Blog

What My Five Favourite Films of All Time Can Tell Us About Storytelling

There’s lots I don’t like about Hollywood, but I love film. I think, in another life, I might have wanted to work on a set, even if only in a small supporting role behind the camera. But then, I love storytelling too, and the fantastic thing about novels and poetry is you need no permission or producer to bring it into being! (Of course, the brilliant independent filmmaker Joel Haver would argue that you don't need those for film, either, but that's a huge topic for another time). 

Collaboration and constraint often breed creativity and solutions, and thus films can offer us a very unique narrative insight. Because the screenplay is inherently more disciplined and “formed” than the novel, there’s much we can learn from our film-industry counterparts (and vice-versa, of course).

In this article, I wanted to talk about my five favourite films of all time, and what they—surprisingly—have in common that we can learn from as storytellers. I want to make two things clear, however, before I begin. Firstly, there is a certain film I love that is notably and auspiciously absent from the list. Namely, The Lord of the Rings. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, I’ve already written so extensively about this film, and the books on which it is based, that it’s probably time for a re-fresh. Secondly, I regard The Lord of the Rings as really being in a category of its own—totally unique and unassailable. So, it wouldn’t appear on a list like this, for it cannot really be compared to anything else! The second thing I want to make you aware of is there will, by necessity, be spoilers for the five films I have chosen, so read on at your own peril if you do not want to know what happens, and want to check out these astonishing films for yourself.

Firstly, I’ll list the films. Then I’ll discuss what links them and what we can learn.

In no particular order:

CALVARY (2014)

Dir: John Michael McDonagh

A “good priest”, Father James, is told, in the confession box, that he will be killed in seven days. This astonishing Irish drama follows Father James’ journey he faces his own calvary.

THE FALL (2006)

Dir: Tarsem Singh

Set in 1915, stuntman Roy Walker (Lee Pace) lies paralysed in a hospital bed. Awaiting an uncertain future, he meets another patient, a little girl called Alexandria, and offers to tell her a story in exchange for her fetching him more painkillers… Roy’s intoxicating tale comes to life in Alexandria’s imagination, and the act of storytelling itself becomes transformative for them both.

SILENCE (2016)

Dir: Martin Scorsese

Based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Shūsaku Endō, Silence tells the story of two seventeenth century Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in order to locate their mentor and friend, Father Ferreira, as well as spread the Christian message. However, the Japanese inquisitor, Inigo-Sama, wishes for Christianity to be utterly stamped out from Japanese soil…

KILL BILL VOL 1 & 2 (2003 & 2004)

Dir: Quentin Tarantino

The Bride sets out on a quest for revenge against Bill, her master and former lover, after he shoots her through the head on her wedding day whilst she is still pregnant with his child.

V FOR VENDETTA (2005)

Dir: James McTeigue

Based on the graphic novel by Alan Moore, V For Vendetta is set in a dystopian, totalitarian Britain. But a vigilante, identified only by the codename “V”, has made it his mission to destroy the government.

On the surface, these five films may appear wildly dispirit. We have historical dramas, comicbook adaptations, bloody revenge stories, and fantastical meta-narrative. But in truth, all of these films share three things. I’ll begin with the broadest similarity and progress towards the detail.

1) Astonishing Endings

Not just good endings, nor even great endings, but astonishing endings. You may argue that this is entirely subjective, and to a degree it is, but all five of these films have Act 4 revelations that punch your gut so hard you forget which way is up, and then follow that up with an Act 5 catharsis that feels like spiritual healing.

For example, in Calvary, the final shot of the film is the daughter of Father James, our heroic priest, visiting his killer in prison. The killer looks with astonishment, even terror, through the glass window as she picks up the phone in order to speak with him, a single tear rolling down her face. We know, from an earlier, foreshadowing conversation Father James had with his daughter, that she is going to forgive his killer. This is the ultimate and unexpected triumph of good over evil—borderline shocking in its implications. Yet, isn’t that the quintessence of the Christian spiritual method, to triumph and overcome through mercy, to subjugate through submission?

Similarly, in V for Vendetta, the mysterious V is finally slain after heroically defeating Creedy and Sutler, but his ultimate objective is achieved when—in a sublime moment—his body laid upon a bier of explosives and sent hurtling into the tunnels beneath parliament. To the sound of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent 1812 Overture, V brings parliament to the ground from beyond the grave. This would be brilliant cinematically in and of itself, but it is made more brilliant by V’s earlier speech: “The building is a symbol, as is the act of destroying it.” We understand the full, symbolic implications of V’s victory over totalitarianism, and therefore feel the weight of the catharsis all the more heavily.

