Story, Genre, Spielberg, and Indy

by sbh on Tuesday - 8 January 2008

in Uncategorized

Ford, Lucas, and Speilberg by Liebovitz

Indiana Jones is back. The February 2008 issue of Vanity Fair features an Indiana Jones cover and a bunch of great Indiana Jones content (online there’s even more cool stuff). Needless to say, I am jazzed.

The Indiana Jones films hold a near and dear place in my heart, not least because they are my earliest film memories. Before my family had a VCR, my grandmother would tell us the story of The Raiders of the Lost Ark as we listened to John Williams’ soundtrack. Filled with wicked Nazis, take-charge women, and the brash, in-over-his-head hero himself, Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, these stories resonated with me perhaps like nothing else I’ve encountered. These movies created in me a love for Steven Spielberg, and a tolerance for George Lucas (proof enough of how deeply enchanting they really are).

With the fourth film coming out, trading genocidal Nazis for Cold War Reds, and updating the love story between Indy and Marion Ravenwood, I am a-flutter with anticipation. May 22 cannot possibly come fast enough. Thank goodness for Vanity Fair and their articles, right?

As I was reading the conversation/interview with Steven Spielberg from the online content, Spielberg’s insight into story struck me. While not a writer, per se, Spielberg is certainly a magnificent storyteller, and his thoughts and opinions are valued. Here is a chunk I found particularly interesting:

Part of the speed is the story—it’s the story. If you build a fast engine, you don’t need fast cutting, because the story’s being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that’s written in the express lane, and if it’s not, there’s nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, for personal conflict, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk.

What Spielberg is saying is incredibly helpful. When I think about telling stories, I often think about my characters. I am so wrapped up in the lives of my characters—what they’re doing, where they’re going, what decisions they’ll make—that I can lose the pace. The most effective stories that I know happen on a “moving sidewalk” (to use Spielberg’s parlance). This is perhaps why mise-en-scène is so effective: we are thrust immediately out on to the moving sidewalk. As we move through the events, we pick up character, relationships, inner-conflict, etc., etc. If this stuff isn’t happening on the move, then it’s not story. It’s character sketch.

Long ago, I was working on a series of plays (most of which remain unfinished), and I received a piece of advice from a local stage director:

“Stephen,” she said, “This is just a bunch of talking heads.”

I had filled pages and pages with what I thought were really interesting conversations. The sort of dialog that brims with wit. It was awesome stuff (at least that’s how I remember it). BUT, nothing was happening. The entire story would pause so that we could get this character sketch. Bad idea. You’ll lose audience that way.

“No more talking heads,” she said, “People want to watch people do something.”

In the world of fiction, our characters think, feel, have relationships, etc. But, they do this on the run. Spielberg is right; this is what makes Indiana Jones so effective. Is it a genre piece? Sure. Is it high-minded literary work? Not in the least. But it’s a great story of a (slightly above) average guy getting himself into pickle after pickle, but emerging squeaky clean through grit, determination, and luck. Great, archetypical, American story. We love that stuff. But along the way, we get to know Dr. Jones. We see him experience pain (he’s usually getting the snot whipped out of him), love, loss, happiness, doubt. He moves from being arrogant to unsure back to arrogant. And we’re right there with him the whole way!

One last thought. Some big names in literary fiction have hit the wires talking about the virtues of genre fiction. Michael Chabon comes to mind. We live in an age when Raymond Chandler, once considered a mere purveyor of pulp fiction, stands as one of the literary giants of the previous century by current culture mavens. There is something about these stories, Marlowe and Indy, both of which hail from the 1930s (sort of), that continues to capture the imagination of America. I think it’s got something to do with the “moving sidewalk.” Why be lulled to sleep with beautiful prose? Tell me what’s going on and let me learn about who’s who as we go.

Thanks, Mr. Spielberg.

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