Film School Confidential: Story or Metaphor?

Last week, I had the pleasure to attend a special screening of Winter’s Bone as part of NYU’s annual film festival. It is a fantastic film, one of the best of last year, and it was great to see it on the big screen for the first time (I had seen it on DVD previously). The screening also included a Q&A session with the director Debra Granik, who graduated from NYU’s graduate film program in the early 2000’s. The Q&A was fascinating and very pertinent: the audience was mostly eager NYU film students aspiring and wishing for the surprise success Granik’s tiny indie film managed to garner last year, and the questions were very pertinent and interesting: questions about the production process, the casting process, working with the actors, creating the setting, researching for the script. Granik is a lovely, charming lady full of insight, offering us practical tips and candid views and opinions about the behind-the-scenes of the film industry.

And then, one of the film professors raised his hand. This professor, from the grad department I assume since Granik seemed to know who he was, asked her the following question: (I wrote it down)

“It is my opinion that Winter’s Bone is the greatest American cinematic masterpiece of the last 20 years. I was wondering if you could talk about the film as a metaphor for the changing role of women in American society?”

I was slightly taken aback by the over analytical nature of this question, and it seemed like Granik was too. She took a few moments to gather her thoughts, and then answered the question as sincerely and candidly as I would have expected. She explained that she decided to make this film because she had enjoyed the book, was entertained by its juicy plot, its exotic setting, and most importantly, in its strong female protagonist. As she explained, she certainly picked the project because of the tenacity and activeness of the female protagonist. But she never intended the film to be anything more than just a good story. This notion struck me as a particularly important concept in becoming a better filmmaker. What should be important to us as filmmakers: to hold a mirror up to society? To tell grand, metaphorical tales rife with symbolism and deeper meaning? Or should the number one priority be to just tell a good story? Though my filmmaking in high school seemed to mostly be informed by the former, lately I have been leaning very strongly on the latter.

My friend, who is also studying film but at a different school in Israel, often gives me updates about his various classes and projects. In one particular class, the professor asks her students to bring in abstract metaphorical ideas, and to construct films around them. Every decision has to have a deliberate artistic reason intended by the director. To me, though, this just seems backwards. It seems to me that the most important thing is to tell a good story with strong characters, and any artistic meaning or metaphor stems out of that good story. I also believe in the value of individual interpretation – the beauty of art is that every observer or viewer can walk away from an art piece having seen something completely different. Art can be interpreted in many different ways and mean something else to each individual viewer. It doesn’t matter what vague symbolic concepts the artist intended to include, if at all. All the power to the film professor who understood Winter’s Bone as a metaphor for the changing role of women in American society. Granik herself admitted that she did not set out making the film with that interpretation in mind. It just seemed odd that he would ask her so directly about it, as if every filmmaker has a metaphorical agenda for their stories. Certainly some directors do. But I feel like the best films are the ones that simply work as narratives

Later that same week, we had another special screening. This time, it was a special advanced screening of Hanna, something that film studios often do (advanced screenings of films in colleges is a great marketing tool). Although unfortunately there was no Q&A session after the film, the director Joe Wright did show up before the screening and introduced the film to us. He explained a bit about how he joined the project, what he saw in it, and what he intended with it. His message was clear: Hanna was not meant to be anything more than a kick-ass action film with an interesting story and a strong protagonist. Wright did not intend for the film to have any lofty metaphorical meaning at all – for him, it was just a straightforward riff off of the classic coming-of-age fairy tale structure in a high-octane action-thriller setting. Nothing more, and nothing less. Any deeper meaning derived from that narrative is left up to the individual audience members’ interpretation. I’m sure somewhere out there critics hail Hanna as an “exploration of the corruption of childhood innocence by modern society” or something along those lines. All the power to them. It is first and foremost just a good story.

The question of whether film is art or entertainment has been asked since the advent of the art form over a century ago, and the answer has never and never will be answered with an absolute. Truth of the matter is, it’s both, and the best films manage to find the perfect balance between telling entertaining stories and having those stories reveal a deeper meaning. It is not the role of the filmmaker to tell the audience what deeper meaning to derive from their films, though; the beauty of art is the freedom of individual interpretation. No, the filmmaker has one duty and one duty only: to tell a truly compelling story.