I would hate to get redundant or repetitive, but I feel like the truly accurate absolutely must be stated multiple times more than once in order for the studious learner to truly understand and comprehend the subject matter to a sufficiently adequate degree.
I have gained a rather meager audience in the last year and a half or so since I started this blog. I feel like I could gain a little more traction in readership if I write a post attempting to concisely revisit those principles about which I have so tediously written. The reason for this is clear: the purpose of this blog is to help the casual movie-goer become a competent film-connoisseur, and I have detailed a step-by-step approach to get said movie-goer to that point. I don’t claim that this is the only way to become affluent in the world and language of cinema, but it is certainly an advisable way. I think that a lot of people are too unwilling to jump in in the middle of a long journey, not knowing all the details that preceded them. In order to understand a lot of my posts and pages, one has to have read previous posts and pages, and that can be problematic when one sees that some of my pages are as long as 10,000 words. So, despite the aversion of many to redundancy, I will attempt here to repeat myself. I prefer the word “revisit”. It has more of a cool-History-Channel-documentary feel to it.
The Purpose of this Blog: to make the casual movie-goer a competent film-connoisseur. Some would say the difference between a casual movie-goer and a competent film-connoisseur is that the casual movie-goer thinks The Dark Knight is the best movie ever while the competent film-connoisseur would be more inclined to Tokyo Story or Citizen Kane. I don’t necessarily think that’s true. Actually, the competent film-connoisseur has seen all three, appreciates all three, and has his or her arguments in favor of all three.
The order that these posts and pages are written are designed, ultimately, with this path to film competency in mind. In order to get a road-map to the order in which these posts and pages are intended to be read, please visit the Index on the left hand column of the website.
A Slice of Cake Theory: It is not simple to just know everything there is know about the world of cinema, and it takes a very long time. The most important thing to recognize when beginning is what I have called the “A Slice of Cake” theory. This theory has acted as the guiding framework for all other theories I have put forward in this blog, as well as all of their corollaries. The name of the theory is born from the legendary Alfred Hitchcock in an interview with the equally legendary François Truffaut: “Some films are slices of life, mine are slices of cake.”
What Hitchcock tries to say in this quote that it is not the role of movies to be realistic. Even realist films—which I will be dedicating a lot of time to in the near future—are still extensions, as it were, of reality. As for formative films (which are far more common), they are not concerned with reality at all. Rather, they are concerned with what they can give you outside of the constrains of reality, the shell, as Alexander Blok would say. If you want real life, there are far better ways to experience real life than watching a movie. Even the most realistic of movies can provide a surreal experience as you are exposed to perspectives that are unattainable in real life. Think of the vantage points of camera angles, the insights of good narration, and the poignancy of practiced dialogue as opposed to the unplanned and non-complex perceptive of your own eyes. This is not a reality-based world, but rather a world where time and space can be captured, manipulated, and perfected.
This is important because we too often hold foreign films against a standard set by contemporary, ethnocentric ideals. And when I say “foreign films”, I mean films made in foreign languages as well as films made before 1990, films in black and white, and films about abstract ideas. I’ve found that a lot of Hollywood films are just as foreign to American consumers as movies made by Krzysztof Kieslowski, Dziga Vertov, or Kenji Mizoguchi. What has to happen is the casual movie-goer must first recognize the “A Slice of Cake” theory and attempt to embrace films not from a contemporary perspective, but from one of imagination. When one does this, one is no longer averted to awkward special effects in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or the “cheesy” dialogue in The Maltese Falcon. We begin to accept the world that is given us.
This leads to another important reason why the “A Slice of Cake” theory is helpful: it makes us active movie-watchers. Instead of having every detail provided for us as if we “Were Really There!” (D-BOX lovers, this is for you), we become more involved because we begin to participate in the world that is given us. We don’t need CGI or 3D to read a good book, so why should we need it for a good movie? If you really stop to think about it, and then give those old Hollywood movies a try, you’ll find that you actually like them far more more than you ever like Avatar. I guarantee it.
The Path to Competency: You can read all you want about film on this blog, but you’ll never fully understand it until you’ve seen it for yourself. I have, therefore, provided a few things that should help along the way. I have provided several movie reviews that I hope are useful. It doesn’t matter too much if you watch these movies before or after you read the reviews, though reading them after is probably a better idea. These reviews were provided according to a “springboard” strategy: these were the best movies to watch for a person first entering a new world of cinema. The formula was as follows: an Alfred Hitchcock movie would be followed by a Francis Ford Coppola movie would be followed by a silent film of the Golden Age of Cinema. That pattern would then repeat itself. I reviewed, in order, Vertigo, The Godfather, The General, Notorious, Apocalypse Now, Battleship Potemkin, Psycho, The Conversation, and Modern Times. Along with these films, I provided lists that would, I hope, make the movies more fun to watch in context. The lists included such things as a “Top Movies” list, a “Greatest Directors” list, a “Top 350 Greatest Movie Lines” list, and others.
