Storytelling: a Dying Art? Talking with Screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi
Where would you say our culture stands regarding good storytellers and stories?
In his wonderful book, Story, which is pretty much the industry standard text on the subject, Robert McKee says that our society has just about lost the ability to tell a good story. McKee attributes this to the academy basically abandoning classical storytelling principles in favor of more culturally-based records of experiences. He also notes that moral relativism in the overall society makes it very hard to tell stories. It's a problem for the storyteller if the audience can't agree which values are worth living and dying for. Most romantic comedies today don't know what they really want for the characters. Marriage? Family? The white picket fence, really? Imagine if John Wayne's rousing words to his fellow Green Berets ended up devolving into an existential crisis speech about the ethical problems posed by unabashed patriotism in support of ultimately corrupt human governments.
But it isn't just the storytelling art form that is in crisis. We are an age of non-exceptionalism in all the arts, which has something to do with the loss of rigor and discipline that is the doorway to the beautiful. Maybe a lot of the angst-driven artistic "need to connect" impulse in our time have been drowned in Ritalin and Prozac. Finally, I think the urge to make something beautiful comes from a sense of gratitude and immortality. In our culture, both those values are ever more quaint.
In Hollywood, storytelling since Jaws has suffered mainly due to the fact that movies are seen first as commercial products and second as whole, harmonious and radiant stories. There is no change to any part of a story that today's studio wont make to please an egomaniacal actor or director. There is no part of a movie too sacred not to be cheapened by product placement. There is no overarching theme that can survive the endless tinkering of producers trying desperately to bring the project in on time and under budget. The pursuit of the mass-appeal blockbuster has made lovely, quirky human stories a very tough sell in Hollywood. The only real future for good movie stories seems to be outside the studio system. It's sad, but I think Hollywood's days of having access to the imagination of the world are gone.
You have an interesting take on modern day Christian movies and the stories they relay that may come as a surprise to some. Could you share?
I hate to even make the concession it requires to refer to some movies and stories as "Christian." Practically speaking, I'm not sure what it means to be a Christian story. I know what it is to be a beautiful movie, and this has everything to do with excellence of craft and integrity of theme and story. It makes sense to me that anything that is a beautiful movie should also be esteemed by Christians. I do make the distinction that some stories are sacred in that they are relating Biblical or explicitly religious images and history. Using this language, we could say that there have been sacred stories that are unchristian, like The Last Temptation of Christ and Kingdom of Heaven.
There is a reactionary momentum right now among some Biblically-based folks both Catholic and Protestant to make movies that are affirming and soothing for our own sub-culture. Aristotle says that there are two ways that dramatic stories get wrecked. One is in making changes to pander to the players. The other is in making changes to pander to the audience. Most of the projects that are called "Christian" movies suffer from the latter ailment. When we start out shooting for non-offensiveness, we generally end up producing sentimentality—what the great storyteller Flannery O'Connor called "an over-emphasis on innocence." She noted that because we "know what is in the hearts of men" the overemphasis on innocence is particularly inexcusable for Christians.
(Reprinted with permission from Aletheia Writing Magazine)