The Two Crucial Filmmaking Elements Causing All Your Movie Feuds

Avengers Infinity War Theories Marvel Spoilers

Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

A Tale of Two Scenes

Ever watched a film with a friend where you both have completely different reactions to the same exact moment? You disagree. You debate. You simply cannot believe the other person found X to be Y instead of Z!

I think about these sorts of moments a lot, because I think that understanding our different reactions gets at the very heart of film criticism, which is really just about “film understanding.” Chiefly, there’s a set of questions I agonize over constantly: How can two people watch the same scene and one person love it and the other person hate it? How does this actually happen? Is it that one of them is right and the other wrong? Or is it purely a matter of what they each bring into the movie? Is there something within the scene that causes said divisiveness? If so, how much of it is the filmmaker’s fault? And what if said divisiveness was their exact intention?

What do all of these questions add up to, and what meaning can we take from them? In a world that seems hell-bent on the Rotten Tomatoes model of “universal agreement,” I think learning to understand each other (especially in the midst of passionate argument) is the most important way to come at this debate. Lately, I’ve been having a series of conversations about whether or not scenes in films “work,” which is to say, whether or not a scene plays as dramatically intended. Within this, there’s often a common root to the disagreement: the critical difference between cinematic text and texture.

To illustrate…

Scene 1: Our character stands at the edge of a precipice, faced with a painful choice. He must kill the one person he loves for the sanctity of his “mission.” He turns back, tears in his eyes. She cries out in anger, saying he’s never loved anything. The performances are moving. The emotion is deeply-felt. And, as he makes his decision and throws this beloved character off the cliff in slow-motion, the music surges, cuing us to emote alongside the haunting beauty of what’s being cinematically expressed.

The problem? As much as I may care for the character who is being eliminated, I have literally no idea why the other character is making this choice, nor why he even loves this character in the first place. I just know that he “does.” And so, what should feel truly devastating can’t help but come off as half-motivated, somewhat perfunctory, and somehow empty.

Scene 2: I’m watching two characters have a massive confrontation after three movies of buildup. There’s been so much development of the story between them, falling in forbidden love while caught up in the larger machinations of horror and death. And, at the culmination, all the truths finally come spilling out: the cost of his choices, his lies; even the difference of their core philosophies are spit at one another. And in this culmination, when his blinding jealousy collides with misunderstanding, he lashes out and tries to kill the one he loves, which sets an even more deadly final confrontation in motion. All of this is soundly expressed with clarity. It is “perfect” plotting and characterization, leading the audience to understand what is happening and why.

The problem? The lines being delivered are trite and deeply inelegant. The performances of the actors are wooden, expressed by people who barely seem like they want to be there. And, for all the technological wizardry around them, the scene is being brought to life with stilted, flat, distant, and all-together gawky coverage that barely cuts together with a pace.

The stark difference between these two confrontational scenes could not be more clear: the first scene only nailed the “texture” of filmmaking, while the other only nailed the “text” of storytelling. And while both are absurdly important, and both have a direct effect on us, as viewers, learning to understand and identify which part is “working” is absolutely critical to engaging with movies.

It’s also really tricky.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

One of the difficult things about discussing movies is that feelings are, essentially, inarguable. If we both walk out of the latest blockbuster and you didn’t enjoy it, then there is nothing I can really do change that experience (nor would I really try). Sure, I could maybe point out some cool things I saw in it, maybe reshape some understanding, hoping my passion might rub off on you, but no one can really “undo” another person’s experience of watching a movie. Especially if the person is unwilling to even try. They simply felt what they felt.

But this is precisely why I’m all about getting way past the “what” of a given opinion (disagreement in and of itself is boring) and getting down into the “hows” and “whys.” And to really identify how certain moments work, we have to start with a discussion of why “text-driven” filmmaking works in the first place and how it manages to make us feel things. Please note, I just causally alluded to “text-driven” filmmaking when really that means “storytelling on the whole,” and dagnabbit if that’s not the biggest damn topic of the world.

So let’s try to zoom in on what I’ll call “the moment of drama.”

