I saw the movie Irreversible recently. It’s one of those movies that is REALLY tough to watch, but is a brilliant piece of cinema. What sets it apart is not the story it tells, but how it tells it. It’s a simple plot about an average night out, a horrifying attack and brutal revenge. And the entire story is told in reverse. I will leave it to Roger Ebert to explain in more detail why this is so incredibly effective (see his review). What struck me, besides being simply riveted by this astonishing piece of film, is that it reminds me that the art of storytelling has less to do with the stories you tell and more to do with how you tell them.
Roger Ebert himself ascribes to this philosophy, which may be why he’s my favorite critic. One of his “Laws” for movie criticism is “It’s not what a movie’s about, it’s HOW it’s about it.” This is true for any form of storytelling. The same jokes have been making the rounds since the Sumerians discovered irony. The same melodies have been getting rearranged since the Gregorians first started chanting. And we’ve all been watching the same sitcom plot over and over since Gracie Allen first said “Goodnight Gracie.”
This is not bad or surprising news. There are only 26 letters in the alphabet, only 12 musical notes, and the human body only bends so many ways. But dance, music and story live on. Because we don’t have to constantly re-invent the wheel. We just have to find a new way to roll it.