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Make Our Myths

What is the motivation for our films?

How does the Australian film industry maintain its identity in this new age of filmmaking?

What should a screenwriter focus on in order to catch the audience?

The purpose of Australian feature film production, I propose, is not to tell our own stories.  The purpose of our feature film industry is to make our myths.

SCALE

The purpose of any feature film in our new media environment, is, technologically speaking, scale.  Feature films in cinemas may or may not survive the digital revolution, but if they do it will be because we crave a big, social experience, not a small, private one that we can watch on the 5 cm screen of our iphones.

The implications of this experiential ‘purpose’ are that the cinematics must be given stronger consideration.   Cinema is not made of moving images and sounds for no reason.  It is a sensual, vibrant experience of light, movement, colour, composition, tone and dynamics.

We can’t just make pictures and sounds we see every day.

It is bigger than life, more entrancing, more overwhelming, more transformative.

We can’t just make pictures and sounds we see every day, but must compose this art of movement on the scale of symphonies. And scale is also salient to making our myths.  Myth is, by definition, larger than life.

ARCHETYPES

The ancient Greek and Roman Gods at the heart of so many western story telling are larger than life beings, embodying human traits and living those traits in extremes for the purpose of testing their strength and understanding their qualities.   They are archetypes.

As embodied beings, mythological gods and heroes serve the purpose of making something that is abstract into something that is alive and kicking.  And there are dozens of these gods and heroes.  There are the big ones, such as the goddess of love, Aphrodite, and the God of War, Ares.  But there are many, many others, who embody traits like foresight, chaos, wisdom, or trickery.

The story is bigger than just
the person who feels chaotic or capricious.

When a myth is made about these traits it is ‘our own story’. it is the telling of a story in which some core human quality comes into conflict with another.  But the story is bigger than just the person who feels chaotic or capricious.

It becomes mythic when it embodies that quality on a scale that is potent, active, calamitous and consequential.

DYNAMICS

Dynamics are central, absolutely core, to the purpose of cinema. The Greek root word of ‘cinema’ is ‘kine’, meaning movement, and this is what we go to the cinema for: An experience of moving images, moving sounds and moving stories.

Dynamics must be given active attention in constructing a movie.  They are the audience’s immediate, kinaesthetic, physiological experience of meaning.

Dynamics are central, absolutely core, to the purpose of cinema.
The Greek root word of ‘cinema’ is ‘kine’, meaning movement,

Change and modulation of force and conflict or confluence of energies of life, emotion, image and sound are understood by audiences at an immediate physical level, a communication direct to the body that precedes our cognitive understanding of plot events.

Dynamics are taught in music composition, but dynamics of sound and image construction are not given enough attention in the teaching of cinema in Australia.  Nor are dynamics of story.

THE DYNAMICS OF STORY

Story dynamics are the rise and fall of movement and energy in the story events.  Construction of these relies on construction of dynamic dramatic questions.  A dramatic question is a question that implies action and has something at stake.

It often starts with the word ‘will’ and it always has an active verb in it, not a passive one.  Will someone do something, get something, achieve some thing, not: does someone feel or experience something.  Action is dynamic, it forces change, movement of story, emotion, images and sounds.    Creating dynamics is the reason for taking human traits and embodying them in Gods.

It often starts with the word ‘will’ and
it always has an active verb in it, not a passive one.

In ancient mythology Gods give these traits a body and power with which to act.

Having something at stake is the other important half of a dramatic question.  Stakes create dynamism by making us care.  The more we care, the more we experience the movement between hope and fear.  We hope something will happen, we fear it won’t.  These things, in a myth, have room to move dynamically.

In real life, relationships that may have potential for hope and fear can stay the same forever.  It is possible to be quietly irritated by someone for 20 years without ever becoming antagonistic.  Relationships with colleagues, friends and family have dynamic and dramatic potential, but tend to stay static as we avoid confrontation, get along, compromise a bit and muddle through.

We don’t really want to live dynamics, we want to live peacefully, but want to see dynamics make relationship myths on the big screen.

We should not tell our own stories, we should make our myths.

