It’s All About the Story

By postbear from Flickr Creative Commons

By postbear from Flickr Creative Commons

One of my goals this year is to watch more movies. I’m doing this for a few reasons. First, the obvious, movies are fun to watch. Second, movies really help me think about my writing in a different way. Not just visually but also with pacing and tension. When I read a book I can skim if I want to (so I may not notice the slower parts) but if I’m watching a movie I can’t (or won’t) and so I’ll notice every boring or slow second.

Anyway, I digress from the point of why I’m writing this post.  Why am I writing this post? First, to let you know that if you want to, you can follow along with my movie viewing year. I’m posting the movies I watch on my Pinterest board 2014: My Year in Movies. (I’m also posting about the books I read, 2014: My Year in Books).

Second, I want to write about how sometimes I get an even bigger lesson from the movies I watch. Like with American Hustle. I went in wanting to love this movie (I didn’t). Why? Mostly because I really thought the script fell flat. In fact, I wrote to a friend of mine (who saw the movie the day before I did) and told her I was disappointed, really disappointed, in the movie. So imagine my surprise when I woke up this morning and found out that last night American Hustle won the Golden Globe award for best comedy.

This is not a movie review.

I am most definitely not a movie reviewer. I can guarantee if I were a movie reviewer, though, I would not be part of the 93% of positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. But isn’t it rather telling that on the Rotten Tomatoes website itself, the movie’s description says this:

Riotously funny and impeccably cast, American Hustle compensates for its flaws with unbridled energy and some of David O. Russell’s most irrepressibly vibrant direction.

Compensates for its flaws? Riotously funny?

First let me say that if a movie has to compensate for flaws, I don’t think it should be a Golden Globe winner. The flaws should be overlooked enough that they shouldn’t even be mentioned. Second, if this movie is riotously funny then I’m the Queen of England (I’m not). In fact, I laughed more then anyone else in the theater (only, maybe, 6 times in the entire movie) and MEH (My Engineer Husband) who usually loves these kind of over-the-top absurdist movies (I don’t) turned to me at one point and said: “Wasn’t this supposed to be a comedy?” I was embarrassed that I laughed when I did—was there something wrong with me? That’s what I wondered. (NO ONE ELSE WAS LAUGHING… okay, we live in Maine, we’re not known for our culture, but we do laugh…sometimes…)

And I thought the script dragged. Yes, I’ll say it. I’m sorry David O. Russell. I sincerely hope that the story lost tension and pacing on the cutting room floor, but it dragged. And it was boring. No amount of Bradley Cooper (who I thought was fabulous) or Jennifer Lawrence (who played a convincing part) or a chubby Christian Bale with a bad comb-over (not my fave) or even Jeremy Renner (who was my fave) or a zillion plunging necklines or even an amazing soundtrack can compensate. 

But no, Julia, tell us what you really think.

Okay. I’ll digress back to why I’m writing this post. (This post really isn’t a review. And it’s not in any way meant to discourage you from seeing American Hustle; you’ll probably like it—on Rotten Tomatoes it got an 80% audience approval rating.)

It’s just this simple. I’m glad I watched American Hustle because it reminded me of something important. The point is to write a good story. And that can’t be compensated for by anything. Period. It’s all about the story. That’s what I learned from watching this movie.

And that is all.

Cheers,

Julia

What have you learned from watching movies? Have you ever seen a movie and thought you should love it (because everyone else did)?

Comments

  1. Lisa says:

    My taste in movies very rarely matches award shows and the rest of the population, but I think I will probably like the same ones you do.

  2. Yep. Chariots of Fire years ago. Thought it was boring, badly acted, and with inconsistent characterization. It was produced with all the trappings to make it look like it was ‘an important film’ which I think took in a lot of people. I think many big movies are like that.

    Thanks for letting me get that off my chest!

    • “It was produced with all the trappings to make it look like it was ‘an important film’ ” << EXACTLY what my thought was about this movie too, Perry. Thank you and glad to give you an opportunity to get that off your chest!

