Style vs. Story: A Thought Exercise

(All films and images are the property of their respective studios)

(Featured Image Credit: New York Post; Paramount Pictures)

Recently, I finally sat down and watched the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, a story originally by Truman Capote (yes, that guy) turned into a romantic comedy featuring an iconic Audrey Hepburn performance. Hepburn plays Holly Golightly, a New York socialite and “American geisha” who meets and grows attached to writer Paul Varjak, somewhat of a self-insertion character for the author. Paul witnesses Holly’s lavish lifestyle, learns about her past, explores the city of New York with her, and eventually falls in love. After rejecting him in favor of marrying other men for money, the film ends with Holly putting on a Cracker Jack ring engraved at the eponymous Tiffany & Co. jewelry store and running back to Paul to profess her love, simultaneously collecting her cat named…”Cat” to begin their new life together.

After viewing the film, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Breakfast at Tiffany’s has its comedic moments, great production design, and a cast admirably performing their roles (Mickey Rooney’s racist caricature notwithstanding), the film buoyed by Hepburn’s charm and grace. But, the narrative itself is nothing spectacular, a traditional romantic comedy that would likely be panned by critics if it were released today.

Despite the fact that romantic comedies (rom-coms) are often dismissed as derivative, cliché, or nothing more than escapism, Breakfast at Tiffany’s is regarded as a classic film, with Hepburn’s Holly Golightly the most memorable performance of her career (sorry Roman Holiday and My Fair Lady). The mention of “Audrey Hepburn” immediately conjures the image that preceded this piece: the actress as Holly with the tiara, necklace, black dress, and the long cigarette holder to the side. Many people likely have this image on a poster as testament to their love of the actress or for classic cinema (many of these people likely not seeing the actual movie). The image of Hepburn as Holly is iconic, a representation of style, elegance, and elite sociability, the lasting legacy of a film that otherwise lacks much to differentiate it from others in the romantic comedy genre.

Ultimately, it is a very distinct sense of style that separates Breakfast at Tiffany’s from other films and made it as memorable as it is today. Though an engaging story is the driving force for any film, movies are fundamentally a visual medium. Thus, the aesthetics of filmmaking, the production design, costumes, cinematography, and musical choices give every film their own character and help bring the story to life in a way that the script alone cannot. The technical aspects of a film can help to make up for a weak screenplay or they can help elevate the narrative, adding unique elements to tell a story in a new way or simply imprinting the filmmaker’s sense of style into the movie.

The costumes, music, and art design throughout Breakfast at Tiffany’s help the film stand out and are the reasons that it is still a memorable work of cinema regardless of its conventional plot. In Enchantment: The Life of Audrey Hepburn, author Donald Spoto deems the image of Holly with her oversized cigarette holder one of the most iconic images of American cinema, while Hepburn’s “little black dress” was determined to be the greatest outfit worn by a female on-screen. The stylistic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s transcended its narrative, cementing Hepburn’s status as a fashion icon and the character of Holly as the embodiment of style and glamour, neglecting the fact that Holly is considered “a fake” within the film due to being “a lady of the evening.” Style and iconography help to make a film memorable, and in the case of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, can even redefine the film within the popular consciousness.

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Image Credit: Summit Entertainment, Warner Bros.

The 2014 film John Wick is another example of style and design elevating a film to produce one of the most memorable action movies of the past decade. John Wick, for those that have not seen it (if you have not, go see John Wick now), is a simple film based on its plot alone. The main character is a former assassin attacked by Russian gangsters who destroy his car and kill his new puppy, spurring John to come out of retirement and wreak havoc on those that wronged him.

Based on the plot alone, John Wick isn’t memorable; it is a revenge thriller and, according to the filmmakers themselves, an attempt to make “the ultimate 90s action movie.” But, the hyper-stylized elements make for a unique visual experience. Unlike the “shaky cam” to make the viewer feel “in the action” popularized by the Bourne series, John Wick features many wide angles and clear focus on the action without cuts. The nightclub scene, one of the best sequences in cinema in the past few years, stands out because of the attention given to color scheme, stunt work, and the effective use of music, leading Ignatiy Vishnevetsky of The A.V. Club to call the sequence “a very loud and bloody dance piece.” Production design and action choreography give John Wick its own sense of style in the same manner as the aesthetic elements of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. John Wick represented a breath of fresh air within the action movie genre and subsequent films looked to co-opt the stylistic elements from a film without a sophisticated plot.

In 2004, Christopher Booker released The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, a book that outlines what Booker considers to be the most common narratives within film and literature. Though Booker denies climate change and is maybe not someone to be taken entirely seriously, his argument that there are only seven basic plots is something to consider, regardless of its oversimplification. Probably the biggest complaint within film criticism is that films often lack originality, featuring formulaic or cliché ridden plots. It is true that movies often have similar storylines and often rely on conventional narratives and structure. Style and aesthetics represent one way to make up for or elevate the story, the effort involved in explicit production and technical choices differentiating a good or great film from an average or poor one. Both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and John Wick are popular films within their genres despite the fact that their narratives are conventional. John Wick’s suit and his killing spree of Russian gangsters clad in red shirts and Holly’s black dress and cigarette holder are the most memorable elements from their respective films, style superseding story as the lasting impact for both John Wick and Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

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