Week 1 – Where Do Stories Live?

I get the feeling this is going to get very wanky very fast, so hold onto your hats.

Towards the end of our discussion of Mothlight, the point was made that anyone who saw a ‘narrative’ in the film was simply trying so hard to see said narrative in three minutes of dead moth wings that they made one up themselves. Confronted with a bunch of random stimuli, they twisted it around in their brains until a beginning, a middle and an end appeared – despite the film’s creator likely having intended no such thing. I fully support this notion. We are all no different from the courtiers in the old story, loudly complimenting the Emperor’s new clothes so as not to seem stupid, even to ourselves.

What I felt I should add, however – and I know it’s been said a hundred times before, but regardless – is that maybe this isn’t just the case with Mothlight. Maybe… maybe this is the case with every narrative in all of history.

Again, sorry to go all Philosophy, but I’d argue that all narratives exist entirely in each individual audience member’s head. There is no narrative in the film, only a film that we then use to create a narrative.

And yes, most films give us a lot more to work with than Mothlight. In a normal movie we’d have dialogue, in a language we recognise, the sound waves being processed into meaning in our heads and then used to construct the story. We watch people moving around on the screen in a world that resembles ours, and the same basic neural processes we use to figure out what’s happening around us in real life are put into play in the film. ‘She’s just picked up a gun,’ we think, and alarm bells ring. But even though no one who knows what a gun is could possibly disagree that she has in fact picked up a gun, the narrative remains subjective. The filmmaker has worked very hard to make sure the audience interprets these lightwaves as ‘a woman picking up a gun,’ but the light bouncing off the screen knows nothing of this.

The woman and her gun are part of a story, being told to us in the languages of light and sound. If we didn’t speak those languages, the story would not exist for us. It would just be shapes and noises. Likewise, if we invented a language for the northern lights, some way to interpret the strange shifting curtains in the air, perhaps they would tell us a story. Perhaps we would look up and see a woman, picking up a gun.

I feel like I should try to bring this semantic screed back to some kind of relevance. What I think I was getting at is… Yes, we’re all imagining the story in Mothlight. There are so few clues as to what the filmmaker is getting at, you’ll never get a room full of people to agree what it was about. We can’t have the same conversation about this movie that we would about, say, Casablanca; and that’s fine. What I think is important is that we never say ‘this is, definitively, what the film is about.’ We all see slightly different things in films, even those that are more ‘normal’ than Mothlight. We should all look at each other after watching this montage of dead moth wings, and say ‘Here’s what I saw.’

Again, I know it’s been done to death. But what hasn’t? Anyway, we’ll see if I have anything more original to say next week.

Isaac Mitchell-Frey, 9985182


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