- Important, Not Important
- The Best Kinds of Stories
The Best Kinds of Stories
Sharks, Barbie, Tom Hanks, and Jackie Robinson
I’m Quinn Emmett, and this is science for people who give a shit.
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How To Tell A Story
My kid wants to watch Jaws.
Forgetting for a brief moment my incalculable angst at how quickly my children are growing up, I am, on the one hand, elated to finally be on the cusp of sharing some of my favorite "(adult) movies with my kids.
On the other, his request prompted an interesting discussion between us where I had to explain how different Jaws is from other “scary” classics like, Jurassic Park.
Sure, there’s some pretty obvious similarities: For example, both films feature people being eaten alive.
In both films, humans insert themselves into a food chain where they are not the alpha. Both are iconic as hell, both are adapted from novels, with different screenwriters, but directed by the same iconic director, using many of the same cinematic tools (most notably, like Alien, not fully revealing the “bad guy” until well into the movie).
But there are also so many, many differences between them, and in talking them over (and over) with an impatient, skeptical ten year old, it reminded me just how much intentions matter, and how much the intended audience matters.
Intentions — intended audiences, messages, lessons, carefully calibrated for maximum effect — are what make the bodies that pile up in the cold-open shootout in Star Wars: A New Hope different from the ones on Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan.
Knowing your audience is what makes the Emperor’s fictional Stormtroopers different from Hitler’s real life Storm Troopers, what makes a revived T.Rex different than ancient IRL Jaws.
At the right age, it’ll definitely give you nightmares, but the first situation simply, definitely will not happen to you — you have less than zero odds of being ripped off a toilet by a T.Rex or blasted by force lightning by a Sith Lord.
But the latter situation could very well happen to you, because at some point in your life you will probably go into the ocean and because sharks actively (if relatively rarely) eat people, because they have been around for hundreds of millions of years and we are just the next soft and delicious treat to wander into waves.
But in trying to explain these things to him, I thought about how much deeper a movie like Jaws can intentionally be, because the intended audience is (supposedly) more capable of deeper lessons.
On the surface (get it?), Jaws doesn’t seem to want to say as much about “us” and our choices as something like The Wire or Parasite, but look deeper and you can see a story about fatherhood, about the middle class, the power of local government, about corrupt politicians in the time of Nixon, or if you’re Fidel Castro, about a heroic great white shark absolutely laying waste to American capitalism.
As with most art, YMMV.
For my ten year old, most of that doesn’t apply yet, so my argument to him was simplified:
The best movies and TV stick with you, they reframe your perspective, they open your mind to an experience outside of (or long before) your own.
The first 5 minutes of UP are nearly as traumatic as any episode of Band of Brothers.
Finding Nemo and Coco do vitally important work to gently introduce lessons about loss and family and the long-tail of grief. Barbie goes hard at the patriarchy, sexism, and more.
Wall-E is one of the most romantic movies of all-time, set in a world destroyed by capitalism, convenience, and consumerism, starring a (nearly) wordless robot who believes in us more than we ever did, who is committed to getting up every day and doing the work.
Hayao Miyazaki’s movies — which I was criminally late to — say so much about protecting our relationship with the environment around us, about gratitude, kindness, and purpose.
Still — it’s not uncommon to walk out of a movie and wonder what exactly the writer and director (and producers, and editors, and VFX, and costumers, etc etc etc) wanted to say, what they wanted us to take away from their years of work.
Sometimes the message is personal, sometimes it’s on the nose, sometimes it’s subtle and complex.
Forty-eight years after Jaws came out, I think it’s clear Steven Spielberg didn’t have anything against the ocean specifically, but he has spent many of the in-between years exploring his dad issues (sometimes subtly, and other times much less so).
With Jaws at least, dads do feature heavily, but he also really wanted to scare the shit out of you with a real-life scenario.
Spielberg didn’t direct Jaws 2, but the tagline says it all: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...”
Which couldn’t be more different than “A long time ago, in a land far, far away” or another of my all-time favorites, “You’ll believe a man can fly” (Superman ‘78).
I want to be clear here: I love Dumb and Dumber, Schitt’s Creek, and cooking shows. I watch a lot of baseball and soccer. There’s plenty of room for movies and TV designed explicitly to take your mind off of the world around us, for just a couple hours — and believe me when I say that’s most of my programming these days.
But cinema and television — and where they have often been blurred over the past twenty years — have a long history of intentionally making something you have to see, and making it so well, so timely, so vitally important, and so brutally honest that you also can’t unsee it.
Which is the point.
Think of Jaws and Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan, but also Glory, 9-5, Schindler’s List, Parasite, Get Out, Hustlers, Moonlight, His Girl Friday, Children of Men, Mad Max: Fury Road, The Wire, M*A*S*H*, Pose, Steven Universe, I May Destroy You, The Handmaid’s Tale, and so many more.
The point is for you to know and to understand something vitally important, as much as you can from one movie or show. And maybe — maybe — we, the audience, will take just enough away from those stories and characters to make different choices in the real world.
