Sunday, May 2, 2010

Tell Me a Story ...

People who know me well, know that -- along with clowns and food fights -- fictional anthropomorphic animals are some of my least favorite things. (Talking raccoons dressed as clowns having a food fight? I shudder just thinking of it). Lately I've been mentally harassed by the ad for a family movie called Furry Vengeance, in which animals seek revenge on Hollywood's least-discriminating actor, Brendan Fraser. Apparently, Fraser's character is a real estate developer who is going to destroy the homes of a bunch of woodland creatures ... but then they decide to fight back.

Don't worry. I am not going to go see this movie. One thing about it does intrigue me, however. (No, it's not the fact that in the trailer, Fraser screams "Miley Cyrus!", instead of swearing, when a boulder almost hits his car. Like Fraser's character, I always have time for a pop culture reference when my life is in danger.)

What intrigues me is that this movie is the second to be produced with money from a partnership between two companies called Participant Media and Imagenation Abu Dhabi, through which they seek to make movies that are socially responsible and commercially viable, particularly those with an environmental bent. The partnership's first film was The Crazies, a remake of a 1970's George Romero horror flick about a toxin that makes people, well, crazy.

Why is this idea so great? I mean, the movies that have come from this partnership are hardly Oscar-caliber. And I think that's what I like. These two companies aren't trying to make "message movies" that will put people to sleep. They're trying to scare us or make 8-year-old boys laugh when Brendan Fraser gets hosed in the groin by a raccoon. By slipping the messages in with the pitchfork-wielding zombies and dancing squirrels, these filmmakers are harnessing the human brain's natural affinity for traditional narrative styles.

Excuse me for a moment while I get geeky on you.

In 1977, two cognitive psychologists named Mandler and Johnson published a study that basically said that we remember stories better if they conform to a traditional structure than if the stories subvert that structure. In other words, when we see the basic good guy-bad guy genre piece, we'll remember it more clearly than we will an artsy French movie in which the action unfolds backward and all of the characters are ambiguous. One isn't better than the other, it's just a consequence of the early environment in which stories were passed along orally.

You may have noticed (if you read every word in this blog obsessively) that a few posts have the tag "Green Narrative." That's what I decided to call it when the stories in our society are tinged with green -- when a body in an episode of Bones is found in an energy-efficient washer, or when a blockbuster movie about blue aliens is undergirded with an environmental message (but click here to read what I think of that particular narrative). Ultimately, I think that the trend toward greening up our narratives -- especially our genre narratives -- has much more potential to change the way people think than any opinion piece in Grist or The Huffington Post.

I'll tell you one story about why I think that if this trend continues, minds are going to slowly change. When I was a kid, I loved Scooby Doo. In fact, one of my favorite dresses was my "Daphne dress" because - duh - it looked like Daphne's. Now, on Scooby Doo, almost all of the villains are real estate developers, polluters, and the like. Basically, they used fake hauntings to try to get cheap land for their nefarious ends.

To this day, I think of real estate developers as creeps. Of course, many, especially in our LEED-certified era, are socially-responsible. However, because of the narrative consistency of Scooby's writers -- to the point where the unmasking of the villain at the end of every episode became a widespread joke -- I will always have a slightly bad taste in my mouth when I think of developers. If more stories convey the greening of our culture in ways that people actually want to watch, I think that will go a long way toward altering the way people think -- just as it formed my five-year-old opinions.

I have a few more thoughts about narrative and how it can help or hurt our movement, but I've rambled on for way too long already. I may write more about this soon, but if you're just dying for more, click the "Green Narrative" tag to see past posts on this topic.


thelifeofdesmondriley said...

How about raccoons dressed as clowns having a MAYONNAISE food fight? Woot!

Desmond loves Scooby Doo. I'd say it's his favorite cartoon. Hopefully he'll grow up to be like you.

thelifeofdesmondriley said...

Hey, I remember that grassy path...

Catfish said...

I actually thought about mayonnaise first, but the food fight on Community last week made me realize that I hate all food fights.

Melanie said...

Haha. That's exactly what I came here to comment about - you forgot your favorite creamy white colloid! And I agree - food fights are nasty...and there is a high probability there will be flying mayonnaise.