Dave Dittell is an '06 alum of the Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies and maintains the blog Alphabet Soup Kitchen, devoted to young writers.
There's a saying in Hollywood that nobody wants something new, just a new twist on something old.
For a truly creative person, this is a nightmare. This seemingly hard-and-fast rule pushes back against pushing boundaries, reins in experimentation, and asks that filmmakers keep themselves from testing the very limits of their abilities.
To this I say: Good.
The nightmare comes not from the actual situation, but from the way it is presented. It's not about staying with tired, old conventions even when they don't work. It's about deciding what's more important to you: being good, or being new.
As you may have noticed, Hollywood, with its "something old" attitude, has been doing quite for itself lately. In fact, storytelling has been around with us for as long as we can remember. And, throughout all that time, there have always been certain story elements that most appealed to us. Whether it's a love story, a rivalry, or a betrayal, people relate to stories built on real emotions.
One of the reasons Hollywood has been so succesful this year is because the stories it's presented appeal to that basic love of traditional storytelling. Films have not only been surpassing expectations and breaking opening weekend box office records, but those films that have captured the public's attention have also been sticking around in theaters longer. This is what's called "word-of-mouth," and it comes from people liking your film.
To use two recent examples, let's take a look at Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Taken. Now, if you're the type of person who feels like he has to create something "new" in order to be a valid artist, you're probably already half-way to your gun closet, ready to give it all up. These seem to be two of the most unoriginal, homogenized pieces of tripe ever put to film.
But people, god damn them, love these films to hell.
While you may hate the watered-down Bad Santa-ish notion of Paul Blart: Mall Cop or the warmed-over Ransom-ness of Taken, the truth is that their unoriginal "flaws" are in concept, not in execution.
These two represent traditional story structures -- one of the underdog facing insurmountable odds, the other of revenge -- with slight tweaks and fancy trappings that make them appear wholly new. And each one delivers on its promise of gags, action, and tender moments.
They may be unoriginal, but they're certainly well-made.
So there's no wonder that these are two of the most successful films of the year so far, and two of the most successful films to ever come out in the pre-summer months. These films are made specifically for people to like them.
Fine, you say, but not everybody is solely concerned with box office receipts. Of course, this is to a certain degree naive, as almost all non-government funders of film production expect to make their money back. Truly groundbreaking films, which stretch the boundaries of film language, have abysmally low budgets not because they have lesser requirements or because of widespread prejudices against the arts, but because they need to be cheap in order to be profitable.
But let's expand to look at films that, when made, were designed not for the common moviegoer, but for the elite critics. This year's Oscars telecast highlighted the best of 2008, at least according to the old white men who run Hollywood, and the films they championed, the ones deemed to be the most artistically valid, all had one thing in common:
They were new twists on something old.
The groundbreaking editing in Slumdog Millionaire? Not to disparage the Oscar-winner Chris Dickens, whose work truly is remarkable, but it's pretty much the same exact editing style also found in Boyle's previous critical darling Trainspotting.
The whole kids in the slums angle? Ever hear of The Bicycle Thief, or Salaam Bombay, or City of God?
The gritty, realistic look at the world of professional wrestling in The Wrestler? Is it really anything more than Rocky -- including even the details of the last climactic fight -- with some Super-16 grain on it?
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Reader, Milk, The Dark Knight, Frost/Nixon, Doubt, and WALL-E all have previous films and previous stories coursing through their veins and entwined in their DNA. There's something very primal about the level of storytelling here -- the basic patterns harken back those many centuries, to when stories were still told in the dark, but over a campfire instead of in a movie theater.
That's not to say that the Oscars are the final determinators of quality. They're not. But critical darlings not as clearly rewarded there -- like The Class and Waltz With Bashir -- though more ostensibly "daring" in their filmmaking, ultimately still bear strong resemblances to films of the past, whether it's Dangerous Minds or Waking Life.
Films that don't follow conventional storytelling inherently cannot fulfill or surprise audience expectations; they can only dissapoint. When you look at, Synechdoche, NY or Watchmen, two films I personally enjoyed very much but which failed to connect with audiences, you can plainly see what made them disappointments. They're dense, inaccessible, largely incoherent, and just too damn "new."
Ultimately what matters most, however, is not how novel a film is, but how well made it is. Once a filmmaker picks his style and conventions, he needs to commit to them fully. The idea of Hollywood as a factory for uninspired filmmaking comes not from the traditional plotting of so many of its features, but from the failure of moviemakers to live up to these standards. The creative energy used to devise that "new twist," to upset expectations, to create indelible characters to live these time-tested plots is a necessary ingredient, but it doesn't exist for its own sake. The problem with the "new" stories that get short shrift is that they get the creativity part down but contain none of the emotional elements audiences pay to see.
So the next time you're at square one, trying to decide how to channel your creative energies, don't become discouraged when you find yourself walking down a familiar path. Put that creativity into a new take on the material or a specific character we've never seen before. And remember, the execution -- the part that really matters -- is still all up to you.
Top photo by creativedc (Flickr Creative Commons)
Second photo by techbirmingham (Flickr Creative Commons)
Third photo by cliff1066 (Flickr Creative Commons)
Bottom photo by Aaron Geller (Flickr Creative Commons)