That’s the power of film and TV (and books, but that’s a different post).
I spend the vast majority of my time here explaining that our huge intersecting systems are simply choices we have made, and our mostly inequitable problems the results of those.
The great news, as always, is that we can make different ones. We have to make different ones. We get to make different ones. What a privilege!
We have enormous problems, but as they’re mostly of our own making, and because we have so much evidence of how much good we can do, across people and time, our problems are inspirational as hell (to me, and tens of thousands of you all).
Think of those revelatory movies and TV that urge us to persevere through a slightly more hopeful tone: Eternal Sunshine, Rocky, Inside Out, Elf, Thelma and Louise, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Paddington 2, Home Before Dark, ET, Chariots of Fire, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Moana.
Saving Private Ryan isn’t a short film, it’s not just about those first twenty minutes, the absolute graphic horror of “Watch and remember how fifty-four years ago almost 200,000 people walked/swam/jumped onto the meat grinder beaches of Normandy, France.”
The real horror was why they had to do D-Day. The horror was what might happen if my grandparents’ generation didn’t risk it all. The same goes — in a much less epic presentation by the same director — for a dramatized Oskar Schindler.
So they did risk it all, and that effort, that risk, that transformation, is where the beauty is. That’s where the story is.
200,000 people from the US, UK, and other Allied countries, a small fraction of the tens of millions of Allied troops who were eventually mobilized throughout the war, including both of my grandfathers — many of whom would die in coming days, weeks, and months — signed up or were drafted to basically be shredded by beach-going Nazis.
Because that’s simply what it had come to, it was what we had to do, and it was worth the risk.
It is horrific, still, and heroic and hopeful all the same — look at what we can do if we have to if we decide to, however ugly it will be.
There are a gazillion reasons why we keep making movies about World War II and the people who fought in it, because they are beautiful and remind us over and over that we have faced make or break moments before, and remind us of what we are capable of.
We are often presented with the opportunity to do the hard thing, to put our own thumb on the scale of history, however risky it may be and however much we do truly, viscerally fear that risk.
Bodies on Normandy Beach or Jews hidden in the attic are among the most-utilized stories for a reason — because it is always worth another reminder.
But those aren’t the only stories we have told, and have to keep telling.
We have to make The Underground Railroad and 12 Years of Slave and Lincoln and The Color Purple because it’s really, really important we don’t forget what we did.
Because we’re still struggling to live up to the myth of America, because the same people are still suffering at the hands of power systems that don’t operate too different from those two hundred years ago — just with touch screens.
As Lincoln shows, it was (eventually) very clear (to half of us) what we had to do, then, even if doing it couldn’t erase what had transpired here for two hundred and forty-six years, and even if it required enormous sacrifice to do it, even if it would never be enough.
But like I said above, a movie like Saving Private Ryan doesn’t stop after the first 20 minutes, and like most ambitious art, is about so much more than its setting or inciting incident.
If you’re unfamiliar, the film’s actually mostly about what happens immediately after: a platoon of American soldiers is ordered to risk their own lives to retrieve another solider — some guy they don’t even know — from some distant battlefield before he can be killed.
Why? Because it is revealed that guy’s three brothers were all killed in action at Omaha Beach, and, despite everything else, four-for-four brothers wasn’t a sacrifice the fictionalized George C. Marshall was willing to accept.
So these few, otherwise ordinary young men reluctantly take the job, under an unknowable captain.
Increasingly and understandably, though — becoming brothers-in-arms themselves along the way, being picked off one-by-one along the way — they operate with something like bitter jealousy.
Even Tom Hanks, playing the stoic captain, wonders sometimes how this one man, Private Ryan, could be worth so much.
The secret, though, is there’s no one main character to defeating evil, or to radical progress.
It was never just about Lincoln. There is no personal vs systemic. Patton didn’t win the war, Churchill didn’t win the war, Anne Frank’s diary didn’t turn the tide of the war — millions of people acting towards the same goal from Pearl Harbor to Stalingrad to Australia won the war.
We chose to do impossible things then because either everyone else was, or because no one else was.
We did them because if we didn’t, someone, somewhere, was going to keep suffering much more than we ever would, or even more people would eventually suffer, and eventually — now — we had to try to stop it.
And if we could, to reverse it, to build something even safer and better.
And we remember what our ancestors did because choose to keep telling their stories.
The best time to plant a tree was yesterday, the best time to punch a Nazi is all of the time, and it’s always, always the perfect moment to share stories of what we have done to protect one another, to share stories that have never been told before, from perspectives that’ve never been shared before, about real-life heroes we’ve never seen before.
And — this is key — to imagine what else we could do in the time to come, from figuring out how to build trains and make malaria vaccines work to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s and glorifying teaching so that maybe, maybe, we’ll make it a well-paying job.
We have to make movies and TV about what we can do, together, to bring to life something better.
I write and podcast etc from a place of enormous privilege — I have a world-class education, health, money, a computer, the internet, a microphone, relationships, scientists and investors and elected officials on-call — and all of you.
