Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Crude Explanation of my Thesis

So the whole purpose of this project and this blog, are articulated a bit in the IndieGoGo profile for 'Your Milkman. But, I would like to reiterate the mission statement, since many people I've talked to have only skimmed the page. [It's more important than the outcome of this film, as far as I'm concerned]

Over the past year, I've been working on a thesis on mass-appeal filmmaking. This doesn't mean blockbusters, but films that are well received on a wide-scale and that the 'every man' can relate to. I need to state that the following is more of a free-form writing, spewed from my fingertips, and the thesis itself is still in its infancy. SO as a disclaimer: ideas are subject to change without warning, and potential contradictions may be abound. With that said, this mass-appeal storytelling rerely on at least five principals.

One: That films are about making the ordinary extraordinary. This is based around a mantra that my boss, Steve Weiss, states constantly. Basically when it all comes down to it, even small moments like learning to tie your shoes as a child, can be told with an extraordinary spin. It's all how it's told and through what lens is it seen.

Two: That simplicity is key. A complicated story can be good if told right, but there's a correlation between how complicated it is, and how detached emotionally you can feel for the characters. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter are great to sit through, but they're too long, too many characters to invest in, and I'd argue that the only things that make them so revered are the visual spectacle, the worlds created by J.K. Rowling and J.R.R Tolkien, and their publishers' affinities for acronyms. The folks who read their books may all be closing out this blog post because I'm blaspheming on their favorite pieces of literature, but their film counterparts just don't do what the original text did; which was allowing the viewer to get invested in every character over the course of thousands of pages. While some list these film series as their favorite movies, I argue that for the 'every man', it's not something they can get emotional over and get invested in.

Three: That the story has conflict. We as humans love to hear stories about humanity going up against the odds. We love that redemption story. We want to relate and sympathize with the protagonist, and the drive of that catharsis we experience is through the journey of conflict. Every story has conflict, and from what I have noticed, the conflict typically lies within some variation of seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Gluttony, Lust, Sloth, Greed. We have a drive to see and learn how fundamental problems are dealt with. Now, pair the conflict up with a drive, whether it's love, or a personal goal, or the objective to save the world, the obstacles and the way the protagonist goes about dealing with them is where part of the entertainment and warm fuzzy feelings come from. Now, not every film fits into that nice formula, but generally speaking, if you ask any good storyteller, they'll tell you that dramatic stories about people often rest on those pillars to drive the dramatics of a story.

Fourth: That these films have a personal connection with the viewer. Something that is hopefully subconscious and totally unnoticed, but just where the viewer says "You know, I liked that movie, but I can't tell you why." This fourth principal is a discovery that I'm finding in my list (which you'll hear about in detail further down this post.)

Five: That the elements of the story are romanticized or possess a sense of mysticism. One could argue that this is an offshoot of the other principals, but if it hasn't already done it through those, then this remains. With this idea, both What the story is, and How it's told go hand in hand. I guarantee Speilberg could tell a childrens' story far more effectively than Michael Bay. To do so successfully, you must understand how a child's mind works, and you play up to those elements. Repetition, rhyming, elements of magic, relatability are all ingredients present in successful childrens' stories.

Now again, I would like to cite a disclaimer. Aside from my IndieGoGo pitch, this is the first time I've actually written a text about this idea. I'm quickly realizing as a years' worth of work spills out here, that the idea is grander than I could encompass in a blog post. Rambling is imminent, but hopefully a few nuggets of this idea squeak through as I continue on this path.

I also acknowledge that there isn't a right or wrong way to tell stories, but I'm looking at the best of the best of filmmakers when it comes to telling successful stories and trying to connect the dots. And they're most definitely connecting.

My boss often encourage young filmmakers who approach us to critique their work(s), and what he tells them is that you shouldn't change your style based upon what someone else thinks. There is a way that every filmmaker sees the world, and there is a way that every filmmaker's voice develops as they tell their story. I think what this thesis does best is highlights ONE way to tell a story, and through that, I am discovering my voice. I feel that my aspirations are right in line with at least the ground basis of these storytellers.

As I've continued pulling sources together, reading book after book, and digging deep into this idea, I've began a storytellers' list of A-Listers that all exhibit some element of this idea. Several of the names include Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Tim Burton, Chuck Jones, Dr. Seuss, A. A. Milne, Robert Clampett, Tex Avery, James Cameron, Francis Ford Copolla, Norman Rockwell, Jim Henson, Walt Disney, Ron Howard, Frank Capra, Disney Writer/Directors Ron Clements/John Musker, Chris Columbus and John Hughes. I'm not saying I have the skills that they do, but I feel like I have a keen understanding of their achievements.

Oddly enough, there is a direct connection between all of these filmmakers/storytellers in some way or another. For as close as these connections all are, one's mind could start to wander towards conspiracy theories of this collective of great minds that secretly meet every week in a tree house and share secrets with one another (I've heard they even have a secret handshake!)

