On Judging Movies, Part 3:
The Flavor of Unity

People sometimes argue about their favorite movies. But most people use criteria too dependent on current fashion. The problem with fashion is that it doesn’t last. Bellbottoms or baggy jeans might be cool to one generation, but probably not to the next. A story that only appeals to a small group of people in a small corner of the world is doomed to be buried under the trash heap of history. The goodness of movies has to depend on something that transcends every generation.

In Part 1 of this blog series we found that good movies don’t always depend on excitement; slow-paced movies of the same genre can be better than faster and more action-packed ones if they are done right — that is, a movie’s level of excitement is not proportional to its goodness.

In Part 2 we found that good filmmakers put a movie’s story first. Movies are like dishes: cooks who value salt consumption above everything else risk making food too saline. Good chefs cook from a desire to feed people cuisines, not to feed them a particular ingredient. In the same way, a good filmmaker of narratives creates from a desire to artistically express a story, not to spotlight a particular action or to market a popular character.

We know, therefore, that movie goodness lives somewhere within a film’s story. But before we search for this elusive place of cinematic goodness, I must digress and explain what I mean, here, by “story”.

Defining Story

When I say “story”, I mean both what is told in a narrative and the way it is told. In other words, when I refer to a cinematic story, I mean the unity of

(1) a narrative’s plot (as provided by the script and arranged by a director),

(2) the characters (as portrayed by their actors, sound effects tracks, etc.), and

(3) the setting (as portrayed by the visuals, by the composite track of sounds, and so on).

Just as a multiplicity of ingredients unite to make a cuisine, a multiplicity of cinematic elements brings a film’s story to life. A movie story, therefore, is that unified multiplicity in which we will find a movie’s goodness.

Now that I have clarified my meaning of “story” (as I apply it to films), let us move on.

The Key to Good Movies

If I’m not mistaken, we all have one or two movies that we crave to see at least once a year. EVERY YEAR. Stories of this kind lead receptive minds out of themselves, changing them into something that they were not before: after seeing a good musical, many have the urge to speak in song; after a good adventure, viewers feel bold; and after a powerful epic, people see reality more exotically.

The power that stories have over many of us — that is, over those who surrender themselves to the magic — partly explains why we are drawn back to the same movies. Since it wouldn’t be our first choice to re-watch an unremarkable movie, or to re-read a bad novel, it is safe to say that an important mark of a good story is its ability to compel a frequent revisit. But what is it about our favorite story that attracts us?

British literary critic, C.S. Lewis, had an idea about what it was that kept people coming back to a narrative, and he pinned it down in an essay called “On Stories”.[1] Talking to “an intelligent American pupil”[2] about a book they had both read, they disagreed about what made a certain scene especially enjoyable. The book’s setting takes place more than a century ago in America’s frontier. About the scene in question, Lewis’s American friend thought that he was attracted to “the breathless excitement with which he had read the passage, the agonized suspense with which he wondered whether the hero would wake up in time”[3] to see a native American quietly moving against him with a tomahawk. Lewis was sure, however, that his “friend was misrepresenting his experience, and indeed leaving out the real point”.[4] Lewis thought that it couldn’t be the excitement of the scene that made it especially attractive and memorable.

Any dangerous scene could duplicate that kind of excitement. If mere suspense brought us back to a story, then any setting would do. But that does not explain why some readers, for example, might desire the dangerous woods of early America more than, say, a traveling circus with a silly clown clumsily endangering a hero with scissors. Lewis thought that it was not the danger but the entire atmosphere of the story that keeps a person coming back: “For I wanted not the momentary suspense but that whole world to which it belonged — the snow and the snow-shoes, beavers and canoes, warpaths and wigwams, and Hiawatha names”.[5]

In other words, it is the flavor of a story’s united multiplicity of elements that attracts readers and watchers. It is not any one ingredient that makes pizza so appealing; it is the unity of ingredients that creates a pizza’s distinct flavor. And it is the unity of literary, theatrical, and musical elements that contribute to a cinematic story’s overall atmosphere or flavor.

