Must films always tell stories?

Jeff Overstreet has just posted an item on a couple of quotes he’s come across that remind him of the films he appreciates that prioritize images and sounds over “narrative”.

His post, in turn, reminds me of one of my own pet peeves. I can be a very linear, very narrative-driven thinker — and I think it has a tendency to show up in my reviews, where I sometimes slip into synopsis mode — but I have long argued that films don’t necessarily need to have stories, and some of the films I appreciate the most are the ones where something other than “story” is our primary concern.

For example, one of the reasons I thought Disney’s Fantasia 2000 was a bit of a disappointment, compared to its predecessor, was that Every Single Fricken Cartoon in that film told a story — and what’s worse, a fair number of the stories were identical and redundant (the Beethoven, Gershwin, and Respighi segments all concern parents who lose their children and/or try to protect them, and this is fairly similar to the Daisy-loses-Donald storyline of the Elgar segment). Contrast this to the original Fantasia, where entire sequences are devoted to the sheer joy of dance or, in the case of the Bach sequence, pure abstraction. (The so-called “abstract” segment in Fantasia 2000 told a story too, sigh.)

Similarly, I fell in love with Koyaanisqatsi many years ago — and it now occupies a permanent spot on my all-time Top 10 (actually more of a Top 11) — because it consisted of nothing more than documentary footage and music. Admittedly, director Godfrey Reggio would insist that even films like his require some degree of dramaturgical development — but the point remains, his film encourages us to look and see in new ways, rather than simply spin a yarn.

Other films from my Top 10 that might fit into this category include Lawrence of Arabia, which has a brilliant script by Robert Bolt but is best remembered for the brilliant way it captures the look, the mood, the feel of being in the desert (when I saw the “director’s cut” at the Park Theatre back in 1989, there was always a massive line-up for drinks at intermission, people had become so thirsty), and The Purple Rose of Cairo, which again has a brilliant script, this time by Woody Allen, but ends with a scene in which Mia Farrow just watches, and watches, and watches as a Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers dance unfolds on the screen before her.

Oh, and let us not forget the rather stark differences between Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 and Peter Hyams’s sequel 2010, which I get into here.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his award-winning film column for that paper, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He has also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004), Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005) and The Bible in Motion: A Handbook of the Bible and Its Reception in Film (De Gruyter, 2016).

  • trent

    Doesn’t this fly in the face about what you just said about what Lucas is doing to the Star Wars films?

  • Peter T Chattaway

    No, because there is a difference between quick-flash razzle-dazzle and encouraging people to “look closer” (to borrow the title of Jeff’s blog).

    As I mention in the post I link to here, merely focusing on special effects for their own sake is not good enough — otherwise Star Trek: The Motion Picture would be a masterpiece up there with 2001. But it isn’t.

  • trent

    That was a joke, son. Laugh.