Story doesn't get the credit it deserves in most contemporary discussions of cinema. Or, come to it, in the industry's own categories of merit.
It wasn't always so: between 1940 and 1956, a best story Oscar ran alongside that for best original screenplay; then, in 1957, it was quietly retired, and the screenplay reigned supreme.
After all, scripts involve work, whereas a great story can come in a moment of inspiration, on the beach, at the bar, during coitus: perhaps the Academy felt it was un-American (this was 1957, remember) to reward the flagrant, immodest Muse.
But they were wrong. Sometimes the joy of a film is all in its perfect story. Conversely, there are times when the story is really all that's wrong with a film; and yet there's a taboo among critics in making this one's main objection.
To justify our keep, we have to be seen tussling with structure, mise en scene, characterisation, performances, choice of lens - anything but the quality of the plot.
Once you admit there are good and bad stories, it's a liberation. In no particular order, here are some films from the last five years that failed mostly because the stories were, in a nutshell, rubbish:
- Elizabethtown (cute guy meets cute air hostess and they drive around a bit).
- Big Fish (the fact it was about storytelling just made this hokey drivel even worse).
- I'm A Cyborg, But That's OK (Park Chan-wook's visual and structural inventiveness masked the limp story).
- Tideland (another in which the theme of making up stories tries, and fails, to become the story).
- The Fountain (if only Darren Aronofsky had made a decent fist of the 'present' timeline of this tri-epochal codpiece. But no, he went all multilinear and New Age on us).
In Robert Altman's film industry satire The Player, the cynical studio executive famously gave writers a maximum of 25 words to sum up the story.
Such brevity may sound like the reductio ad absurdum of the Hollywood power-pitch; and yet it's a suprisingly reliable test of the mettle of a story. If it's good, the plot will generally survive the distillation. If it's not, it won't.
The proof, for me, is that some of the films I've enjoyed most in recent years shrink down beautifully. You name the films (to reveal the titles, swipe the empty space between brackets):
- Two miners promise young jobseekers work if they pretend to be family - then kill them, simulating an accident, and demand compensation from the mine owner. (Blind Shaft)
- A man wakes up in the afterlife and it's a Scandinavian social democracy where women are docile and all anyone talks about is interior design. (The Bothersome Man)
- An angry young man is torn between his job as a scuzzy real-estate shark and his gift for the piano. (The Beat That My Heart Skipped)
- Two young chancers have a kid; the father tries to sell it, then realises this was a bad move (The Child)
True, most of those summaries, with the possible exception of the last, state the premise rather than suggest how it is pans out. But a good premise is enough: like a coiled spring, it has enough stored energy to power even the most pedestrian writer through acts two and three.
All of the films listed above are independent films by established or budding auteurs, not the high-budget, high-concept productions that normally lend themselves to a one-line precis ('If its speed drops below 50, the bus will explode'). And they all scored high on technical merits, from acting to cinematography; but those merits would have been prophets in the wilderness without the hook of a great story.
So please, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, can we have our best story award back'