Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Ponderings in the Middle of the Night

I often find myself observing myself within the culture, trying to figure out where certain pieces of pop/culture come from. Everything has an origin right? And a lot of the time I think the answers are in plain view, we just have to connect the dots. Or really I do, because most people probably already have. It wouldn't be the first time I was late to the party.
There's a decent amount of criticism out there that points a finger at cinema as a medium and accuses the better part of it's ideas of being recycled. "There are no new stories," they say. The most recent lightning-rod for all of this has been James Cameron's newest juggernaut Avatar. That the story has been done before is pretty much a given. The most obvious parallel is, of course, Dances With Wolves- which has been repeated to utter death since it's first screenings.
With it's obvious ecological shadings many have pointed out that the movie bares (on paper) a striking resemblance to 92's FernGully: The Last Rainforest. And really the list only starts there: The Last Samurai, Point break, Eastern Promises, Smurfette from the Smurfs; the parallels are all there and those are just the ones off the top of my head- and even then just within cinema! So why do so many stories seem to re-occur in our culture? I think there's a very simple answer this question: They work. And I don't necessarily mean they earn money (though that's certainly part of it). I mean they work for us, as a people.
Case and point: Last week my girlfriend and I moved into a condo. As far as our needs it's pretty much a dream come true; everything we put on the checklist we made when we started thinking about moving is here- and then some. But since we moved in, I've found that I'm not sleeping all that great, and still am not exactly comfortable here when the lights are all down. I've never been one to spook in the dark but there's just a feeling of unease -however slight- that settles over me when we turn the lights out for the night. Upon mentioning this to her she told me she feels the exact same way, and hasn't been sleeping to well either.
The simple answer here is, of course, that we just need time to settle in mentally and that most "new" places can seem creepy because your not used to all the little noises they bring to the table. However, as I ponder these happenings (because that's all I really do), I thought of all the movies I'd seen that follow this very same plot. Young couple moves into a "dream home" only to find it's not what they expected. And for whatever reason the general feeling of unease quickly escalates into a scream-fest.
Now again, you can point your finger at the dozens of movies that follow this plot line and scream about how there's no originality. But I don't think these story lines get repeated out of laziness or greed (for the most part), I think they get repeated out of their universal appeal. who hasn't moved into a new place and been a little creeped out by it? Good cinema is just life inflated for closer study afterall.
More over, the main source of the trouble in these movies is usually some form of undead being. Now I'm not going sit here and write a manifesto about the human minds affinity for toying with and exploring things it doesn't understand, but beyond that I think the reason for the connection between this plot line and spiritual or undead antagonists is that a provides for happenings that can't necessarily be explained and that sense of unease can be given a source outside of the characters mind. Couple member A is alone in the basement and the door slams shut, or their are odd scratching sounds. Couple member A runs to get couple member B, only to have B study the door, or wait to hear the sounds and find nothing. B looks at A and says: "Your still getting used to the new place, that's all."
Now in real life that's where the story ends because B has just hit the nail on the head. And maybe the rest of the movie is a metaphor for the couples own fears and insecurities in their own relationship. But I digress; what is cinema if not real life in hyperbole?
The best stories are the ones that we can relate to. Stories we emotionally understand through experience, at least at their roots. Moving into a new place and feeling a bit uncomfortable. Coming to understand- or even love- something we may have feared or hated. We've all been there; people go through these things all the time. And writers are people (for the most part), so in drawing on their own experiences, certain stories are unavoidably told again.
The truly great writers just find a better way to explain something everyone tries to put words to. Or they explain it in a way that allows us to see it from another angle- while still recognizing it. But there in lays the rub right? Because different people see things better from different angles. Not every way to tell the story is going to speak to everyone- that's a given. And this is why I don't think it's completely wrong to see these basic story lines repeat. Dances with Wolves speaks to you, the way Avatar speaks to John Doe, they way The Last Samurai speaks to me. But at the end of the day, we all love the same story because we all relate to it.
In a perfect world you, Joe, and I would sit down and watch some more movies together I think. We could try and find out if there are anymore stories we all had in common. We could explore our histories, maybe even become great friends. We could even do it tonight, because this condo is f'ing creepy and it's not like I'll be going to sleep anytime soon.

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