I’ve been thinking about a quality of storytelling that I’ve came across in a fair number of films. I had the idea from short stories: in virtue of shortness, every motif in short stories become symbols, and in some cases, these symbols form a coherent whole: a theme, a topic, an image, a world.
I want to call this coherency in symbolism “cleanness,” because it’s more like a sensation, and less a rational judgement. A story can have one or two symbols, or a hundred of them, but numbers don’t matter. The story is no longer clean when symbols are misfitting or misplaced, when there are loose strands, when suspension of disbelief—a notion that hinges largely on the coherency of imagery—is disrupted. “Cleanness,” therefore, is obviously a subjective term. Whenever I say a story is clean, I am in fact saying “I think it is clean,” and someone else is totally free to argue, “no it’s not!” We can then have an interesting conversation about each other’s idea of cleanness, over leftover popcorn or ice cream.
Films, especially feature-length ones, are essentially short stories, but it’s somewhat harder for a film to be clean. A film, for one thing, is often shot on cameras. Through the lenses, we look at a world that is not so different from our own—random, chaotic, with a fair bit of sensory overload. Good films pay attention to what is in the frame, carefully directing the audience’s attention, keeping, as they say, the image “clean.” Animated films, then, should generally be cleaner than non-animated ones, because what is included in the shot is always thought through—in fact, painfully drawn. It shouldn’t be really surprising that Disney movies are quite clean—one might even say that they are “too clean,” or too simplistic in their symbolism—but more on that later.
Quite a few attributes of the films we like can be traced back to cleanness. We often prefer the first installment of a film over its sequels, because the former is cleaner: the film has one hero, the hero has one goal, and that goal is to defeat one enemy. In Iron Man II, when Tony Stark faces the danger of weapon proliferation, we aren’t quite sure what to feel: there are too many enemies; even Iron Man isn’t determined in his goal; and dragging in a father figure, an ex machina, to synthesize a new element out of thin air, doesn’t really help with cleanness. We’re not saying that Iron Man II is a bad movie, nor that we don’t like it—only that it is not clean. And honestly, Robert Downey Jr. is very attractive indeed in this one.
Should I give another example? The Harry Potter series. The first one is especially clean, much like a fairy tale—a Disney movie, even: Harry had no friends and no recognition growing up; he then gets to know two of his best friends for life, and together they defeat the most powerful dark wizard of their time. A story of friendship, love and personal identity, and a clean one. The sixth one, Half-Blood Prince, however, is probably the least clean of them all. Perhaps the chaotic nature of the film is supposed to reflect Harry’s angsty late teens, but the sexual awakening of the characters—Ron or Harry—runs almost completely isolated from the impending sense of doom, and becomes especially awkward when juxtaposed with Dumbledore’s death. Again, we the audiences don’t know what to feel. Sad, of course—but a teenage kind of sadness, a sadness whose own becoming is murky, a sadness in chaos.
I should repeat myself and emphasize that cleanness is distinct from good or bad, even though they might coincide quite often. Cleanness, I think, is our natural tendency to tie up all the loose bits. We want to make sense of a story, to impose a symbolic coherency, and when we fail we become understandably frustrated, and say that the story is not clean. But it is often the uncleanness that surprises us—Disney movies quickly become boring once you learn the drill, but Harry Potter staring longingly at a waitress in a subway cafe is almost memorable. It’s not as fun if everything is clean, if we’re always presented with a fairy tale. We like driving a Muggle car into the Whomping Willow. Alternatively, we’d reach a new stage of understanding, when we find new meanings in the loose ends, that inform or transform the symbolic coherency as a whole. We learn something new.
So next time when you walk out of the cinema, excited or baffled by what you saw, ask yourself: was the film clean? Chances are, things become cleaner when you ask that way.