Story is the Point

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Back in the 90s, as a graduate student in creative writing, I discovered the novels and short stories of Richard Yates. His masterpiece Revolutionary Road, which was the basis for the 2008 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio, depicts the stifled dreams of a suburban couple. Kurt Vonnegut called the book the greatest American novel since Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Last week, I found a series of quotes by the author. One in particular stood out.
“Don’t be seduced by prose, the point is structure.”

I think the parallel is clear. To paraphrase, don’t be seduced by gorgeous imagery. Story is the point.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love beautiful video. I adore it. And seeing a stunning photograph for the first time is like a window opening in your heart you didn’t know was there. It’s a revelation.

In fact, I’ve written elsewhere that we should embrace the grammar and aesthetics of cinema. And I believe that completely. But without story, a documentary is an empty vessel. Story is the point. And to quote myself, everything else is details.

To illustrate, here is a brief list of recent Oscar-nominated films with amazing stories and aesthetically, one could argue, less than stellar visuals: Exit Through the Gift Shop, GasLand, Capturing the Friedmans, Trouble the Water, 5 Broken Cameras. And the list goes on. But what these films lack in beautiful imagery, they more than make up for in moments of real drama.

It’s safe to say that most of us want our movies to look like Into The Mind. And that’s a good thing. But I would trade a beautiful backlit mountain vista at sunset for a quiet moment of deep connection every time.

And I bet most viewers would too.