Story as Clothing: An Imperfect Analogy Inspired by G.I. Joe Retaliation

Last week, I took my nephew to see the new film G.I. Joe: Retaliation. Being a lifelong fan of the real American Hero brand, I had a very specific emotional response to the movie–not because of the film itself but because of my personal wrestling with it during my viewing experience. Bottom Line: I really wanted to love this movie, but I didn’t based on both its content and writing.

This latter issue is the focus of today’s post, for I think G.I. Joe: Retaliation is an excellent case study in how not to write an action film. The best way I can explain it is this: G.I. Joe Retaliation (as well as many other similar projects) fall victim to the “clothesline effect.” For those unfamiliar with the term, a clothesline is an extended, thin rope on which one hangs articles of clothing to dry. The clothesline serves the clothing but has little value in and of itself. A film’s narrative should never, ever, ever, ever be a clothesline that exists solely for the purpose of hanging scenes: action, slapstick, or otherwise. Like the rope in question, the overarching narrative will prove merely serviceable and will fail to truly connect with audiences. While they may enjoy the overall experience as entertainment, the story will not be beautiful or moving.

This is not the way to write a film–even an action film. In fact, this is the inversion of good storytelling. Perhaps a contrary picture to the clothesline in this scenario is the ensemble or outfit.  Granted, this is an imperfect counter picture but bear with me.  Whereas the clothesline effect makes the narrative a thin and negligible thing on which to hang setpieces for their own sake, an ensemble begins with an idea and all choices thereafter are made in service of that idea. This “outfit effect” might be one wherein every scene, beat, moment, and sequence serves the whole. For example, the ensemble may be for “hot summer day”. So, one puts on a shirt of a certain cut and color, maybe sunglasses, flip-flops, several “I support the [insert cause] bracelets”, specific shorts (cargo if you are bringing a glasses case and wallet/ bathing suit if going to the beach), etc, but the theme of the ensemble dictates those choices.

Apply this idea to film/story. The jokes are your sunglasses, the action sequences are the sneakers. Maybe the theme is the underwear: An essential component of everything that is hidden beneath the surface and invisible until you start removing layers. Like I said, it’s an imperfect analogy, but I think you catch the meaning: a full story is an ensemble, not random items of clothing clipped to a thin rope. You use a bracelet’s worth of comedy, a belt at the midpoint that holds the first and second half together, maybe running shorts and sneakers for a fast paced actioner. I don’t know, I’m making it up as I go this morning.

When you base your story on nothing more than providing a throughline for action sequences, your narrative will be neither engaging nor memorable. But, if you design your story as an ensemble, wherein each thing you “put on” serves to make the whole stronger, your tale will be full, dynamic, and interesting–like good wardrobe, people will be unable to look away (in a good way).

What do you think? Am I reaching with this one? If so, I blame G.I. Joe: Retaliation for breaking my brain. Just kidding. We all that internet broke my brain long ago.

Thanks for reading,