I feel strange admitting this, but one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time is a story of a man falling in love with a computer. During the movie I kept wondering if my wife had secretly been slipping estrogen pills into my food. How else could you explain the range of emotions that this robot of a man went through? feeling of the range of emotions about a guy who falls in love with his operating system?
Only after the movie did I realize that the director and writer also directed another movie I love, Being John Malkovich, which is a very strange film yet touches on a human desire everyone has, to escape their world and live as someone else, if only momentarily. This is also why I love the original Twilight Zone series. Many of the episodes deal with universal desires people have and make you think “maybe I don’t actually want that.”
Great stories are paradoxical. They take universal themes and condense them to one specific event. They help people understand the macro through the micro. As I’ve been reading more books about crafting stories, I’ve started to notice the subtle brilliance in a lot of movies. Everyone knows why they love or hate a few movie, but most people don’t know why.
Movies are difficult because even if you have a great script, there are still a thousand ways to screw it up. Bad directing, bad pacing, bad acting, unbelievable characters, too long, too short, and a million other ways. When most people hate a movie, it’s often because the main character lacks a strong ambition or they don’t care about what happens to the character. The latter is often the fault of action movies.
CGI can’t replace a good story. I enjoyed Man of Steel for the most part, but started getting bored during the main battle. After a few minutes on the hedonistic treadmill watching two people throw each other through buildings I got the point and just wanted them to wrap it up.
Great movies somehow manage to connect the 1,000 elements of a movie into a system that churns out something brilliant. The big things like acting, plot, and the script matter a lot, but it’s the little things that take something from great to phenomenal. The little things often deal with directing, metaphors, and symbols. All of the elements have the same goal of making the audience feel something. The director isn’t just capturing a shot, they are making a conscious choice to frame the shot in a way that pulls out certain emotions from people. And emotions are the main reason people see movies.
As long as I can remember I’ve loved metaphors. Whenever I explain anything to someone, the first instinct is to use a metaphor. They’re usually the best way to help someone understand something. Part of this is because they’re visual and the brain processes visual information faster and the other is that it connects a foreign concept to something we already understand. Most great movies use metaphors and symbols at many levels. Going back to the movie Her, what he does for his profession directly relates to other aspects and themes in the movie. It’s symbolic. The Truman Show is a brilliant movie, mostly for how it uses various metaphors to help guide people through life.
There is a lot of power in telling a good story because a good storyteller knows how to tap into peoples emotions in a way that resonates. And people only act, whether laugh, cry, buy, sell, love, hate, start or quit, when they feel something. No one acts when their feelings are neutral. Steve Jobs recognized the power that storytelling has before many people:
The one theme that ties together a lot of great movies isn’t how decisions where made or even what decisions were made, it is why decisions were made. Every great movie is full of a thousand decisions that had a specific purpose.