Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Universal Stories

If you don't care about the Oscars, I'm sure there's a subreddit where everyone holds heartfelt discussions about how they're not like everyone else, and therefore don't care about the Super Bowl or award shows, and only truly enjoy urinating on random parade-goers.

Whether you watch the award show or not, you've probably heard about the snafu that led to Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty incorrectly announcing that La-La Land won Best Picture, and the gracious correction as the producers called Barry Jenkins onstage to accept the award for Moonlight. A lot of viewers were so angry at La-La Land winning that they turned off the television and missed the retraction until the resulting explosion on social media. It was an experience.

I wanted Moonlight to win (my other favorites were Arrival and Hell or High Water, but I didn't have as high hopes for them) but I expected La-La Land to sweep it. I enjoy musicals, but I found La-La Land to be rather boring when they weren't singing and dancing, and after The Neon Demon, the glorification of a naif's image of Hollywood, where the worst thing that happens to you is when no one shows up for your show and Philistines make you play "Jingle Bells" didn't really compel me. And while Moonlight is specifically about a gay black boy growing into manhood, it is really about anyone who wears a mask to avoid the condemnation and bullying of society. It was a beautifully filmed character study with excellent performances, and characters we rarely see.

You could say the same about Manchester by the Sea, which I enjoyed but felt needed a stronger editor. I really didn't need to see that many scenes of a crappy teenage band or the gray ocean, and for a working man's film it ignores the realities of a maintenance man leaving his job for weeks, and a charter fisherman who never seems to take anyone out to sea. It might as well have been a typical Hollywood rich family who never have to work, after he left Boston. Hell or High Water, I hoped would at least win original screenplay. I really enjoyed Arrival and how it made me think the unthinkable, to try to understand a way of viewing time that we can't experience. It's no 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it was one of the best science fiction stories brought to screen, with strong performances, and a story that made the intergalactic personal.

The thing about Moonlight's win is, don't let anyone tell you that your story isn't "universal." How is a story about a bullied kid any less universal than one about two beautiful, talented people trying to break into movies and music? Or one about a man who hates himself, so he refuses to let himself be happy? Human stories are universal. Anyone who has ever worn a mask to get through the day would find Moonlight or Manchester "universal." Find an agent or publisher who sees the universality of your story.

1 comment:

Holly West said...

Good point. I wonder if agents and editors mean something different when they say a story isn't "universal," like it's some kind of catch-all for "something is missing." Because if you succeed in capturing the human element of your story, it's automatically universal because we can relate to a character's emotions and reactions even if we haven't experienced the situation that caused them ourselves.