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Maybe We Just Need Better Stories

A Very Bad Story

At first when I read this in Tech Crunch, I was depressed:

The appeal of Instagram is, for lack of a better word, simple; the world is moving too damn fast and we don’t want the cognitive load of figuring out what we’re looking at — we just want to see simple pretty things. This simplicity is what makes services like Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest a joy versus other entertainment offerings.

The truth is that on any given day, I’d rather check in on Instagram than watch a movie.

I felt despondent. I love movies. When I say I love movies, you have no idea how much. Almost as much as books. Almost enough to make me wish I could have been young in 1939. Almost enough to make me wish for silent movie stardom. I mark the major events of my life with film. Time passes with each new movie. Eras become genre: the year of the spaghetti western, the year of the Godzilla movies (all of them), the years of Universal Horror classics. The fall I fell in love with Bergman. The spring I watched Vertigo ten times in a row. This is not, of course, novel. I’m guessing most writers feel the same way.

Do people no longer truly have the attention span for stories?

I hope not. I live for stories. I love LOOOONGG, epic, twisty, turny, big, bold stories. We all love stories. Of course.  That’s why we do what we do.  Sure, I’m as guilty as the next person of checking my phone way too often, reading stuff on my iPad while I’m watching a movie (at home), etc. But if the story is good enough, then I can’t be distracted. It’s a simple as that.

That thought made me happier. Because then I read this:

The war for attention leaves Hollywood at a disadvantage. Box office returns are the lowest they have been in 16 years. Why pay $10 to commit to watching something in a theatre when you can watch it at home for much less with the added bonus of being able to check your email? And, why even bother spending two hours of your time sitting and absorbing a complex narrative that isn’t connected to you, when you can pop open your iPhone and get a quick hit of rarefied entertainment from people you actually know — who you can actually relate to as opposed to just project on.

I thought, oh! Well, then! There’s your problem. What Hollywood puts out now is mostly junk, right? Filler and fluff and foreign DVD sales, yes? 3D rehashes to make money and that is it and all? These are all stories we’ve seen before, ridiculous rip-offs and terrible car explosions with stories kind of made up to fit around them.  So of course people are distracted, bored, fidgety. Of course they’d rather just check Instagram.

A Very Good Story

And a story can still draw you in, in the most unlikely of ways. I saw The Artist on Christmas Day. In a theater packed with people carrying brand new iPhones and Androids and distracted by family and kids and the turkey they had to go home and cook and making their flights the next day. And yet. Dead, dead silence, rapt attention, uproarious laughter, and a collective gasp like I’ve never heard from a theater before at one particularly suspenseful point. And it was a SILENT FILM. MY GOD. Americans (okay, yes, East Coast liberal elites, but STILL) fell silent and rapt before a SILENT FILM. Why? Because it told a very good story. In a simple, beautiful, interesting way. That’s what Hollywood has to do to get people back in theaters. Tell more stories. Tell them silent, tell them sound, tell them black and white and color and backwards and forwards and any which way but tell a story that we care about, Hollywood. One we haven’t heard before. Or maybe one we have, and keep retelling and remolding and refitting, through the ages, because it’s a true and good and honest and beautiful story.

Maybe then we’ll stop checking our email and return to movies once more, the willing captives of stories on the big screen.

  • Amber Sparks's work has been featured or is forthcoming in various places, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, Gargoyle, Annalemma and PANK. She is also the fiction editor at Emprise Review, and lives in Washington, DC with a husband and two beasts.

26 thoughts on “Maybe We Just Need Better Stories

  1. Often, of course, Pinterest and Instagram (and Facebook, and Twitter, and email) are better, more compelling narratives anyway. They include us (read: pander to us) in a more direct way than Hollywood will ever be able to (3D seems like a last-ditch effort to grab us all by the ears and force us to look up at the screen; William Castle wouldn’t even approve– he’d figure out some way to get into his audience’s smartphones). They involve us. Why on earth would anyone prefer “what people similar to me said they liked” to “what I like (as influenced by people similar to me)”? The former relies on a semi-captive audience. The latter is the act of capturing an audience. But then, one could just write a compelling story. It’s not as though we’ve lost our capacity for it.

    1. Oh, exactly! The narratives involving you are far more authentic, and absorbing as a result. 3D is the worst– speaking of William Castle, will we have The Tingler next? You’re right– he’d at least be moving on to NEW technologies.

  2. I wouldn’t worry about it too much, since cable TV has amply demonstrated over the past decade+ that people love long, twisty, complex narratives.

    Movies, meanwhile, have become primarily a-narrative (not nonnarrative, mind you).Instead, they use concept as their primary organizing structure (their dominant). This is because of the way the movie industry makes money: people have to show up the opening weekend. Cable television, on the other hand, has to keep people tuning in week in and week out. Serial narrative works better for that than does concept.

    1. Plus like, Harry Potter, Twilight. People love long stories. Franchises offer one way Hollywood movies can still provide them. Of course, those come from books.

      But individual Hollywood movies, not from books, expect them to be more conceptual. That’s the current business model.

      Meanwhile, books still exist (I think).

        1. A few, anyway. :)

          But don’t you wonder why people who seek stories seek them primarily in children’s entertainment? Like Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Twilight? Or are children’s stories the only acceptable form of long narrative now in movie franchises or book form? (Excepting comic book movies, which are mostly adult but arguably drawn from a what was a children’s literary tradition originally.)

