Resonating Stories

How is a story able to draw you in, capture your imagination, and keep you coming back for more? Why do we get addicted to marathoning episodes of shows like Lost, or Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones?

And why do some stories resonate with us, while others leave us feeling unsatisfied or angry or feeling nothing at all?

I began to wonder if there is a story frequency, at which a story resonates not only with our minds, but with our bodies as well. Similar to how a particular radio station comes in perfectly clear when you’re on it, but dial the tuner up or down just a bit and you get static, or a whole other station completely.

Stories are delicate machines that need to be fined tuned to get the perfect resonance. And if a story resonates with us, we tend to like it, remember it, and possibly learn from it.

And just because a story doesn’t resonate with you, doesn’t necessarily make it a bad story. That’s why there are millions of stories in the world — all meant for different groups of people in all different cultures.

A South American film might not resonate with me, but it will for millions of people in South America. A Russian folk tale might not have any meaning for me, but it will for people who grew up hearing it. I’m just not tuned to those stations, but millions of others are.

I think it’s an interesting point to consider, because often people say (myself included) “That story sucked” or “I hated that story.” And we are all entitled to our opinion. But just as often, a story which we revile is someone else’s all-time favorite. It resonates with them.

And I think that might be why we return to our favorite movies and books multiple times. If a story resonated with us in the past, we want to feel those euphoric feelings again in the present.

How else to explain why, even though I’ve seen them at least a dozen times, I’ll watch Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back if they’re on TV? After the first time watching or reading a story, you know the plot so any sense of mystery or “what happens next” is gone. So why do we keep coming back for more?

My guess is that the pleasure center of our brain is activated when we experience a story that resonates with us. Stories that resonate with us make us feel good. And as humans, we seek out things that make us feel good.

In writing this, I came across an article about a study of video-gamers which found that the pleasure centers of the brain were larger in teenagers who played video games.

It might help explain why we need to get through that next installment of our new favorite book or TV show.

What are the books or movies that resonate with you? Which ones do you return to over and over?


What is a Story?

In the book Winning The Story Wars, author Jonah Sachs defines a story this way:

“Stories are a particular type of human communication designed to persuade an audience of a storyteller’s worldview.”

Normally when we talk about story, we think about character, plot, setting, dialogue — all the techniques we use to create a story, but taken on their own, don’t necessarily make a story.

A common criticism I’ve heard of books, movies, or TV shows is: “It had no story.” I’m sure I’ve said that a bunch of times about a particular movie I didn’t like. But looking more closely, all those media have characters, plots, settings, and dialogue. I might not like a particular character or plot, but I can’t deny their existence. So story must be something more. And Jonah Sachs’ definition gives us a little more to go on.

He uses three particular words that stick out to me as being vital to better understanding story: communication, persuade, and worldview.

A story is the author’s worldview — what he or she believes and values.

The author is trying to persuade the audience of his or her worldview. If an author doesn’t really believe in what they are trying to say, neither will the audience.

And the author’s argument needs to be clearly and honestly communicated.  He or she might have a great point to make, but if that point is muddled or hidden under layers of falseness, the audience will be unmoved by the story.

I think when these three things are in play, a story has a much better chance of succeeding. Is it a guarantee? Probably not. Even the most universal and honestly told stories of love, freedom, and justice sometimes flop. That’s part of the mystery of art and writing.

I thought I’d look at two of this year’s more successful movies (both commercially and critically) and see if I can break the stories down with these three categories.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Life of Pi was my favorite film this year. And after seeing it, I read the book and was impressed by how the filmmakers faithfully adapted it. Here’s my interpretation.

The author’s (and filmmaker’s) worldview: “Life is a story. You can choose your story. A story with God is the better story.” From an interview with Yann Martel.

How they persuade us: Without giving anything away, there is a very persuasive scene in the book and movie that illustrates the author’s worldview very clearly and asks the audience the question — what kind of story do you prefer? One with God or one without. (And to be clear, I don’t interpret the author’s use of God as referring to any particular religion, but as a non-denominational synonym for spirituality or faith.)

How they communicate: The themes of spirituality and faith, as well as the hero’s search for meaning as he explores the mysteries of life permeate the entire story.

Now, on the other end of the spectrum is Skyfall. It’s on my mind because I just saw it a couple nights ago. Normally, we don’t associate action movies with having deep themes, but I was pleasantly surprised that this one did and it resonated with me. And I think it’s why Skyfall became the most successful Bond film in history.

The writer and director’s worldview: The world is a more dangerous place than ever, besieged by new enemies with no ties to governments and we must adapt in order to defeat those threats.

