Silent Storytellers, Romance, and ‘The Artist.’

What makes The Artist such a satisfying film to watch, and why do so many people emerge from the theatre believing they’ve seen it before?

The film’s success is based on rather more than a counter-intuitive revival of the era of silent movies to entrance us after 80 years of “talkie” sophistication, reinvention and computerised special effects.

If it’s not the silence, the outstanding acting, or even the retro charm of black-and-white, what gives Lithuanian-French writer-director Michel Hazanavicius’s film its magic? This movie set in the 1920s and early 1930s is a masterful piece of storytelling that deserves its Cannes Film Festival Best Actor award, its three Golden Globes and no less than five Oscars too, including best actor and best picture.

Any teller of stories would do well to follow the Hazanavicius principle: stick with the archetypal plotlines that reflect our collective unconscious, and you can’t go wrong.

Stories that re-validate what’s known to us, are every bit as valuable as pure innovation. That too, was the lesson George Lucas applied when in 1975 he plundered the monomyth concept in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, for the essential plotlines in the Star Wars sequence of movies. Likewise, the Wachowski Brother’s The Matrix trilogy follows the same tried-and-true pattern.

As viewers, we too are on familiar and very satisfying terrain. The success of The Artist derives in large part from the odd sensation that we have seen this film at least not once, if not hundreds of times before. And we have. The film brings together in almost textbook form the archetypal plots and inversions that made Hollywood such a powerful dream factory. Predictable? Yes. Corny? No.

We know exactly what is going to happen in what is a carefully crafted synthesis of every glamorous Hollywood love story, which takes pastiche to the point of perfect recipe. When an experienced yet proud older man attracts a younger woman, their destinies entwine with powerful consequences for both.

There’s a predictable inversion of roles, as the brightly opportunist young girl (Peppy Miller played by Bérénice Bejo) rises rapidly in the new world of talking pictures. This rise mirrors the collapsing fortunes of the older man (George Valentin played by Jean Dujardin), a Douglas Fairbanks/Errol Flynn-like hero of exaggerated charm encapsulating the vanishing era of silent film.

The stages of his decline are as carefully (and predictably) defined as those in Dante’s Inferno: loss of work, money, home, marriage, possessions, pride, servant, identity. Then the would-be suicide and “rescue.” There follows the redemptive  and revivifying power of the girl’s love – and the cunning reinvention of the pair, not as talkie actors but as dance-and-tap Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers lookalikes.

With a clear nod to the Hollywood buddy movie, there’s even a four-footed side-kick in the form of Uggie the acrobatic Jack Russell, who almost steals the show from Dujardin.

The plotline is a ‘Tale of the Expected’ that cleverly encapsulates one of the four key elements or tropes in the horizontal Narrative Axis of the three-dimensional Storytelling matrix that I’ve been developing and describing in previous posts and lectures. You can view my earlier posts describing StorytellingNarrativity, and watch a TED Talk outlining this matrix.

Specifically, the script is a calculated exercise that triggers a Romantic reaction to the narrative being played out. I’ve now reached the point in my year-long Storytelling analysis where we focus on the Romantic trope and its effect on listeners/viewers. I’ve already addressed in part how, in the sphere of public affairs, Romantic narratives can inspire us to change and to believe in better. I used the example of our reviving faith in our own western democracy, thanks to the (seemingly) satisfying upheavals of the Arab Spring during 2011.

But of course, the true terrain of the Romantic trope is the human heart itself.

For a student of storytelling techniques and methods such as myself, the movie in question brings powerful validation of these underlying principles. What’s important is how we respond to Romantic narratives. They give us confidence. They make us active: we want to change the world for the better. We feel satisfied and optimistic. Every journey has its redemptive nature. Our belief in the transformational power of love is reborn.

In this movie we derive pleasure from the narrative because its structure plays out stories and fully completes them in their purest and most satisfying form. Readers of my blogs will recognise at least one of the Seven Basic Plots. Beauty and the Beast is in there, and so too is Cinderella.

In his Quest to find a new way to express himself in a world of speech that no longer needs his art, the hero Valentin must Overcome the Monster of silence. His is a journey of Voyage and Return. And as his new screen partner lives the Rags to Riches scenario, he himself experiences Rebirth. Comedy, of course, abounds, for this is a process of setting a disordered world to rights.

Expressed this way, the plot sounds predictable, even dull. Don’t we want to be surprised and thrilled by the unexpected? Yes – but we seek validation too.

The lesson here for corporate storytellers as well as scriptwriters is just the same. Originality is often over-rated in a world where many people are seeking comfort, reassurance, and the fantasy of escape from the humdrum. That, after all, was the essence of the Hollywood ‘Dream Factory’ in its golden era.

