In recent years a powerful, mind-boggling movement has been taking place in film criticism, sweeping into its fold a number of very talented, very intelligent critics. It has been cropping up in reviews, editorials and even the occasional tweet, and gaining a sort of prominence that it does not deserve. Earlier this week, Badass Digest’s Devin Faraci gave it a public face when he notably, and rather wrongly, quipped “…no, a story is not just a series of events that occur in a linear format.” Actually Devin, that’s EXACTLY what a story is. Word for word. A quick perusal of Dictionary.com offers these varied definitions.
1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.
2. a fictitious tale, shorter and less elaborate than a novel.
3. such narratives or tales as a branch of literature: song and story.
4. the plot or succession of incidents of a novel, poem, drama, etc.: The characterizations were good, but the story was weak.
5. a narration of an incident or a series of events or an example of these that is or may be narrated, as an anecdote, joke, etc.
6. a narration of the events in the life of a person or the existence of a thing, or such events as a subject for narration: the story of medicine; the story of his life.
7. a report or account of a matter; statement or allegation: The story goes that he rejected the offer.
8. news story.
9. a lie or fabrication: What he said about himself turned out to be a story.
And therein lies the problem with many modern critics: In their chronic overindulgence of their passion – film – they have begun to, like a drug user, require higher doses of whatever it is they are doing in order to get anything substantial out of it. They look at films like Tron: Legacy and Avatar, wish they possessed the complication, originality and sophistication of a Vonnegut novel and then simply declare, “There is no story here; none whatsoever,” no matter how false an allegation it might be.
The problem is that they’ve let themselves get carried away because several of their friends agree with them. “You’re right! There is no story!” And the circle-jerk continues, through editorial and review and conversation, until they begin writing pieces that declare “Everyone can at least agree that it had no story.” No. We can’t. In fact, you’re in a very small, vocal minority who believe that in some cases story doesn’t exist. They’re like the flatworlders, continuously shouting about Earth being a disc rather than a sphere, in spite of the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. Something can be light on story, exchanging meaningless visuals or random chatter for plot progression; it can have a weak story, with plot twists and occurrences that one can predict moments, if not hours, before they happen; it can even have a bad or terrible story, proving entirely incongruous. But for a movie to have NO STORY, then nothing can happen. Nothing at all. It must be visuals and nothing else. And all the preaching and screaming and hollering from on high will not change that fact.
Tron: Legacy had a story. Sure, it was a beat-for-beat retelling of Joseph Campbell’s myth of the Hero’s Journey, but it is there, every bit of it. And it counts. Complain about that – decry its unoriginality and adherence to a structure that many feel has been done to death – but don’t discount its presence as an actual lack of storytelling. That’s setting the goalpost back. That’s saying, “Oh, no. We’ve seen all that before. You have to do all that AND something new to qualify as a story these days.” Which isn't how it works.
I have no beef with people arguing that something is bad when I think it’s great; that’s the nature of critique. But having to argue the nature of what is or isn’t a story is high school stuff. This is basic, fundamental. Feeling like I have to explain it to anyone makes my head hurt; that I feel I have to explain it to people with thousands of regular readers makes it hurt doubly so.