Friday, September 2, 2016

Enlisting an Audience Into a Cause, notes on Florence Foster Jenkins

The set up for this film is that Florence Foster Jenkins (played by Meryl Streep) is a wealthy patron of the arts who also believes she has a talent for singing opera. Based on a true story, the film set in 1944 shows how Florence's husband, played by Hugh Grant, maneuvers to protect her from the reality of what the public would think about her singing, let alone music critics.

This process tends to work based on Florence funding a Verdi club of society matrons who are mostly partially deaf and partly along for the free lunches she provides (heavy on the potato salad). Her husband bribes the occasional small paper music critic, and some well-known opera people of the time are happy to accept her donations in return for keeping their opinions about her singing to themselves and instead praising her love of opera and her passion to sing.

All seems lost when she rents Carnegie Hall for a performance attended mostly by serviceman and one big New York paper music critic.

The underlying story point I want to make is that the film enlists the audience to feel invested in Hugh Grant protecting Florence's idea that she is an accomplished singer. Once the audience is drawn in to care about this, the drama of the story becomes (to the degree a viewer enjoys this kind of film) intensified.

Enlisting the audience (whether viewer or reader) in the cause of some story character is one of the prime functions of storytelling. Yes, in this era of anti-heroes, an audience can be lead to care about all kinds of outcomes for all kinds of characters, but in many stories the goal of the storyteller is to enlist the audience in the outcome for a main character.

Fail at that, or fail to enlist the audience as quickly as possible, and a story is unengaging, uncompelling.

In most cases, readers and viewers move on to become enlisted in a more compelling narrative.

Its a very basic question I have as a reader/viewer, do I care what happens next to this person?

Following, an early film by Christopher Nolan, is a fiendishly clever thriller that doesn't ask us to care about the main character. The film will probably never appeal to large audiences (or even many small ones) because the story never asks us to care what happens to the main character.

Every storyteller writing for a general audience should be able to answer the question, why should my audience care about what happens to my main character?

When I ask struggling storytellers this question, they often have no answer. Which is a big reason they are struggling.


To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise & The Spirit of Storytelling, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.