Kidding aside, it's very interesting to bridge these connections and as I've done so, I'm uncovering and identifying these continually-practiced nodes that makes all of their films so timeless and successful. Things you would never even mention in film school. Curious now? Of course you are.

I would argue that any great film that has mass appeal and longevity exhibits some, or maybe even all of these principals. All of these filmmakers and storytellers certainly do. So let me get back to basics here and rewind two years ago.

October, 2009

It all started about two years ago when I was in an Italian Cinema class that I was taking at Purdue. We were watching Bicycle Thieves for the first time and as I sat amazed with my jaw open at how compelling the storytelling was, I asked myself 'why am I so drawn to this film? It's so simple, but indescribably compelling.'

By the third act, I started making a list of events that I was witnessing in the film that were undeniably compelling to me. They were simple concepts and actions, but had some sort of magical quality to them. Things you constantly see in movies, but never actually happen in real life. Things that possess some sort of familiarity.

By the time credits rolled, I had a dozen items under my belt. after reading it over once class was finished I realized I was onto something. It felt like all of these items were things I've seen a hundred times in films, but never actually experienced myself. They are all so simple, but all provide a source of nostalgia or romance to a normally mundane action, place or event. I had my flash of genius. My film professor called moments like that "Jouissance". A moment of enlightenment followed by mental euphoria.

About that time, I began doing research on US, British, Soviet and German propaganda posters for a poster series I wanted to design. From that, I was sparked again with 'Jouissance' and started creating a hybrid of current pop culture with the style of propaganda. They were made to look aged, worn down, used. A resemblance of the posters of the 1940's that were paperpasted upon the buildings of European cities. Where it differed, however, was that its content inspired a certain wonderment. Again, a thread of familiarity. The topics I chose and that were most successful revolved around things from my childhood. Pop culture, movies, cartoon characters, etc. I took those elements and put an interesting spin on them. A mashed up the Obama "Yes We Can" poster with the uncertain message of "I Think We Can" from the late, great Thomas the Tank Engine. I created an island resort advertisement for Jurassic Park's Isla Nublar, promising an adventure your family would never forget. I branded the Flux Capacitor from Back To The Future and created a futuristic flying car ad and conjured up the slogan "Flux: Time Is Just A Thing Of The Past". The series is still evolving and every so often, I'll create a new one, but I think I got what I needed out of the series. It taught me a valuable lesson that reaffirmed my initial spark from that idea that was planted in my Italian Cinema class. I was on to something.

Fast forward six months later. I hadn't given much more thought to the idea until I moved to Chicago, where I was living on my own and didn't really know anyone. For my first few months in the city, I spent a lot of time in my apartment after work watching films and reading different books on filmmaking. This is where I really got into it. My thesis had began.

It was a hunger to find these events, icons, characters, physical principals, places, traditions and habits that make up this undefined strata of filmmaking. Within a few months, I had a healthy list growing. About the time I met my fiance, she being an artist herself, showed me a series she did that sort of revolved around the same concepts that my poster series and list dealt with. Except hers were more personal. She created a series of items and events that appeared benign, but personally drew her back into her childhood. She defined it as items of "comfort". Like that, my thesis was defined just that much more. The things I was identifying all possessed some level of comfort, familiarity and romance. Up until that point, it was anything I felt was an emotional trigger for myself that consistently showed up in films. With her words, I was able to define it and understand it a little better. That word. Comfort.

All of us are starving for that comfort. There's that old Freudian principal that states "As soon as you're cut from your mother's umbilical cord, you spend the rest of your life trying to get back to that connection". Granted, that theory deals more with the Oedipus Complex, but it applies here too. I argue that as an adult, you spend your entire life swimming in memories of your past. Times you can't have back no matter how hard you try. They're wonderful, they're painful, and they're yours. People cherish those things.

Now enter films again. It occurred to me then that these icons all provided some type of throwback to common memories we all possess. Things we all share, things we all aspire to. In essence, they were ideals cultivated from American culture that signified good times, simple times, forgotten times.

Now broaden the scope a bit and re-read that paragraph. Done? I'm defining the American Dream. In college I had to write a final paper for a history class based off of book titled "Life, The Movie". It was a BS paper that the other 250 classmates in my large lecture half-assed, but for some reason, it really resonated with me and took my deep in it. I ended up getting the highest grade in the class and I believe it got published in a book my professor was writing on the subject. Anyway, the paper argued that culture cultivated our notions of the American Dream. It stated that the Dream is only real because of the constant reminder from pop culture that there's something better and you're missing it. It's manifesting its own demand. (Hmm, sounds like the principals of good advertising?) With that side, I think the American Dream and that emotional stir by an audience in response to the indexic sign posts towards it, is where this theory points.

So here I am today, with this idea planted in my mind and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. I think part of the reason this has never been identified before by film scholars is that it is a subtext and possibly too abstract and too broad to define.

