An Old Reflection on the Narrative Art of Film
“Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package!” – The Smiths, “Paint a Vulgar Picture”
When the Lumière brothers and Edison invented the first semblances of moving pictures, it outraged moralists. Like many beginnings of new technologies, film developed amid moral condemnation and commercial success. After cementing itself into the popular consciousness, film dominated the entertainment industry. But despite its popularity, the majority of viewers did not recognize film’s artistry in narrative and audio-visual aesthetics for decades (even the Supreme Court did not deem movies as a method of communication until 1952.) Almost lamentably, these audiences missed film’s deeper meaning and its artistic power, both narratively and aesthetically. Hopefully audiences now pay attention, for film is an art form that displays profound truths about the world through aesthetically appropriate ways, giving us, often through narratives, a vision of life.
We are social creatures. Part of our innate desire is to engage other people, not just to survive, but to thrive as a society. Stories appeal because of our communal urge to see how others live, and film works in appeasing this desire. Film is perhaps one of the best mediums to reflect reality, not only because of audio-visual verisimilitude, but as scholar Richard Rushton argues, film creates realities themselves. Instead of a mere reflection of reality (or a delineating fantasy opposing our reality), film show stories and images of people whose lives have meaning and substance that intrigue us, making “available new domains of reality” (Rushton 7). Films, Rushton argues, affect us regardless of their verisimilitude. The combining visual and aural representation in film is powerfully real to us, tapping into our social natures to engage this other narrative reality.
However, narratives are only powerful when done well. For appeal, they must have some substance. The terms of good stories circulate to the point of cliché by critics and audiences: memorable characters, good story, no plot-holes, etc. These resound through minds of filmgoers everywhere seeking substance and spectacle. However, as a medium with a plethora of genres, filmmakers have a difficult task structuring films. Audiences often know the film’s structure, even how it will likely end, because they know the film’s genre. But audiences also seek unique stories within these structural limitations, creating a somewhat perplexing situation for filmmakers. In terms of film genre, the key to a successful film narrative lies in innovation within expectation. While retaining enough familiarity in the narrative structure and visual iconography for a sense of narrative cohesion, new names, faces, and situations pepper the story, creating intrigue for the audience. All mediums come with contextual baggage; whether an artistic movement, a technological development, or other grounding reality that shapes the form of the mediated content. In the case of film, genre shapes narratives to make them memorable. Our memories define us incredibly, as our experiences shape our identity. Strong narratives have that power as well, being memorable enough to intrigue us and shape our lives.
Narratives also enact power as guidebooks for life. We learn about how to engage the world through each other and through narrative media. Narratives combine these two elements to illustrate play, work, and life. These stories implicitly advise us, giving an innumerable amount of illustrations of life. This does not mean that all film, or all communication for that matter, is explicitly didactic, nor should it be. But stories profoundly influence, shaping our perceptions of expectations of life and for life. In presenting various narratives, films change us, for better or worse, whether we acknowledge their effect or not.
While persuasive and entertaining, narratives also offer security and organization. We have a thirst for meaning to give our live purpose and value. But in a sea of postmodernity, this thirst can be difficult to quench; meaning evades us, interpretations multiply, and a singularity of truth becomes nonexistent. Postmodernity vehemently questions the very notion of having a “story of your life,” but it is this narrative drive within us that gives us a sense of security amidst the simulacra. We construct narratives, and in doing so construct helpful frameworks for interacting with the world. With the unscripted chaos around us, narratives organize the world for us and give us peace.
Through film may promote untruths and exploit audiences, the best films offer significance to our own lives. Not all films are art, but artful films are aesthetically adept and profound in truth. As a medium combining the aural and the visual, film art gives moving visions life, presenting its own reality that can astound us, inspire us, and mold us. Film’s verisimilitude, whether through tone, or capturing the experience of real people, imbues the medium with a unique kind of representation different from the printed page or the still canvas. It feels “real” to us. We flinch during a torture scene, we jump out of our seats from a jump scare, we sing along during a musical number: all powerful experiences relatively unique to the medium as a means of communication. Film’s moving vision of life can shapes us, creating a strong significance in our lives.
Considering film as an art form is relatively new, but then again, so is the medium itself. Regardless, its acceptance as a profoundly influential medium for communication and art is undeniable. Film’s ability to illustrate profound truth, or deep lies, is a strong part of what makes film so powerful. Its narratives comfort and compel us through its presentation of reality. Though an awareness of how film works certainly deepens its appreciation, nothing can dampen the power of a well-crafted narrative. But as meaning-driven creatures, there’s delight in understanding.
Rushton, Richard. The Reality of Film: Theories of Filmic Reality. Manchester:
Manchester University Press., 2011. Print.