a battle with the guardian of the threshhold between the known and the unknown. You need to understand the emotional landscape of your protagonist enough to tease out the true antagonist who stands at the threshhold of their internal landscape. You need to make the encounter happen in terms pregnant with meaning for that character. You need to make all parts of the story parts of the story's protagonist on an essential level.

That's not an easy job. It's the product of years of writing practice and not stylistic practice at that, it's a discipline of structural practice that is often suggested but rarely attempted. It also requires that the teacher of such practices has the emotional depth to recognise when a writer has missed that most vital of points. A reader can be such a teacher, I am proud enough to believe that the Mrs is actually such a reader, such an analyst of story that she can home in on emotional dithering and falsity and hold it to account. She would never claim to be a writer but she is the nemesis of the lazy storyteller.

That's why, to be truthful, I am so proud of Starfall. It's because she loves it so and she loves very few narratives to that degree. Her analysis always has the ring of truth and yet, after the fact, always seems so obvious.

In other news Rage are losing ground to Robojoe in such an elegantly narrated fashion that it shows up the publicity stunt that this whole staged "battle" really has been.

Until Monday make mine a robot destroying Uruguay whilst consuming a delicious Sunday roast with all the trimmings, all, of course, smothered in delicious chocolate.

P.S. Tweeter  ElPared says Avatar "was like a koala crapped a rainbow in my brain!!!" best commentary evar!

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