Writers at the Movies
Everyone should go to the movies with a writer now and then. Writers know what makes a story work and are the first to praise a strong, tight script and blast a weak one to pieces (which can be just as entertaining as the film). A writer will reveal the critical meaning of the smallest detail of imagery and summarize the plot in all its mythic dimensions in a sentence or two. Attend a film with a writer and you’ll never watch a movie the same way again.
Film is the primary storytelling medium of our time, and in those 90 to 120 minutes a story unfolds much like it does in a novel or short story, with the added spectacle of images and sound. We still immerse ourselves in our own thought processes as we watch, identifying with characters and places and projecting our emotions on them, just like we do when we read. But movies, good ones, ramp up the power of skillful storytelling by presenting a story within “one sitting,” as Edgar Allan Poe recommended for artful short fiction writing, and with the “unity of effect” that Poe and Aristotle, the lawmaker of storytelling, demanded of the art.
Films that achieve unity of effect in a powerful way remind me that this is the goal of my writing. Poe said that writers should decide which emotion they want the reader to stew in (fear, horror, anxiety, shame, jealousy, etc.), and focus every effect—every word and idea—toward evoking that feeling. Filmmaker Terrence Malick is brilliant at this. Watching The New World (2005) or The Tree of Life (2011) puts you in a clearly defined space of mood and feeling through natural images and sounds that never lets up, mirroring the experience of reading a great novel. How many times have you read a novel and thought, ‘This could never be made into a film because the experience of reading it—the nuance and subtleties—can’t be translated into film’? Often, you’re right. But I believe, for example, that only Malick could have done justice to a film version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a novel that thrusts you into a state of consciousness and feeling that comes back in all its profound despair every time you think about it, even years later. Malick knows how to do that with film.
As a writer, I try to learn about the mechanics of unity from directors like Malick and, in the case of War of the Worlds (2005), Steven Spielberg. The horrific, menacing tone of that film bled out from beginning to end and was, for me, the most precise reflection of the nightmarish darkness of the post-9/11 American psyche. It certainly was for me. I lived in Manhattan during 9/11, and watching the film filled me with the same hideous terror I had sensed when I woke from the gory nightmares that haunted me after the attacks, right down to the metallic taste in my mouth. Spielberg hit that nerve brilliantly and as a result helped us purge some of our still-fresh yet buried horror.
How did Spielberg do it? How did he prolong the menace? Next time you watch War of the Worlds, look at the colors, the decay; observe the relentless anxiety of every character; watch where the monsters come from—underground, where our universal fears live. Every element is devoted to one anguishing emotion: terror. Just like in a well-crafted short story or novel, nothing is wasted; nothing veers from the feeling tone that Spielberg so carefully defines through a palette of techniques used by every type of storyteller.
I not only learn more about good writing when I go to the movies, but I always walk away more inspired about the power of stories to move, connect, and even heal us.