What THE FORCE AWAKENS Says About Blockbusters Today

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9 months after its release, nearly every member of the vaunted film-going public has seen J.J. Abrams’ mega-blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens (a.k.a. Star Wars 7). Almost all of those people, even ones who loved the film, noted one obvious and unavoidable point: that the film, in the words of a must-read review by Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, “reproduces George Lucas’ original 1977 movie slavishly almost to the point of plagiarism.”

Still, while everyone has heard that Star Wars 7 is essentially a modernized carbon-copy of A New Hope, I haven’t seen much commentary on what that means. By repeating the 1977 classic, Star Wars 7 provides a rare opportunity for a substitution analysis, to see what kind of studio trends predominate today. Here are the three biggest ones I noticed from a recent second viewing.

1. Louder, Faster, Dumber

An article in The Economist from the time of The Force Awakens’ release calls Disney “the market leader in the industrialization of mythology,” for having added Pixar, Marvel, and now LucasFilm to its agglomeration of culture-creators. What does industrially produced mythology look like? In Star Wars 7, audiences have an answer.

While dutifully replicating the story structure of A New HopeThe Force Awakens makes proceedings generally faster and dumber. I’m not one of those folks that faults the original trilogy for lacking “moral ambiguity,” but even I was surprised at how over-the-top Episode 7‘s villains were. For a franchise that’s plucked so much Nazi imagery, The Force Awakens really hammers home the comparison with unprecedented stridency. Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine has also been given the contemporary treatment, in the form of a 50′-tall Marvel-style CGI Gollum-creature.

Speaking of Marvel: in post-Marvel Cinematic Universe blockbusters, it’s not enough to blow up a planet anymore, so Star Wars 7  blows up an entire solar system. Unfortunately, given the breakneck pace, the film didn’t create any connection between the audience and the doomed planets. At the very least, A New Hope found the time for a few moments on the Death Star’s bridge for Princess Leah to communicate that she had loved ones on Alderaan. In contrast, no such context is offered in The Force Awakens, so when upwards of 5 or 6 planets are vaporized, the audience just has to trust the filmmaker’s word that what they’ve seen is important.

The planet-destroying Starkiller Base provides a lot of Episode 7‘s most glaring shortcomings, and not just because it recycles the main threat from both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. In Star Wars, the Death Star is introduced in the iconic opening credit scrawl–in all-caps, no less. In the opening minutes, the audience learns that Darth Vader is hunting for the stolen Death Star plans, which are of the utmost importance to the plucky rebels. When the Rebels finally face the Death Star in the climactic battle, it dominates the third act. In contrast, Starkiller Base is unveiled late in the second act, in the act of destroying some planets to which the audience has no connection. It’s not enough for it to just be a big bad antagonist, either: the characters are shown that Starkiller Base dwarfs either Death Star. Unlike the Death Star attack which capped A New Hope and mined a lot of tension from the sequence, the aerial assault on Starkiller Base takes a little less than four minutes.

The scene feels typical, though, because The Force Awakens affords itself almost no time to sit and marinate. Long-term studies show that the average film shot length has decreased over time, meaning that movies are generally getting faster. It doesn’t take long for Rey to meet the endlessly marketable BB-8, at which point the film is propelled forward at breakneck pace. One scene in particular recalls A New Hope, and that’s when the new heroes Finn and Rey meet Han Solo and Chewbacca aboard the Millennium Falcon after escaping the First Order. In the first Star Wars film, after Luke and Han et al escape their respective desert planet, the narrative takes a breather.

In the sequence following their escape from the Empire, Luke learns more about the Force, Obi-Wan Kenobi begins Luke’s training, and the audience learns more about Han, Chewbacca, and the universe they all inhabit. The sequence feels relaxed; the droids and the Wookie even manage to work in a game of hologram space-chess. In The Force Awakens, there’s a comparable moment of character-building and exposition; which is roughly the length of a GIF. 

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The Force Awakens manages to slow down

Given that the reunion aboard the Falcon afforded the opportunity of a quiet moment, this would’ve been a good time for some sorely needed exposition. Why, for instance, have things seemingly started over from scratch in the galaxy far, far away? How come there’s now a good “Resistance” battling a hegemonic “First Order,” even though the Rebels defeated the Empire at the end of Return of the Jedi? This would’ve been a perfect place to answer some of those questions. Instead, after about 45 seconds of quiet reflection, the crew are attacked by a pair of rival space gangs, beginning a forgettable fight against computer-generated beasties. The scene ends the way every scene in the film ends: with the heroes blasting out of danger onto the next action set-piece. Actually, The Force Awakens probably wouldn’t feel so rushed if every scene didn’t end with the setting being blown up as the heroes escape.

