In the weekend issue of the I newspaper (20-21/1/18, UK), David Baddiel wrote a guest column in which he states “make it new, or else storytelling will die”. In the column he makes the claim that Hollywood executives are ‘frightened of fiction’. He states that Hollywood is far too centred on what is known as ‘pre-branded content’. This is content which is familiar to the audience already- remakes of older films, stories about famous figures (fictional or otherwise), adaptions of books, and so on. As a member of the BAFTA panel, he says that of this year’s entries, none of them have engaged him because so few have interesting, well worked out or original storylines. He goes as far as to say that the film Titanic would not have been successful if it wasn’t built on the pre-branded concept ‘disaster movie’ and the history of the event.
He concludes by quoting Ezra Pound’s famous personal dictum- “make it new”. He admits that “many biopics, historical dramas and literary adaptions are brilliant, and deserve all the success they garner. But over-reliance on pre-branded content, in the end, spells the death of original storytelling in movies”. He is quite right to assent that a great number of these adaptions are worth seeing, even if it is after he stated that he had lost interest in them because they all lack originality. One does wonder, however, if part of his complaint is a product of the jaded nature of the over saturated film critic. A critic who has seen 200 different productions of Hamlet will naturally spot problems which somebody who has never seen it before will not notice, equating to the fact that the critic will enjoy it far less that the person seeing it for the first time.
I believe he is entirely correct in his observation that many blockbusters today are made from the same mould, pertaining to the same shared traits of their genres. What we have to ask ourselves is how serious this truly is? To anybody who sees a fraction of the films which a critic would, this problem seems hardly so apparent. It was recently announced that two of the highest grossing actors in Hollywood were Vin Diesel and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Neither of these people would likely consider their roles in the Fast and Furious franchise to the ground-breaking, but it certainly stands to reason that it sells, and sells very well. More to the point, people are clearly enjoying it.
What it highlights is that the culture critic and the everyday film goer are likely inclined to want two different things from their cinema. The critic wants new, refreshing, surprising, intellectually structured. The everyperson who goes to the cinema once a fortnight, or even monthly, wishes to know what they are going to see, they want to know what their precious time is being invested in. Many people who go, simply want a level of gratification from the excitement of an action film, or the heartbreak and warmth of a romantic film. Both sides are correct, but it is overstated to say that a lack of originality, for the reasons he stated, would kill out storytelling.
One important issue to address is that retellings of stories are hardly a modern convention, symptomatic of Hollywood. Beowulf, the Arthurian legends, folk stories and fairy tales, have all persisted because, whilst we all wish for the new, we want to surround ourselves mostly with the familiar. We read Dickens, Austen, The Brontes, Zola, Hemingway, Fitzgerald et al, knowing very well what they are about, and that is exactly why we read them. It is the same case with Hollywood, it is simply making what we ask of it. If every book we read, and every film we saw, was refreshingly new thematically and structurally, we would feel at a loss to the comforts that these mediums are meant to bring. This was a lesson well learned from the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Existentialists, who stagnated because they always tried to break the mould.
The dispute of the two scientific philosophers Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn provide perfect explanation for the correct assessment. Popper believed that the scientific method should constantly seek to improve and revolutionise by attempting to falsify its self, therefore elevating theories and creating new, improved ones. Kuhn stated that if we invested all our energies into creating revolutions we will get nowhere. Instead, he believed that we should work within the current paradigm, and once it reaches a critical mass of knowledge, it will elevate its self into a new paradigm, creating a ‘paradigm shift’. This is exactly the way it should be. Food critics in the 1980s were tired of prawn cocktails covered in paprika, people were jaded and restless with the constant flow of cowboy films from Hollywood, people were dulled by the fact that the literal nature of paintings wasn’t conveying reality as well as abstract representation could. In all three situations, art reached its critical masses and revolutions happened- messy sprinkles of paprika were replaces with precise, refined presentation; abstract art was born in France, and in these cases, the rest is history. When Brecht first broke the fourth wall, it was fascinating and brilliant. Now it is as familiar as Dickens.
This is not to say that fresh and vibrant writing and directing shouldn’t be happening. They exist in society contiguously, the familiar and the revolutionary, quite comfortably. When people turn to something revolutionary which appeals, the critical mass of culture will move in the productive direction of this new modality. The fact at hand is that Hollywood shouldn’t be pressed to be a home of literary revolution, that is the job of the art house cinemas, the theatres, and the authors. Hollywood will find what people move to, and pick it up, but there is no crime in making a movie of, as he puts it “Lord of the F***ing Rings”. Maybe, just maybe, storytelling has been so thematically similar because storytelling pertains to the convention of human truths and social truths, those values which are bodies of our identities and cultures, and we want to have them echoed back to us.