By emphasising the symbolic action of the story, rather than simply the literal, V for Vendetta, Calvary, and indeed the other films on this list, achieve endings which are not simply “resolutions” to the plot, but go one step further to impart thematic wisdom and psychological healing.

So, what is the lesson here? The lesson is “do not be afraid”, in the words of the biblical angels. It is better to reach for something grand, something magnificent, something life-changing than it is to settle for mediocrity. The endings of these films testify that the attempt will be remembered forever after—in some ways, even if you fail. And whilst you may not please everyone, you are going to touch a good many more souls than you would if you just resigned yourself to a “standard” or “genre-trope” ending. Go for broke. Go all out with your ending. Don’t hold back.

2) The Power of “Slow”

Modern films—especially Marvel—unfold at a frenetic pace. Most scenes are barely two minutes long. Wham bam—on to the next thing. This gives us no time to unpack emotional content, or to process what we have just seen. If ever we are left in any ambiguity or doubt about what just happened, normally someone quickly explains it with some expositional dialogue or “witty” remark.

But the directors of these five films I’ve chosen all understand the power of slowing down. Perhaps the best example of this is to be found in Kill Bill. Quentin Tarantino is notorious for his long scenes, which can feel drawn out to the point of excruciation, but that is why his dramatic moments: his surprises, his violent explosions, and his revelations, feel so powerful and so earned. In the final confrontation of Kill Bill Vol. 1, where The Bride faces down her ultimate rival (save perhaps Bill himself) O-ren Ishii, rather than leaping into a fight, Tarantino suddenly slows the pace to a crawl. The Bride and O-ren circle one another, measuring the defences of the other. The majestic Spanish guitar of Santa Esmeralda’s cover of Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood kicks up. This is not only highly stylistic, it’s also highly realistic. Truly great fighters don’t just launch themselves at each other. They size each other up. If Kung Fu is not your thing, watch two boxers in the ring. Not even Tyson Fury, with all his weight and power, just runs headlong at his opponent. He circles, he measures distance, he takes his time to figure out his opponent’s strength and weaknesses.

We have waited two hours, or thereabouts, for this fight between O-ren and The Bride, yet Tarantino knows we will wait just a little longer, making us feel every footstep, every movement of the eyes, every adjustment of the sword grip, to the point where when the two epic warriors finally explode into action it is –let’s use the word we’ve been dancing around here—orgasmic.

Similarly, in Martin Scorsese’s Silence, the film spends two hours building us up to the moment where Father Rodrigues (played by Andrew Garfield) must face the ultimate test of his faith, morality, and human dignity (designed with horrifying ingenuity by the inquisitor, Inigo-Sama). Will he allow others to suffer due to his refusal to step on an image of Christ? As Father Rodrigues contemplates stepping on the image, the sounds of his fellow man suffering a constant background, time slows to a crawl. The world falls into deafening silence. We feel we are frozen in a moment, within the very “point of power”, the eternal now. This suspension and slowing down allows us to feel the full epiphanic weight of what is about to happen next, which is a revelation so powerful I will leave it as a surprise for those of you who have not seen the film.

So, what can we learn from this? Slow down. Waaaay down. Most storytellers, whether film-makers or novelists or poets, rush. In my recent interview with Grady Hendrix, which you can find here, he talks about how the aspect of writing he finds hardest is sufficiently slowing a scene down for it to be felt at a deep level by the reader, populating the narrative with enough detail that it comes alive. He concludes by saying, “When I edit, and find a scene that isn’t working, I know either it needs more, or it has to come out.” This is contrary to common ideas about editing I see being spread around, that the ultimate end-goal is to simply shave off word-count. As Scorsese and Tarantino show us, sometimes more is more, but only if you’re prepared to slow the audience down, to force us to stand still and observe with all of our focus and attention. As Thomas Aquinas observed, “Beauty arrests motion.”

3) A Relationship With God and the Divine

This one may prove controversial for some readers, but it’s impossible to ignore it. All of these films both implicitly and explicitly make their spirituality known. And it should be noted, when I say “spirituality”, I don’t mean simply propaganda for a specific religion or preaching any kind of dogma. However, these works explore what it is like to have a relationship with the Divine, how challenging, harrowing, but also transcendent that is.

In Kill Bill, we are told, “When fortune smiles on something as violent and ugly as revenge, it seems proof like no other that not only does God exist, you’re doing his will.” This has to be one of my favourite quotes of all time, for it hints at the deep mystery of God, not the romanticised image that we so often see portrayed in an attempt to make Him more palatable. Similarly, in V For Vendetta, we are told “God is in the rain”—as Evey Hammond raises her arms to the thunderstorm raging over the city, and finds that in truth the thunderstorm is raging within, that she has discovered her inner power as a result of V’s esoteric and cruel teachings.

