STORY by Robert McKee : the reference in storytelling, or a political weapon to make real problems disappear?

There is a big, big problem with Robert McKee’s book, “Story”.

This scriptwriting handbook is quoted everywhere it’s about storytelling and plays as a technical reference – though not so technical.

It’s partly with STORY that I came to develop my knowledge in storytelling, so for that I can thank him: Robert, thank you, your book taught me a few things I still ignored. By the way, I read many other books about storytelling, and many were better.

Robert McKee made most of his career as a script-doctor for Hollywood. He worked on hundreds of movies. He especially worked – and seems to be proud of it – for the Walt Disney Company. This matters to me and I have a few comments to make.

Storytelling or money-making?

Firstly, working only for cinema means working only for big money. Cinema is a very particular form of art because it is by definition the one that is the least accessible to the people, especially to the people who would have different, minority or contradictory points of view. Indeed, to make a long-feature movie, one needs so many ressources, equipment, money, skills, partners, there are so many technical layers, that only mainstream artworks can be produced, which explains we can hardly see any original message in the tons of politically-correct movies that get financed.

A book can be done without any money. Photography, dance, theater, music, and so many other arts, are also relatively cheap forms of art. The choice to work for cinema only sounds politically-oriented – yes, there’s a message between the lines, a message that says: I have technical skills, I have talent, I can provide them to the people who need it… at the condition they pay me much. Personnally, I do not support such an attitude. On the contrary, I think that storytelling is by definition a tool made to serve the needs of the people, whoever they might be and whatever the message, ideology and point of view they take. By his choice, McKee contributes eliminating those points of view.

Robert McKee organizes workshops in foreign countries, like France where cinema is dominated by US productions. To attend one of his workshops, one has to pay 400€ for 2 days. That, too, eliminates most of the broke / unlucky / minority people who would like to learn storytelling. Mc Kee, as a good American citizen, converts art into capitalism like a magician makes a rabbit disappear into his hat. Where did art disappear? Here, in this hat full of cash.

So, Robert McKee worked for Disney? I read a book about Walt Disney, his rather critical biography, and it’s not really a fairy story that children would like. Did you know that Walt Disney is not the author… of his own signature?? Yes, indeed this worldwide famous symbol was more or less stolen to one of Walt Disney under-paid and dissatisfied drawer: Ub Iwerks. He designed the Disney company logo… Did you know that, when his many exploited drawers started a strike against him during WWII, Walt Disney called the cops and had his employees (especially women) severely repressed? It does not look so much as Cinderella or any nice fairy tale, does it, or then Walt plays the role of the mean Queen – actually an FBI agent under cover. Yes, because Walt Disney, this pretended “huge creator”, had very right-wing-oriented, nearly fascist political opinions, and he was actively collaborating with the FBI, during McCarthysm, to hunt and repress “the communists” who worked for him.

We know the rest of the story of the Disney Company, how it became decade after decade nothing else than a money-making machine meant to exploit the children by selling them “entertainment”.

Telling fictions, or denying reality?

It seems that the US as a country have a few major problems, like :

Racism? Hey, what’s that?

150 years after the end of slavery, the ghettos are still there (see Detroit, see Chicago, see New York…) and the black people are still subjected to a crawling racism. Just see how the people in the South go and buy new guns each time Barack Obama gets elected – though he is the best President America ever knew. In Hollywood’s works and in the movies to which McKee collaborated, we can not find anything about that. Oh, sorry my mistake : we actually can find much racism through stereotypes, clichés, typical insults and so on, – and nearly no anti-racism. (Money-makers have no interest in challenging the opinion: if the people wan’t racism, Hollywood will provide racism. They always find bankers to pay for their ideological advertisements.)

Violences against women or children? You’re kidding, man!

Women and children, still today, are massively victims of mistreatments, sex abuses and other horrors. In Disneyworld, sure, this does never exist. “Gimme my 10 bucks, watch Snow-White and then go back dying in your corner”, seem to say their “very entertaining” storytelling practiced as a kind of story-lying.

Pollution? Global warming? Where, exactly?

The US are massively destroying their environment. Now, the Colorado river, the Mississipi, and so many other rivers, are all polluted and drying. “Here’s some entertainement, please watch this funny movie about a time-machine, about silly twins, about those unsignificant characters and situations, watch this and you will not care about global warming  and massive pollution any more. Come on, consume!”

Wars? Not guilty! They shot first, Sir!

The US continuously made wars all over the world during the 20th century. It’s from far the country that has been most militarily aggressive during the 20th century, the nazis were stopped, the sovietic empire collapsed out of exhaustion, but the US are still standing there proudly, the winners of all their bad and cruel military strikes, in Nicaragua, in Panama, in Cuba, in the Philippines, in Europe, in Africa, in the Arabic world. Once again, we find nothing about that in McKee, in Disney, in Hollywood. It is like they exist to make this kind of reality disappear from the public awareness and instead of taking position towards reality, they replace it by “the magic world of imagination” and by fantasy stories made to delete the real dramas experienced by their watchers.

Guns are really cool!!!

