Why Following a Formula in Movies isn’t Always a Bad Thing, and Why Being a “Pioneer” is Not Always a Good Thing

I was listening to a Slash Film podcast which guest starred the infamous Armond White. As irritating as some of his “contrarian” views on films are, one does have to admit that, as strange as it may sound, the guy does make some points with regard to what film criticism should be. A film isn’t a good film because mainstream media publications and online film bloggers say that it’s a good film; a good film is one that is well made. While some might argue that White‘s aesthetics might be a bit skewed and that his being “contrarian” is impeding on his good judgement on films, in the end of it a movie is a good movie not because ten friends of yours say that it is a good movie and make fun of you just because you didn’t like it.

Now to get at the topics at hand, White and the podcast hosts were talking about Toy Story 3. For those who don’t know, White was one of those few who wrote a negative review of the beloved film (incidentally, I named Toy Story 3 my Film of the Year back in 2010), commenting that the film didn’t really deserve the praise it gets because of the film being a commercial product and following formula. He then proceeded to mention the film Robots (which I haven’t seen yet) and, at least in terms of visual aesthetics and themes, is superior to Toy Story 3. Now, one thing which I got from his defense of Robots is that it seemed to do something first, that it was a “pioneer” in discussing the theme so to speak. And regarding Toy Story 3, it wasn’t really a good film because an earlier film had done it better.

This is one issue where I will have to respectfully disagree with White. While I do realize that the existence of formulas may stifle creativity, there is a reason why time and time again, art consumers (or at least art for the masses) keep going back to the formulas; it simply works. Take for instance revenge stories. They usually follow a number of tropes; the protagonist gets wronged and swears revenge, he goes dangerously close to being worse than his antagonist, and he either fulfills his revenge and loses his humanity, or retains it through forgiveness or something. This is an example of a revenge trope which we see time and time again in various art forms. The Count of Monte Cristo is one, and so is The Cask of Amontillado, and Old Boy. These are movies which follow conventions in revenge fiction, but do we, the consumers, complain about how they play out in the end? No, we don’t.

Let me use another example of formula, romantic comedies. The basic plot goes like this: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. Try to recall the best rom-coms you have seen before. Do you complain, “Oh, it’s another example boy meets girl kind of story. It’s boring. Why can’t filmmakers come up with something original for once?”? Not exactly because we know that formulas exist because they work. It’s what the earliest tragedians have been following. It’s what Renaissance writers have been using. It’s what modern writers have used.

Almost every story will always follow a semblance of a formula. Don’t believe it? Recall Inception and the recent GravityInception is primarily a heist film while Gravity is a ship-wrecked/survival type of story. They follow patterns reminiscent of the best stories in the past, and it isn’t a problem because it works. To give another example, check out Ridley Scott‘s Alien and recall the plot: space truckers encounter an alien species that runs rampant in their ship, they get killed off one by one until a sole survivor is left and escapes the ship and the alien successfully. Some say that Alien is horror/sci-fi but in the end of it, the movie is practically a haunted-house story, gothic horror even! People trapped in a haunted house must escape the horror that consumes them one by one, and the same goes with Alien. We don’t see people complaining about these films because they’re good. They work. And what exactly makes them work? Simple: they’re well made films.

And with that, allow me to go to my second point; that while being a pioneer in something is indeed a cause for celebration, it should not always be a good thing. Let me rephrase: just because you came up with a story first doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re the best artist out there. Let’s go with the very first vampire stories which ultimately led to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. One of the earliest vampire fiction written was John Polidori’s The Vampyre. While it introduced a template that most gothic fiction would follow, how many of us actually know, much less hear of The Vampyre. The same goes which Sheridan Le Fanu‘s Carmilla, which again introduced tropes which Dracula followed. Again, how many of us have actually read Carmilla (well, I have but only because it was in an anthology of horror fiction, and I haven’t heard of The Vampyre till I started researching this article, seriously). Why is it that these earlier stories were “forgotten” and Dracula remained? Maybe because the earlier stories, pioneering as they are, are still rough around the edges. A good idea doesn’t equal a good EXECUTION of that idea. Maybe that’s why Dracula is more known because Stoker took what worked for previous vampire stories and improved on it. Maybe Stoker fixed some plot problems, or was a more talented writer, I don’t know, but the point is, Stoker got what works in previous works and fixed it.

Another example would be William Shakespeare. His plays aren’t the originals that the cult of Shakespeare would attest (namely hipster English majors who think that they’re better than everyone who didn’t take a Humanities related degree, wait, I’m a Hum major… D’oh!). He borrows heavily from earlier sources. King Lear was based on a legend, and he got that legend and gave his own spin to it. He wasn’t being “original” in one sense of the word, he was following a formula, and the same is true with his Hamlet and his comedies. Now if his plays aren’t original, why then are we still required to study them in school? Why are his plays continually staged or adapted in films or TV specials? Because we ignored the fact that he was following a formula and focused on the fact that he was just a darned talented writer.

We don’t hate on stories just because they follow a formula; we hate BADLY made stories that DEPEND on the formula. We enjoyed The Dark KnightStar Wars, and The Magnificent Seven because they were well made films despite the formula they followed. We hate the latter Scary Movie films and the other spoof films because they simply depended on FORMULAIC laughs, plots, cliches, and whatnot. We hate films which depend on formula because it’s just lazy filmmaking.

In the end, formulas exist for a reason not to cripple or to limit artists. Formulas are there to help artists with a jump point for their own artistic endeavors. Formulas shouldn’t cripple artists, but it should be used as an opportunity to help the artist find his own voice for his creation. The pioneers aren’t always the best because, as interesting as their ideas are, it just wasn’t executed properly.

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