River of SorrowWe should resurrect the debate about our purpose and offered a challenge to our implied assumptions about genre, emotion and entertainment.  I’ve also argued that we should not tell our own stories, we should make our myths, and that the difference between our own stories and our myths are scale, dynamics and ownership.

I have sketched out some ideas about scale and dynamics, but I have not yet made a case about ownership, because this is where all of the ideas come together.

OWNERSHIP

The notion of ownership is deeply embedded in the phrase ‘tell our own stories’ but the question of who the owner is needs to be confronted here.

If the ‘owner’ of the ‘our own stories’ is the person or people with the money to make the movies or the filmmakers who raise the money, then we are ascribing ownership to a very small, and by our own admission, culturally proscribed group of people.

Myth on the other hand is owned by everyone it speaks to, and it speaks to humans more broadly than within specific cultures or societies.   In order to be a myth is has to be a story bigger than ‘our own’.

This does not mean it has to be an American movie. American movies are based in American myths, and these are not the same as Australian myths.

I speak from personal experience here, Americans believe in manifest destiny and Australians do not.  Americans are raised to behave as though they could become the president of the United States and Australians are not.

Americans believe in manifest destiny and Australians do not.

American movies uphold the underlying myths of pursuing your destiny or dreams, and taking individual action in the world.  So, dynamics and scale come easily to those myth makers, which is why it may seem as though to argue for scale and dynamics is to argue for Americanisms.  But I hope that this is not the case.

As David Stratton writes in his review of Blessed in The Weekend Australian on September 12, 2009 “we don’t do Hollywood style movies very well.”   However, he has also called 2009 an “annus mirabilis” for Australian film, using a mythically saturated word, miraculous, for a year that has seen some remarkable myth making by Australians.

Robert Connolly has mythologised the Balibo five and awakened exactly the sort of energy to work towards ideals that myths are capable of doing.  Warwick Thornton has create a mythically resonant tale of indigenous kids sniffing petrol – with an optimistic ending – are these heroes not ideals for all indigenous cultures and their colonisers to work with?

Mao’s Last Dancer is classic myth making: the dynamics of a rags to riches/ repression to freedom/struggle to triumph story, with dancing on a spectacular scale.  It not only has built in international ownership across the U.S., China and Australia, but it’s a story owned by anyone who strives.

Mao’s Last Dancer is classic myth making:
the dynamics of a rags to riches.

Myth making does not mean movies have to be happy or sad, smart or dumb, expensive or cheap, real or surreal.  They must have scale, dynamics, and ownership by more than just their makers.  Don’t tell our own stories, make our myths.

Dr Karen Pearlman, is Head of Screen Studies at the Australian Film, Radio and TV School. She is co-director of the multi-award winning Physical TV Company. She was a co-editor on Performing the Unnameable; An Anthology of Australian Performance Texts and has published essays and articles in Metro, RealTime, The Journal of Performance Studies and other anthologies, conferences proceedings and journals. This essay is published in full in the 2nd issue of Lumina, AFTRS new  Journal of Screen Arts and Business. Visit www.aftrs.edu.au to find out more about Lumina.

Creative Commons License photo credits
Myth images: h.koppdelaney
K.Pearlman: AFTRS

About the Author

Karen Pearlman

Comments 4

  1. In the past I have commented on the same myth building in British films, case-in-point Carol Reed’s production of The Third Man. It’s primarily a story regarding an American in Vienna, yet it’s hailed as one of the best British films of all time. It goes beyond the parameters of “what the british story is” and is a taut and playful thriller striking at the heart of betrayal and friendship. Anybody can buy into that, regardless of what their nationality is. If a Swede had authored it, we’d be calling it a classic Swedish film. All it takes is a writer able to tell the strongest possible story they can, regardless of whether it ticks some box on a funding application.

  2. Unfortunately, it’s not screenwriters who determine which movies get made. The success or failure of the Australian film industry doesn’t sit at the feet of writers, unless we become more involved in the decision making process as producers, in which case we’ll have more influence.

  3. Who says we have to look for Australian money to fund a script? If it’s a universal myth you could find the funding any where.

  4. Pingback: Myth Making, Chindian Diaries and Diaspora Films @ ICE - Design Federation

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