In the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reel released for Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago, Mark Hamill narrates on the significance of this new Star Wars chapter:
You’ve been here, but you don’t know this story. Nothing’s changed, really. I means everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed.
It’s reminiscent — maybe on purpose — of the common notion that a good movie just reformulates an already-familiar truth, kind of like a song that feels like a classic even on first hearing. (I feel like I’ve heard this idea floated before, but I can’t find a web reference for it. Take me at my word? )
This is not at all unexpected, but it does remind me of an ongoing reservation I have about even the best of popular entertainment: I feel like movies shouldn’t be so comforting that they could double as a warm blanket. The best of film is too fresh, too hard to process to ever let you feel like “nothing’s changed.” I suppose what I’m saying is that even when perfectly executed, a movie whose purpose is to refeed you what you’ve already been fed before is a movie that needs a different reason for being. A movie whose goal is not to put on the screen a new vision of art, but to return us to somewhere we think we already know, well that’s art that is aiming too low.
To take another example, consider Inside Out, which I saw in the theater recently. I cried, which is a pretty common reaction, apparently. Clearly, while it works for purposes of making its audience weep and laugh out loud, I can’t help but feel that as good as Inside Out is, it is merely — emphasis on “merely” — a very fine example of Hollywood storytelling conventions.
“You’ve been here” before with Pixar movies, which routinely nail the sweet spot of the Hollywood formula, which is to be innovative enough to be worth watching but not so inventive as to turn us off by being too abstract, and not so challenging as to confront us with uncomfortable truths. In a word, a Pixar movie executes; the studio is great at producing examples of hitting that balance, where the movie is entertaining and fun enough that we don’t remember that it’s not really adventurous.
In large part, too, this is a matter of using conventions. You know the hallmarks of this model even if you don’t know you know them: The movie has fairly well marked acts that begin at fairly predictable times; the lead characters immediately draw your sympathy but have an identifiable flaw they’ll have to overcome; the end of the story can only come after a final threat greater than anything yet seen. (H/T to David Bordwell for chronicling these so well.)
Solid and even astounding movie movies come out of this mold, and I like them. But I’m 34 and I’ve been reading about and meditating on the art of film for several years. The perfect execution of the Hollywood ideal doesn’t seem ideal any more, if it ever did. It’s the less-than-ideal that looks like an ideal these days. I don’t want my movies to be a blankety comfort against cold nights, but more like an ice-bucket challenge or a jigsaw puzzle with a few missing pieces.
And my unease with the process of making the ideal Hollywood product spills over into “movie criticism,” which always struck me as poor description of what writers could be striving for. Just like I’m hoping for movies that aren’t only aerodynamically perfect examples of whatever script gurus Syd Field and Robert McKee are asking for (movie acts structured for maximum story delivery), I also wince a little every time I read a review crafted for purposes of delivering an up or down vote on a movie or rating it on a scale as though this work of art ought to be judged the same way we do for Olympic ice skating: With a more-or-less rigid rubric that only allows creativity in the narrowest sense of the word.
I don’t expect everyone to feel this way, but I do. I’ll still see the new Star Wars and probably the next Pixar flick. But, you know, in case you were wondering, this is what I’m thinking when I do.