Thursday, July 22, 2004

Style vs. Technique

Weinman responds to my previous post:
For the record, I don't accept the premise that Casablanca is "stylistically antiquated." In fact, the techniques it uses to tell the story -- the style of cutting, the choice of when to move the camera, the placement of the camera and the use of reaction shots -- remain standard throughout the film and television industry. Shoot a movie or TV show today the way Casablanca was shot and no one will consider you a fogey; heck, movies are shot like this all the time. And of course there are some respects in which Casablanca is more technically sophisticated than most movies being made today. The amount of care taken over the lighting, for example, is miles ahead of most movies now; lighting of Ingrid Bergman's face in close-ups is used not just to make her look good but to mirror changes in emotion and mood. I don't think, say, Spider-Man can match these older films in terms of lighting technique. In other words, if the style of Casablanca seems "antiquated" it's in part because it's better-made than most of today's movies, not worse-made.

The technology available to movies has improved, it's true, but the technique of movies, in my opinion, has not. In a previous post, I wrote about a tremendously long and complicated tracking shot in a number from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). With today's superior technology you could move the camera around even more, and faster; the difficulty of moving the old technicolor camera is somewhat visible in Meet Me in St. Louis, if you care to look for signs of the difficulty. But what does it matter? Most movies today are notable for their over-reliance on cutting (harkening back to the movies of the late '20s or early '30s, before movies like Citizen Kane showed the advantages of long takes) and their avoidance of long takes, an avoidance stemming from various factors including, probably, a lack of rehearsal time. I certainly think that that shot in Meet Me in St. Louis is superior, in filmmaking technique, to anything in, say, Chicago.

Obviously, Casablanca is not wholly obsolete; otherwise it would be unwatchable.  Also, I agree that Casablanca has some stylistic merits.  When I wrote "style," I meant it in a broader sense than just the things you're describing.  I meant the use of music as dramatic support (although there is an obvious exception within Casablanca).  I meant the manner in which the story is told, the macro-style.  I mean the way the actors are presented (stagy acting interspersed with brief periods of silence).  I mean contiguity among scenes (the feel, not necessarily a literal perfectly timed sequence though that helps.)

Some of those are affected by technology, admittedly.  But that's precisely my point.  If a technology affects the way stories are told by adding a better possibility, then, insofar as that better option is used, the movie which uses it is stylistically better.  The director may not be superior, he may just have more tools.  But a video recording is often a better likeness than a painting, however skillful the painter may have been in his time.  We still look at the painting because it is still objectively good, and the best thing they had at their disposal.  That doesn't make it better.

What makes Casablanca objectively better than many other movies is not simply the fact that it did well with what it had, though.  Casablanca is better because it uses the tools available to create a greater dramatic effect than is created by many modern movies.  It would have been even better, no doubt, had more tools been available.  It is stylistically admirable.  But it is also, in parts, clearly a movie of the past. 

I'm also generally skeptical that new visual techniques constitute an advance. Volpone mentions Samurai Jack as an advance over previous television shows, and he's not the only one; the reviewer Charles Solomon at blasts the Batman animated series for not using stylized movement the way Samurai Jack does. But it tends to be the rule that stylization wears less well, over the years, than straightforward-looking stuff. The UPA cartoons of the '50s, which were considered the ne plus ultra in animation art at the time, now look rather dated compared to the straightforward Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons. Some of the things that became popular in the late '60s and early '70s fell out of favor again within a few years, such as the use of the zoom lens. In general, new options in visual storytelling tend to come and go, with the old options, the straightforward stuff, dominating.

