I thought I’d take some time to talk about what I look for when writing about movies, and where my thinking goes as a result. I have always been a fan of great movies, but more importantly I am more attracted to good storytelling in cinema. Looking back on the films I liked and disliked as a kid, I’ve found it rare that I would revisit a film I liked growing up only to find that the movie wasn’t in fact good at all. A lot of times there are movies that do end up being absolute crap, but our nostalgic love for the film is what allows us to enjoy it even as adults. To be honest, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying crap. The movie may be terrible, but there are elements to the main characters journey, or sometimes there are particular elements to the film that draw us in, even if it was a terribly executed idea.
As a kid I was pretty lucky when it came to seeing movies. I saw everything, and my parents were pretty liberal about the movies they took me to see. I saw everything from G to R rated features. The only movies my parents didn’t take me to were hard R rated films that featured an over abundance of language or we’re overly violent and scary. I was never really big into slasher horror flicks or anything like that. But other than that, I was exposed to a wide variety of storytelling. This is where my own emotional intuition would kick in about whether I thought a movie was good or not. It depended on how much a movie would captivate me and I would be along for the adventure. Even if I didn’t fully understand the story, there would be some part of the film that would captivate me, like a problem the main character was having that I could identify with and the problem leads them on a personal quest. I remember seeing a movie like Field of Dreams for instance and being drawn in by the haunting voice coming from the cornfields. At the same time that child-like wonder and curiosity the main character would feel took hold of me. I wanted to see where building this baseball field would take him and discover along the way the problems that would get in the way (for instance, the danger of losing all his money and his farm to find out where the voice was leading him).
My point being that great storytelling can captivate us on all levels. You don’t need to be an adult to understand all aspects of a story. But as a kid, even if I didn’t understand all the stuff that was over my head, I could tell whether a story was working or not simply by how much I engaged with the main character. For all of us who knew movies that were great when we were young, such as the films of Steven Spielberg, these were films that never catered to children. But as kids we were drawn in by the powerful, emotional journey of its main characters. The kids that were in these movies acted like real kids and were believable. A story in my opinion doesn’t have to be perfect plot wise. I don’t always pay attention to the structure of the film. But my main concern is if the main character has a problem I can identify with, and if the film challenges the character enough so they can find balance again by the end of the story. Often times, I will watch a movie and see a character presented with a problem, but then the problem gets put on hold several times during the film while the action takes over. In essence, if the conflict is not in support of the main characters problem, my feeling is that the story gets put on hold while the main character fights a bunch of bad guys. Sometimes the story doesn’t take itself seriously enough for us to believe in what the characters are trying to accomplish. I was terribly annoyed after seeing Iron Man 3, because the story kept reducing Tony’s problems into a joke, never giving us a chance to take seriously his panic attacks and PTSD. None of these crippling problems ever plays a part when Tony is off fighting bad guys. It never seems to stop him from getting the job done. If we’re not going to see his personal problems affecting him on the job, how are we expected to care about what he’s going through? Even the main villain that was advertised for the film as a serious threat is reduced to a comic buffoon. It’s not the movie it was promised to be.
When a film sets itself up for one thing and then takes us off course in a completely different direction, it looses me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate spoilers or surprises that take the story in a new direction, but the surprise should be in support of the arc of the main character. I find that spoiler “surprise” moments in big summer movies now are actually red herrings just to make the story appear more compelling than it actually is. It has nothing to do with what the audience is going through, it’s a formulaic throwing a wrench in the machine, giving the film a bunch of twists and turns that just distract us from the fact that the story has nothing to say to begin with. I can tell on an instinctive level whether or not a story is drawing me in, or if the main character has a compelling problem that I will want to see resolved (or even fails) in achieving their internal goals.
The other thing that is really important to me is that I like to see stories that end. I’m not a fan of franchises because they are not written with the goal in mind to resolve the characters issues, but to keep the story going and going like a soap opera, where one aspect of the adventure might get resolved, and suddenly a new problem takes its place. In this manner, the character loses his or her ability to find balance when their lives are written to always be out of balance. I’m not speaking of the format of a TV series, where we are accustomed to this sort of writing, but even in a series, by the end of the show we hope the characters will find some sort of peace within themselves. The same goes for movies. A characters life can fall even more out of balance by the end of the story, or reach a dead end, but if we are not compelled by the journey they are taking, then we are simply watching characters go through the motions without an engaging driving force that makes us want to see them succeed.
When I am riding this emotional wave, it lets me know when a movie is going strong. There is an honest sincerity to the character’s journey that enables me to connect with them. In other words, it’s just good storytelling. It’s also what keeps us coming back for more when we feel we can learn new things from re-experiencing the characters journey. As a storyteller, these are not just the things I look for when watching a movie, it’s what I strive to accomplish in my own work. A good story is one that’s well told. Not one that is hampered by distractions.