Great Flicks hinted at secrets of storytelling that splashed large across the silver screen so I read it as a break from the stories themselves. I don’t know that I learned as much about telling stories as I did about some of the odd, quirky, fascinating and disturbing relationships of the various parts of the cinema art to each other. Dean Keith Simonton has written a popular dissertation on the science of cinema and I am immensely grateful that he explains every step of his research and every stat in language my tired brain can comprehend.
This might be a how-to-put-together a blockbuster for a producer, or an award-winner for a director. Many elements of film are quantified, compared and analysed with surprising results. I thought the material held the seeds of any number of stories that might make a good book–the relative importance of the best actor and best actress awards at the box office, for instance. An Oscar for best female performance as a leading character has the same box office impact as a nomination for best actor. This makes me think of Ginger Rogers doing the exact same dance as Fred Astaire, only in heels and backwards. The entire section on stars and their career trajectories, awards and associations with critically-acclaimed films, mega-moneymakers, and certain film genres is an infuriating mirror of our unevolved, mysogynist society. Pause. Breathe. OK–rant over.
The chapter on music, mood and money examines Mozart’s enduring soundtrack popularity and the dissonance between best song and best score–and concludes that music is an expense in the film budget that doesn’t always justify itself. It’s not surprising that the dramatic and visual elements of a film are predictors of critical acclaim, awards and popularity. The actors, directors and story, as well as the cinematography and editing and all the art that goes into each shot, are what movies are about. Story does make a difference in golden statues snagged and tickets sold. The kind of story is the first criteria most people use for deciding whether to see a film–if you hide under the seat at horror you might opt for the romantic comedy. If you love to watch animated things blowing each other up you will pass on the art house examination of the poet’s life with those fine British actors. And here’s one for all you novelists who dream of your very own Oscar now that the movie option has been picked up. According to Simonton’s analysis, “No matter what the specific nature of the source–play, novel, or whatever–its creator tends to interfere with the process of producing a marketable script…films based on such author adaptations tend to open on fewer screens and to bring in a smaller first weekend gross.” IOW, stick to fiction, baby.
Great Flicks is an instructive look at the science of cinema but it’s number crunching with insight. Useful, occasionally eye-opening, an enjoyable and exhaustive collection of film business facts and conclusions. But no prescription for how to wrap the magic of cinema around your black-and-white, pre-talkie, prose work-in-progress. For that, you’ll just have to go see a lot more movies to spark your imagination. Or read Story by Robert McKee for a deconstruction of some classic films. Simonton will explain to you the Meryl Streep Effect and when to release your major award contender to increase your odds of marching down the red carpet. But you’ll have to come up with the dialog and the word-pictures for your page-by-page bestseller the old-fashioned way.
Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics Dean Keith Simonton | Oxford University Press 2011