Let’s see how The Artist fares at the Oscar ceremony 26th February 2012.  And let’s see whether Uggie the Jack Russell goes for gold when he makes his final bow in Tinseltown – or should that be his final bark?

©2012 Richard House


“The Monkey on your Back” – Management, Leadership … and Storytellers of Complexity.

How do you distinguish the attributes of Management, Leadership … or whatever lies beyond? How does the responsible advisor or storyteller help corporate  executives to deal with the monkey on their backs?

Otto Scharmer’s ‘Theory U’ gives an excellent perspective of how the evolutionary process is working on the world of the  industrial/post-industrial corporation. Just as political organisation evolved through feudal kingdoms, autocracies, city-states, republics and democracies, so the dominant form of social organisation in our time – the workplace – is also driven by change.

I’m just getting into “Theory U” and still have a lot to learn. But it makes profound sense.

Because “Management” as a form of social organisation is barely a century old, it is experiencing its burst of Darwinian “speciation” around about now. We are already able to detect certain evolutionary “losers” or dinosaurs being swept away in cataclysmic alterations of the earth’s business atmosphere. We know some companies – Tyco, Enron, Lehman Brothers, Merrill, the old GM – are losers. However there is no linear proof that certain companies fail purely because they followed specific organisational models. Evolution is too complex a process to pinpoint a single source.

Likewise it is not yet clear which characteristics will define the dominant evolutionary types that will take possession of an earth deprived of its dinosaurs. As the evolutionary dust clears we see that the form of social organisation  (management) is a critical factor: but the huge speciation of the management publishing and consulting industry is proof that little or no consensus exists as to the future.

Nevertheless decisions taken today determine the evolutionary rules of tomorrow – and they define three approaches to viewing the world.

For the first type (which he calls Dynamic complexity), Scharmer uses the metaphor of global warming. Here, yesterday’s emissions are only now starting to show their effects, while the consequences of today’s emissions are the subject of informed guesswork. So it is with management choices taken for the future. Systems built of interacting forces with feedback loops are familiar to every manager who every wrestled with product or process.

The second type (Social complexity) takes account of multiple perspectives and the need to reconcile diversity. Organisations are about people – and aligning the different needs of stakeholders is a type of work familiar to every leader who ever fine-tuned systems or competencies.

Scharmer’s third type of complexity — Emerging complexity — is built around the kind of world we see today: disruption, ambiguity, absence of clear polarities or reliable guidance from the past. The established diagnostic tools no longer work – and classical management or leadership skills don’t resolve everything. This is evolution and  Scharmer describes the skills needed to work with this complexity with his trademark “presencing” or the “inward look” that precedes action. This sounds very much like what the rest of us call inspiration and is familiar to any creative who’s had a brainwave.

So: let’s use these three categories Manager: Leader: Inspiration, to help us define the evolutionary shift in organisations and see if this helps us to define how we  (the consulting and advice industry who work to help companies  create, tell and deliver their institutional stories) can serve the needs of today’s and  tomorrow’s CEO.

The table below posits that left-to-right  is evolutionary advance for the company (always with the caveat the  “full spectrum” advance means companies still remain perfectly able to deliver the attributes of “earlier” evolutionary stages, e.g. efficiency or process optimisation).

Three columns define the modes of viewing complexity, while the rows show company culture attributes in each evolutionary stage.

Role Management Leadership Inspiration
DELIVERABLE Product & Process Systems & Competencies Meaning
ORGANISING PRINCIPLE Efficiency Fitness & Purpose Spirit of Innovation
RESOLVING COMPLEXITY Impose discipline Seek simplicity Improvisation & ambiguity
EMPLOYEE PARTICIPATION Hierarchy “Voice but no vote” Co-creators
LEARNING EXPERIENCE MBA Coaching Experiential ‘theatre of change’
COLLECTIVE MODEL Centralise Decentralise Collaborate
NARRATIVE Message Story Dialogue: inspiration and creativity

If we now read the Inspiration column vertically, this should provide some of the attributes that a storyteller with something serious to offer, would need to include in any leadership development program dedicated to helping executives “get the monkey off their backs.”

Are these transferable skills/categories? Can we help here?  Can we add anything new?

  • If the question is applied to the first column named Management, my guess the answer is “no.” There’s a whole industry doing this.
  • If the question is applied to Leadership, my guess the answer is “perhaps.” There’s another industry applied to this, proceeding more (or less) effectively.
  • If the question is applied to Inspiration and they that  corporate storytelling can  help, the answer is a definite “yes.”

If there is interest  from other storytellers in this analysis of ‘Inspiration,’ the role-players around it and its attributes within the modern corporation, I will write more about this and share my Scharmer-related discoveries as I try them out with our own corporate clients seeking change and growth.

Richard House