I'm pretty sure I've been misread.  The visual stylization of Samurai Jack is the least important element.  The most important element is the structural stylization, the reliance on visual communication with very little speech.  (The speech there is, though, is excellent.)  That is the sort of thing I meant.  I didn't mean that Samurai Jack looks more advanced.  I meatn that at its core, it reflects a flexible attitude towards storytelling, whichcan tell stories visually without making the visual gag or image the point of the story, rather using images like a play uses dialogue.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

The Style of Substance

Jaime J. Weinman writes:

How many times have you heard someone -- a critic, whoever -- praise an old movie or book for being "ahead of its time?" Works of art are often praised on the basis of having broken new ground, or introduced new stylistic devices. But does that really speak to how good they were, or just how different they were at the time? I once took a course in silent films with a professor who frankly disliked D.W. Griffith. People often asked him, he said, "But what about Griffith's technique?" To which he would reply that any technical advances of Griffith's were part of history, and had no bearing on the evaluation of the films as films. I didn't agree with him about Griffith (not about Broken Blossoms or Orphans of the Storm anyway) but I thought he had a point in general: innovation is essentially a historical matter, not an artistic matter.

Not quite.
Mr. Weinman is perfectly right when he says that style must not be our primary criterion.  But why have any style?  In order to convey the story, characters, setting, and mood, which is the purpose of the movie.  While style alone is not valuable, it does contribute to the quality of the movie experience.
I was speaking to an old friend -- Alex Russek -- who is to enter the NYU film school this fall.  We agreed that most movies made now are much better than the ones made a few decades ago, if you match movies equivalent for their times.  Druids is obviously not as good as The Ten Commandments; the former is terrible and the latter one of the greatest movies ever.  But Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings is clearly a vastly superior movie.  The reason for this is that the sophistication of directors and their crews has increased as pione have invented new ways of telling stories, or better ways of doing what is already done.  Frankly, Casablanca is not very good.
Hold your horses! you cry.  That's not fair!  We have to evaluate the movie by the standards of its time!  If modern style didn't exist, we can hardly fault Casablanca for not having it!
In fact, we can fault Casablanca for its style, as casual viewers.  Nature, the ultimate casual viewer, did not care that modern medicine was not available to the Romans.  They went on dying of diseases now easily preventable, even the ones with the best medicine of their time.  That doesn't mean a study of Rome has nothing to offer us, or that medicine Rome wouldn't have been worth the effort.  We can't -- or mustn't -- ignore the fact that Casablanca is a stylistically antiquated film.  We can choose to accept that and look for those parts of it that still have merit.
Lileks writes about historicity of art, a related topic, here.
Innovation does not alone make a film important for the viewer.  It does make the film important historically, important for study, even lacking other necessary virtues, if that innovation was useful and influential.  In their fundamentals, movies are about as good or bad as they used to be -- a mixed bunch --, but the details have gotten a lot better.  Don't sweat the small stuff.  Just copy from the geniuses who sweated it/  Now make some good movies.  There's no more excuses.
This, by the way, explains why Citizen Kane was so important.  It's a bit shallow by modern standards -- by modern great movie standards, at least -- but it is stylistically tremendous.  Don't believe me?  Watch Kane.  Then watch Casablanca.  Then tell me what went wrong in the second but not the first.  Then tell me that style doesn't affect a movie's merit.  Just try to tell me.
By the way, if you want to see the future of movie style, take a look at Samurai Jack.  Visually, it's an acquired taste.  I was expecting a cartoon show, in which the visuals are flashy and cool-looking and the story is witty and GenndyTarantovskyesque.  What I got is a new sort of visual entertainment, in which the visuals tell the story.  (The best example of this is the story of the three mysterious archers.  I won't go into the story here, except to say that it deals with Samurai Jack's cutting himself off from vision and attuning himself to sound.  It tells this visually.
In fact, Samurai Jack is an almost entirely visual art form.  The sound enhances the experience and is convenient for summarizing things pictures would take a long time to tell, but you know they could if they wanted to.  It seems almost as if they meant to make a silent cartoon, but realized that that would seem weird to the casual viewer.
Since we already have the art of sound-storytelling perfected in the radio drama, now is the time to take advantage of the broad array of visual storytelling options we have to make a fully integrated artform.  Samurai Jack is the first step towards that integration into efficient storytelling (rather than those stagey silent movies in the beginning of the 20th century), notwithstanding its deceptively abstract/minimalist visual style.

