A few weeks ago, I wrote about some reasons I think people are strongly drawn to stories. But I didn’t really get to the heart of the matter (a joke that’ll make sense momentarily–trust me, you’ll be literally ROFLing, just stick with me).
Lately I’ve been watching a lot of the Criterion Channel. Criterion streams a combination of classic Hollywood films, newer indie and foreign films, and everything in between. In bouncing around between them, particularly the Hollywood films and the smaller, weirder, indie films, I’ve noticed that the movies that affect me most, the ones that stick with me best, are the ones with which I have a strong emotional reaction.
Fresh in my mind is the comparison between two strange films: Sara Driver’s SLEEPWALK and David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME. They were released only a few years apart (1986 and 1983, respectively), and have similar dreamlike tones. The major difference that I walked away with is how much structure and explanation accompanies each. Because SLEEPWALK is an indie film, there is a sense of unpredictability throughout, for better or worse. VIDEODROME, on the other hand, adheres to expected storytelling elements that made the film less impactful for me.
In SLEEPWALK things happen seemingly at random. A child walks a pigeon. A woman calls her boyfriend’s empty apartment, where a strange, large machine sits next to the ringing phone, and it’s never spoken of again. The film ends with Nicole, the protagonist, falling asleep near a river while searching for her missing child, who is blindfolded and sits just a few feet away, out of reach for both of them. None of it is explained, much of it doesn’t even seem related to the main plot, but all of it is emotionally impactful.
VIDEODROME, on the other hand, dives deep into its weirdness and explains it to make a larger point about its themes. All fine, but in explaining the television signals and how they lead to hallucinations the weirdness of the film, and thereby its emotional impact, is blunted. By allowing us to see behind the curtain I found myself engaging with it on a less emotional level. While much of VIDEODROME has stuck with me, I don’t find myself returning to its images like I do SLEEPWALK.
By any objective measure, VIDEODROME is a better film. It’s well-made, with spectacular effects and strong performances throughout, inventive cinematography, and a strong story with resonant themes. SLEEPWALK, on the other hand, is like a tone poem. But in focusing solely on the emotional impact of each scene without trying to tie it all together, I found myself drawn into the movie and still thinking about it weeks after watching.
All of this is to say that storytelling is, first and foremost, and emotional experience. Emotions literally rewrite our brains. Building from that foundation, hitting the audience in the heart and them aiming for their head, I think is the most effective way to tell a story that will stick with someone.