Drama is all about maximizing the “engaged state” of the audience. You know when someone is holding popcorn in their hand, about to eat it, but they’re not because they’re so transfixed by what’s on screen? That’s drama. It’s about an audience viscerally fretting when someone is in danger, laughing at something funny, or screaming out “no!” when something terrible happens. It’s the way the machinations of the film get at the audience’s emotions, and this is constructed through a system of storytelling setups and payoffs that I can go on and on for hundreds pages about. (And have, I wrote a damn book on it.)

But the point of good dramatization is all about configuring the story in order to get the viewer to be the most invested they could possibly be. Yes, I know to a lot of filmmakers that just means “filming it real guud,” but that—the textural stuff—comes later. On the writing level, it’s all about the setup that makes the viewer care the maximum amount when x or y happens. And what we’re really talking about here, both in storytelling and life, is the inherent difference between sympathy and empathy.

To illustrate the difference, here’s a hypothetical, but plausible situation. Say your friend’s grandmother was terribly sick. You would feel bad, no doubt. Especially if you visited your friend’s family and you could see how she was struggling and the way it affected everyone. The moment could make you absolutely feel sad and scared. And you could even ruminate and think, “oh no, what would happen if my grandmother was also sick and what would that feel like?” This is what sympathy is. It’s the the ability to have “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”

Now, let’s say your best friend and roommate was terribly sick. And let’s say they don’t have many other people and it’s fallen on you to take care of them. Let’s say you were there for every part of the battle. Let’s say you saw how every lit bit was affecting them, every horrible feeling. You witnessed the impact of the sickness, and how it shaped the person’s psychology, making you constantly feel things deep in yourself about your relationship to this person. In this moment, you have more than just pity for them, you have empathy, which is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

The difference between the two may seem like a small word change, but it is everything. Because at the heart of understanding is an emotion that goes far beyond mere pity, and instead, connects to the incredible, incalculable loss you can you feel. The feeling is “happening” to you too. And the point of all of this is to show that dramatic storytelling 100 percent works better when using the path of empathy.

Sure, you could meet a tertiary character and it could be sad when they die on screen. In other words, you could have sympathy for them. But when it happens to a character you have truly come to love? And it happens in a particularly tragic way? Oh gosh oh golly does that hit us so much harder.

The truth is that you have to get to know people on screen the same way you do people in real life. You have to understand them. You have to see their stories and relationships unfold with your very own eyes. And yes, you should absolutely practice economy in storytelling, but you also have to let the audience see it and understand your characters’ brains.

For instance, the famous opening montage from Up is only 10 minutes long, but 1) there’s a reason it begins with a whole dramatized scene of the characters meeting as a kids, and 2) there’s a reason the movie tells the whole dang story of their lives before it gets to the saddest parts. Imagine if the film opened on the shot of the old man holding the balloon and then went down the same path. Sure, we might “understand” the story and sympathize with the sadness, but, in getting to see it, we empathize in a much deeper way.

Up. Disney/Youtube

But I’m often shocked at how many films think they can just show you the little texture of sadness and that’s good enough—that you get it like it’s mathematical “information.” This denies the entire incredible point of having movies, which is that what is taking place on screen cannot just feel like it’s happening, but rather that it’s all happening to you. With empathy, we all effectively get to “be” the people we are seeing on screen and live vicariously through the experience. And the more clear the film is about its reasons, and the more the viewer understands the psychology of the characters, the more they will truly feel what the characters feel.

With all this mind, let’s go back “Scene 1” from the prior chapter, because it is 100 percent actually a scene from Infinity War (warning: spoilers and such). That would be the scene where Thanos throws his daughter Gamora off the cliff to get the Soul Stone. The problem with the scene is not in the emotion of the actors, nor even the clarity of what’s being expressed in the dialogue. I know that he loves her. I know that he’s too driven to his cause. But why does he love her? And why is he so driven to his cause? The entire point of dramatization is that it’s not merely enough for us to project “well that’s his daughter and fathers love their daughters”—that’s just assumed empathy.