Continue reading What THE FORCE AWAKENS Says About Blockbusters Today

Sci-Fi is doing the best work depicting non-romantic relationships between men and women

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Of all the different kinds of human relationships, art has explored platonic friendships between men and women the least. Heterosexual romance is the reigning heavyweight, and countless works celebrating Eros have been created each year since the Paleolithic age. Same-sex friendships place highly, since traditional norms have historically segregated people by gender. Even unlikely animal friendships are getting more visibility today, burning through social media in listicles and slideshows. While art celebrates other forms of connection constantly, though, non-romantic bonds between men and women have gone mostly ignored.

Pop culture usually looks skeptically at cross-sex friendships, as researchers call them. The few sitcoms that feature cross-sex friendships, like 30 Rock or The New Girl, largely use them to mine humor from battle-of-the-sexes wackiness. When they come up in film and television, it’s almost always to set up a contentious courtship before an inevitable third-act union.  Romantic comedies in particular reject the idea that these friendships can exist at all, instead exploiting them for will-they-or-won’t-they tension á la Sam & Diane or Ross & Rachel. The prototype, When Harry Met Sally, answers the question “can men and women be just friends?” with a definitive no and in the process “set the potential for male-female friendship back about 25 years,” according to Michael Mansoor, author of Women and Men as Friends.

Even in the early 21st century, as many traditional gender norms start to look as archaic as smoking on airplanes, it’s still common to see articles asking if cross-sex friendships are scientifically possible, or touting their benefits to skeptical readers. As pop culture explores male-male Bromances and female-female BFs-F configurations, the little non-academic material looking at cross-sex friendships is being done in niche works, like a non-fiction book from this year about the correspondence between the founding fathers and their female friends. However, there’s one genre that’s given itself more space to explore cross-sex friendships, and it’s the one that’s traditionally been the most daring, political, and imaginative.

Though its release is still a month away, the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, is already breaking pre-sale records. It’s also garnered pre-release praise for its diverse casting, indicating that Disney sees a value in making the galaxy far, far away look more like our own. Seeing John Boyega’s Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey together in the trailer, though, holds additional promise. Given that the Star Wars universe has never made romance a strong suit, there’s a possibility that The Force Awakens could feature another of sci-fi’s great cross-sex friendships. Today, if there’s a non-sexual friendship between a man and a woman, odds are that it’s in a science fiction movie. Of course, this isn’t to say that sci-fi can’t be traditional. Even Ridley Scott’s The Martian, which marooned Matt Damon millions of miles from the nearest person, managed to sneak a heterosexual coupling into an end credits sequence. However, it’s hard to think of a film outside the science fiction genre with a friendship at its core like that between Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams’ characters in Spike Jonze’s Her. Jonze’s film features two adults, one man and one woman, speaking about the intimate facts of their emotional lives to one another, and at no point does the possibility of romance crop up. Not only is science fiction providing some of the most memorable and touching cross-sex friendships in film–the genre is providing some of the only ones, period.

The emotional core of this summer’s Mad Max: Fury Road is the relationship between Tom Hardy’s Max and Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. The two meet as enemies, but have to work together out of sheer necessity in order to escape warlord Immortan Joe and his War Boys. In the cab of Furiosa’s war rig, the two come to depend on and trust each other. As the two make their way across the wastes, watching their relationship evolve is one of the joys of the film. Furiosa and Max are two broken people, forced to be as hard as possible and atoning in their minds for a lifetime of failures. In order to work together, the two have to be progressively more open with each other. These moments of vulnerability are praised as some of the film’s highest grace notes.

Moments like that moment are better than just tender romance—they’re intimate moments, of two people supplementing each other for a mutual good. It’s not that George Miller’s film doesn’t have time for romance; the relationship between war boy Nux and wife Capable takes on romantic overtures. The kinship between Max and Furiosa is built on trust and respect, rather than amorousness. The fact that this enables mutual growth for the two makes it look more like a rich and fulfilling friendship, but the lexicon for male-female friendship is so barren that the default descriptive language is romantic.

