The Devin’s Advocate: James Cameron Calls Out The Story Crisis In Hollywood

James Cameron says there’s a story crisis in Hollywood. Setting aside all irony, the guy is totally correct. And it’s at least partially the audience’s fault.

‘What did you expect, Gone With the Wind?’

I saw this exact statement a number of times on the comments sections of a number of websites, including this one, made in response to negative reviews of Tron: Legacy. There were also variations, like “I didn’t expect The Godfather” or “You knew it wouldn’t be Inception.” It reminded me of a sentiment someone threw at Mr. Beaks of Ain’t It Cool News when he panned Avatar: “If you want a story, read a book.”

It’s funny that someone used that defense for Avatar because James Cameron, in an interview with Der Spiegel (via Movieline), rightly stated that Hollywood is in the middle of a story crisis. He was talking about Battleship in particular - a movie based on a board game - but so many modern blockbusters treat story as a minor inconvenience. Instead of understanding that story and character are the two pillars upon which any narrative film must stand, modern Hollywood uses shopworn plots and anemic - but supposedly archetypical - characters. Story and character are the infrastructure of narrative filmmaking, and without a strong infrastructure the whole thing eventually falls to pieces.

The story-free modern blockbuster tends to default to the Star Wars settings; they plug in convenient pieces of Joseph Cambell’s The Hero’s Journey (look at Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. There’s almost nothing in the film that qualifies as an actual story (and no, a story is not just a series of events that occur in a linear format), but the little bit of story that is there is simply ‘Sam refuses the call.’ And that’s it) and then they plug in ‘types’ - rogue, idealistic kid, snarky sidekick - and they use these tired devices as ways to get from action scene to action scene. And even that is falling to pieces; look at a film like Tron: Legacy, a movie that has absolutely no characters but only vague character types. The film essentially says ‘Sam Flynn is a rebellious kid. You know the type I’m talking about. Anyway, on to the light cycles…’

What’s weird is that everybody seems to have just shrugged their shoulders and accepted this. A good story is probably the cheapest part of the filmmaking process, and yet it’s also the rarest. When people say ‘What did you expect, Gone With the Wind,’ the answer is simply YES. Because what these people may have forgotten is that, in its time, Gone With The Wind was a mass entertainment. It was hugely popular, a complete sensation. Gone With the Wind wasn’t some kind of art picture or intended to be a work of Great Art (hell, it had at least three directors), it was intended to be a sweeping work of entertainment. It was Avatar of 1939 - except that it has a wonderful, eternally engaging story at the center, and is populated with vibrant, living characters who still speak to people today. The Godfather wasn’t based on some kind of high end literature; Francis Ford Coppola found the greatness in what essentially an airport book. Mario Puzo’s writing wasn’t terribly great, but he had a crackerjack story with great characters.

All of a sudden I’ve found myself in a world where story is for snobs, and only the elites want good characters. All of a sudden Edgar Rice Burroughs is high falutin’ and Back to the Future is impenetrable arthouse fare. I’m not standing here demanding deep and meaningful themes or exquisite metareferences in the text - just simply good old fashioned two-fisted storytelling. Giving a good yarn, and filling it with exciting characters. The action set pieces become disconnected free floating fireworks displays if there’s no story to support them and no characters to give them meaning. Maybe you want to spend 17 bucks for an IMAX 3D ticket to sit there dumbfounded by computer displays, but I don’t know why that FX extravaganza means we can’t also be wrapped up by the story.

Storytelling is one of the oldest and greatest forms of human communication. Hearing a good story told well is one of the great pleasures, and there’s something transporting about getting wrapped up in a fine tale spun by a teller who knows his stuff. And that’s not fancy pants material - that’s cavemen squatting around a fire being transfixed by the oral histories from their shaman. Telling stories is in our DNA, and falling into them is hardwired into our brains on an almost reptilian level. Barely verbal children become lost in well-told stories; the ‘turn off your brains’ contingent of cinema destroyers want you to rev down your grey matter to below the level of a thing that shits its own pants.

Hollywood has its own stupid reasons for ignoring storytelling. They rush films to meet dates, meaning that scripts never get finished. The executives are borderline morons, so a pitch that can be boiled down into an exciting sentence that can be visualized as a trailer - ‘Robot dinosaurs from the future battle the Marine Corps on Mars!’ - sells better than a pitch that’s actually about something. Actors meddle in stories because they want to be likable. But what’s the excuse for the audience? Are people really so stupid now that just a well-told story is too learned for them? I hate it when the world keeps looking more and more like Idiocracy, but the simple call to make movies where people care ‘whose ass it was and why it was farting’ feels quite contemporary.

Now the storytelling crisis in Hollywood is so huge that it is apparent to the man who propelled a movie filled only with cliches and archetypes to the top spot in history. And it doesn’t seem to be letting up. I wonder what’s going to happen in ten years - will people who complain about the threadbare plots and non-existent characters in blockbusters be told ‘What did you expect, a Stephen King story?’ or ‘You knew it wasn’t going to be Twilight.’?

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