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Volume 12, Issue 3: Poetics

Deep in Lame Movies

Douglas Jones

Anyone with even a minimal interest in story-telling can't help but be perplexed. How is it that so many skillions of dollars can be spent to make movies with such continually shallow stories? It's not just a small percentage either. Easily ninety-eight percent of movies are lame, formulaic stories that should never have been told. Yet it costs more money to tell these two-hour ditties than most of us would see in ten thousand lifetimes.

Yet the problem doesn't seem that hard to fix. A mere million dollars can still go a long way, let alone sixty or ninety million. The world is full of grand storytellers and poets pining away on meagre salaries. It's not that our culture is not able to tell decent stories. The contemporary novel and short-story world are full of well-crafted stories with great subtlety and genuine depth of character. Why don't movie-makers link up with these folks?
Well, they can't. It's an old observation that most adventure movies are made for twelve-year-old boys and most romantic comedies for thirteen-year-old girls (who else would believe the assumptions of these characters?). Police, lawyer, and physician shows provide young viewers with quick and easy dramatic tension. You don't have to worry about real people or shades of emotion when someone weeps in the witness stand or enters with a chest wound. Your story can float on the surface of simplistic extremes.
But even setting aside the eighty-five percent of movies made for tender minds who think that school work is real work, the remaining "grown-up" movies fare no better. These movies still delight in grovelling around in the most superficial of emotions and tiresome themes-individualism, self-discovery, rebellion, and midlife dissatisfaction.
This penchant for propaganda hobbles most grown-up movies. Non-Christians rail against "preachy" stories when they come from Christians, but they're blind to their own constant propaganda and moralism. How many times, for example, do movies and sitcoms have to try to convince us that any sort of discrimination or social hierarchy is fiercely immoral? The "mainstream" can never be accused of propaganda, only the margins. Non-Christians can't see their tedious didacticism, but to those of us outside their worldview, it's exasperating.
Of course, part of the problem of movie shallowness is the movie genre itself. It's hard, but not impossible, to get some human depth because movies excell in the third person perspective. Movies have to live on the surface most of the time because they can't reveal our interior mental life well. Novels and short stories can move in and out of the objective and subjective realms with ease and believabilitiy, but movies tend to look a little goofy when they try that. Shakespearean monologues aim to bridge that gap, but "realistic" movies shudder at such devices.
Even when movies can achieve some depth by overcoming the third person constraint, the limits of time encourage shallowness too. The average movie length is 110 minutes, and you just can't get that much done in that time. It takes history and careful detail to reveal character. Public speakers know that very few text pages go into an single hour's lecture. You certainly can't finish a book in that time. That's why most books do poorly as movies. Movies have to leave out too much emotional history. Movies want to ascend to the level of an epic novel, but that's cheating the movie. It's not designed for that sort of feat, and it shouldn't try.
Movie length fits much better with short stories. Many contemporary short stories reveal wonderful depth and (relatively) subtle facets of human sin and emotion, but that's all they can do. They don't have time to develop plot; that's the novel's job. So most literary short stories rarely make acceptable movie material.
Perhaps all these constraints just show us that movie-making can never be a fine art. It can supply popular, brainless rest (there is a time for everything) or short-story plotlessness (contrary to film history), but not both; perhaps we can't have both depth and plot in the movie genre.
But we know that's not true. The greatest dramatist in Western history pulled it off. Shakespearean drama often (not always) reveals breath-taking depth and emotional subtltety in near movie-length time. And this reveals the heart of the problem of contemporary shallowness.
Shakespeare's time was much more fearless than our own. He could display the subtleties of the human heart because the Elizabethan culture was protected by Christian assumptions. They could examine human nature brazenly because they had hope of redemption. But with modernity, if you look at humans more than superficially, suicide becomes reasonable. There is no hope when you start to examine: "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it?" (Jer. 17:9). Movies are shallow, in large part, because non-Christians fear the pain of depth. The culture won't stand for it.
Christians have the view of reality able to flesh out the subtleties of human emotion, but, compared to the Elizabethan's, we're still too immature to write great scripts. We'll need another three or four generations before we can tell stories properly, especially within the challenging constraints of film. It will at least take us that long to live down the embarrassment of the Left Behind series.

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