Has everyone seen those TV commercials where some hypercorporate entity is trying to put a human face on its soulless visage? Over cloying music, a touchy-feely voice intones something like: “What can a blood-slick killing floor teach us about … smart investing?”
There are many ways for writers to think about story: three-act, five-act, following the signposts of the mythic journey, flow-charting character arcs – all of them well and fine. But what can music teach us about storytelling? That question keeps popping into my mind.
Last spring I attended an American Film Institute screening of The American Astronaut, the best low-budget interplanetary gay cowboy musical I’ve ever seen. And I mean that in a good way. Released theatrically in 2001 for about a day, The American Astronaut astonishes on a shoestring budget because its freewheeling story continually satisfies and surprises. After the screening, writer/director/actor Cory McAbee gave a valuable insight to his cult movie’s unique structure.
McAbee based the shape of the narrative on some of his favorite albums. Not shuffled CDs and random iTunes playlists, mind you, but old-fashioned albums, mostly from the 1970s. Those old two-sided vinyl discs whose crackling tracks take the listener on an honest-to-gosh journey richly varied in rhythm and sonic approach.
McAbee cited Brian Eno’s landmark 1974 Here Come the Warm Jets as a major influence on the script’s narrative journey. He pointed out how Warm Jets' first track welcomes you into this hyperreal glam-pop world, and makes you feel comfortable, jazzed, almost giddy. In The American Astronaut, we get the same thing during a jaunty hop across an asteroid that leads to the movie's first real musical number, a funny dance contest at a seedy space bar.
Like Eno’s Warm Jets, Astronaut is infectious in its friendly groove, but it's not afraid to slow down and become contemplative, even melancholy. By the end, however, both works leave you feeling energized and hopeful. Complete.
Even if you’re not penning a story with a song number, I think McAbee’s musically-inclined approach is an interesting avenue for writers to consider.
I was reminded of McAbee’s remarks when reading a Kate Bush interview in last weekend’s LA Times. Aerial, her double-CD released this month, concludes a 12-year period of virtual silence from one of music’s most innovative artists.
Bush was asked about the second disc of this set, a conceptual musical exploration of the passing of one entire day, from afternoon till dawn.
“Albums were always very important to me,” Bush tells the Times. “Even when they weren’t running as conceptual pieces, you kind of got a certain shape out of listening to an album that I don’t think you do get if you just go and select the single tracks that you like and make a compilation.”
In other words, it’s one thing to own a CD that gathers David Bowie’s greatest hits. It’s quite another experience to listen to the complete and unabridged journey of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.
We’re hearing a lot these days about the dwindling audiences for Hollywood movies, and how the cinematic experience is losing its luster. There are many forces at work here (sky-high ticket prices, twenty minutes of TV commercials, people slurping toxic hotdogs twenty inches from your face). Also to blame: a lot of bad storytelling.
The studios know this. So do the writers. Not that it’s necessarily going to fix anything, but script coaches and writing teachers are in demand now more than ever. I was fairly boggled by the number of “story experts” at last year’s Screenwriting Expo. Judging from the 2005 lineup, their ranks have grown considerably.
Maybe too many of today’s writers (and the powers who employ them, and give them notes) are locked into a narrow “hit single” mode of storytelling: catchy hook, addictive riff, pretty faces … resulting in an empty shell of a moviegoing experience, lacking in essential narrative nutrients. The credits roll and you still feel hungry. Undernourished. Maybe even ripped off.
So here’s an exercise I’m doing. Find your favorite full-length album – prog-rock, opera, bluegrass, whatever – whose each and every track you truly savor. You know just the album I’m talking about. It’s been in your life for years, maybe decades, and it does more than conjure memories. It evokes a sense of yourself that no other novel, poem, movie, or play could ever attempt. Maybe you played it until you were sick of it, but trust me, you’re just fooling yourself. You’ll never get this music out of your veins, no matter how long you live.
Turn off the phone, close the laptop, pour a tall glass of something, sit down and just listen. Give yourself over to it. Note the structure and variation of the sonic landscape. Figure out why this journey is so welcoming, and map where it takes you. (A friend finds inspiration by listening to a favorite song and sketching his emotional journey like a seismograph. Hey, whatever works for ya.)
And when the album’s over, ask yourself: Can you tell a story like that?
By the way, what’s your album? Tell me yours, I'll tell ya mine.