In The Fall, the relationship between the Divine and man is more subtly conveyed, but that does not lessen its impact. It is the little girl, Alexandria, with her innocence and fecund imagination that represents both the Divine and the Divine spark within human beings. As a jaded, cynical, and depressed adult, Roy Walker abuses his creative gift, manipulating Alexandria into getting him pills which he uses to attempt suicide. Even after he is exposed by the failure of his suicide attempt, Roy continues to abuse his gift—and Alexandria’s impressionable mind—by corrupting the wonderful adventure story he was previously telling her with darkness and despair. However, Alexandria’s purity proves Roy’s salvation (“the light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it”, to quote St. John), for she demands he change the narrative, and finally she breaks him, forcing him to the point of self-revelation, catharsis, and healing. Changing the narrative changes him as a person. The Divine imagination illuminates the darkness of the human condition—and Roy’s paralysis is healed.

All of these stories, to greater and lesser degrees, using different imagery and metaphors, address the nature of the Divine and man’s relationship to it (plus, we might say, the Divine in man). And I would argue—again risking controversy—that there is really no more important theme one could explore. A relationship with the Divine is about far more than faith, in one sense. Critics and cynics often forget that faith is more than merely a “belief”, but also a responsibility, a commitment to uphold tenets (not always successfully, but that is where the human part comes in). Therefore, to believe in the Divine, to work towards a relationship with the Divine, is to improve oneself, not in a snobby, arrogant way (though some fall prey to hubris), but rather as earnest embodiment. These five films all motivate and inspire us to find our own Divine connection and therefore to become better, richer, more loving and awakened human beings (awakened, that is, to the Mystery of Life). This is is Art fulfilling its highest purpose!

So, what’s the lesson? In short, consider how your work might explore a relationship with the Divine. And if you don’t believe there is a Divine, consider what the next best thing might be: Beauty, perhaps. Or Love. The important thing is that it’s transcendent, rather than something that can be described by numbers and facts.

I’ll leave you to meditate on these lessons with a quote from Calvary that I think summarises my approach to storytelling and editing, “I think there’s too much talk about sins and not enough talk about virtues...”

***

Thank you so, so much for reading this far.

For more exclusive articles like this, as well as behind the scenes videos and interactive polls, you can subscribe to the mindflayer’s Patreon https://www.patreon.com/themindflayer.

You can also purchase my book on creativity, The Divine, for 99c on Amazon.

Blog

POETRY ISN’T PRETENTIOUS, IT’S PASSIONATE

Our popular culture is plagued by the idea that poetry is elitist and pretentious, and to be fair, it’s easy to see why. Modernism and modern art have tried to change the very basis upon which Art is founded: aka, they have shifted the focus from manifesting the divine within the human sphere towards the realisation of an academic idea or commentary. But where Art is only about ideas, it dies. Enjoyment of Art should not be predicated on contextual knowledge. Yes, all Art exists within a context, that cannot be avoided, but the greatest works resound throughout history and transcend the boundaries of the time period, language, or culture in which they were birthed. I do not need to know what it was like for Dante Allighieri to live as a fourteenth century Italian to appreciate The Divine Comedy. His work speaks for him. This is because real Art must be felt, experienced, and lived. It is transformative. 

There is a notion that many of the old English writers of the canon, such as Milton, were crusty academics that had no appreciation of what real life was like, yet when we read his work, we find something very different, we find something vital and alive. Milton is, I think, one of the most profoundly misunderstood writers of all time. For a start, his gift for ironic humour is rarely discussed. Paradise Lost is intentionally and spectacularly funny in places, especially when Satan is backtracking over his own warped and impossible trains of thought (Anton Lesser’s magical audiobook reading of the poem particularly highlights this element). But more than humour, Milton’s writing breathes with a tremendous, baroque passion. This passion causes the very form of the poem to bend and even break underneath the weight of his emotion. Indeed, in the very first line, “Of man’s first disobedience…” he disobeys the iambic pentameter of his own line. This could be read as a clever poetic technique, and perhaps it is, but I prefer to see it as a manifestation of the true meaning of the poem coming through. I dare anyone to read the opening to read Book 3 of Paradise Lost—in which Milton begins to realise he is going blind and calls upon God to help him finish the poem—and not be shaken: “but thou / Revisit’st not these eyes, that roll in vain / To find thy piercing ray, and find no dawn;”

This is where poetry differs from prose, and why we still need poetry in a world flooded with memes and literalism. I should say, before I go on, that I am not one of those elitist poets who believes in the superiority of poetry. How could I be? I am a novelist too, and I love novels! However, after years of rejecting and suppressing my inner poet, and then facing and unleashing this inner passion, I am forced to conclude that poetry offers something prose does not and never can, which is a way to stir the deepest tides of the human consciousness with merely a few lines. There are many reasons that the resultant outpouring of feeling can be so powerful. Rhythm is one. In other words, great poetry can affect the mind in the same way as music using alliteration, meter, and other formal techniques. This way, poetry can imbed the meaning of the words far deeper than prose. Don’t get me wrong, prose has rhythm too, but poetry cuts deeper. 

