Storytelling in Movies

Thursday, May 28, 2020

An examination of Characters, Growth, and the Human Spirit
- By Andrew Wei, Film Critic via Instagram



History tells grand conquests of extraordinary generals, tactical masterminds on the battlefield, and tyrannical rulers devastating the kingdom. It portrays the power and politics of the nobility and the crooked dealings of the Church. It tells the victories of the privileged elite. Film, art and literature, on the other hand, tell the stories of the everyday people who make up our world. 1700s art, Victorian-era literature and turn-of-the-century films rarely reflect the grand scale of history, they instead opt to examine the people of these times, and how they were impacted by society. When we take a journey through art history or cinematic history or English lit, we see, hear and read stories not about how the leaders and elite were doing, but rather the experiences and emotions of the common men and women. We see their struggles, we hear their triumphs and we read their passions. That’s the difference between history and art. History examines tactics and politics on a grand scale, while art looks at the individual human elements involved. Movies tell stories of the human spirit, it examines our species under a magnifying glass more intimately than history ever could.

Film holds a mirror against society and shows us not only the defining features of our facade but also the wrinkles and folds that we had hoped no one would notice. More closely than that, film holds a mirror against each and every one of us. The movies that I am most invested in are the ones whose stories are about that of the human spirit. It doesn’t matter if they’re from Ancient Greece or the 23rd century. It doesn’t matter if they’re about a starving family in Tokyo or an urban couple from New York City. It doesn’t even matter if they’re human, a trash rabbit from space or a cube-shaped robot that cleans up garbage, at their core they are all about us. They are just told through different mediums. It’s about the triumphs and pitfalls of the human spirit. It’s about humanity’s capacity for love and cruelty. It’s about how individuals and societies grow, change, and fall. That’s why I love film making, it is an intimate craft that forces filmmakers to look deep within themselves and society before creating their characters. 

Movies are nothing without characters. The most common critique I have about sub-par movies are character-related. Whether that be a lack of character development, being stuffed with too many characters, or suffocating the characters with too much emphasis on plot, it’s almost always about the characters. Without your characters, there is very little movie, because you can’t tell stories about the human spirit, without a vessel to reflect that in. Sure, we read stories about legendary battles, or mythical conquests or galactic adventures, but at its heart, the stories are about our heroes and the personal journey that they underwent from within. The journey on the exterior is just a plot device. The plot will always fall second to the character for me because the plot is just a backdrop for characters to develop. 

We watch these characters change and develop, and it teaches us about how the human spirit responds to its surroundings. Oftentimes it’s not the quest or the MacGuffin that audiences care about when watching a movie, we watch to see how characters are impacted by their journey. We don’t watch to observe the plot, we watch to observe how characters respond to the plot. How they react to the plot. How they are influenced by the plot. We watch because we see ourselves portrayed in the characters, we project our strengths in the heroes and see our weaknesses reflected in the villains. Maybe it says something about our narcissistic society that we have to portray ourselves in everything, but if humanity as a whole really is that narcissistic, then might as well be entertained while we’re at it. 

I can’t relate to Caesar as he went into battle against the Gauls, but I sure can relate to Harry Potter as he battles Lord Voldemort. I could care less about Napoleon and Czar Alexander’s bromance/romance, but watching love blossom between two office assistants as they attempt to ‘parent-trap’ their boss leaves me more fulfilled then I’d like to admit. Learning that the Chinese Government is potentially spying on me through my Huawei phone drew little more than a shrug of my shoulders, but I was in shambles after experiencing half of the universe being snapped away. I suppose one could say that putting so much emotional investment into movies says more about my mental state than a reflection of our society, but I choose to believe the latter to help me sleep at night. I choose to believe that movies are so integral to our society because they help us make sense of the confusing and chaotic environment that we live in. Seeing humanity and the human spirit is portrayed so honestly and intimately on a 30x50 feet silver screen teaches us something about the human spirit within ourselves.  

Isn’t that the point of storytelling, to learn about ourselves as we watch these superheroes go back in time, or a couple attempt to find each other whilst being lost in their own memories of one another? These stories inspire us, they confront us, they scare us, but above all else, they teach us. They teach us aspects of ourselves that we’ve never even interacted with or are ready to admit. Effective stories show us a director, a filmmaker or an actor’s take on how human beings respond to crises. How the human spirit preserves, or how it fails. They are not making a general statement about all of humanity, but rather just a contained story about one character’s motivations, one family’s world views, one society’s cruelty. They can teach us, about what we want to become, and what we want to avoid. I suppose that is why I love movies so much, to follow characters and see their inner workings, as their identity is tested again and again. To observe whether or not they can withstand the elements, that is the plot. To observe whether or not they can withstand the elements - that is the plot. To learn from how the people we meet change and develop - that is the character. 

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