That particular moment, where man, woman, and machine give way to unexpected tenderness, isn’t totally unique. There’s a similar moment anchoring the emotional journey in Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 classic Robocop, between another man and woman whose friendship is richer than romance. Officer Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is a cop partnered with Anne Lewis (Nancy Allen). The two have each others’ backs, shooting the shit and working together before bad guys blast Murphy to shreds and OCP reconstitutes him as Robocop. Following his resurrection, OCP sells Robocop as a piece of machinery that’s going to save Detroit. It’s Lewis who reminds Robocop who he was, then saves his life when OCP plans to leave him in the scrap heap. Having escaped, Murphy tries to remember his past life. It’s Lewis who sees his face, connecting him with his humanity and spurring arc of Murphy’s character. In a movie where a man gets shot in the balls and another gets blasted into pink chum, the non-romantic intimacy between Murphy and Lewis provides the film’s emotional core. Continue reading Sci-Fi is doing the best work depicting non-romantic relationships between men and women

In Praise of Small Action Movie Stakes

In the trailer for the upcoming Bond film Specter, the possible Ernst Blofeld played by Christof Waltz introduces himself with a very Blofeldy proclamation: “It was me, James. The author of all your pain.” Though the film is still months away, the trailer is selling a narrative in which Craig’s Bond, firmly established as 007, has been set upon this path due to the schemes of Waltz’s character. Whether he end up as Blofeld or just Franz Oberhauser, Waltz is being pushed as the mastermind of Bond’s journey, with the events of Specter set up as the inevitable climax.

Whether or not Specter makes more money than Skyfall, or is better-liked than Casino Royale, has to wait until November. Either way, trailer is selling grand implications for the Craig Bond universe. This guy is the author of all Bond’s pain, an invisible hand in 3 previous films. It’s big, it’s far-reaching, and it’s very much the tradition of action tentpoles today.

It seems like the bigger the action movie franchise, the bigger the stakes. 2013’s Skyfall made the most money of any Bond film, so the next installment needs a villain who’s near-omnipotent. The Bond films aren’t the only popular spy franchise to do this, either. This summer’s Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation had Ethan Hunt’s Impossible Missions Force dissolved and Tom Cruise’s Hunt chased down by the CIA as well as an evil spy agency (more evil than the actual CIA). As in the film’s predecessor, 2011’s Ghost Protocol, Hunt and his team are totally alone, disavowed, and outgunned. It’s not enough that they be up against a fearsome enemy, Hunt and his IMF co-spies have to be abandoned and chased by enemy and ally alike.

And no one does higher stakes than the billions-grossing Marvel movies. Almost every film in the portentously named Marvel Cinematic Universe has to have the fate of the world as the stakes. With 1 or 2 Marvel movies out every year for the last decade, it’s gotten to the point that the first murmurs of dissent are starting to bubble up. When Avengers: Age of Ultron was released in May 2015, there were signs that people were starting to get tired of the tightly managed Marvel formula, with its obligatory world-ending threats. According to a reviewer at Vox, villains in Marvel films “all want to destroy the world. They’re all very powerful. They’re all nasty,” but they “don’t feel particularly consequential in the movies.” The extreme stakes have been overused to the point of burnout. As Bilge Ebiri pleaded in Vulture: “dear movie supervillains: quit trying to destroy the whole planet.” Even Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man, which was widely praised for its small scale, was closer to the “save the world” end of the spectrum than the heist film that was sold to Comic Con audiences.

With so many films relying on world-annihilation and extreme desperation to build their stakes, it’s worth praising those action movies that are effective outside this mold. One of my favorite movies of the last 5 years is Peter Travis’s Dredd (2012), which is set almost entirely within one apartment block. Dredd doesn’t need the survival of the entire planet at stake, nor does it need to leave Jude Joe Dredd dishonored, disavowed, and on-the-run. Like 2012’s companion “fight out of a block” film The Raid, it just starts a cool hero or two, gives them a mountain of enemies, and gives them an immediate need to escape. Ditto for last year’s John Wick and this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Part of what made Wick so enjoyable was what set him on the path to revenge–an inversion of the world-ending threat. With every big action movie ratcheting up the stakes to the maximum, sometimes just a good ol’ fight to the death is a welcome change.

5 people who deserve as much shit as Banksy for their half-baked politics

Banksy, as you know, is the wildly popular British artist who helped make “street art” something your parents like. His new show is a dark inversion of one of his favorite targets, Disneyland, which hits a lot of usual targets. Politics have always been a central part of his art: statements against consumerism, the daily grind that is life in a market economy, and this whole “war” thing.