And for the record, I rather enjoyed Casablanca.

Some of My Best Friends are Girlie Men

Arnold's in trouble among the parasite class for some recent comments he made calling them girlie men.
Schwarzenegger dished out the insult at a rally Saturday as he claimed Democrats were delaying the budget by catering to special interests. Democrats protested that the remark was sexist and homophobic.
"If they don't have the guts to come up here in front of you and say, 'I don't want to represent you, I want to represent those special interests, the unions, the trial lawyers ... if they don't have the guts, I call them girlie men," Schwarzenegger said to the cheering crowd at a mall food court in Ontario.
The governor lifted the term from a long-running "Saturday Night Live" skit in which two pompous, Schwarzenegger-worshipping weightlifters repeatedly use it to mock those who don't meet their standards of physical perfection.
Democrats said Schwarzenegger's remarks were insulting to women and gays and distracted from budget negotiations. State Sen. Sheila Kuehl said the governor had resorted to "blatant homophobia."

Fortunately, The Govinator isn't backing down for saying something un-PC. To the contrary, his folks are essentially saying "bring it on!"
At a rally Sunday in Stockton, the governor gave a speech almost identical to the one he delivered in Ontario but without the "girlie men" remark. Spokesman Rob Stutzman said the line was dropped because Schwarzenegger had already sent the message he wanted to send, not because he regretted his remarks.
"It's a forceful way of making the point to regular Californians that legislators are wimps when they let special interests push them around," Stutzman said. "If they complain too much about this, I guess they're making the governor's point."


Seriously, though, I think that's the proper way to handle this. It's not a constructive way of talking, but it shouldn't be construed as an apology-necessitating offense.
Is Girly-man a synonym for Homosexual? If so, is it a derogatory one? I know a few girlie men, who are not gay. Several have girlfriends. Of course, I consider it derogatory, but because of its content -- becauseit is better for men to be masculine, my own (tentative) moral judgement --, not because of its connotation.
If an issue is made of this, though, Schwarzenegger has an easy out, I think, and a witty one two.

Schwarzenegger apologizes to "girly-men" for comparing them to legislators.
Today, California's governor apologized for comparing effeminate men with California politicians. "I am deeply sorry for any offense or pain my comments may have caused among the girly-man community," said Governor Schwarzenegger in a contrite televised speech from the governor's mansion. "I should not have compared them with the gutless slime in our state's legislature. I withdraw the comparison."
Several Gutless Slime Advocates would have protested, but could not due to a dearth of vital organs. And an overall slipperiness.

For a tangentially related discussion pertaining to effeminate heterosexuals, go here.

Sunday, July 11, 2004

W Ketchup

Iridesce Sent notes a new Ketchup product: W Ketchup. Oh, my.

Personally, I'd like to see someone marketing the old-fashioned fermented ketchup. I know from a reliable source, though, that Heinz Ketchup is a great gourmet ketchup and an "american treasure," others' opinions notwithstanding.



Monday, July 05, 2004

To My Oldest Friend

Two journeyed in a lifeless desert land
Remembering their safer greener past
From which they’d glimpsed bright lights across the sand.
They went to find these lights; each willed it so —
True friends share compasses – but they diverged,
Each thinking his the truest way to go.
But many times their choice-twinned paths recrossed
And each shared what he’d learnt since they’d met last.
Both still saw lights, and neither one was lost.
There were no farewell words, nor any greetings
(Companionship was present but submerged –
Their aim was shared between their place-shared meetings)
For good things never have a pleasant end.
And each is proud to call the other “friend.” will boost your web site traffic by 50%. Starting tomorrow. For as long as you like. No purchase necessary. 100% totally free. No kidding!

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