After recently posting my top 5 films of 2013, a couple of people asked why I hadn’t included ‘Gravity’ on the list – I hadn’t seen it. I watched ‘Gravity’ last night and everything I’ve heard is correct, it’s an undeniably great film. Gravity knocks you on your ass in the first 10 minutes and tells you to buckle up for the ride, and it delivers on this over and over again. The scope and ambition of the film is amazing, held together by a deceptively intricate plot. And the way the story is delivered – there’s no glashback, no blatant exposition, it’s a straight up story starting from A and going to B, allowing the viewer to get drawn into it’s complexity and intruigue.
Everything about ‘Gravity’ is well done and the performances are pitch perfect. It’s amazing to think Sandra Bullock was the goofy damsel in distress in ‘Speed’ and the tomboy in ‘Miss Congeniality’ and now she’s here. Her Oscar winning performance in ‘The Blind Side’ was well deserved, and I suspect she’ll be up for another for ‘Gravity’. The fact that we know her from these different roles yet she is so totally believeable as the doctor in ‘Gravity’ is testament to her ability. She conveys emotion from hopelessness to happiness without ever over-doing it or losing character authenticity and is a big part of the film’s success (I’ve read that Angelina Jolie and Natalie Portman were both, at different times, attached to ‘Gravity’ – I can’t imagine either being as good as Bullock is). Clooney too is great as the in-control veteran.
One thing I’d noted when talking to people about ‘Gravity’ is that no one tells you much about it. No one explains the storyline or what happens – I think that’s because it’s an almost un-spoilable film. Like, I could detail the whole film for you, scene by scene, right here, and it would make no difference. Explaining it will not do it justice, telling you about it won’t make any difference. ‘Gravity’ is a film that needs to be experienced, probably multiple times. In this, director Alfonso Cuaron has created something that underlines why cinema is still so vital. It’s a work of art, from start to finish, and will capture the imagination of viewers for years to come. The soundtrack, the set design, the detail, the cinematography – everything is right in ‘Gravity’. It’s a near perfect film.
And I love that Ed Harris was back working at mission control, too.
There’s a book I read many years ago called ‘The Writer’s Journey’ by Christopher Vogler. In it, Vogler has studied the work of mythologist Joseph Campbell and how it has been applied to storytelling throughout the years. Campbell studied story telling through cultures and generations and found similar elements existed in all tales, more complex than just a beginning, middle and end. Campbell called this ‘The hero’s Journey’ and detailed how the hero would always be faced with certain challenges and hurdles. Vogler took this research and applied it to a more modern medium, film, making it much easier to comprehend and apply, as you have all the reference points in your head already. Vogler’s contention is that all films have The Hero’s Journey at their heart, and he goes on to give example and example of this applied to modern films. And it’s amazing.
If you don’t have this book, you need to get it, in my opinion it is essential reading for all writers. For example, George Lucas used Joseph Campbell’s research to write ‘Star Wars’, plotting out all the key notes based on The hero’s Journey – Vogler discusses this in intricate detail. Interestingly, Lucas used The Hero’s Journey again for ‘Willow’, applying the rules and plot points exactly as noted in Campbell’s research as something of a test to see if following them exactly would be a ticket to success (which, it alone, wasn’t, based on ‘Willow’’s box office performance). Vogler even breaks down ‘Pulp Fiction’ as a challenge in the book.
The thing is, when you read it you’ll note that most of the elements are already evident in your writing. You instinctively know story structure and pace from watching films and reading books, so a lot of it, you’ll fine, is already present in your work. But having the knowledge of how story structure works, understanding why each step happens when it does, all this is invaluable information to have and will help you solidify and strengthen your writing.
The below image breaks down the steps of The Hero’s Journey – some, if not most, of it won’t make any sense without the further context of the book, but these are the elements that occur, or should occur, in all stories in some form. I highly recommend all writer’s obtain a copy and go through it. Essential reading.
I caught up with a writer friend today and we were talking about the difficult commercial realities of being a writer, particularly in with the current state of the publishing industry. This is an issue that’s being discussed in many writing communities at the moment (including here), and being felt by the media industry in general – with so much content available for free online, it’s harder and harder to afford to make a career out of writing, or indeed, any artistic pursuit.
One of the things we went on to discuss was the state of consumption, and how media consumption may be changing the publishing industry. We generally have an accepted story structure in mind when we view things, based on movies we’ve seen and books we’ve read. We know there’s a beginning, middle and end and we have a good feel for what should happen in between, and this is how it’s always been, according to Joseph Campbell and other academics. But it feels like we may be on the cusp of a change to the way writing and story structure is accepted.
I noted this when my three year old son was watching Superman clips on YouTube. I was watching him as he clicked through, and he got onto some of the old Christopher Reeve Superman clips, and he loved them. This prompted me to get out the orginal Superman movie to show him, thinking he’d be excited by it. But he was totally bored by the storyline. ‘Find Superman’ he said, handing me the remote to fast-forward through. Granted, he’s a three year old, so he’s not really into storylines so much, but maybe his approach is indicative of a shift. He’ll never need to sit through the boring parts, he has YouTube. Maybe he’ll grow up with a different story progression in mind because of this. Maybe, the entire way we view films and books will need to change with the next generation.
I’m sure we’ve already seen examples of this – those Transformers films make almost no sense, but they are constant highlights. It’s possible that that’s what we’ll see more of, highlight reel films and that will inform the next generation.
Now, I don’t think that will mean the death of storytelling – I think there’s actually examples in the past year of a resurgence in film story – but I do think it’s something that will drive the commercial reality of being a writer, and may become another barrier for us to climb over, which is unfortunate. I believe we’re already missing out on some great novels even being produced because writers cant afford to write them. I believe that’s the main reason most authors only ever publish one book. And it’s a shame that we can’t (or haven’t yet been able to) find better structures to ensure literature and the arts are better funded so we don’t miss out on potentially great work.
There are discussions on this, I know, and hopefully they do lead to more opportunities for artists to survive amidst the ever-mounting commercial pressures.
‘I watched Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’ yesterday. It was pretty good, better than I had expected. It was definitely more in the style of ‘There Will be Blood’ than his previous stuff – not a bad thing, There Will be Blood is excellent. Joaquin Phoenix was good, though I felt like he may have over done it at some points, and all the other performances were really good. I really like the way Anderson’s scenes often feel lived in, like you’ve wallked into a conversation midway through.’