Every time Banksy makes headlines, there’s another wave of backlash. He’s ruining graffiti. He’s part of that ever-growing body of uncool things that constitute “stuff white people like.” Banksy’s litany of crimes includes gentrifying graf, recently pulling an “all lives matter,” and painting on the Israeli apartheid wall that surrounds the Palestinian occupied territories despite the wishes of at least one Palestinian.

And, sure, Banksy is going to get made fun of for saying shit like this:

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And to his discredit, Banksy’s political statements are mostly mainline progressive, targeting “consumerism” and rather than capitalism. But a lot of the anti-Banksy sentiment is from people who think even this mild reformism is the domain of petulant teenagers. Take the popular tweet series “my roommate Banksy,” which equates even his mild, bourgeois anti-consumerism with 9/11 Truth:

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So, if it’s time to send some internet-based mockery towards people’s half-baked, pseudo-left political statements, let’s do it right. Here are 5 people who deserve as much shit as Banksy:

 

1. Charlie Brooker

Brooker is a British commentator who combines the mild liberal reformism of Jon Stewart, the hectoring tone typical of British reality show hosts, and the furrowed brow of a lecherous magician. In 2006, a year after Banksy released his bestselling collection Wall and Piece, Brooker took one of the first big public shots at the pseudonymous artist. Banksy, according to Brooker’s Guardian op-ed, “is clearly a guffhead of massive proportions,” celebrated “[b]ecause his work looks dazzlingly clever to idiots.”

As proof of Banksy’s guffheadedness, Brooker blasts one of the artists most famous images:

One featured that Vietnamese girl who had her clothes napalmed off. Ho-hum, a familiar image, you think. I’ll just be on my way to my 9 to 5 desk job, mindless drone that I am. Then, with an astonished lurch, you notice sly, subversive genius Banksy has stencilled Mickey Mouse and Ronald McDonald either side of her.

Wham! The message hits you like a lead bus: America … um … war … er … Disney … and stuff. Wow.

Well yeah, the message of Banksy’s art does seem to be something about war and corporations, maybe American imperialism and capitalism are related. Maybe Mr. Exit Through the Gift Shop is right, and “War is a racket,” as Major General Smedley Butler wrote in his treatise of the same name. More recently, Tom Friedman–apparently a huge Banksy fan–said “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15.” Given that the American media regularly says the Iraq War was “revenge for 9/11,” rather than to improve the bottom lines of Halliburton, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems, this is a message people need to hear more, not less.

For Brooker to criticize Banksy is an extreme example of the narcissism of small differences, and a clever distraction. Brooker is, as misanthropic musician Luke Haines put it too charitably, “the Banksy of telly.” Brooker built a career partly on “two series of the generally execrable 10 O’Clock Live and found himself relying on sycophantic laughs” from the idiots he accuses of being Banksy’s fan base, as one reckoning put it. When he finally got around to writing his own show, it was Black Mirror, whose deep, cutting sci-fi satire was in the future people will run on treadmills like guinea pigs in order to earn bitcoins for apps and appearances on the X Factor!! The one good episode is the only one not written by Brooker, but by the infinitely more talented Jesse Armstrong.

Banksy factor: 8 rats

8 rats

 

Continue reading 5 people who deserve as much shit as Banksy for their half-baked politics

I can’t wait for the backlash against dark, gritty movies

Another day, another franchise sold to audiences on the promise of dark, edgy grit. A couple weeks ago, it was Little Women’s turn, which the CW network is going to translate from 19th century New England to a “gritty, dystopic” Philadelphia. The same week an edgy, dystopian Little Women was announced, Ben Affleck told moviegoers that his Batman in the upcoming Batman v. Superman movie will be “more broken & fucked-up” than previous depictions of the caped crusader. Given this trend, the next Bruce Wayne is going to be played by one of those slabs of carbon nano-fibers developed by scientists which absorb nearly all light.

I care next-to-nothing about superhero movies, but I’ve been fascinated by the public fallout over the new Fantastic 4 movie. The film, which is one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year, is shaping up to be one of those epic cinematic catastrophes that people talk about for years. Not only does this film have an obvious fake wig that shows up in some scenes and not others, it’s a gift that keeps on giving for terrifically awful headlines. F4 has already given us lots of train-wreck stories about possible drug problems, cast fights, high-profile media proxy wars, and a director who creepily isolated himself like Howard Hughes, or Wesley Snipes on the set of Blade: Trinity. One downside of the spectacular post-release flameout around Fantastic 4, though, is that it’s overshadowing how bad the film’s dour edginess was. I was really hoping that Fantastic 4 would be bad enough to start at least a little backlash against this trend.