  3. Fun post, Julia. I like that we’ll be able to follow along with your movies and reads throughout the year (you should put those as buttons on your blog, here, so we can easily access them! Hint! Hint! Ha ha).

    You know, when I first started dabbling in fiction, I loved to watch movies so that I could study them for writing purposes. But I quickly turned to studying books over movies because, for me, the media were so different. That’s not to say that I don’t notice – like you – when the story lags, characters aren’t deep enough, dialogue is flat, etc. I just think I’ve decided to let movies be more of my ‘pure’ entertainment since I can no longer read books purely for enjoyment (due to analyzing every little thing). But, wait, my husband would disagree because, after seeing MUD, I commented on how well the characters were drawn and he said, “What? The story sucked.” I guess writers just can’t help but notice elements of story, can we?

    • Hmmm… I’ll have to think about how to add those buttons (I have one to my general Pinterest boards, but it would be great if I could link directly to movies). That’s a great idea.

      It’s funny, I never used to watch movies and even relate them to writing at all, but then last year I read a post on Writer Unboxed suggesting that movies might help make you a better fiction writer. So that’s when I started. Now I’m hooked on analyzing them. I also agree, though, that it’s impossible to read a book without looking at everything in microscopic detail, too. I guess that the quote I recently put on Twitter is true for me: “A writer never has a vacation. A writer is either writing or thinking about writing.” Oh man, I gotta find another mind-consuming activity… maybe rock climbing!? how could that possibly make me think of writing?

  4. This is uncanny, Julia, as I have been writing a post on writing tips – watching movies being one of them, with a view to an extended post on this! We are clearly in tune, and I agree with you, although I haven’t seen American Hustle so have no opinion on that. Movies can teach us so much about story telling… but I shall leave it there until I finish my post! I’m really glad the film reminded you of the importance of story.

    • I’m not all that surprised we’re in tune on this, Abi — it seems we often have similar inspirations in life to our writing, doesn’t it? So glad you enjoyed this and I will be looking forward to your post!

  5. Julia – Every time I finished a book last year (yours included), I wrote a brief review and posted it on GoodReads and then I pinned it on my books board in Pinterest. It’s a fun way to journal what we read and I’m continuing in that vein this year.

    I’m not sure where 80% of the Rotten Tomato favorable reviews come from. I’ve yet to read or hear something positive about the film. BUT…it wasn’t a waste of your time. You, in fact, learned something important:

    “The point is to write a good story. And that can’t be compensated for by anything. Period. It’s all about the story.”

    • Laurie, I had no idea you had a books board on Pinterest — I’ll definitely check it out! I got the idea from Natalia Sylvester (do you follow her) when she did a books board last year. It really is a fun way to journal. That makes me feel better that you’ve not read positive things about American Hustle (isn’t it strange I can’t just trust myself?). I agree, I learned something very important. Thank you for your comment!

  6. Shirley Hobson says:

    Julia, I loved your post. I find as I get older, the ‘recent hits’ don’t impress me much. I find myself wondering just who labelled them ‘hits’, much like TV networks touting a mediocre program as the new ‘hit’ Tuesday night comedy. My likes are eclectic. I love ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ for the sheer ridiculousness of it. :) . Ditto ‘The ‘Burbs’. They appeal to the nostalgic past. Both my boys loved them. Kinda like ‘The Goonies’. If I had a movie that I love because it has it all, I guess it would be Casablanca…..danger, intrigue, sadness, romance, comedy (‘I’m shocked, shocked to find out there is gambling going on here!’). If you haven’t seen it, please watch it and tell me what you think. ♥

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Shirley! “My likes are eclectic.” I like that! I also loved Goonies and Casablanca. I agree about hits, but usually I can see some rhyme or reason. This one just left me scratching my head. So glad to hear new movie recommendations, too! Thank you.

  7. Good idea, Julia. Writing is writing, no matter if it’s a book, movie, or play. I’m terrible to watch movies with. My family gives me grief for rolling my eyes at cliched endings or dialogue. :) What can I say? Not only have I been writing for eons, I’m also an English major. I think that’s double the critic, right?