How they persuade us: They show the audience that a hero like James Bond is not a relic of the past. Through character development and dynamic action, the filmmakers persuaded me that, yes, in fact James Bond is still relevant (which I didn’t believe going into this movie).  Bond reinvented himself and adapted to meet whatever challenge came his way.

How they communicate: The theme “an old old dog can learn new tricks” was made clear at several points through the film. In fact, a character pretty much says a variation of this. A cliché phrase maybe, but an idea everyone understands.

You could try applying this to your favorite books, movies, and TV shows. It might shed some light on why some stories resonate for you and some don’t. I’d love to hear if it works for you.


Vivian Maier: A photographer’s story

I learned about the amazing story of Vivian Maier last year and I’ve been hooked on it ever since.  It has everything that makes for a fascinating story — an intriguing hero, a call to adventure, a quest, and a mystery to solve.

In 2007, a Chicago historian named John Maloof bought an abandoned storage locker full of thousands of negatives. He began going through them, and suspecting they had some value, posted some of the photos online for photographers check out. People were blown away by the quality and depth of the work. John had discovered an unknown street photographer and since then, Vivian’s artwork and story has spread around the world.

Being interested in street photography, I was immediately struck by the beauty of her work.  Every new photo that came to light seemed to be a lost work of art. I saw a show of her photos last year at a small gallery in LA, which inspired me to get out in the streets and take more pictures. Some of the most interesting photos are her self-portraits — glimpses of Vivian in mirrors, in reflections of store windows, in silhouettes on the ground. Her self-portraits tell the story of an enigmatic life. Not much is known about her. Why did she take these pictures? Why hadn’t she ever shown them? Where was this amazing artist hiding all this time?

There’s a documentary coming out soon about this search for Vivian Maier. I can’t wait to see it. I love stories about art and creativity. Add a little mystery to that mix, and I’m hooked. Seems like a lot of other people are too. In five days, the trailer already has over 300,000 views.

The Academy Award-nominated documentary Searching for Sugarman, tells a similar story of a singer-songwriter who created two amazing albums that bombed in the U.S. but were huge hits in South Africa. The crazy thing is, the artist, Rodriguez, had no idea he was an international star. The documentary tells the story of the filmmaker trying to solve the mystery of who Rodriguez was and it’s more intriguing than any fictional movie I’ve seen in a long time.

For me, both stories are fascinating not just for their mysteries, but also because they ask the question: Why do we make art?  People have said it’s a tragedy that Vivian Maier’s work wasn’t recognized during her lifetime. But from what John Maloof has learned about her, it seems pretty clear that she wasn’t interested in being recognized and that she made art only for herself. The act of photographing people may have been an end in itself, as a lot of the film she shot was undeveloped when John discovered it.

But it’s clear she had a gift. And now that people have seen her photographs, they’ve been inspired, me included. Was she obligated to share that gift with the world when she was alive?

Rodriguez tried and no one listened. At least in the U.S. But now his music is being rediscovered and people love it. The first time I heard his songs in the documentary, I swore I had heard them before. It’s like rediscovering a classic folk album you forgot you had in your collection.

Maybe they were ahead of their time. Misunderstood, as most great artists are.

I suppose these stories are on my mind because nowadays it seems that there is an unspoken expectation to market oneself, to make your voice heard, to connect with your audience through Facebook, Tumblr, WordPress, Google +, Twitter, and all the other social media outlets.

I’ve felt that pressure when I have to do interviews when I’d rather not, or when I feel like I “should” post something online, just because.

This blog is different. I feel like I have something to say and I want to share it.

But sometimes I wonder. If Picasso or De Kooning were painting today, would they really be on deviantART? Would they be blogging their latest painting in progress? They might. They both were part of the artistic communities of their day, sharing ideas and their work with fellow artists. So they were doing the social network thing, just a little more old school.

I know that by going to the Rhode Island School of Design, and collaborating with great artists through my career that I’ve been challenged to grow as an artist more than I would have by myself.

Would Vivian Maier have found fame and success if she had shared her work when she was making it? Would her photographs be as intriguing without their backstory?

Part of what makes books, movies, and art fascinating are the stories of the people who created them and why they did so. I hope the Vivan Maier documentary sheds more light on both.

Eternal Stories

BadwaterSunriseLast weekend I drove to Death Valley to do some landscape photography. It feels great to get out of LA and reconnect with nature once in awhile, and taking photos is one of my favorite ways to do that. So before sunrise I made my way over to Badwater, which is 280 feet or so below sea level and is known for its distinctive-looking salt flats, which form a kind of endless pattern.