When it was first announced, the reboot of Marvel’s first family was sold as another dark, edgy project. Though the plotline was dropped during some reshoot, Dr. Doom was initially going to be an Occupy-inspired hacker named Domashev, playing off both Anonymous and scary Russians like the Tsarnaevs for extra gritty realism. From what I’ve read, though, most of the darkness made the final cut. The Thing’s trademark catchphrase, “it’s clobberin’ time,” is evidently delivered to the young Ben Grimm by his abusive older brother before a beating. To put it in Superman terms, this is like Kal-El being sent to Earth because Kryptonian CPS took him from his violent, mentally ill parents.

The problem with this is that not everything needs to be gritty. Certain things, like a superhero family whose powers tend towards the ridiculous, probably shouldn’t be dark. If not pulled off right, the end result will be something grim, unpleasant, and “shockingly humorless,” as many reviews have said about Josh Trank’s film. At least Batman & Robin, despite the fact that it’s also a huge piece of shit, has some ridiculous jokes and cool art nouveau-stylings. Continue reading I can’t wait for the backlash against dark, gritty movies

Mario Bava is too good for some moviegoers; or, Irony is for cowards

Planet13Amy Nicholson of LA Weekly has a piece that I absolutely love, with the self-explanatory title “Stop Laughing at Old Movies, You ***ing Hipsters.” I’m usually opposed to invoking hipsterism as a cultural boogeyman, since as far as I can tell it almost always means “person who likes something one micron more obscure / intellectual / highbrow than me.” 95% of the time someone is called a “hipster,” it’s as a defense mechanism against seeming uncultured or uncool, since the hipster is a disingenuous, vapid poseur, and the accuser has just the perfectly calibrated set of tastes. However, that remaining 5% of the time, it’s a decent term for describing the reflexive posture of detached snarking that’s something of a contemporary pop cultural lingua franca.

Nicholson is responding to the experience of having attended a screening of Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World at the LA Opera. Made in 1961 and starring proto-Schwarzenegger Reg Park as Hercules, much of Nicholson’s co-audience found the film hilarious, and broadcast this fact through the film’s run-time:

Bava’s movie is limbo between film and theater. His sets look like sets—he rarely had more than five figures to spend on making a flick—and the big boulders Hercules (Reg Park) flings at his foes are clearly styrofoam. Instead of chasing after realism, Bava embraces artifice. He tints the screen lurid hues of red, pink and green, and trusts that we’ll meet him halfway.

The audience at Hercules in the Haunted World thought the styrofoam boulders were hilarious. They cracked up the first time Park opened his mouth and baritone Kihun Yoon began to sing. Soon after, most people settled down. But a third of the house continued to treat Bava’s heartbreaking fantasy epic like a comedy. Guy gets boiled in lava? Hysterical! Lady gets her throat slashed? Priceless! People weren’t laughing because Mario Bava was funny. They were laughing because Mario Bava wanted them to feel.

I haven’t seen Hercules in the Haunted World, but have similar experiences based on another one of Mario Bava’s films, 1967’s Danger: Diabolik. Based on a long-running Italian fumetti series, Diabolik is one of the first comic book films, and it set the bar extremely high. It’s a colorful, thrilling, and exuberantly out-there pop-art masterpiece, set to a score by Ennio Morricone working in his most psychedelic freak-out register. It’s expressionistic, wildly stylized, and visually lavish—most importantly, it’s unique; very much unlike anything made today. Consequently, it had the dishonor of being the subject for the final episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, subject to 90 minutes of jokes based mostly on superficial observations about the film’s formalist aesthetics.

If someone’s looking to mine humor from cinematic ineptitude, Mario Bava is one of the least likely offenders. During his long and varied career, Bava was a master of color and mood. In addition to being one of fathers of gialli, he was an artist in every sense of the word. Bava’s artistic vision is such that he’s the subject of probably the most comprehensive cinematic career study ever, Tim Lucas’ 1100+ page All the Colors of the Dark. What makes Bava’s films an easy target is that they’re so different than what audiences today are accustomed to, and he often had to work under budgetary constraints.

