Thursday, May 3, 2007

Visual Storytelling Scenario

I gave this quiz to my class last quarter, thinking it would be a fun way to illustrate the intersection between visual style and story. While they didn't enjoy my "pop test" as much as I had anticipated, it spurred on some vigorous debate. It was interesting to see the wide range of responses.

Hypothetical Scenario:

You are a producer for Paramount. After ten fairly successful years, your career hit a rocky patch last summer when both of your “guaranteed summer blockbusters” performed abysmally at the box office. After several other disastrous gambles, your position at Paramount is in jeopardy, and you’ve already noticed applicants being interviewed down the hall, possibly for your position. Your problems are not only confined to the office, since a majority of your friends have become reluctant to be seen with you in public after your last flop. You are in a state of desperation.

Searching desperately for a sure-fire hit, you come across a brilliant screenplay. You rarely read at all, much less screenplays, but this story kept your eyes transfixed for 110 pages. It sent a tingling sensation through your spine. You experienced something that you hadn’t felt for 25 years: conviction. The story awakens you to the plight of the inner city and you desperately want to do your part to help.

The screenplay dramatized the true story of DeShawne Jackson, an inner-city youth from Compton, Los Angeles. As an adolescent DeShawne was swept up in the gang culture that permeates the Compton projects, putting his life on the same trajectory with all the other poor, violent, disillusioned gang members. The death of DeShawne’s grandmother, his surrogate mother, radically altered the path of his life, awakening DeShawne to the hopeless horrors of violent street life; yet DeShawne was too deeply involved in the gang to get out. Though he is a scrawny, gaunt boy, his commanding personality and quick wits earned him a high place in the gang’s hierarchy. After witnessing the butchering of an innocent boy, DeShawne decides to fight the gang culture by breeching the one value gangs esteem: trust. He runs to the police, and must refuse their offer of asylum because he knows his younger brothers and sisters need him but won't follow. This incident ignites an intense chase with every gang member alerted to the breech of trust committed by DeShawne. In the end, DeShawne is tortured brutally and finally executed, but not after touching the hardened hearts of many of the gang members and fellow poverty stricken citizens by his commitment to not fall back into his violent ways.

This real life story moves you so much that you instantly begin the search for a director. You need someone to bring this story to life, to awaken the world to the horrors of poverty and gang life and to move people towards political action. The world needs to be moved to action. This story takes on personal meaning for you above and beyond commercial considerations, though you know your job and social life depend on being successful, and success is measured in dollars.

Several qualified directors express interest in taking on the project. Your job is to select one. Paramount demands that you defend your choice. If you think that none of these directors will do, write a few paragraphs on why you should have more time to continue searching for director.

Directors: (Note: none of these directors actually exist in real life)

1. Jacob Gilstrap: Gilstrap is a Quentin Tarantino protégé, who ascended to star director status in the last four years. He approached you as soon as he got wind of the script. Gilstrap wants to begin the movie with scenes of violence that, using slow motion photography and a mobile camera, seem almost lyrical and musical, illustrating the attractiveness of violence and dark energy to the male psyche. The violence would be highly stylized, rhythmical, and almost poetic; a song which imparts vitality, energy, and a sort of perverse meaning into the lives of the gang members. Within this song of violence, Gilstrap plans to raise a discordant note in the person of DeShawne Jackson. DeShawn’s choice to snitch threatens the “song,” the source of vitality for the gang, and he therefore is crushed.

A director of Gilstrap’s stature would bring a greater probability of commercial success, which you desperately need. Your mind is plagued with questions: does Gilstrap’s style fit the story? Does it fit your vision? Will he really bring in more money at the box office?

2. Pepé Sanchez: Sanchez graduated USC film school in 2000, and is considered one of the best up-and-coming directors. His first feature film The Chair won best picture at Cannes and was met with world-wide critical acclaim. Sanchez exhibited artistic mastery in The Chair, creating a work of art that is already considered one of the best in the history of film. The Chair is an unconventional story. The film’s linear plot is not driven by objective events, but by the subjective perceptions of the protagonist. Fantasy, reality, and dream sequences are all integrated seamlessly without clear delineation between what is real and what is dreamt. The theme of the movie that unifies the seemingly disjointed events is the protagonist’s fear of truth and commitment to it. The entire movie is a powerful study of the human psyche.

While the critics loved his unconventional story, they were absolutely enthralled with Sanchez’s cinematic skill. His deft use of lighting and color tonalities makes the viewer feel like he is watching a carefully and skillfully painted canvas. Each scene is carefully composed and photographed, and each image is painstakingly manipulated for optimal beauty and effect.

Sanchez was drawn to the story the instant he read it. In his four hour interview with you, he expressed how thrilled he was when delving into DeShawne Jackson’s psychology. He stated emphatically that with his skill he could illuminate DeShawne’s inner life in a beautiful and compelling way.

But, the question lingers in your mind, who would it compel, a handful of critics or the people in general? Yet, as you reflect on Sanchez’s ability, the more it becomes apparent that it wouldn’t matter if anyone went to the movie at all. Critics would love it; it would win awards. You would be hailed as an innovator, who defied conventions by hiring Sanchez to direct. Sanchez would probably create a masterpiece. But does it fit with your vision and convictions?

3. Nick Collins: Collins is a relatively obscure director by film buff standards. His crowning achievement was Exploitation, a documentary which told the story of plight of children in Somalia during the civil war that tore the country apart. He filmed the entire picture with a hand-held camera, creating a rough and uneven image. Poor natural lighting added to the sense that you were following Collins on a dangerous real journey. Collins refused to narrate the events, believing that it destroyed the audience’s experience of the authentic drama in Somalia.

He undoubtedly created a compelling and real image of Somalia. Even on multiple viewings, you still feel as if you are smack in the middle of the action, and your heart pumps vigorously with fear as bullets fly before the camera lens and as Collins flees a dangerous situation. The frame of the picture feels like it captures only a tiny slice of all the action, which seems like it is continually spilling on and off the framed image.

Collins’ fiction films exhibit the same rough style, because he deals with themes of poverty and social injustice. He wants to move his audience to action not awe; he cares little for pictorial beauty. In moving people to action, Collison has been extremely successful. His movie spurred the creation of several well-funded organizations to lobby Congress in Washington and the United Nations in New York. These organizations have been very effective in creating awareness for the situation in Somalia.

Collins is extremely excited about the opportunity to film DeShawne’s story. He senses another opportunity to make people aware of an impoverished and violent situation. But…you’re not sure how the public will react to such an interpretation of the story. They might see it as another piece of overly moralistic tripe and stay away. It’s not clear whether it’s an outrageous gamble or if it is a brilliant move that will compel and move audiences. Your mind lingers on one last question: Is Collin’s style even capable of telling DeShawne’s story?

What Do You Think?


Skyminder said...

Forget those guys: I'd direct it myself and it would be a box office tank. I'd get kicked out of Hollywood and end up working as a towel boy for the Minor Leagues.

Leticia said...

Collins, definitely. I'm sick of movies which glorify violence. It used to be art for art's sake, now it's violence for violence's sake. Or gratuitous sex.
Violence has to be frightening because of what it does to real people, not glorified for the sake of a few sick critics. We need new critics. Interested?

Skyminder said...