Storytelling vs. Art

When I initially started writing my thoughts here, I contacted a few of my colleagues to contribute as well. Garen Barsegian was one of the first to reply. A seasoned producer and director out of New York City, Garen has worked with Empire Green on multiple NYC-based productions.

The last time Garen and I worked together, we began a conversation about symbolism vs. storytelling in filmmaking. I was fresh off some Winding-Refn films and digging the concept of beginning with abstract symbolism then crafting a story around those symbols. Garen was like “Uh uh uh, buddy. You got it all wrong…”

Garen writes,

As a person that’s excited about art, photography, sculpture and design it’s difficult for me to create something that doesn’t embody or focus on one of those elements. It took me a long time to realize that there was a fundamental flaw in this approach. It’s a common problem that exists in content creation today – of which I’m guilty of as well. The problem is - often times the visual impact of a film takes precedence over the narrative. In many ways it feels like we’re doing it all backwards.

It should be noted that in film making so many variables exist and personally the most incredible films are those that harmoniously balance or focus these many variables to service the narrative. In this way – the story takes precedence and all of the variables (sound, music, camera choice, lensing choice, talent, art, props, etc..) simply function to tell this story in the most authentic way possible.

If the story is weak, nothing you can ever do will correct this. Sure you can improve it or mask it – but you can never correct it. That’s why it’s so important to make sure the story is strong and well thought out. What’s also amazing about filmmaking is that it’s a collaborative medium incorporating many different people (department heads), which specialize in these various areas. They can all help to elevate your story and tell it in a unique way. The more experience you have the easier it is to find the harmony between the story and how to execute it – sometimes developing both simultaneously.  

The best example of this is in two films created by my favorite director & cinematographer duo – Wong Kar Wai & Christopher Doyle. It should be noted that Fallen Angels & In The Mood For Love are two completely different films. One (Fallen Angels) set in the 90s in the fluorescent-lit Hong Kong about a serial killer who's fallen in love with his partner and the second a period film (In The Mood For Love) about two neighbors who discover their spouses are cheating on them.

Fallen Angels, 1998

In the Mood for Love, 2001

The best example of this is in two films created by my favorite director & cinematographer duo – Wong Kar Wai & Christopher Doyle. It should be noted that Fallen Angels & In The Mood For Love are two completely different films. One (Fallen Angels) set in the 90s in the fluorescent-lit Hong Kong about a serial killer who's fallen in love with his partner and the second a period film (In The Mood For Love) about two neighbors who discover their spouses are cheating on them.

The two films, although created by the same team, utilize uniquely different techniques in cinematography to help tell their respective stories. While in Fallen Angels the handheld, neurotic and fluorescently lit city helps evoke the disillusioned inner psyche of our protagonist, In The Mood For Love employs incredibly steady and carefully composed camera movements to align with the careful preparations the two cheating spouses engage to see each other. In this way, both films let the story dictate the visuals – not the other way around.

The other side of this argument - art for the sake of experimentation and self-expression – is entirely excluded from this conversation. The point is - art for the sake of art and art utilized to tell story are completely acceptable – it’s the midpoint that does neither well that should be reconsidered.

You can view Garen's collective work, Whooden, here.