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 pionehttp://imdb.com/title/tt0034583/ers 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.


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