Now, at the turn of the tide, when the chips are down and the future lies wide open in front of us, I use them to produce a blog and a podcast, which is decidedly not the same as operating a submarine or TBM Avenger, like my grandfathers did.
Regardless, even these tools give me enormous leverage to help bend the needle.
Once, years ago, I embarked on my third or fourth career, this time as a Hollywood screenwriter and producer, where it is rumored you are statistically more likely to play in an NFL game than to get one of your screenplays made.
That’s all still on-going, actually (though you may have heard we’re currently on strike), and — delightfully — I’m increasingly finding more opportunities to marry that work with my work here.
To not only support the people who are suffering on the frontlines of climate change or without health care or both, but also the people who are working on the frontlines of the future (they are often necessarily the same people) to invent a new future and then make that future accessible to everyone, this time.
We have to tell their stories. This is another version of Compound Action.
We Shit Givers, and millions more before and after us, do the work in real life, and then masterful storytellers (not me) tell the stories of how we did it, so more people understand what we do, and what we’re capable of, together.
So that even more people, later, stretched across time, are inspired by and directly benefit from that real-life work, and the cleaner, healthier world it provides.
All so even better and more representative storytellers can come along and recount in cinematic glory what happened here, and why, what the struggle was like, what we overcame, the (real) bad guys standing in our way, and how fucking incredible it felt to have bent the needle towards progress just a bit more.
Rinse and repeat.
This is all especially true for historically marginalized writers, who are almost always the most marginalized groups in open society, who are the keepers of our untold stories.
Do you think it is some wild coincidence that Black mothers in America are three to four times as likely to die in or after childbirth, and that across 1600 of the best-performing films of the last 16 years, just 15 were directed by Black women?
We can tell stories about the people we know working to slow the climate crisis, on the frontlines of COVID, about pregnancy and motherhood, about the oceans, our soil, our skies and winds and trees.
But we also have to work so much harder to unlock the systems to make sure people are able to tell their own stories.
We can’t just keep telling the same World War II stories.
We have to tell stories about the real-life women who operated essential spy rings during World War II (and World War I); who seduced and lured Nazis out of taverns into the dark woods to be quietly slaughtered, one-by-one; about the Black men fighting for freedom abroad for a country that wouldn’t give it to them at home.
Rinse and repeat for the Civil War, for COVID, for wildfires, for hurricanes, for the youths winning in court on climate, about small town community health clinics, about teachers and children, about farmers and mental health, about the ocean, about fighting for basic necessities.
Like how Saving Private Ryan finally brought to life D-Day in a way The Longest Day could only dream of, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Booksmart and Hustlers stand on the shoulders of 9-5 and Tootsie, devastatingly specific art with a timeless, broadly applicable message:
Shit is hard, it doesn’t have to be this way, we can do better, but it’ll take all of us.
I am a proud advisor to the Good Energy project, and last year the wonderful people behind it published a playbook where they eloquently described just a few of the stories we could tell through dramas and comedies, romances and mysteries alike:
We can and should tell these stories to not only share what is being done to so many by actual fucking bad guys, but also to show and share how we can help.
And that’s why I will keep showing my kids films and TV they can’t unsee, to not only contextualize and check their own privilege but so they are inspired to put it to use.
I can’t unsee Selma, but I also can’t unsee The Good Place. Not because they are anything alike, except in asking big questions about how I should be spending my limited time on this rock.
We keep making and watching movies and TV we can’t unsee because they move us so steadfastly to go out and do real shit.
From Ella Riley-Adams at The New York Times:
Frankly, I don’t care if they’re versions of real-life people, or sci-fi or fantasy, or one inspired by the other. Frodo doesn’t exist on paper or screen if Tolkien didn't have some serious World War I baggage to work out. Whatever moves the needle. Use it.
We can make movies and shows for kids and ones for adults, and those beautiful four-quadrant versions for the whole family — whatever your family looks like.
Watch movies for the people in your family already terrified to go into the basement alone, written by one of the greatest horror actors of all time.
*is your favorite character’s basement making strange noises because of sea level rise, or because of a poltergeist? THERE’S ONLY ONE WAY TO FIND OUT, SUSIE.
In any version, whatever the intended audience, however action-packed or romantic (or both!) — make something we can’t unsee.
Make movies, see movies, write books and poems and short stories. Produce historical fiction or satire or both.
Start your kids and nieces and charges with dinosaurs, clownfish, and robots, sure. Move up to sharks when they’re damn sure they’re ready (narrator: they’re not).
Dabble in Remember the Titans, and eventually you’ll find your way to Just Mercy and Do the Right Thing.
Do Life is Beautiful, Hidden Figures, Turning Red, The Imitation Game, and 42.
Watch The Great Escape, A League of Their Own, The Hate U Give, Abbott Elementary, Au Revoir Les Enfants, and so much more.
Do the work with us today, here, and maybe someday, someone will tell your story.
In this fun new section, we’re including one thing that recently blew our GD minds. You’re welcome.