Certain stories have an eerie power over an audience. And the reason is not just what the stories are about, but how they are told. The imagination of an audience can be abducted and toyed with when a director recognizes the relationship between the function of their storytelling, and the form of the story they are telling.
The highest form of dramatic art, if you ask me, is when there is a visceral echo between the protagonist and the audience. The creator of the experience intentionally creates some sort of scarcity for the audience within the story—of understanding, of action, of a particular feeling—and uses this to force the audience into willing certain things to be. The protagonist is lonely, and we are made to feel alone by the storytelling. The protagonist is scared, so we too are scared by sudden horrible things.
In the 2001 movie Memento, for instance, our hero, played by Guy Pearce, has an aphasia of the mind wherein he can’t make new memories and thus every twenty minutes or so, he suddenly has no idea where he is. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan create a similar scarcity of understanding in the mind of the audience member by telling the story backwards. Ergo, through the storytelling, they give the audience the very same disease suffered by the protagonist. For my money, this flick, made in 2000, rang us like a clarion bell into the new millennium, heralding a new kind of storytelling for a smarter kind of audience.
When discussing 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are with cinematographer Emily Topper, we were mutually reminded of what it was actually like to be nine (horribly upsetting, traumatizingly emotional, an almost non-stop bummer, but for brief periods of exhilarating fort-building), which Spike Jonze captured by telling a story about an irrational person irrationally. The structure of that movie—let’s do this, now let’s do this, now I’m upset, now I’m psyched—transfers to us the viscera of childhood.
This is the final and oft-forgot piece of the puzzle in our craft: the use of the style and structure of the storytelling to mainline the story’s emotional plasma into the bloodstream of the audience. If the main character feels impatient, make us impatient with your storytelling. And don’t wimp out. Make us actually impatient with the story. in the best storytelling events, function IS form.
And it’s an old idea. Virgil and Ovid were no slouches with the quill (chisel?). Virgil once wrote Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum or “The horses’ hooves with four-fold beat did shake the crumbling plain.” Now, say the Latin out loud (Latin is kind of like Spanish, you pronounce it how it’s spelled… so just sound it out… Oh, and there’s a hard G in “ungula”). Repeat it a couple of times until you can say it well and at an even pace. Do you hear them? Say it in a James Earl Jones voice. Hear them now? It’s the horses hooves on the plain! They’re embedded in the consonants of the words themselves. The image of the poetry is embedded in the way you say it. It’s so exquisite!
It makes me shiver. It makes me want to find a production of Waiting for Godot.