Let's simplify. I am arguing that through the use of nostalgia, subconscious icons that draw you back to simple times, either generated by culture, or by your own personal experiences, a viewer can become emotionally attached in a way they cannot describe to a particular film.

That's only half of it though. You can use these icons on a shitty story, and while one might say "I liked it for some reason, but there's things wrong with it", I argue that with a strong story that also rings true to these ideas, coupled with these icons, your audience will watch them again and again. They will become timeless.

Why do you think the large percentage of Americans sit down to watch Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story or It's A Wonderful Life every Christmas Eve? It's escapism. There's a charm and romance towards all of these characters, and something magical about them that you can't shake. They're warm, nostalgic. And you watch them year after year.

The Key Players

Earlier, I listed a few people on my storytellers' list that are connected to one another and all seem to practice a variation of this type of filmmaker. Now, I'd like to go in depth on several of them. As it stands right now, there are 53 members on the list, but the teams under these ladies and gentlemen could spill out to at least triple that figure. I initially arranged the list based on how close these all rested to the pillars of my theory. Norman Rockwell is number one, quickly followed by Steven Speilberg and George Lucas.

These three are they key players. Let's start with Norman Rockwell. So as it stands now, I'm working my way through books on all of these guys, but I've read the most on Rockwell. Arthur L. Guptill's 1971 published Norman Rockwell Illustrator provided a great overview of his career, with great interviews from Rockwell, and an account of his working process. This book was sitting on a shelf in my fiance's mom's house and is great because it was written while he was alive, so it isn't watered down with the sentiments that an artists receives after their death. It is simply a raw account of his day-to-day and some of his fascinating experiences as he entered and quickly rose to fame in the world of illustration. That gave me an insight into him as a person.

I then started another book on him, also found on the same shelf as the aforementioned book. Frankly, it's a dry account of his works and analyzes his most famous pieces. While there's some nuggets of information in it, I'm having trouble finishing it.

This brings me to the book I'm reading now. The most fascinating and pertinent to my theory. Initially, my theory clung tighly to the pantlegs of just filmmakers. At that point, Spielberg and Lucas were the number one contenders. I realized though that the idea went beyond that. As I broadened my scope, I realized the more proper gauge and title is 'storyteller'. An artist, a musician, anyone who conveys the emotion of a story through a form of aesthetic. Enter Rockwell.

I was never really introduced to his work until I started explaining this idea to people. They kept mentioning Rockwell as a player of this idea. Nostalgia. American Dream. Childhood. Storyteller. These terms all kept coming up in relation to my theory and the late artist. After reading about him, I realized they were right. And more so, Rockwell took the number one spot. He understood it and squeezed every ounce he could out of the idea. Norman Rockwell Illustrator described it as '[Rockwell] painted the world not as it was, but how he wanted to see it.' This is sort of the cardinal rule in storytelling for a filmmaker. I felt like there was a direct connection between the works of Rockwell and the works of Spielberg and Lucas. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I felt like they both got him.

To my surprise while I was doing research, I discovered that the two filmmakers were one of the largest collectors of his work. BINGO!

I dug a bit more and found out that the Smithsonian Institute ALSO found this connection intriguing and invited the two filmmakers to put their owned works on display in an exhibit titled "Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell from the Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg" in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. By the time I heard about it, the exhibit was on its way out of the museum, but what I discovered was that they also published a book to compliment the exhibit. It has interviews of both filmmakers on how their films were inspired by his work, and broke down the individual pieces of Rockwell and explained the genius of them based on how these filmmakers saw them as stories.

I'm about half way through the 250+ pages, and I've got to say, the discovery made me feel pretty damn good about this puzzle I'm trying to solve. The dots began to connect.

Seeing as I have a full time job, a fiance, and a generally jam-packed life, reading has become a luxury that I have to set aside time for. As such, getting through all of the books that occupy that special section of my bookshelf dedicated to this thesis is going to take time. Rockwell was the number one, Spielberg is next. Frank Capra, Orson Welles, Tim Burton, Walt Disney and Chuck Jones are all next up on the docket after that. I suspect more connections will unfold (such as Tim Burton's connection to Disney, which I recently discovered and found interesting).

I'm utterly excited to keep reading away and paving a road map of these storytellers and how they've all become intertwined within the lives of one another. As things play out, I'd like to start making a chart that shows that plots the connections visually.

The Wrap Up

So this pretty much brings you up to date on my thesis. It's crude, as the title says, and this blog post really is the first time I've written it out. Up until this point, it's been notes, observations and lots of reading. So I'd expect the framework of this idea to change quite a bit as I hammer things out. But an idea has to start somewhere and this lays the groundwork. Hopefully this will jumpstart other people to start thinking about it too.

Have a thought on it? I bet you do. Every filmmaker's a critic and an idea like this is sure to receive criticism, especially in its infancy.

Go ahead, punch holes in it, help me make it stronger.

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