A lot of commenters point out that the screening was marketed by the LA Opera as an MST3K-style laugh-in. They were supposed to chuckle at the Styrofoam boulders! Which, okay—it’s fine as it goes. People paid for the purpose at laughing at a low-budget movie, the inherent humor of which still escapes me. Nicholson speculates that her theater neighbor’s “stubborn laughter was an advertisement for his own superiority, like it’s heroic to refuse to be ‘suckered’ by a fake rock that’s obviously fake. Matt Zoller Seitz made similar points to Nicholson in a 2012 piece, “From Russia With Love is not unsophisticated, you are.” Both writers point to the highly performative aspect of movie-goers broadcast their superiority to the art with smug laughter. “But there’s nothing triumphant about being too cool to dream,” Nicholson says. Continue reading Mario Bava is too good for some moviegoers; or, Irony is for cowards

The Problems With “Story”

Released in January 2015, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is heady, hard sci-fi. Unfortunately, the fact that it’s so thought-provoking made Ex Machina an unappealing commercial prospect in the eyes of studios. Garland describes it as an “ideas” movie, and according to an interview in Wired, “Garland was told flat-out by film execs that ‘idea movies don’t work.’” So what kind of movies do work? Besides franchises based on recognizable properties with built-in brand synergy, studios trust the selling power of stories.

“Stories” in the contemporary culture industry doesn’t just mean a work adhering to a narrative. In a piece for Film Comment on the Black List, the annual list of most-popular unproduced scripts, Nick Pinkerton explains what Hollywood wants to see more of:

A palpable shift occurs in [2010]. The “Based on a True Story” biopic, always a popular prestige form, begins to runs rampant.

Pinkerton identifies a few reasons for this shift. There’s the obvious name-brand appeal of a true-life biopic–the same reason for all these franchises–as well as an American Calvinist instinct to dismiss fictional narratives as something frivolous or morally reprobate.

However, the influence of biographical narratives isn’t limited to film. Beyond Hollywood, stories dominate everything from  journalism to podcasting, stealth marketing and political canvassing. New York Times Magazine culture editor Adam Sternberg echoed countless anonymous Hollywood executives when he advised freelancers to “Pitch a story, not an idea. Story has characters, timeline, conflict. Like a movie!” In order for ideas to reach a wider audience, they need the appeal of a novelistic narrative arc and the veneer of factuality, or better, truthiness. Media gatekeepers have given narratives with a true-life hook not just power that other works don’t enjoy, but a unique importance that borders on magical thinking. Stories have given way to story.

In the last 5 years, stories have become one of the dominant narrative forms, second only to the superhero trifle. Stories have certain elements in common with which everyone is mostly familiar. They have a real-life dimension at the center, a protagonist who acts as an audience surrogate.  This protagonist is usually suffering, and this pain creates an embodied response in the reader if the story’s done well. The storyteller gets to contextualize this person’s struggle, teaching the reader much-needed, even urgent, lessons about geo-politics, culture, history, cuisine, or whatever agenda the writer is seeking to impart.

This format works because it’s effective. Lawrence Wright explains that one of the biggest obstacles to writing Going Clear, his exposé on the church of Scientology, was finding this central figure–whom he calls his “donkey,” to carry the reader through the work. Scientology had for many years been a journalistic white whale–not only totalitarian and litigious, but with a bizarre cosmology at its center that renders it absurd to outsiders. A reader can’t invest much emotional energy in the plight of an average Scientologist if they can’t imagine themselves in those shoes. With the high-profile defection of Paul Haggis, Wright found his donkey, and the story had its storyness, the emotional power that turned a book into a blockbuster.

However, stories, as I describe them here, are something new. The contemporary media and culture industry invests stories with a unique cachet, value, and transformative power. Just like franchises have become Hollywood’s exclusive business model, stories are marginalizing all other forms of inquiry in the war for pageviews. If a writer wants a grant to write about science, the Alfred P. Sloan foundation will pony up dough to “books that profile scientific and technological figures from varying angles but with an emphasis on the human story.” In other words, Malcolm Gladwell. One site which pays freelancers actual money reminds submitters that “Storytelling is at the core of what it means to be human” (no pressure), so they’re looking for “writers can think like novelists, but act like journalists.” Again, Malcolm Gladwells. It’s also a very contemporary take on creativity: if today’s inter-disciplinary content creators want to get paid in something other than exposure, they have to be journalists and novelists. Continue reading The Problems With “Story”