These days, I sit in a darkened theater waiting for the movie to begin, a sentiment from my childhood often cuts through the clutter of trailers and soda pop commercials: Tell me a story. That’s what I’d like most from the picture I’m about to see. Sadly, though, the art of storytelling — real storytelling — has less and less of a place at the cineplex.
Tell me a story. What exactly defines a great one? Certainly, it’s something more than the plot. No one would deny that even the cruddiest blockbusters, like The Day After Tomorrow or Van Helsing, have plots — or, indeed, that they’re built around suitably intricate chains of events. In a splendid movie like Sideways, on the other hand, the story comes down to this: Two guys head off on the road for a sowing-the-wild-oats-of-early-middle-age vacation. They land in California wine country. They drink lots of wine and meet two women and reconsider their lives. The end. What makes Sideways an inspired act of storytelling is the casually insistent flow of moments — the way that, say, Paul Giamatti discoursing on the tender glories of the Pinot grape, and only half realizing that he’s actually talking about himself, becomes a close encounter, a charged event. It becomes a chewy kernel of story because of the drama with which it reveals who he is.
Consider enduring acts of storytelling like Casablanca or On the Waterfront or The Godfather or Tootsie or Taxi Driver or Close Encounters or Fargo, and you realize that story, at heart, is character, and character is story. The people in these movies have layers, edges, hidden vibrations. They have mystery. They may be larger than life but they are also, in some essential way, every bit as large as life. They feel, while we’re watching them, as fully formed as we do, and so they lure us into a kind of communion, a fluid and enveloping connection that remains long after the movie ends.
According to the Hollywood clock, then, this should be my time of year. Over the next couple of months, we’ll all be ushered into that extended moment when Hollywood doesn’t just try to provide ”escape” but something humane and emotional and lasting. For a brief spell, movies will open to staggering acclaim, along with headlines trumpeting their ”Oscar buzz.” It has already happened with Sideways and The Motorcycle Diaries and Ray and Finding Neverland and Kinsey; it could happen with films yet to come, such as (perhaps) The Aviator or The Life Aquatic. Beneath the media hubbub, you can sense something genuine: a gathering excitement, a collective wish that movies might become all that they can be.
The truth is that, for utterly sensible financial reasons, Hollywood doesn’t really care about these movies. Consider last year’s breakout indie smash Lost in Translation. It was such a cultural phenomenon, such a supernova of success, that it grossed…$45 million! Exactly what a ramshackle thrill machine like The Grudge raked in during its first five days. By and large, this has been true for years — with the exception of odd blockbusters like Titanic, story-driven movies are rarely expected to deliver at the box office.