The Good and the Bad Flavors

To make a potentially long point short, the stories we most crave reflect the universe or reality as it really is. The poems, novels, movies, and TV dramas that most closely hit truth’s bull’s-eye — and do it in a beautiful and pleasing way — have the best chances of becoming classics.

Truth can be perceived in two ways: quantitatively and qualitatively. Quantitative truths relate to objectivity, facts, and measurements. For example, meter sticks, thermometers, and scales reveal truth by quantifying. Qualitative truths relate to subjectivity, intuition, and personal experience. For example, poetry, art, and music reveal truth by qualifying.

Both ways of perceiving truth are important. Sometimes we need to quantify our bodies with a thermometer and a scale in order to gauge our health. And sometimes we need to qualify food with our noses and tongues in order to gain a different kind of knowledge. It would be quite odd trying to measure a banana’s length by tasting it; and it’s equally strange to think that a scale could tell us an apple’s flavor. We need tongues to tell us about food’s qualitative properties, and we need scales to tell us about their quantitative ones. We must use different instruments for different modes of truth.

Judging movies is so tricky because we need to examine them with several instruments: we need to use our intuition, for the most part, to judge whether a movie is being qualitatively truthful, and we need to use reason to determine whether it is being quantitatively consistent with reality.

So the more a story faithfully reflects reality, the better it will be. The very best stories will be the ones most suggestive of truth. If, for instance, the caring for and protection of the innocent is a genuine truth about how we ought to live, and if a movie properly reflects that truth, it will be better than a movie glorifying cruel violence.

A disclaimer: When I say that a story must reflect truth, I don’t mean that it should be preachy. A preachy story violates good story telling: it inappropriately puts an element of the story first. As I write in Part 2, the story must come first, not its ingredients. The whole atmosphere of a movie or novel must radiate truth, not only particular items or dialogue.

For example, if our universe came about by a big accident and if there is essentially no meaning to life, that truth shouldn’t only (if at all) be stated in the dialogue — that truth should permeate the entire world of a story: every bird, every stone, every tone of voice, every sound effect, color, and shape should convey it. (Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, and Christopher Nolan seem to reflect that assumption about the universe in their movies.)

A Sign of a Good Story: Applicability

Take, for example, The Lord of the Rings. Its story has been wildly successful, both as a novel and as Hollywood movies. I attribute its success to its powerful ability to tell the truth. It is relatively consistent in its quantitative truths: its setting and characters are bound to the laws of Middle-earth’s nature — what goes up in Middle-earth must come down, like in our world. And LOTR is a beautiful reflection of qualitative truths: it satisfies our gut denial of “(in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat”[6] and our gut feeling that there is a “Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief”.[7] LOTR is so good, in other words, because it powerfully reflects truths about reality. Because J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of LOTR, so successfully irradiated truths of existence throughout his world of Middle-earth, people have been able to apply his story, almost effortlessly, to politics, to humanity’s relationship with technology, to their own lives, and so forth.

C.S. Lewis was Tolkien’s good friend and had significantly influenced Tolkien’s writing of LOTR. They were part of a literary group called the Inklings who made truth, and the literary sharing of truth, their business. (For more about the Inklings, and about its influence on Tolkien, I highly recommend Bandersnatch: C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the Creative Collaboration of the Inklings, by Diana Pavlac Glyer.)

Lewis once wrote that,

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.[8]

I think Lewis is right. If you find a story that you can’t get enough of — a story that is strangely applicable to real life, that deeply moves you, that gives you a stab of joy or a curious longing to escape, and that you have to immerse yourself in again — it has likely hit the bull’s-eye of truth.

© 2016, Daniel R. Asperheim

[1] C.S. Lewis, On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature, “On Stories” (New York: Harcourt, 1982).

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-stories: Expanded edition, with commentary and notes (London: HarperCollins, 2014), 75.

[7] Ibid.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 226.

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