The US citizens are around 250 millions and they own 300 millions firearms. There is around, hm, how much? let’s say 20% children and teenagers, unallowed to carry weapons, so in average we have like two guns per adult? OK: do you think, my dear reader, that one would be authorized to think that cinema movies – scripted by McKee and people like him, financed and distributed by Disney and companies like them – do show a very positive representation of men carrying weapons – men, or women, when one Quentin Tarantino chooses to make a “Kill Bill” in which he generously gives the right to kill everybody around to “not-at-all-sexist” beautiful actresses paid millions?

I analyzed some of the most widely-distributed and widely-appreciated movies from the American audiovisual culture: The Godfather I by Francis Ford Coppola, and Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino. Both have been viewed and sold by millions of people, so we can say they have been highly influential. What are those movies about? Violence, weapons, murders. Can it be taken as a kind of encouragement to all of those murders we can still state right now in the US, that have one of the highest rate of crime of the whole planet? A bit, not at all, do you think? Those two movies, I think are exceptionally qualityful. Formally, technically, they are clearly masterworks, otherwise I would not have taken them as examples. But at the same time, they clearly chose their side. They are not on the side of peace.

Terrorists and other aliens

Look, the 11 september 2001, a few extraordinary things happened, it was like that day the ordinary rules of physics had been turned upside-down by some secret, enchanted Disney sorcerer.

There are some mysteries there that all the characters invented by McKee and Disney, despite of their exceptional abilities, will never solve. I don’t have any answer.

In some Hollywood productions that McKee would accept to give his brilliant expertise, we can often see some stories of a nice American Hero bravely, patriotically defending his country and his President against terrorists, against aliens, against epidemics, against dinosaurs, against Heroes of Evil, against anything actually – but we could never – or so, so rarely – see some fictions that would be broadly distributed and broadly appreciated and that would give, at least once, a different point of view about the American governement, about the power, about the Army, about what they call “terrorism” (and attacking Irak during 30 years is not terror at all, they say). We got to know for sure that the “massive destruction weapons” that the Allied Bush and Blair sold as a story to the world, were pure (and efficient!) fictions.

The US, the UK, and Spain, and a few other countries, were actually the only owners of such mass destruction weapons, and they beated the pretended “third army of the world” in just a few weeks, they killed Saddam Hussein, disorganised Irak and made hundreds of thousands civil victims – children, women, civil men who were not at all supported the dictatorship that was oppressing them. Blair has been judged for his lies, not Bush – and not McKee and storytellers (lies-tellers) like him. The recent history of the US is full of lies, the historians showed it clearly, and so are the stories coming from them. Here again, the professional storytellers of US cinema like McKee perfectly played the game of the power they symbolically work for, betraying the interests of the population.

Contrarily to them, my project is to give the people tools to express their own opinion – and if this opinion is politically-incorrect, it is perfectly fine!

“We, the People…”

The technique of “STORY”

Now, back to “STORY” itself. It’s a rather interesting book, though rather badly written by a rather unimpressing mind. It reads like, I don’t know, uuh… an electrical installer writing a manual about the various types of plugs? Storytelling has been developed by many European authors, among who the russian formalist Vladimir Propp or the french structuralist Claude Lévi-Strauss. Those people were highly skilled and reknown scientists and they revolutioned our modern way to apprehend the analysis of stories. Compared to them, McKee has the intellectual aura of one of the 7 dwarves – which one I can not say, choose one yourself 😉 His style sounds like an average-intelligence college student work, and his thought has the depth one can find in a glass of soda – just have a look in it and imagine it is the Pacific ocean!

Technically, what this book teaches us is that… uuh… a story is made of 3 Acts… as, uh, as we know it since.. uh, Aristoteles, the greek philosopher, 2400 years ago… Ah, he also gives smart pieces of advice about how to mix genres, and… uh… how to make characters, and… he analyzes two scenes. And that’s it 🙂

OK, I do exagerate a bit but my intention is to underline the fact that, though ultra-famous, STORY does not contain a very original way to tell stories, just recycling and rewritting with a sound pragmatism what many author before him already taught. Sure, one will not reinvent the wheel each day. But, from a guy who stands at a top-position in the powerful US industry of entertainment, we might find the elements he gives a bit poor. Look, this book is not bad, beginners can learn from it. But reading it while studying storytelling, I immediately thought at the same time that one could do much better and explain things more deeply and more universally so as to give the people some more usable creative tools. I enjoyed it and was disappointed by it at the same time, the two impressions permanently colored each other, and the final impression was a bit… blurry, confused. It is clearly not technical enough and not universal enough and not  simple enough and that misses many aspects of our art.


You may find that this article is ideological and political? Yes it is, as is the fact of creating anything – taking positions, choosing topics, focusing on heroes, developing problems, defining goals and staging values. McKee’s book and McKee’s artistic and economical choices are political and ideological too. We are just not on the same side.

Story&Drama is the anti-McKee. A tool for liberation of all the minority and original forces of expression, in all arts (including cheap, accessible, “democratic” arts), in all countries (including the victims of the US ideology and wars), with all kinds of goals and intentions.

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