Moreover, we don’t know enough of Thanos’s psychology to understand his heart. What kind of person is he really? What is really going on in that big old brain of his? Sure, we get a few place-holdery ideas of his 50 percent philosophy, but not only does that fail to be very compelling (because no one can relate to such a silly idea, let alone agree that it would work on any conceivable level), it also fails to really get at any deeper things about the character. And, as such, if the scene is indeed meant to make me actually feel something for Thanos and his sacrifice, it only evokes my feelings through textural sympathy, not empathy.

When really, the scene should be agonizing. It should carry the maximum impact of a character fighting against every instinct. He is having a battle within his mind that we, the audience, understand more intimately than anything else about this movie, because it is the most important damn moment in the movie—the one that supposedly gets at the heart of what it’s “all really about.”

But it’s just sympathy. And the thing about sympathy is it can often allow for a lot of projection into it (like in the prior example, imagining our own sick grandmother). The nuance of a performance can make us feel, and when we feel, we connect to memories of our own, but not to a memory within the movie itself. I was even talking to one brilliant friend about this moment and they said they liked it because Thanos exhibiting emotion surprised them. Again, this is a valid reaction. There is no way I can argue with this feeling of surprise, nor say relating to it is “wrong.” But I can argue that the moment feels surprising (and is surprising even to Gamora) precisely because there is no real dramatized reason for it. We, like her, are at a distance from whatever is truly going on in his head.

This takes me to the other problem with sympathy, which is that it tends to raise a lot of conjecture in its wake. I can’t tell you how many people I heard take this lack of dramatic clarity and project into what “probably” happened in their relationship to make him love her, and beyond that, what will probably happen in the next movie to explain the choice. There’s nothing wrong with this, but we have to understand that these are all problematic “outside text” explanations. Because, sure, we could guess and pontificate, but those reasons really don’t have anything to do with the emotion of the story being told within itself, and they certainly don’t have anything to do with maximizing drama.

Now, let’s go to “Scene 2,” which is actually a climactic scene from George Lucas’ Revenge of the Sith. Yup, we’re going to talk about the prequels! Which I honestly feel like are the perfect examples of “bad texture” movies. Because, while I can make a few positive arguments for certain moments within them, nearly everything about the prequels falls flat. The vast majority of performances are monotone and stilted. The characters rarely feel like they’re in the environments they’re in (in a way that goes beyond VFX limitations to just the framing and composition). Heck, there’s so little kinetic energy to most of the filmmaking that everything feels like a live table read with special effects. What’s more, and a fact that I rarely see discussed regarding these movies, is how they were really just rough-as-hell first drafts that were written on yellow legal pads (really, check the special features). There never seemed to be any real rewriting or care that went into penning the script for more elegant textural depths.

But this also where it gets interesting, because we know George outlined heavily and worked on sequences from very early stages. And, knowing his career, George actually has a pretty damn keen story sense. So when you really look at the structure and the actual “story text,” you see he understands how to build a weirdly solid foundation. I swear if you were to outline these movies, you would see something shockingly functional with simple, clear mechanics. He even builds up confrontations where we know what everyone wants and is trying to do. And even though he’s largely using broad tropes, the story attached to those tropes has genuine meaning and thematic intention.

But dramatic clarity is not the issue of the prequels. Even though we have all the building blocks we could potentially need to build empathy, George just didn’t know how to bring any of it to life in a convincing way. It’s all text. No texture. This is somewhat ironic, given that, many years later, my argument for the problems with The Force Awakens would be the exact opposite. I’ve spoken about it at length before, but it was the ultimate “texture” movie. Perhaps, after the failings of the prequel, it was so important to them to nail everything about the look, feel and aesthetic of Star Wars (1977). And they certainly tried to bring it to life with verve, delight and emotion. But the clarity on the story level is a damn mess, largely because it used the patented J.J. Abrams mystery-box methodology of constantly aiming away from coherent drama and instead more toward random “surprises” (along with delaying important dramatic questions they don’t actually have any coherent answers to).

