It is worth insisting that the strategies and styles deployed in documentary, like those of narrative film, change; they have a history. And they have changed for much the same reasons: the dominant modes of expository discourse change; the arena of ideological contestation shifts. The comfortably accepted realism of one generation seems like artifice to the next. New strategies must constantly be fabricated to re-present “things as they are” and still others to contest this very representation. –Bill Nichols, “The Voice of Documentary”
Since reading Lord of the Flies in ninth grade I have been obsessed with the idea of allegory–of encoding one meaning within another, like Russian nesting dolls. Analogy, allegory, simile, metaphor… to learn is to build from analogy. The brain creates narratives to describe direct experiences through analogy; for example:
Pain : Your Body :: Whatever Behavior I am Doing : You (Your Survival).
So what if you simply increase the complexity of analogies to the point where you have to reference the system itself that is thinking in order to contextualize a point? An observer becomes aware of his own observing activity when the complexity of his collective brain connections reaches a critical mass. At this point, moviegoers are very familiar with cinema language and narrative conventions. We are well aware of what’s going to “come next” in a formulaic film. So what will be the next for filmmaking? How do we continue making films that thrill, inspire, and stimulate whole populations?
After over 100 years of exposure to cinema, audiences are primed for the next level of movie experiences. Some folks in Hollywood have interpreted this to mean IMAX, 3-D, CGI, and extra-long, convoluted story lines. There’s even talk of building movie theaters whose seats jolt around based on action on the screen, and Smell-o-vision. Yet as all these technological bells and whistles are tacked on to your moviegoing experience, stories become more and more impoverished–Hollywood now produces mainly stories based on only on franchises: sequels, prequels, and remakes. As the costs to produce these high-tech movies skyrocket into the hundreds of millions of dollars, Hollywood becomes more hesitant to produce original content, thus stifling fresh, perhaps simpler ideas… meanwhile, those increases in movie spending is passed off to the consumer, in form of crazy high ticket prices. Is this really what innovation looks like?
I see cinematic innovation a little differently. I believe a film’s story is enhanced when the story effectively refers to the assumptions of its audience–when the audience’s expectations become a factor in the story’s development. When a film draws attention to its frame, its medium, it by extension draws attention to our expectations of that that medium. This further draws on our historical exposure to and immersion in the evolution of film language, which further draws into light our social and cultural constructions of meaning — our “reality” — that is embedded in each one of us. Documentaries and avant garde narrative films from the likes of Christopher Nolan, Darren Aronofsky, and Charlie Kaufman do much to challenge our projections of a normal, predictable world, by challenging our expectations for a film and a meaningful film narrative. You can refer to the film, and yet still the film can morph from that process. This is, essentially, how creating new film products over time “locks in” certain style and narrative standards (like the close-up and parallel cutting, for example), while simultaneously opening up new possibilities for innovation in the films that follow. In this way, film evolves.
Film is a highly technical and petroleum-based medium, but at its roots it is not a new medium. At its roots, film is a sophisticated form of performance and storytelling, which are archaic (no negative connotation) methods of communication that are foundational to the way we relate to the world. The function of sharing stories is to encode social values — that’s why, even in elaborate fantasies, the underlying structure of the story will often involve archetypes like hero, villain, mentor, and so forth.
Some have argued that even the quality of the movie theater environment — in a dark room with other rapt bodies, gazing at a flickering screen — harkens to our biological history of gathering around campfires to share crucial survival information through storytelling. All the Hollywood film industry is doing (with its billion-dollar budgets, fanatic celebrity culture, and massive exploitation of humans and environment) is telling the same damn Hero’s Journey story in fancy dressing. Though I’m not one to deny that film is a profoundly beautiful and sophisticated artform, it is also just a means for delivering simple stories, dressed way, way up. Even as the stylization and technical delivery of these films seems limitless in expansion, somehow, the underlying stories seem ever more shallow.
When a society’s values are shifting as they are right now, we storytellers are pressured to tell meaningful stories. We need new kinds of film, new stories encoding our new meanings. I draw my inspiration from the reflexive (self-referencing) narrative and documentary films which in the last ten years have expanded into new dimensions of self-reference, subjective narratives, and non-chronological construction of narratives. Reflexivity in the film form appeals to me intuitively because this artistic movement of drawing additional meaning into the story from the film’s own construction seems to me to mirror our society’s growing awareness of how our industrial, economic and social actions have widespread, dispersed ecological affects that can end up negatively impacting us in complex ways, even on a global scale. Reflecting on our big and small life choices, we may discover startling consequences that are tied back to our own little narrative in a way that reshapes us.