The end of storytelling?
On November 18, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced the creation of the Center for Future Storytelling. One of the center’s primary concerns, according to a recent NY Times article, is to examine whether the “old way” of telling stories is on the decline. By “old way”, the center is apparently referring to stories told with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. Not surprisingly, given that the center is receiving $25 million a year from a film production studio (Plymouth Rock Studios), one of the primary focuses of this new center will be on studying the relationship between film and this alleged decline in traditional storytelling.
The NY Times article chooses an interesting manner to present the Center’s concern with this decline in storytelling. Quotes placed in the article from Hollywood execs, academics, and screenwriters on the alleged death of storytelling can be easily substituted with statements issued by Frankfurt School scholars more than half a century ago. For instance, statements by former Hollywood execs criticizing contemporary film as superficial entertainment or placing the blame on the audience’s unsophisticated tastes could just have easily been supplied by Theodor Adorno. Similarly, comments made by the executive director of the Sundance film festival praising modern technologies capacity to proliferate storytelling are reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s concept of the potential democratizing ability of contemporary art.
Regardless of one’s own thoughts on this alleged end to traditional storytelling, it will certainly be interesting to see how these concerns are conceptualized and the types of research projects that came out of this new center.
I could not help but smile at the pervading sense of fear throughout the article, as if there is a genuine concern that people will stop telling stories. I believe that, if anything, we have more exposure to ‘the classics’ (be that Charles Dickens or The Godfather) than we did a hundred or even twenty years ago, to the point that these texts breed over-familiarity and invite parody. A strong case could be made that post-modern filmmakers (David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the Cohen brothers on the more accessible end of the scale) have already charted a course for telling stories to audiences who have short attention spans and a heightened sensitivity to formulaic genres and plots.