Like El Capitan in Yosemite, Badwater is one of those iconic locations that photographers love to visit and capture with their cameras. Out in the middle of those flats, bundled in coat, hat, and gloves to fend off the cold, I struggled to figure out what my take on this place would be. What would make my photo different than the thousands that have come before? I always strive to be original with whatever art I’m doing and always hoping to say something that no one has said before.

And then I realized that wasn’t the point.

I don’t come out to places like this because I’m likely going to create an image that’s never been seen before. I come out to connect with the timeless and eternal.

These landscape locations, many of which are in national parks, have remained largely unchanged. They exist as they have for the past thousands of years (minus the parking lots, toilets, and other modern amenities). In 2011, I took some photos in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, where there are trees over 3000 years old.

So even though I’m was out in Death Valley in 2013 with a modern digital camera, I was connecting to something ancient and primal.

And this got me thinking about stories. Why do we still read the classics, or why do we still go to movies to see the latest incarnation of a fairy tale or superhero myth? I think by watching and reading stories that have their basis in the past, it connects us to a part of us that is more primeval. It provides some sort of continuity to our modern lives. We may be surrounded and connected by technology, but stories predate all that. They ground us and help us understand who we really are.

In A Short History of Myth, Karen Armstrong writes, “A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time…  mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”

Did I “glimpse the core of reality” out there on the salt flats? Maybe a little. I know I felt at peace and connected to something bigger than me. I watched in wonder as the sun rose as it has every day for the past millions of years. Back home, I usually wake up after the sun has already completed its morning ritual.

Maybe it’s a little unrealistic in these days of reality TV and 24-hour news channels, but I think our best stories should provide us with some sense of timeless and help us get in touch with what really matters.

The Academy Awards: Why the best picture nominees should make Hollywood take note

The Academy Awards are next week, and looking over the list of best picture nominees, I’m surprised I’ve actually seen a majority of the films (Amour, Django Unchained, and Argo being the exceptions.) But I’m also pleasantly surprised that these were, by and large, excellent films that connected with a lot of different audiences.

This crop of thoughtful, challenging, and sometimes controversial films proved that audiences don’t just want mindless summer movie fare. Six out of the nine films have made over 100 million domestically. And out of all of them, Lincoln made the most (about 176 million at current count) which is astounding considering the film is essentially a straight-ahead drama with no action, no obvious special effects, and no sex appeal (though fans of Daniel Day Lewis might disagree.) I love history and historical fiction and drama, so I really enjoyed the film as an historical recreation of the events of that time, but have to admit that I also found myself getting a little antsy through all the debates on the house floor. But I liked that it presented some profund questions about the nature of freedom, courage, and personal conviction in the face of great opposition.

What I took away from Les Miserables was that we all have the power to overcome our past and choose a new path, no matter how others define us. Spirituality and faith was also a major theme throughout.

Zero Dark Thirty was a tough watch, but I think it raises an important question about whether violence as a means to ending violence works, or is a pointless endeavor that will leave us, as a nation, bereft and spiritually wrecked.

And Life of Pi, my favorite film of the year, was essentially a mediation on the meaning of story and belief. Unlike the others, it did have a lot of effects that were amazingly executed and vital to the telling of the story. I want to go into this story, both the movie and the book, in more depth in a future post.

The meaning I take away from these films as a whole is that audiences really do long for stories with depth, and that they are willing to go to the theater to explore the deeper questions of who we are and why we’re here. Often films that are critical darlings and considered more “serious” fare are not big hits at the box office and that’s why studios don’t want to invest in them. But I think those with the power to green-light films have a lot to consider after this year’s Oscars.

Some of the biggest disappointments this year were films whose budgets were huge — John Carter and Battleship being the most publicized examples. There seems to be a belief among the studios that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And sometimes the gamble pays off – The Avengers, for example (which I thoroughly enjoyed, by the way). Every studio would kill to have the next Avengers. But why aren’t studios willing to make more modest budgeted pictures that yield healthy returns on investment?

I believe there is a directive among the studios (which I’ve heard first-hand) to put their main focus on the big tentpole movies, at one extreme, or small, micro-budget movies at the other. They aren’t really interested in mid-sized budget movies (20-70 million) and haven’t been for a while. But all the nominees (minus Django at 100 million) had budgets within that range. Beasts and Amour were below that.

Studios will never do away with the summer tentpole, but I think they are missing a huge opportunity to shepherd stories with a little more depth through the development process.

What were some of your favorite movies of the year? What stories resonated with you?

All my budget figures I took from Box Office Mojo.