I’ve spent so much time lately writing about movie matters like VOD that I haven’t written about why movies matter. Which is a shame, because they do matter—in fact, they matter more than ever.
Movies matter because stories matter and movies are currently our highest format for telling stories (at least until games and interactive storytelling supplant them later this decade).
My spiel on story
Here’s my spiel on story… I believe that storytelling is our oldest and most important technology. The fact that we tell stories part of what defines us as humans and we have evolved to be so sophisticated at telling and following stories that the minute we know about two things we will start creating a story about them in our minds.
Wait a minute…older than, say, fire?
Because how did our ancestors ever master fire without being able to tell someone about it… what kind of things burn, why you shouldn’t stick your hand right into it, and the like? Of course, once our ancestors mastered fire, storytelling really came into its own with an audience of people huddling around the fire. We are the progeny of people who could tell stories that helped them survive, flourish, and create us.
Stories don’t just teach or entertain, they also help us interpret and assign meaning to things that happen in our lives. They let us mentally go all the way down the road with a course of action and explore what happens when we do certain things or make certain choices—often choices we haven’t been faced with as directly or with such immediate consequences as in a movie. We can engage our imaginations and give ourselves perspective on the decisions we do face. Without stories, we have to figure all this out for ourselves. Stories can be a guidebook or owners’ manual for our lives.
Modern stories for modern times
When life changes significantly, we need new stories to help us deal understand those changes. Old stories lose their resonance because they leave out important things that make up inescapable parts of our lives. Those stories our ancient ancestors told around the fire about how they heroically killed that last, delicious giant sloth wouldn’t have much resonance for us today—it’s just not a part of our life anymore.
Modern lives demand modern stories. In fact, the new stuff is exactly what makes the stories interesting and necessary. Right now our world and society is changing faster than ever before. When I show my kids the movies I grew up with, I feel like I have to tell them that half of the things the protagonists do is because cell phones weren’t invented yet.
Technology changes not only what we do, but how we interact with the world and how we form our relationships. So we need new stories for these changes.
More than superheroes
It’s an interesting time to be a filmmaker (or audience) because movies are both more expensive than ever and cheaper than ever. Big budget films as a whole cost more than they ever have. Because of this, studios mostly reproduce what has made money in the past—which explains why almost every movie out there right now involves superheroes saving the world. These movies don’t have many opportunities to let us reflect on our evolving lives, since this would cut down on the explosions. As much as I enjoy a good popcorn action flick, these aren’t the movies that help us find our place in the world.
Fortunately, movies are also cheaper to make than any time in history. And without a budget for giant robots, these films have to win over audiences by showing something interesting about our world. To me, a movie like Her is so much more interesting and resonant than the latest threat to the free world that only a team of superheroes can avert. (Yep, I’m aware that Her is hardly a low-budget movie.) This is one of the things I like about seeing films in festivals—the films often suffer from flaws, but the stories tend to be much more applicable.
I believe that movies matter because stories matter and movies tend to be the big, broad cultural stories that we share. They give us a common reference and a point to begin talking about life. Movies that strike this cultural resonance tend to reach a broader audience than those that lack it. Hollywood may scratch their heads at why some movies break out but it’s often because they just give audiences that bit of meaning that so often missing in the superhero flicks. Personally, I always try to include this in my stories because it makes a film more interesting, and because it matters.