          Sent from my iPhone

    2. That is an excellent point. And most of the public likes their entertainment in small chunks, serialized. So i suppose we’ve asserted ourselves and told the entertainment industry exactly how we like to be entertained, and they are, in fact, providing. (Even for the insane bastards like me (the ones who read Bleak House in a day because we have no self control) and who must have story now now now, who prefer to wait till it’s over and then stream it in marathon sessions on Netflix. I feel badly for the people in Dickens’ time who didn’t have that option. I’d have jumped in the Thames.)

      Sent from my iPhone

      1. The narratives in Dickens’s time were serialized, too.


        Sure, people had longer attention spans. They had to sit at home evenings without anything else to do.

        People not in the US and Europe have very long attention spans. Folks in Thailand, for instance. They sit for a long time at dinner and read long books all the time.

        1. Yes, I know Dickens was serialized. That was my point–that it would be hard to wait for the next installment. I realize we do not all have the attention span of a gnat, also. That was my attempt at HU-MOR. I think it fell flat. :)

          Sent from my iPhone

            1. That all said, the attention span issue is one thing, and the narrative thing is another. Hollywood didn’t switch to concept-based films because people have short attention spans. They switched because they wanted movies they could summarize in 15-seconds, so they could sell it to as many people as quickly as possible.

              Narrative is an excellent way to organize lots of discrete bits of information into a coherent whole. It also gives you the option to use suspense to entice people to want the next bit. The bits themselves don’t have to be terribly long. Twitter and blogging and Facebook etc. could be used to tell a serial narrative, no problem.

              1. That’s true–and there have been, right? I don’t know if there’s been a FB novel but Twitter novels, text novels, now Timeline, etc. So, I guess it’s just different ways of consuming narrative, maybe.

                Sent from my iPhone

  3. I was watching BLOOD SIMPLE for the first time yesterday and wondered about some similar questions. I think the movie industry has a part of the blame to take, for giving in to the ADD-generation and centering their work around hooks and concept (sometimes just a lot of explosions or in UNDERWORLD’s case, Kate Beckinsdale’s ass in a leather suit). I invite you to see this video essay called CHAOS CINEMA:


    It retraces an ill of Hollywood narrative I’ve been talking about for years (I was calling it “the shaky cam syndrome”) Like you said, better stories, better structure and a minimal faith in the viewer could to wonders. The lack of those three elements might explain why I prefer to rewatch DIE HARD on DVD than to pay 20$ for a film I know will be shit.

    1. Oh, god, don’t even get me started on shaky cam syndrome. I’ll have to watch that link. It’s especially horrible in movies that aren’t supposed to be being shot by some character–it’s like, why is this shaky? What is the explanation? Because some douche studio exec decided it should be? How does that serve the story? It doesn’t? Oh, you don’t care? Because you think it makes the movie more exciting somehow? Blarg.

      I love Blood Simple. That’s such a fantastic, fantastic movie. The Coen bros, at least, understand how to tell a good story. And you know, it’s funny that you mention Die Hard–because my husband and I just watched it for the first time in years and we were really surprised by how good it was. Not superlative or anything, just really geniunely entertaining. Because it predates what my husband and I call “90’s action movie syndrome,” which in truth has carried over into the oughts and tens. It’s where there’s such much genre convention (we have to know certain background facts about the hero, he has a certain kind of relationship with his girlfriend or spouse, there’s certain music playing in certain scenes, there will be slow mo, etc) that the actual movie feels like a commercial, like a thoughtless cliche. It’s not even entertaining in a mindless way, because it’s so derivative. Die Hard predates that so it’s actually still concerned with telling a good, action–packed story, without a lot of bs. That’s why I actually enjoy a lot of 60s, 70s and 80s action films, and almost none since then.

      1. The nineties had a different sort of illness then the 21st century action movies. The nineties were somewhat in reaction to the eighties (who were corny and uncool back then) so it’s an animal that took itself pretty seriously. Just think about all the crap that actually hired Nicholas Cage. 21st century action movies wants the action of the eighties and the serious of the nineties…and a shaky cam.

        The only action movie I fancied in the last ten years was the first CRANK with Jason Statham (second one was horrible)

        1. “21st century action movies wants the action of the eighties and the serious of the nineties…and a shaky cam.” YES. Exactly. It’s a terrible beast.

  4. is it that you wish hollywood were better or that better movies were being made? b/c if it’s ‘attention span’ you seek [as i often do], there’s always people like kelly reichhardt, ramin bahrani, terrence malick.

    1. Oh, for sure. It’s not that I can’t find stuff. I just think that most people who don’t know very much about film don’t know where to look. All they know is what’s new at the multiplex. So that’s what they go see and then they feel unfulfilled by it.

  5. I am currently reading Paul Scott’s 4 volume Raj Quartet about the last days of the British empire in India. It is social realism with a sort of Dos Passos sense of narrative montage. It is fucking great. 1962. It cannot be read by young adults. Actually, the first volume, The Jewel in the Crown, was a BBC serial, but I am not in the least curious to see it. (Oh maybe a little.)

    It’s not that Adam has no sense of humor. I’ve seen him laugh many times. It is true though that he often laughs when things ain’t funny.

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