But for the purposes of this essay, I don’t really want to go down the rabbit hole of whether or not you liked one film versus another. Again, the “what” is not the point. It’s about the language of text and texture. It’s the about how this conversation unveils a deeper understanding about how we all watch movies. And how, in the process, this ends up revealing a bit about ourselves. Taken all together, what this makes me wonder about is our ultimate “goal” in watching a movie…

Falling In

I mentioned the opening of Pixar’s Up earlier and it really is just a remarkable, powerful bit of storytelling. Heck, merely referencing it can cause certain people to well up. It’s the perfect combination of meaning, sight, sound and elegance. And yet, in talking about it now I cannot help but think of a moment from my life that happened while we were all re-watching it. For context, someone in their late twenties was showing the film to her mother for the very first time. She was prepared for them both to cry their eyes out, understanding the power of loss at play. And, as the opening sequence started unfolding, getting to the most heartbreaking moment of loss, her mother turned to see many of us, along with her daughter, crying hysterically at the scene, and…I will never forget this…she looked her dead in the eye with a confused, even excited grin on her face and exclaimed, “Why are you crying? It’s only a cartoon!”

I’m pretty sure my jaw is still on the floor. It’s also kind of one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. But, yeah, did you know there’s an entire group of moviegoers out there who can’t empathize with cartoons? Like, at all? Well, there totally is. And to take that so very far as to completely separate yourself from what you are seeing on screen, to divorce yourself from the storytelling and emotion, and to then not even be able to recognize how someone else might find what is happening on screen to be incredibly sad, is to give credence to the fact that many people simply need movies to feel “real” to even engage with them on any visceral level. Meaning, for them, the ultimate success of a movie is much less about the story and instead entirely built on them being able to be “in it.” And that largely means not thinking about it. The goal is to get completely absorbed. They want it all to be real. The problem is that what counts as “real” and “the things that take them out” can also be any number of differing things.

People have all sorts of barriers when it comes to movie watching. For a big portion of the popular audience, it can weirdly be as simple as liking or not liking the given actors on screen (or being attracted to them). For the more scientifically-minded, it can be any moment of having to listen to Hollywood quasi-scientific mumbo jumbo nonsense. But it can go beyond mere subject, too. For those sensitive to the tone of a movie (meaning how it feels), they need the entire movie to “feel” serious the whole time in order to take it seriously (especially if they want their interest in the movie to be taken seriously, too). And so, they will often lash out if there are jokes that are goofy and feel “too corny,” or are simply different from the indulgent emotion they want to be feeling. And for cinematic naturalists, it can even be any kind of stylistic cinematography that seems too jarring with “how reality feels.” Which just reveals the hilarity that of course texture has its own rules of “text,” too. But of course it does. When I brought up Speed Racer last week, there were many who said they just simply couldn’t get past the first 10 minutes because of all the dizzying aesthetics, color and kinetic energy. It pushed people too far and they couldn’t find their way in to believing what they were seeing was “real.”

Emile Hirsch in Speed Racer. Warner Bros.

It’s the old “style over substance” argument, right?

Well, the problem is that people often use this expression without understanding a lick about what substantive cinematography really means. Because, yes, cinematic language is a real thing with its own method of communication. The way you move the camera, the choices of focus, angle and closeness, all bring clarity to what the movie is trying to emphasize and why. A shot will always communicate a very specific thing to feel and these are the proverbial filmmaking ABC’s. And you better believe they matter. It’s the reason a certain jump scare works versus one that doesn’t at all. Textural tension is created out of where you lead the audience’s eye and how you make them “see” negative space. And when you’re making them feel action dramatically (versus just feeling the “chaos” of it), it’s all about how you use a motivated movie camera to draw the eye and make movement have the maximum kinetic impact with a punch or a kick leading into an edit. And when done well? The audience will freaking feel it.

