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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...”

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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.

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The genius of Jordan Peele’s Get Out revisited

When I first saw Get Out, there was a lot of hype surrounding the film. I’m always sceptical of “hyped” films as they tend to be puffed up by their relationship to some kind of zeitgeist. But I was a big fan of Key & Peele and the trailer was brilliant, so I thought I’d give it a go. Within two minutes of having sat down in the Odeon, and the film starting, I realised I was watching a genius piece of cinema. There are so many things I loved about Get Out; the way that the film operates on three levels: sociological (the allegory of racism), spiritual (Chris’ journey to overcoming being paralysed by fear), and literal / physical (a lock-in horror movie). I loved the phenomenal acting. I loved the elements of hypnotism and concept of “The Sunken Place”. I loved the camerawork and colour palette. I loved the references to other horror classics, including Night of the Living Dead. I loved the sometimes unnerving interspersions of humour amidst the horror.

But the thing I loved most about it is the subject of today’s article, and is also why I think it’s more important than ever to revisit this piece of cinema. This blog is going to contain some spoilers, so if you still haven’t seen Get Out, please go and buy it and watch it now!

Okay.

Get Out uses several clever cinematic techniques to put us in Chris’s (Daniel Kaluuya) shoes. Chris is a photographer; he is “an eye”. We frequently focus in on Chris’s eyes (in fact, the iconic poster-image for the movie is of Chris weeping with his eyes wide open). This shows that, to some degree, we’re seeing this world through Chris’s perspective. We’re looking through him.

Chris has to come to Rose’s (Allison Williams) family home to meet her parents. He’s nervous about it, and soon he finds his nerves are not unfounded; Rose’s parents and brother give off a weird vibe. Chris begins to experience racism from the family and the guests. When I watched Get Out in the cinema, there was nervous laughter when Dean Armitage (the father, played by Bradley Whitford) says, “I would have voted for Obama three times if I could”. It’s funny, because we know what he’s doing, he’s overcompensating. In the same vein, another guest at the Armitage’s party immediately starts talking about Tiger Woods as soon as Chris shows up. We don’t know whether we’re allowed or supposed to laugh at this, but after a while, of course, we can’t help it.

As Get Out progresses, it wears down our defences until we’re laughing openly at the insanity of Chris’s situation (as well as feeling an almost nausea-level tension building). Because it’s a horror film, we feel the threat to him more profoundly than in a thriller – we know horror movies can go super-dark. By the time we near the end, and Chris is being hypnotised in preparation for an operation that will destroy his brain and personality forever, we’re biting our nails with fear and anxiety. Get Out is about white people stealing and appropriating black bodies – for their own often twisted ends. Ironically, the film achieves this very feat, placing us inside of Chris’s head. Or perhaps it actually achieves the reverse? Chris gets into us. Whatever the case, it’s rare that I feel such intense empathy for a character.

And here’s where that empathy achieves its transcendental peak.

At the end of Get Out, Chris is finally giving his fake girlfriend Rose the strangling she deserves, when suddenly, we see a bloom of blue and red lights. It is at this moment that my heart plummeted out of my chest into my stomach. I didn’t have to make any logical leaps. I didn’t have to think. I knew instantly what Chris knew: Those cops are going to arrest me.

In that split second, I felt something of what it might be like to be Chris. I will never know what it’s like to be black, of course. I would never claim that. But, Jordan Peele manages to get his audience to a point where they can see a tiny glimpse. The cops showing up at the end wasn’t delivery and salvation – like it is in so many movies. It was the final lowest point. The cinema audience audibly groaned with sympathy and despair as the lights drew nearer and Chris stood up, holding his hands over his head.

When I left the cinema, I remember using the word “Shakespearean” to describe Get Out, and among other stylistic elements (people who are not themselves, for a start) I think that’s what I meant. Whatever you think of The Bard, I believe he had an uncanny knack for allowing his audiences glimpses of what it might feel like to be someone else: whether it’s Beatrice or Caliban or Macbeth. Shakespeare’s gift was empathy.

Jordan Peele follows in those footsteps. He gives us empathy into Chris’s plight. And that makes the ending so powerful.

Of course, as it happens, it isn’t the cops arriving, but actually Chris’s friend Rod. There’s a message in that too, which is perhaps best saved for another article.

In our current climate, where it’s clearer than ever that the police are not the solution, but the problem, I thought it would be good to meditate again on why Get Out struck such a chord.