I’m going to talk about storytelling, and it is going to be critical of the current nature of storytelling. Specifically, it’ll be about film, but first, a few disclaimers:
These are not universal conclusions. There are exceptions to every rule, and for every example I’m about to give, I’m sure many people will disagree. That’s cool. This isn’t a hard science, where right and wrong are obvious and testable. These are simply the musings of a low mid-list novelologist. They might not be particularly flattering or positive thoughts, they are no doubt tinged with some of the baggage I carry as a “light” writer.
Still, I think they’re worth sharing.
So the latest Transformers film is making boatloads of cash. Somehow. It’s rather strange when you consider how most people seem to have such a low opinion of it. Or it would be strange if I didn’t have a pretty solid grasp on how to make an audience happy at this point.
Here’s the first thing we need to get out of the way. Making an audience “happy” is not the same as giving them something good. It’s not even really about entertaining them. By The Mighty Robot King, I hate saying that, but I can’t deny it any longer. Perhaps it’s that word “happy” that’s the problem. It conjures the idea of pleasure, of joy, of contentment. This, sadly, is not the kind of happiness I’m talking about. For one thing, that sort of happiness is too transitory, too difficult to capture reliably. We can’t even do it for ourselves, so how can we honestly expect storytellers to do it?
I’m talking about the happiness of getting exactly what you expect. Nothing more. Nothing less. Just exactly what you are promised, even if what you are promised isn’t something you really want in the first place. This is nothing new in the world of stories. Stories have just as often been a way to kill time rather than satisfy some deeper part of ourselves. Not every story is a classic. Most stories exist only to give us something to occupy our time because the other option is to be bored.
Yes, this is why fanclubs exist. This is why, as much as any other reason, that people obsess over their favorite stories and ideas. Firefly fandom is built as much on the notion of needing something to occupy a lot of its fans’ free time as it is on the quality of the show. Same for Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and just about any other fandom you can imagine. That’s not to say these things are not worthy of our time, but there’s really no reason to scour the internet for information about these things, to gather together, to share rumors and greet actors if the story was the point. We’d partake of the art, and we’d move on.
The vast majority of media is throwaway. That’s not a slight. It takes talent to create even a disposal movie, a catchy pop tune that won’t be remembered next year. It isn’t easy, and only those who sit on the sidelines think creating something forgettable is simple. For centuries, stories have been produced to be consumed and forgotten, and I’m a fan of many a B movie or obscure little novel that nobody really remembers anymore. We all are.
The difference is that the forgettable has now become mainstream. The Transformers movies (with the possible exception of the first one) all have the weight and longevity of the most uninspired B movies. I’ve mentioned how utterly empty Godzilla or Star Trek: Into Darkness are, and while that’s no crime, it is strange when you think about the millions upon millions of dollars spent to make and promote them.
And that’s where we are now. It’s not that we’re making bad movies. We’re making forgettable movies. And we always have. But we didn’t spend 200 million dollars to make forgettable movies. Epics of the past were meant to be sweeping and memorable. They didn’t always succeed, but that was their goal at least. They had ambition, and that ambition was to be commercially successful AND be art AND maybe be worth remembering twenty years later. Failure was common, and there’s little doubt you will find plenty of noble mistakes buried in our storytelling past.
The difference now is that a lot of creators just don’t give a shit anymore. Even worse, the audience seems to have accepted this.
And that’s why a series like Transformers continues to plug away. We know as we walk into the theater that we are going to see an agreeable piece of cotton candy. A “Popcorn Movie”, as I’ve so come to despise the genre. We don’t expect anything from it other than to fill a few hours of our time. It’s the B movie and pulp novel tradition. But it’s no longer the domain of the B movie. It’s the mainstream.
I’m not going to attack Michael Bay, Gareth Edwards, or J.J. Abrams for their efforts. As B movie makers, they are all undoubtedly talented. Though I wonder if there aren’t plenty of B movie kings of the past who could’ve done just as well if they’d been given carte blanche with all the resources these filmmakers get. I wonder, too, how much slack we’d cut Ed Wood if he’d managed to get hold of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles license and trade on our misplaced nostalgia.
Ed Wood was certainly a poor director, but the guy had ambition. Even his worst movies are trying to say something, though the message is hopelessly lost in the muddle of his low budgets and lack of resources. Gareth Edwards’s Monsters is a plodding, dull film that we forgive (or even adore) because of its low budget. But his big budget remake of Godzilla isn’t any better. It just has more expensive actors, better FX, and a property that thrives off of decades of nostalgia. And low expectations. Don’t forget that. As a kaiju movie fan, I found little more annoying than the justification that Gareth’s film is vapid but all kaiju movies are. (They aren’t, but that’s a talk for another day.)
The problem I have with these films (and many others) isn’t that they’re mildly interesting and ultimately forgettable. That criticism is often leveled at my own books, and while I don’t always agree, I also think that even if it’s true, that’s not a bad thing. Still, if I was making millions of dollars to create forgettable stories, I’d find it confusing. I wouldn’t turn it down. I don’t have that level of integrity, Action Force. It’s why I can’t hold anything against Bay. The guy gets paid handsomely, gets to make movies he likes to make (and I don’t question that these are films he enjoys), and everyone eats the trifles, happy because it filled a few hours of their day. Then the audience goes home and acts as if they aren’t part of the problem.
And here’s where it gets tough, folks. I’m loathe to point fingers at the audience because there’s a real danger of elitism here, but some things need to be said.
You deserve more than that.
I’m not talking about those who genuinely enjoyed Bay’s work. If you walk out of a Bay movie overjoyed by it, if you adore it, then good for you. I pass no judgment. We all have our buttons and if Bay pushes yours, I’m happy for you.
But for everyone else, if you walked out without feeling that sense of satisfaction, I can only ask, “Why aren’t you angry about that?” Someone spent millions of dollars to give you something without any weight. Someone took three hours of your time, and you’ll never get those hours back. You could’ve spent that time doing a dozen other things, all of them more satisfying. So why settle?
Perhaps it’s unfair, but the thing that bothers me the most is that this is a huge industry at work. It’s one thing when a small group of filmmakers makes a simple action flick or a throwaway horror movie. A romantic comedy that brings a smile to your face before fading from memory, I’ve got no problem with that. But these are major motion pictures, and they don’t give a shit about about you. You’re only a ticket to be catered to, and the easiest way to cater is to not try. Give the people exactly what they want and NOTHING else. Convince them that they don’t need anything more, train them to rush to the theater by reflex, and rely on the fact that the audience will only be as critical as you tell them to be.
I hate to be That Guy, but you ARE the problem.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,