With that, understanding cinematic language is paramount in being able to understand why a long shot in one film works versus one that doesn’t (at least in a majority sense). Let me use two weird examples from the same filmmaker in the same movie. Much is made of the three long “oner” shots in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece Children of Men, but the first is one of my favorite of all time. You know the one: the entire group is trapped in the car driving. At first it’s all fun and games as they whip the ping-pong ball back and forth in uncut glory…then you then you see the flaming car come down in the distance as the attackers rush in. By god, the claustrophobia. You’re trapped in the car with them, terrified as they get closer, closer, always wondering what is just off to the side, out of vision, as your swarmed. And the gunshot, oh god Julianne Moore, the blood, the impossible tension, the everything. By never cutting, it never lets up. It’s one of the most visceral things I’ve ever seen.

The second oner comes at the very end of the film in which Clive Owen’s character walks through a city as tanks fire and guns blare, a man trying to navigate his way in the middle of a war zone. Now, on paper it should work the same way as the first in holding tension, only…it doesn’t work the same, does it? Not quite. For as many times as it works throughout the shot, there are as many times that the geography feels largely off with the subject in frame—many times that explosions and gun fire do not hit with the same impact. I watched it again and it sure a miracle of production logic, but I can’t help but argue how much more dramatic it would have been if had broken up certain points into 5 or 6 well-timed edits. They could have increased the tension instead of alleviating it and letting the air out as he crawled along (I feel like this is actually a lesson he learned during Gravity, which is an amazing movie because it knows when to break the building tension with frightening impact). The point between the two is that there is a more substantive part of communication beneath the mere feeling and texture of the shot itself.

Children of Men

Julianne Moore and Clive Own in Children of Men. Universal Pictures

So while I certainly understand that Speed Racer sure does “feel” like a lot of kinetic movement, I look at and see that the Wachowskis know their ABCs. It’s not style over substance at all, there is coherent substance and communication in every dang shot. It’s just they’re just pushing the texture overload to the limits. And so, what people are really telling us is that they just “don’t like this kind of style.” And that’s fine, but it’s a whole other conversation. One that weirdly brings us to the center of this push-pull between text and texture. What it shows us, is that there is a whole group of moviegoers out there who do not like craft (or even a certain kind of style) because they do not like being manipulated by movie. They do not like what it is trying to make them feel. And they do feel like they’re being “pushed around.”

Pushed Around

For all intents and purposes, Steven Spielberg is considered one of the greatest living filmmakers. But it’s for good reason. He’s not only made countless masterpieces, he’s a veritable master of cinematic language. He is someone who is so outrageously good at communicating the one, singular thing he wants you to feel as an audience member. It’s the reason so many kids fall in love with Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws or E.T. or Jurassic Park. It’s the same reason his dramatic fare like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan can plough and harrow your soul. He’s communicating the drama with maximum damn effectiveness. But I find there’s this thing that happens where, with some people (particularly when they hit certain teenage years) they suddenly don’t like that his films do this. They say they come off too strong. That they don’t like feeling manipulated. Maybe they’ve learned a couple of things about cinematic language and now they can “see the strings” of his work so clearly and it suddenly prevents them from “falling into” the movie the way they used to, and others still do. Maybe it’s more ethereal than that. Maybe they’d rather “come to it” instead of it coming to them. Maybe they’d rather do the work themselves. Maybe they’ve come to like filmmakers who delve more into ambiguity and less manipulation. And maybe those things are all fine.

But I don’t thing that makes Spielberg inherently “worse” at cinema. In fact, it’s precisely what makes him so good at it for so many people. As such, I find that a lot of people who may have once cast off their teenage worries about being manipulated (myself included), learn to connect to their feelings again and come right back around on Spielberg. You don’t need to put up walls and can just let yourself attach to the very idea of being manipulated, because that’s not really what it is. It’s communication. And I think it’s so important because the alternative is to keep disappearing further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole of worshiping “cinematic vagueness” in an ironic effort to connect by not feeling manipulated at all.