The second way is via rhyme. Rhyme is commonly misunderstood. For many modern commentators, rhyme is a pointless exercise, the poet simply “challenging” themselves, but this is a masturbatory view. The real purpose of rhyme is to link two ideas that would not normally be linked. When words rhyme, we begin to infer an association, however off-the-wall. For example, if we rhyme love and dove, we link the concept of human “love” with “peace” as the dove is a symbol of peace. Those two words have been rhymed far, far too often, so it is no longer an interesting rhyme to use, but you get the idea! We can also use para-rhyme (which includes vowel-rhyme and consonantal rhyme). For example, rhyming love and live is a consonantal half-rhyme. Rhyming wound and noon is a vowel-rhyme. This gives us access to a huge, huge range of possibilities, and given the English language has the fastest growing vocabulary in the world, and the most words, we are unlikely to exhaust the possibilities any time soon! 

Of course, bad poetry uses predictable or monotonous rhythm, and cliched and unoriginal rhyme, which destroys the potency of the verse. But the existence of bad formal poetry does not mean we should throw all formal poetry out, just as my inability to kick a football straight does not mean we should ban football as a sport. 

Poetry is a large and daunting field, despite the fact that people are eternally claiming “no one reads poetry” anymore. The truth is: people do, as the many YouTube channels dedicated to the study of poetry attest. The world is hungry for it, but some people may not know exactly what it is they are hungry for, because the field is so rife with politics and loaded with historicity.

Not only this, but great poets introduce new phrases into common speech all the time. We are forever loaning the words of poets, even if we don’t know the names of those poets. Percy Shelly said that poets were “the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. Whilst the statement is lofty, when it comes to language, it’s hard to deny its truth. And this brings us to one of my favourite quotes from Alan Moore: “Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth.” This, perhaps, might be the very definition of poetry itself! The thing about truth is it’s like the sun. We can’t look at it head on, because it would burn our eyes out. However, poetry, unlike prose or any other medium, can reveal the truth more obliquely. The seeming “weirdness” and veils of poetry allow us to glimpse the truth without being blinded. There is a powerful link between poetry and magic which is too deep to go into here. 

So, where to begin? No two poets are the same, though some have much in common, and ultimately we have to find the poet or poets who speaks to us. Arguably my favourite poem of all time is Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came, by Robert Browning, which is one of the greatest pieces of literature ever written in my eyes. You can watch me doing a reading of it here. It is not too long and the language and feeling is awe-inspiring. Its meaning cannot be easily précised, but think about what the hero confronts at the end: is it death? despair? self-annihilation? guilt? Then consider how the hero faces it. Hair-raising stuff!

I also personally adore the work of Edmund Spenser, but many find him a little too formally rigid for modern tastes, and the size of his poems makes him difficult to get into. I find he is worth the effort though! My own upcoming work, Virtue’s End, is heavily inspired by Spenser’s Faerie Queene.

If you are looking for contemporary writers, though I am completely biased, I would have to recommend my wonderful father’s epic poem, HellWardas a starting point. The poem deals with his battle for cancer in the ward of a hospital which, as the title would suggest, is not all that it seems. Though epic poems can be daunting, the great thing is that they have narrative propulsion, which makes them a good starting point for someone who is new to poetry, or just looking to test the waters. We can follow the narrative and if some of the imagery or references go over our head, that’s okay, because we’re on a journey. After a while, we sink into the rhythm of things and realise our bearings. Another incredible modern epic poem is Andrew Benson Brown’s Legends of Libertywhich is a historical mock-epic set during the American war for independence. I previously reviewed this dazzling, hilarious, and moving work here.

Poetry is not for everyone. Except, I actually think it could be. That’s because real poetry isn’t understood with our left-brain, that is clouded by biases and intellect and judgement, it’s absorbed somewhere deeper, in the very soul, perhaps—though we have to open ourselves up to it. Any time we respond to a painting, piece of music, or literature with that unfettered, even explosive, emotional reaction, we are getting to the heart of what great Art—and poetry—is about. Archibald MacLeish once wrote, “A poem should not mean, but be.” In a world of ever more divisive opinions and politics, real poetry asks us not to decipher or argue, but to enter that immediate, present, and timeless being and feeling state. In the words of Emily Dickinson, “Forever is composed of nows.” 


Become a Patron!