Part One: Shifting Purpose from Artist to End User
Making films in Australia is not a very good way to make money, at least not for the filmmakers or investors. Making money can be helpful in some ways in measuring success, it may be a good thing to do, but it is not the purpose of our film industry.
Knowing that the purpose of a government supported screen industry can’t really be to make money, we fall back, instead, on a platitude to justify our existence: ‘to tell our own stories’. This is problematic for a number of reasons, some of which I discussed in my essay for Lumina 2, ‘Make Our Myths’, but here are two reasons I didn’t mention in that essay:
1. it sets the bar too low, and
2. it allows purpose to rest with the creator rather than the end user.
“Tell our own stories” sets the bar too low simply because there is nothing in the idea of telling our own stories that says they have to be good stories. Does ‘tell our own stories’ mean: tell any story as long as Australians, in Australia, tell it? Does it mean ‘speaking in an Australian accent’? (If so, my storytelling doesn’t qualify, nor that of any other first generation immigrant.) There is nothing in that stated purpose to say: tell good stories, stirring stories, entertaining stories, enlightening, exciting or affirming stories.
The other issue ‘telling our own stories’ creates is that it implicitly allows the purpose of storytelling to rest with the teller, not the listener. To tell is a verb, the action it requires is complete once ‘telling’ is done. The focus, therefore is put on telling, and the teller, the speaker, the artist.
This may seem insignificant, but in fact it belies the very idea on which our creative work is based, and to shift it would be much more radical than a simple change of wording would seem to imply. The notion that the purpose of art rests with the artist, the ‘teller’, expressing him or herself is a Romantic notion. It is neither universal, nor grounded in the deep history of our culture. In fact it is directly in conflict with the "Classical" principles of story organisation that many screen storytellers would say should guide their construction of story. This conflict, between formal structures and individual or even national expression of self is an unarticulated battle, going on beneath the surface, without acknowledgement of its battle lines or their implications for defining the purpose of our screen industry. As such it is beyond the scope of this essay to unravel, so instead I would like to propose a truce of sorts. Not that we return to the absolute stricture of a classical model at the peril of divesting our work of individual passion. Nor that we repudiate the Classical and embrace only the individualistic expression that Romanticism seems to promote. But that we find a middle ground by changing the words we use to define our purpose. In particular, shift our verbs so that they define our purpose as an action played on an audience rather than an action executed by an artist.
Rather than falling back on a cultural platitude to justify a production’s existence, what if all funded productions articulated their purpose as a verb, that describes what they want to do to audiences, and then employ known craft skills to achieve that purpose.
If a team states their purpose as being: to entertain, then their production needs spectacle, action, possibly humour, definitely pace and rhythm. If it doesn’t have these, it won’t entertain. If members of our highly skilled industry know that it is their job to produce these, then they have a better chance of doing so.
A production whose purpose is to enlighten needs metaphor – it has to be bigger than just the ordinary real if we are to see something differently. It needs pattern (aka structure) that is familiar enough to take us along with it, but fulfilled in a way that is fresh, that shows something in a new light. It needs to be about more than just the people, places and problems within it, by making those things metaphorical for the bigger ideas affecting humanity, the world and the challenges of life.
A production that states its purpose as: to engage the mind through innovation in form needs an innovative approach to story structure, image or sound. Producing something with this intent requires a very strong knowledge and understanding of the ways in which story and storytelling have worked in the history of cinema thus far, so that images, sounds and structures can be re-configured meaningfully.
If the stated purpose of a production is to stir, then the story needs some connection to the real - our emotion is stirred by empathy with something or someone we recognise as someone like ourselves (mimesis). It also needs hardship and triumph – release or catharsis has to be earned by overcoming hardship, working through obstacles for our emotions to be stirred.
An often un-stated artistic purpose of many successful movies is to affirm ideals. 20th century art movements, and their theory and criticism, have in some ways made ‘affirmation of ideals’ a passé notion, associating it with the bourgeoisie rather than the avant garde, criticising the ideals many movies affirm from within the framework of a Marxist or Feminist ideology. However, a movie with nothing to say, no underlying philosophical premise, nothing it believes in or ‘ideals to affirm’ can be a pretty shallow experience. In order to affirm ideals of any kind, filmmakers need to know what they believe, what they stand up for, what they have to say.
Entertain, enlighten, engage, stir and affirm are not mutually exclusive (and, of course there are many more purposes or ‘actions’ films can have). If these or other purposes are articulated, their achievement can be measured. We can say more than ‘it just works’ or ‘it just doesn’t work’ we can point to its intent and measure its success against its intent. We can describe what we know to the be factors something needs have to be entertaining, enlightening, engaging, stirring or affirming and ask ‘are these present’? Further, we can feel the films acting on us. We can be entertained, enlightened, engaged, stirred or affirmed and we will know it.
Stating purpose is an important aspect of finding new ways to measure success because it creates a measure that is clearly aligned with the film itself rather than with a standard that is less relevant to that film. If a good Australian movie doesn’t achieve box office on the scale of a bad American one, but achieves its stated purpose, we can be clear that it is a success.
NEXT POST, PART TWO - OPPORTUNITY FOR FILMMAKERS: ONSCREEN DRAFTS