I remember going to Cannes and seeing the greatest possible example of this, witnessing the most high-brow, educated film conversation possible about a couple of foreign directors, but it was really just two jaded 40-something white guys essentially arguing “No, this person makes me feel something because I’m not being manipulated!” / “No THIS person makes me feel something because I’m not manipulated!” To which I furrowed my brow and went to grab another free drink. I know this statement might seem dismissive as hell, but I really find it to be the absolute nadir of where this whole text versus texture debate ends up, with two brilliant people unwittingly arguing that communication itself is a roadblock in communication. But it happens. Especially when you don’t understand the end goal of what you’re really after and why.

For instance, the conversation is certainly a lot more broad than some talk about Spielberg or foreign art films at Cannes. The broadest example of not liking manipulation is, of course, how some people don’t like horror or suspense movies. They just can’t handle the emotion of that and it’s totally cool. Especially if, afterwards, they will not be able to shake the things they have seen and internalize them. But for others? That torturous manipulation is exactly why they are in the theater. They want to scream and laugh and freak out and hold onto the edge of their seats. It’s all about what we want and are looking for in that experience of being manipulated. To willingly place “ourselves” in the experience. To indulge…but there are always things that get revealed in how and why we do that.

Jurassic Park. Universal Pictures

Case in point, there are some people who may like comedies, or may like horror movies, but there are people who absolutely do not like bouncing between two tones within a single movie. They feel this somehow makes the movie “ineffective” in its goal. And it happens to be the reason horror-comedies are a tougher sell—the hardcore audience can’t change tones. There are a surprising number of moviegoers who are afraid to have a movie bounce about and make them feel different things. They’ll see that very act as “bad.” They’ll say Sam Raimi’s horror or superhero movies are “too corny” (even if I’ve seen those making that argument on edge during the tense parts in his films). Because, for them, it might not really be about the fun of being manipulated in the moment, but an even deeper level of validation through the texture.

For instance, I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s the reason “singular tone” people tend to love the work of Christopher Nolan by comparison. And please know, I love his work too, and find him to be a damn smart storyteller. I think the reason The Dark Knight works is because it’s thematically freaking brilliant and has a lot on its mind. But, for many others, that’s just an added bonus. They tend to like all his films because no one commits harder to a serious singular tone. It’s like he makes every film in that slightly blue-gray lighting, with the cold hard people doing cold hard things. And all the while, that propulsive, energetic, Hans Zimmer-ian score pushes forward with driven angst. And it doesn’t matter if someone’s cracking a joke in the moment, Nolan will never break the tone for it (which is why a lot of the jokes in the movie don’t really land, but they’re not really intended to land. Landing would ruin all that serious energy). Why do people love and need this so much?

Well, that brings us to the damn crux of all this. Loving textural filmmaking is ultimately just about getting indulged in the feeling itself. I have yet to see an argument for “singular tone” that compels me beyond “it is easier to fall into it.” It is an end unto itself. So I could sit here and explain for days why the The Dark Knight is brilliantly told and why The Dark Knight Rises is a chaotic shit-show of a text-based story on all levels, but for some it just won’t matter. Because the tone keeps them in it. And while they’re “in it,” they’ll accept whatever is happening and believe it, regardless if it makes sense for the characters and regardless of what it’s really saying. Which brings us to the real danger of singular tones and textural filmmaking in general…

I remember I once met a guy who was a projectionist at a great theater. He was smart as hell. He had seen a zillion movies. I don’t think he knew the rules from studying person, but through pure absorption, I think intuitively knew all the rules and could thus “see the strings” of any movie that had any kind of real manipulation to it. And he had a fascinating argument for why he loved J.J. Abrams (and thereby his specific brand of textural filmmaking). For him, it’s because J.J. isn’t operating by story rules, but instead using the same intuitive story sense to constantly try to surprise the audience. He’ll zig instead of zag and constantly keeps the audience on their visceral toes without ever really building to a thing. For this viewer, he could throw all logic and story sensibility to the wind precisely because it allows him to zone out and feel something and emote along with it…It is as fascinating an argument as I’ve ever seen for liking his work, but when I think about this verbiage I realize how much it sounds like the language of addiction.

Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight. Warner Bros.

