Wait, wait… I’m sorry, the phrase I remember from my childhood was actually “And now… back to our story.” The deep voice on the TV would soothingly intone this as those stupid, boring commercials finally got themselves the fuck out of the way and I could continue watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or whatever narrative was on the docket for the evening. Those were the days when there was no on-demand viewing, no fast-forward… if you wanted to see a movie on the boob tube (other than the still nascent cable services), it would be chopped into tiny chunks of actual program interspersed with a lot of crap that had little or nothing to do with what you wanted to see.
Mind you, that crap happened to be footing the bill so that you got your television for “free”, so you suffered through it. Nowadays, you pay a monthly fee to a cable or satellite service or Netflix and you can watch uninterrupted programming, the way the creators intended.
So why, in the name of all that’s holy, are we stuck in an era where films seem hell bent on interrupting themselves? I’m talking, friends and neighbors, about the ongoing, intrusive compulsion for injecting gratuitous back story into everything. For everyone.
Make no mistake, unrestrained back story is a cancer on entertainment. It’s worked its way so insidiously into the very fabric of filmdom that even critics who should know better seem to think no character and no story can possibly have any depth unless there’s at least one flashback sequence.
You know how many flashback sequences are in “Jaws”? Zero. You know how many it needed? Also–in a mathematically pleasing coincidence–zero.
You know what Jaws would be like if it were made today? CHUD made an all-too-agonizingly-plausible checklist.
Or how about that all the heroes and villains of movies today have to be related somehow, especially by blood (well, except if they’re gonna make out, that’d be icky)? For today’s Hollywood executives it would not be enough that Hans Gruber and John McLane are in conflict over a lot of money and a bunch of hostages, they would need to have been neighborhood schoolchums, and “Die Hard” would need to tack on at least another 30 minutes of runtime stuffed with plenty of poignant scenes contrasting their past and their present.
Look, I understand the basic concept behind providing back story is to flesh out a character, so they don’t seem 2-dimensional. So the audience has something to connect with. It can be done well. It can add layers to a narrative. But these days, a high percentage of it just seems to be a clumsy, lazy attempt at accomplishing the above, the same way the flashback is a very basic, literal interpretation of the “Show, don’t tell” rule of Screenwriting 101. Most of the time, it’s unnecessary, and the trend has gotten so bad that when a movie doesn’t indulge, it feels like a breath of fresh air for those of us who grew up during a time when Michael Myers didn’t need an extended pastiche of his childhood experiences.
Runtime scorecard, by the by. The original Hallowe’en: 91 minutes. The remake? 109 minutes. Almost 20 more minutes. If you ever wonder why movies today have become so fucking LONG (and feel like it), for a good portion of them it’s because of all the goddamn back story.
We don’t need to see what everyone was like as a kid. We don’t need to experience why every villain became a villain. It’s not even restricted to feature films (although it’s most noticeable because they have the least amount of room for mucking about with shit that doesn’t need to be there). For all that the Star Wars prequels are pretty much three movies’ worth of craptastic, nonsensical backstory, the Extended Universe fiction can be even worse. Or there’s the current effort underway to “flesh out” the opera “Porgy & Bess”, thus bringing the Hollywood magic of rewrites to the stage (and while Gershwin is too dead to comment, Stephen Sondheim, among others, is not happy).
I’m not against the entire concept of back story. I like character depth. I’m even a known sucker for deconstructionism. But I watched the movie “Predators” the other day and was happily astonished at a film that didn’t even bother to say most of the characters’ names during its runtime, much less go into their stories in any more than a cursory manner… because it didn’t matter to the narrative.
So, maybe it’s time to consider whether it really is necessary to show back story in a movie. Myself, I’m at the point where I would just like a little more “back to our story” instead, please.