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 amazon.com 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.

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