    • I’d love to hear your impressions of this movie, Karen! I read today (not that I’ve been seeking out information about American Hustle obsessively or anything) that a lot of the dialogue was ad-libbed. This makes so much sense…because it didn’t seem continuous. I now wonder if that led to a lot of my confusion. Doesn’t mean I like it more or that it’s better, just explains. Here’s to the double critics in all of us! :)

  8. Eliza says:

    I also loved Jeremy Renner! Want to hear a funny story? I was CONVINCED that he is like, 31 years old, tops, in real life. So the whole time that I was watching the movie, I kept thinking, God, there is so way he’d be old enough to have such old children – it just looks weird, and wrong! It was kind of like a running joke with me throughout the movie. So just now, as I’m ABOUT to comment that he was wayyyy too young for that role, I decide at the last minute to look him up — and come to find out, he is 43! I had no idea. It’s making me re-think everything I once believed in …..
    :)

    • I thought the EXACT SAME THING about Jeremy Renner. I’m glad you looked up his age… but still, that’s part of the problem I had with the entire movie. It was all about the star power — not the story. And this is one more piece of evidence. He was great in the part, but couldn’t they have made him LOOK older so it wasn’t so distracting? Thank you for reminding me of that one more thing… I could go on for hours (and apparently I do).

  9. ” I was embarrassed that I laughed when I did—was there something wrong with me? That’s what I wondered. (NO ONE ELSE WAS LAUGHING… okay, we live in Maine, we’re not known for our culture, but we do laugh…sometimes…)” Now this is funny. You ought to try your hand at a comedic screenplay. That was one I probably will see sometimes. I don’t know if you plan on seeing Wolf of Wallstreet. A friend of mine (a prude by no means) got up and walked out, she found it so offensive. She was sitting at the restaurant/bar in the theater, and the employee said that on average one to two people walk out of that every showing. (But this is the south.) ha. Will look forward to your recommendations.

    • Aren’t you so sweet! I love writing comedy and it’s an especially huge compliment coming from you, you’re so funny! Thanks a million, Jamie! I can’t wait to hear what you think of American Hustle. As for Wolf of Wallstreet, I had been thinking of seeing it but my son and girlfriend said it wasn’t that good. So I may save the money… although I’ll miss seeing the movie that holds the record for the most f-words in a feature length movie! We’ll see…

  10. So first, I laughed when I saw what this post was about because at the top of my “post ideas” list is the fact that it’s actually not books that most inspire me to write, but movies. It’s always been movies for me, and I felt somewhat sheepish about it until recently. Movies can be absolutely awesome inspiration.
    Second, for me the WTF movie this year is Gravity. Yes, it looks cool, but I thought the story and writing were absolutely predictable. The dialogue was gag-inducingly cheesy. I know, I really know, writing is hard and I don’t want to be judgmental (oops) but it seems like the special effects people just wrote some lines to add to the cool visual effects they were producing.

    • I’m going to add two exceptions to my statement: the fetal-position-shot of Sandra Bullock in the spaceship was cool, as was the image of her crawling out of the water and onto land.

    • That’s so amazing that it’s at the top of your post ideas, Jessica — please let me know when you post about it, can’t wait to read your thoughts! Yes, awesome inspiration. I didn’t say it in my post but the first movie that flipped the switch for me was Crazy Stupid Love. I don’t know why. There was something about the pacing and reveals that made me think differently about how I wrote. As for Gravity, I haven’t seen it (now I both want to and also don’t, haha). But it’s interesting you’d mention certain scenes that stood out. Even though American Hustle was a no-go for me, there were a couple of scenes that do stand out in my mind. Thanks for the comments & really looking forward to your post!

  11. Cynthia Robertson says:

    The primary things I’ve learned from movies are plotting, and characterization. When a movie drags, or doesn’t work in some way, we are usually keenly aware of it. I haven’t seen American Hustle, and am not likely to, since it isn’t one that would interest me (and especially now, after reading your post) but the takeaway is you’ve become such a proficient plotter/character-builder/dialogue-writer, Julia, that the movie producers can’t get over on you anymore. (And alas, that’s pretty much what happens with novels too, isn’t it?) You are more discriminating than the average viewer.
    We learn plot by osmosis from watching movies. They are so condensed, and delivered up quickly, unlike novels, which take more of an investment of time (though I still love books best!).

