Sunday, April 27, 2014

How To Learn Storytelling From The Movies

Photo courtesy of Mike Licht

I am going through the Oscar-nominated best films of 2013 on Netflix, having missed most of them in my neighborhood theaters. Yesterday Fruitvale Station was up. I confess that I brought with me to the screening a bucket load of pre-conceived notions of how this story would be told. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area where the real life event took place and remember all the press, demonstrations and riots concerning Oscar Grant's death.

I assumed it would be a polemic, pure and simple. How could any filmmaker avoid that temptation with such a fevered story. How could anyone blame him. But how wrong I was.

For those of you who don't know the story, Oscar Grant was 22 years old when he was shot by a police officer on New Year's morning on a BART train platform. The subsequent rioting occurred when it was revealed that Mr. Grant was shot in the back, while lying face down, handcuffed and restrained by an officer. It seemed like target practice. The altercation was filmed by passengers on the train, which provided important evidence that lead to the firing of the officers involved and prison term for the shooter.

So you can see how a good guy vs. bad guy story could be told, whether you did it from the point of view of the officers who claimed to be under siege, or the innocent victim of racial profiling.

Ryan Coogler, writer and director, took a better, more powerful approach. He followed the dictum of one of my writing teachers, Tom Jenks. If you want your readers to care about a death, you have to make them care about the life.

Coogler shows what happens when you come in close and show his bright smile, the love for his daughter, his very bad decisions, his prison experience, his short temper, his character weaknesses alongside his love for his mother, his desire to do right for his family, his tender fathering of his child. Done without sentimentality or one sensational headline, he makes you hope against hope that, even though you know the outcome, you hope Oscar Grant will rise off his ICU bed and return to his family and have another crack at fulfilling his dreams. You weep at the end because you have lived his relationship with his mother, his girlfriend and his daughter and you feel their pain.

There is no other way to tell a story in my opinion.

Interestingly (for me), last night I also watched Amber, the four-episode Irish mystery that told a similar story. A young life taken (we assume) and a family left to grieve.  As with many stories, it had strengths and flaws. I happen to like a story told from several points of view, and Amber did this well. The one character we did not get to know was Amber herself, a fictional 14-year old who just disappeared one day. The ending was frustrating for many reasons, but largely because it left us hanging as to her ultimate fate. Yes, in real life, very few children who disappear are found.  But this was television. The nature of the genre required something else. It got this viewer too involved in the mystery, rather than the life, so that I did not weep at the end, but figuratively threw my shoe at the TV. Apparently, so did the viewers in Ireland. The writers (it seemed to me) relied on the tugging of heartstrings typical of a missing child story to carry a big piece of the series. But if you are going to write in a genre, you must follow the rules. In a mystery you nail the perp. In a human interest/literary piece, you go deep into the characters that matter, even if the ending is not an alls well that ends well. With all its great production values and actors, Amber did neither.

Lesson: no matter what you're writing, show don't tell. What does that mean? Watch these two films for the answer.

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