Stories About Stories
Current JUMP artist Nathan Sibthorpe provides us an interesting insight into modern day story telling, and why we have to have more than just suspension of disbelief.
I’ve been thinking about storytelling lately. About how to define the type of story I want to tell. And about what we’re saying differently – what are the new voices?
I’m really interested in how our culture is influenced by an increasingly mediatised society. More than ever before, we are now so saturated in stories that fiction makes up a large part of our reality.
We see thousands of advertisements every day – each telling a story that blurs reality and fiction. Without even going into the daily TV shows, movies, iPhone games, YouTube videos, “news” articles, blogs… Facebook alone has the capacity to give us hundreds of bite-sized stories in a matter of minutes.
So where does this leave us? Could it be that we are becoming desensitised to story? I really wonder about how much we can rely on suspension of disbelief, when it’s being so overused. How much do we really care about caring?! With so many characters, and endless narrative repetition… we couldn’t possibly invest in every story we’re told…
But this is the thing – maybe we don’t have to. I’m interested in the role of objectivity as a factor in contemporary storytelling.
Consider horror movies. You could watch a horror movie to feel the protagonist’s pain & fear, to accompany them on a psychological journey. Or, as seems more often the case, you could watch a horror movie with a full awareness of watching a horror movie – tracking the body count and making light-hearted predictions about ‘who’s next!’ You don’t treat the characters as people, you treat them as characters, as pawns in a game.
Think about how many people watched Rebecca Black’s Friday video on YouTube. It became popular because of how awful people thought it was – there was a sense of pleasure derived from watching something so impressively bad. Watching it objectively. And this idea seems to be emerging more and more in filmmaking.
From Snakes on a Plane to Sharktopus, there’s a whole market for movies-that-are-fun-because-they’re-so-bad, and it’s growing in prominence. We’re not supposed to watch them as stories – we watch them as movies. The story is actually about us as an audience watching the movie and discovering how bad it is. The objectivity brings with it a completely new form of engagement!
For another crude example of objectivity in practice, how about drinking games? My favourite is Call of Judy– the Judge Judy drinking game. Whenever Judy snaps, shouts, interrupts, or gives someone crazy eyes – you take a drink. Whenever there’s sexual tension between her and the bailiff – you take two drinks.
And whether you’re drinking or not, this is probably similar to how we’re all watching “reality” tv. Keep in mind that there is still an audience for shows like The Shire and Being Lara Bingle. How many of the viewers care about the characters? Or how many are watching for the opportunity to judge, and to spectate?
But back to the point – how else can this sense of objectivity be used?
Well for one, I think we have a love-hate relationship with film genre. We may hate Hollywood’s paint-by-numbers approach to filmmaking when we’re watching the same thing over and over again. But at the same time, the formula still kind of works on us.
We involuntarily feel adrenalin in action movies, and tension in thriller movies. The conventions tap into a cultural history of a hundred well-made movies that have made us feel a certain way, and somehow we feel ourselves pander to the same cathartic experience. Our hearts all soared at the end of Shawshank Redemption so that now whenever a character raises their arms in the rain to uplifting music, we feel an echo of the original emotion.
And this is where I think it gets interesting – when the objectivity is balanced with suspension of disbelief, and with a well-applied respect for genre.
Cabin in the Woods is a beautiful example of this. I can’t tell you exactly how, because with such a limited release, most people won’t have seen it yet and I refuse to ruin it for you! But go seek it out. I have not been so excited by a feature film in a very long time.
To be vague, Cabin In The Woods uses a dual narrative to strike its balance. On one side, we’re watching a horror story that is well-made and in some way convincing, affecting etc. But on the other side, we’re watching a story about the creation of the horror story, from a perspective that exploits the clichés, stereotypes and blatant formula. In this way, we get to engage with the story from the inside and the outside simultaneously.
It excites me, really. I think it’s the same sort of pleasure we get from seeing a magic trick, and then being shown how it’s done. We want to be duped, but we’re even more entertained by the process of how it was achieved.
There are other movies which I think strike a similar balance, and without using such an explicit double narrative. Wes Craven’s Scream simultaneously satirised slasher movies, but also abided by the genre conventions with respect and commitment. The premise of the movie was that the characters somehow knew that they were in a slasher movie, and behaved accordingly. This self-awareness of genre meant that the characters shared a similar journey to what we had in watching them.
Edgar Wright does similar work, with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and even Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. They’re not just parodies – Shaun of the Dead is as much a zombie movie as it is a zombie movie parody.
But, unfortunately I don’t work in film (although it was once the dream) – my medium is theatre. And I think there’s something to be considered about the opportunities for objectivity in theatre – finding a potential form of engagement that encourages audience authorship, for them to take charge of their own experience in an autonomous and authoritative way. This, in a medium that is otherwise known for making its audiences shut up and sit still in the dark.
This is not to say that suspension of disbelief is outdated or unwanted. Of course not. I cried in Titanic. And I love The Importance of Being Earnest. There will always be good [new] stories that sweep us up and swallow us whole. But this is about finding the other possibilities for a live experience. After all, you can suspend disbelief in film, you can suspend disbelief beautifully in a book – so why do we ask everyone to leave their homes and pay so much more?
I feel that live performance is a great opportunity for notions of objectivity. If we’ve brought the audience into a theatre, let them be aware that they’re in a theatre. Let them engage with the storytelling as much as the story itself. The value is in the shared experience and the live event – let’s own this!
PLUG: I’m currently playing with the idea of objectivity in dual narratives for Some Dumb Play – where the audience controls the show via remote control. We open at Metro Arts in November. Stay tuned!