    • I’m with you, Cynthia, I still love books best. But this is so true, too: “They are so condensed, and delivered up quickly…” which is why they’re so helpful, I agree! Here’s to great books and movies and more great lessons in 2014!

  12. Shary says:

    I watch movies for writing inspiration, too. Analyzing them does take some of the pure enjoyment out of it, but I get a kick out of dissecting them. I love predicting plot twists, but I love it even more when they manage to surprise me. And I always learn something, even if it’s what not to do.

  13. Sounds like you should join me in my ‘not-quite-review’ posts. ;) Yes, I’ve totally done this! I think Pulp Fiction is way overrated, for example, but I’m really hard on movies, especially since becoming a writer and learning about story structure and characterization. It’s made movies less enjoyable, but it’s definitely made me a more competent and thoughtful writer!

    • Yes, definitely joining you on the “not quite review” posts, Annie. I’ve never seen Pulp Fiction but after reading your comment I had to watch the trailer — and I have to tell you, it looks remarkably similar in style to American Hustle! And I also read that it’s one of the writer/director’s favorite movies…. so I think you and I may have similar likes (or maybe I should say DISlikes in movies). Anyway, I’m very hard on movies as well. I am thinking now I need to watch (at least the beginning of) Pulp Fiction –it’s “free” on Amazon Prime. Thanks for the comment!

  14. Leah says:

    Glad to hear your thoughts on American Hustle. Everyone says it’s great and winning all these awards. But I just have no interest in seeing it. I like your idea of chronicling the books and movies.

  15. I love the idea of a year in movies. I try to watch movies and tv shows for the same reason. I especially love going over some old favorites with a new “writer’s” eye. Right now, I’m bouncing between Breaking Bad and Buffy.

    • I’m glad you like the idea, Sonia — please let me know if you start keeping track, I’d love to see what others are watching! I agree that TV shows are useful (and rewatching old favorites). I’ve never watched Breaking Bad or Buffy but I really liked watching Rescue Me for the same reason. And I’ve added City of Angels to my watchlist, a romantic fantasy, which I had mixed feelings about the first time I watched but would love to watch with a writer’s eye. Thanks so much for your comment and for your visit to my blog!

  16. Nina says:

    I totally agree that movies (and great tv) helps keep us aware of the good storytelling. I tried to stay extra aware of movies a few years ago and keep track of my blog. Most of them are movies on Lifetime. Not always the best storytelling, but there are lessons in THAT too!

    • I have loved watching your lists, Nina — on your blog and Great New Books. They’ve given me some great ideas for books and movies. I’ve watched more than my fair share of Lifetime movies, too — and although some are not the best storytelling, I agree there are lessons in that but also maybe you’re like me in that things pop up and make an impression in the least expected movies and books!

  17. Great post, Julia, and I can’t wait to see your Pinterest boards! :) I haven’t watched American Hustle, but I could tell by the previews that it wasn’t for me. Now, have you seen the previews for the movie about Charles Dickens? It looks phenomenal. For all I know, it’s already out….I had a Downton Abbey marathon this past weekend when Randy and I were on a getaway, and I thought, too, about how watching such things really influences my view of good writing. We’re investing in our careers, right!? ;)

    • I hope you’ll check out the board, Jolina, I’d love to hear what you think. Interesting you’d mention the preview…I have stopped watching them (one too many movie spoiled by TMI), but in this case I think, like you, it might have stopped me from going. I haven’t even heard of the Dickens movie!! Can’t wait! I also saw August: Osage County last night and WOW, now that’s a writer’s movie. And yes, we are DEFINITELY investing in our careers, I agree ;)

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  1. […] posts are inspiring (see another post on the influence of films on writing from Julia Munroe Martin here.) They also help you to feel part of a community of writers, and they are often full of hints and […]

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