Story: King Of The World?

Avatar is making quite a stir.

Seems to be a movie provoking some serious debate, and while that’s not necessarily the mark of a good movie, it is the mark of an interesting pop culture experience, and me? I hunger for interesting pop culture experiences.

This one in particular yields a number of interesting questions. Is the movie a mountain of smoldering dog vomit? Is it a technological “game-changer?” Is it a racist white male fantasy? Does it force upon you the bestial desire to make love to mystical jungle goats?

[EDIT: And also, how can you enjoy the movie without feeling like an imperial sympathizer?]

All interesting questions. Further, questions I’m unlikely to address here, today. (In part because the sore throat is now paired with a head full of infected treacle, a slow yogurt of disease filling my sinuses.)

No, what I want to talk about is the one that Entertainment Weekly brought up:

Does story matter?

The article notes the contention between two camps: one that says Avatar has a rot-suck bucket-fucker of a story, and thus it cannot be a good film; the other that says Avatar has awesome 3D crazy shit going on, and so it is a good film (or, alternately, who cares if it has a good story because 3D blah blah awesome boom blue goat blah).

Ironically, the article conjures up Titanic as a positive example of Cameron’s storytelling, yet I’d argue that there the story is ultimately pretty soggy, too. Titanic, like Forrest Gump, was for me more clever spectacle and twee sentimentalism than really engaging, compelling story.

The question here today is: for film, at least, is story king?

How much does it matter in the cosmic hierarchy of Important Shit About Movies?

I’ll admit, my initial gut reaction screams and thrashes around and hoots and gibbers, hollering, “Story is king! Long live the story!” And then my gut reaction runs off and punches old ladies down staircases, because that’s how just it rolls.

Further, I also wonder if the “anti-Avatar” sentiment is getting a little ahead of itself in terms of criticizing the story. Now, this will come as a back-handed compliment (and is little different from saying, “I’d rather eat a hunk of moldy bread than a fistful of shit-covered ball bearings”), but is the story that bad? I don’t mean in terms of racism or whatever — remember, that’s a different blog post — but I mean in terms of laying out the tale, is it really that awful? Big budget blockbusters these days have stories that don’t make a lick of fucking sense. Transformers? Star Trek? Terminator: Salvation? I mean, Christ, much as I love Attack of the Clones, it’s plot literally makes no sense. None.

Avatar, for all its simplicity, makes sense. It may have plot conveniences, but no plot holes. I certainly wouldn’t call it elegant or deep storytelling, but it offers… narrative utility, let’s say.

Still, that’s really not answering the question at hand. I’m not here to gauge the quality of Avatar’s story — instead, I want to examine how important story is to film.

On the one hand, I’d love for it to be everything. As a storyteller, it’s kind of my bag.

On the other hand, are we perhaps buttoning the medium up too tight? Films offer a lot of things that, say, a novel cannot. Performances, direction, effects, sound. By suggesting that story is everything, we run the risk of making these other things matter too little — and further, it becomes a way to describe to people what they Should and Should Not enjoy. It’s a firm metric, yes — but potentially also a draconian one.

Put differently, should I not appreciate a Three Stooges or Abbot and Costello movie because the story is dumb?

If I watch a musical like Moulin Rouge, must my enjoyment of the experience be hampered by the somewhat ludicrous narrative?

With Fellini or Kurosawa, the films are often more about the image and the feel than the actual story itself — so, are they inferior to films that dedicate more time and energy to telling complicated, interesting stories?

And no, for the record, I’m not comparing Cameron’s Avatar to Fellini’s 8 1/2, but I am asking the question — can a film be something more than a vehicle for a story? Is it a negative when a film offers the equivalent to a theatrical show or an amusement park ride? Is that, as the kids are wont to say, badwrongfun?

Obviously, I’d love for every film to tell a good story. I think we are in danger of dismissing story as purely unnecessary, when it still may be the thing that elevates a good movie to a great film. Even still, is it always a fair metric? Do you go to watch a comedy and then demand that the story be more important than, say, the jokes? If an episode of Flight of the Conchords makes you laugh but otherwise has a ridiculous and almost non-existent story, does it fail as an experience? (I know. That’s TV, we’re talking about film. Shaddup shuttin’ up, rabbit. Same question applies.)

Is that metric too harsh?

I don’t have an answer. I do know that with a movie like Avatar, having a clear and simple story helped carry what is plainly the stars of the show: the world, the effects, the direction, the excitement. The experience wasn’t spoiled by its lackluster story, and in fact I found myself not caring at all during what was a surprisingly easy-to-watch three hour film. I also know that if the film had a more complex and engaging story, it would’ve gone from merely “good” to “great” in a heartbeat.

So, no answer from me.

But just down yonder, you’ll find a comment window.

Use it, if you’ve something to add.

Don’t make me call out the hounds.

The hounds. The baying hounds.