It is chasing the high of a certain kind of storytelling that is so divorced from all meaning. The story doesn’t matter. The “what” doesn’t matter. So, in the end, even the greatest argument for why texturalism matters to the “success” of us being able to fall into movies, just reeks of a kind of raw indulgence and craving of feeling over substance itself. You worship a kind of filmmaking where the entire point is to not think, and thus not understand what you’re swallowing.

And you will not understand how it affects you.

On The Way Home

There are a lot of things a movie has to do right to be good.

I don’t think people understand just how much movies are damn miracles. Often, while criticizing them, fans will act like you just press the “good writing” button or the “edit better” and the result pops out. Hell, most people barely even have an understanding of what those things even mean, let alone would recognize them if they saw it. This is not to be mean. it’s just point out that there’s an insane amount of work and it takes hundreds and hundreds of people being smart about different things, often all at once. And even when that happens, even when everyone pulls off miracles, there is ultimately no such thing as “doing everything right” with a movie. You can never really get everyone. There is no 100 percent.

But, thankfully, getting everyone isn’t really the point. It’s all about understanding who you’re getting, why, how, and how big you want that message to be. But within that, the goal of most movies is to tell a story that is as widely beloved and accepted as possible within those aims. And to do that, I think the best way is always to start with the building block of a foundational, coherent, motivated and meaningful story.

The “text” is effectually your skeleton. Without it, you have an amorphous blob that can ultimately be propped up to resemble something like a human being, but isn’t one. Sadly, the delights of a J.J. Abrams movies do not ultimately stick with us. They are fleeting. And we can certainly feel fleeting things, but deep, resonant meaning is the real reason things stick with us. And those things come from the coherent dramatized text of the experience. Meaning comes from empathy, recognition, and makes even the most universal subjects feel personal. These are the kinds of dramatized moments that stick with us not just on the way home, but days after we’ve seen a film. Sometimes even years later. Meaning comes from the dramatic act of being meaningful. And it’s the reason a film like Mad Max: Fury Road can be a pulse pounding thrill ride and also a giant treatise on patriarchal society that’s resonant enough to be nominated for best picture. It’s why a hilarious horror film like Get Out can be a brilliant film about race in America and earn the same honor. It’s why a film like Black Panther made such amazing, thunderous waves and resonated with so many people with thoughtful character arcs, motivated choices, and even with the little symbolic details. These films are not simply “about” these things, they are about them in a way that makes each one a well-told story, full of fascination for so many.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther.

Michael B. Jordan as Erik Killmonger and Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Matt Kennedy/Marvel Studios

They are great because of their texts.

And thus, I will argue again and again why this matters more than anything. Because text is what allows a film to be elevated by its texture. But who knows, maybe “text” is just my own particular barrier. Maybe I’m the kind of person who watches movies, and since I see the strings, always comments on the strings and how it affects my experience. But when I look at why movies like Black Panther are resounding successes, when I look why at why so many other “flash in the pan” movies end up being forgotten or divisive, I can’t help but double back down on my instincts and make this argument again. Because the truth is, I will never settle. I will never think any movie is “just” a comic book movie, or not worthy of being something more. I want every story to be its best possible self. I criticize Infinity War because I want every movie to be transcendent enough to be nominated for best picture. I want every film to stand the test of time for years and years on end. That’s what this is about. These things cost hundreds of millions of dollars. They take up years of people’s lives. And so I will always come back to the coherent, resonant, evergreen power of story. I will embrace text and the meaning of communication itself. And I will argue again and again that all the things that throw us “out” of a movie maybe shouldn’t. Maybe “falling into” a movie should not be the end goal and we should be engaging with movies every single damn way we can, because they will always be engaging with us in equal measure.

Perhaps this is a fool’s hope.

But whatever the push-pull of my own instincts, the conversation that exists between all these reference points is the apotheosis of everything that’s been on my mind. And as much as I argue for it, I do so only because I worry we are in the Tower of Babel, never understanding how another person could believe X or Y when we see Z. So just as we strive for the best in cinema, we always have to strive for the best in our conversational selves. Just like text and texture within a movie itself, it should never be a war…It should be a romance; a dance; a loving embrace.

A union.

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