By: Joseph R. Castel
Last month, Turner Classic Movies (TCM) premiered an all-new original documentary series, The Power of Film, which explores some of the most popular and memorable American films of all time. This docuseries looks at scenes from 50 classic movies to analyze why and how films are such an integral part of our lives. Renowned UCLA professor and founding chair of UCLA’s Film and Television Producers Program, Howard Suber hosts this series which was inspired from his landmark book of the same name, “The Power of Film,” published in 2006.
In an academic career spanning more than 50 years, Suber’s lectures have guided numerous aspiring producers, writers and directors, working in today’s industry, on how they can turn a good story into a great film. This TCM original series operates like a masterclass, breaking down for the viewer the critical elements to storytelling. Suber boasts that his real claim to fame is being in the “pattern recognition business,” because patterns of storytelling go back 2,500 years to the Greek classics. They all have to do with the same themes . . . betrayal, power, fame, and love gone wrong.
According to Professor Suber, people are a compilation of memories, and he asserts that “memory is the most powerful thing in human existence.” Suber goes on to say, “We are a story telling animal, and it may be one of the things that defines us.” Clearly, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook are all examples of Suber’s assertion that people need to tell stories. Maybe most of them are not good stories, but millions of people are compelled to let others know what they are doing, even if it’s just the lowest common denominator of shock value content on TikTok. But what makes a great story memorable for the ages?
Suber speculates a large proportion of the most commercial box office successes are quickly forgotten – just as thousands of viral Social Media posts will soon be forgotten. So, what then makes a film memorable? Suber would argue, not box office receipts, although that can be indicative of a classic, such as Gone With the Wind, Sound of Music, and E.T.. All of these examples were box office gold. However, not every box office hit is considered a classic. “They can make a billion dollars, but most of those films, nobody wants to talk about,” jokes Suber. Of course, he’s talking about those super hero, action fantasy films loaded with explosive visuals, bullets, blood, guts, and ear-splitting special effects.
“We choose what films we want to remember,” Suber says, “because there’s something in those films that transcends the moment it was released.” There are certain principles that cause people to keep them in their heads, only to recall them, decades later.
Suber insists that nearly all memorable stories, whether told in movies or in real life, are about “traps.” The most memorable stories are generally about the loss, sacrifice, and ultimate triumph the main character must undergo in order to escape his or her trap. He cites Alfred Hitchcock’s horror thriller, Psycho, with both characters Norman Bates, the villain, and Marion Crane, the heroine, being caught up in traps they’ve set for themselves.
Another essential element to storytelling is empowerment. Empowering someone, Suber asserts, is the “greatest gift anyone can give someone,” and that happens over and over in films like Star Wars, Do the Right Thing, and Real Women Have Curves. All these films have heroes who have been empowered by their mentors.
What’s rewarding about TCM’s new series is that Suber not only analyzes films of the distant past, like Casablanca, The Godfather, and Sunset Boulevard, he also examines modern-day classics such as Disney’s Coco, the African American gay coming-of-age story, Moonlight, and Brokeback Mountain. Suber states the obvious in which main characters of Hollywood films of yore, were not people of color or LGBT individuals, which has left a massive void in storytelling.
Studying these new classics with people of color and LGBT characters, and comparing them to those of Hollywood’s golden era, in their respective genres, is something queer filmmakers might want to consider when telling their stories. Whether it’s for the silver screen or the cellular screen, all good stories have a pattern, and Suber has the scoop on how to develop these stories into memorable hits. TCM has really created a masterclass for the masses for all time.
The last two episodes air Thursday, Feb. 1, The Power of Paradox,
and Thurs. Feb. 8., Love and Meaning. As with most TCM presentations, the series will be rebroadcast. The series can also be seen on Hulu Live or with YouTube Live subscription.