Furthermore, I wrote about three genres that are favorites of the casual movie-goer: suspense, action films, and comedies. These three made up a trilogy of articles which I halfheartedly entitled the “My Take On…” series. These were supposed to parallel the lists and reviews to help contribute some important insights. For example, my reviews on Hitchcock films often resorted back to principles I laid out in the “My Take On….Suspense Page.” After discussing comedy in the “My Take On…Comedy” page, I decided to stick around with Charlie Chaplin (I had finished with Modern Times, which was a movie of his) and reviewed three more of his films, The Gold Rush, City Lights, and The Great Dictator.
The Important Principles of Suspense, Action, and Comedy: A stated above, I write in depth about suspense, action, and comedy films. The important things to understand about these films will be related in the following paragraphs.
Suspense films play on surface emotions, and can, therefore, be deceiving in terms of quality. The goal of suspense is found in its root word “suspend”, or keep hanging, as it were. As Alfred Hitchcock said, there is no suspense “in the bang–but in the anticipation of it.” Good suspense is not scary, it is daunting. Furthermore, a fundamental principle of good suspense and horror is the principle of empathy: you truly terrify yourself if you find yourself connecting with the psychopath. That is what is truly scary. In order for these principles to be effective, though, a movie-goer must be active, or, in other words, must subscribe to the “A Slice of Cake” theory. Only then will they be involved enough in what is going on to truly appreciate the horror at hand. Otherwise, they’ll just have to stick with Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Action films are difficult because they often, by their very nature, end the suspense. Suspense being one of the greatest conventions of film, this is problematic. However, action films can still provide a good character. Characters make up the nature of a good action film, and a good action film will often play on the same conventions as a horror film. As a matter of fact, the two genres often come hand in hand. Action films can also be stylized to better suit the genre. I claim in my post on action films that the traditional recipe of “corny one-liners, lots of explosions and tons of muscle” is not enough, but must also consist of “character, innovation and proper expression of director’s intent”.
Comedy films are fun because of their extreme diversity. You can have wordless comedy, like that of Chaplin and Keaton, or action-less comedy like that of Richard Linklater and Woody Allen. In this post, I document the evolution of comedy techniques over time starting with medieval pantomime and Shakespearean slapstick. I especially spend time on the nature of satire. Through satire a good screenwriter can escape the set-up/set-up/fall technique that plagues not only the modern cinema but much of modern television, and instead create a world of truly eccentric, funny characters that can often represent a fallen aspect of society. By this means, comedy is as much a cultural device as any genre.
Film Acting: In today’s society, acting is often considered the most important part of a film. This is a relatively new development, as most older films were far more interested in what was being filmed than how it sounded or behaved. Actually Robert Bresson, one of my very favorite directors, would film scenes over and over and over again until he was convinced that his actors were no longer acting. That way the viewer wouldn’t get so caught up in what the actors were doing as in what the director was showing on screen. On the other hand, you have movie-makers today like David O. Russell, who are lauded for their deft management of acting ensembles, and their entire picture is dependent on the performances of the cast. It is not rare in today’s award’s season for the nominees for “Best Actor” to be the same nominees as those in the “Best Picture” category.
In order to fully understand acting, one must study its development, which I do in my two-part analysis of acting. There is no time for that here. But, some principles of acting that I put forward include issues surrounding the “typecast actor vs. the character actor”, “winking at the audience”, and the relationship between character and performance. The typecast actor, I argue, is not a bad actor. He’s just really good at what he does. As a matter of fact, he or she has excelled in creating a star quality, and that should be admired, not decried. While it can often bring about complacency, it also helps a good actor delve into far deeper, more subtle things. While John Wayne’s characters all seem the same, they’re not. And figuring out the differences between them is something quite beneficial for an active, competent movie-connoisseur. Meanwhile, the “character actor” is often lauded in popular circles in versatility. But one need only watch one episode of Whose Line is it Anyway to understand that good acting takes more than just changing your voice and your gait and putting on different make-up. If anything, the actor known as a “character actor” is as typecast as any actor, only lacking a certain humanity. In terms of “winking at the audience”, I bring up such actors as Nicolas Cage or William H. Macy, two of the finest actors today, if you ask me. They do not break character to be more likeable. If they play a stiff, they play the stiff, even if that means you think they are stiff actors.
Which leads me to another principle, that of the relationship between character and performance. Sometimes we judge an acting performance based on the character. The problem with this is that if the character is stale, we give the acting performance no credit even if the performance was perfect. I call this the “Nicolas Cage” dilemma. This can go both ways; we sometimes laud actors when we should be lauding characters. For example, Jared Leto’s transsexual in Dallas Buyers Club. His performance was nothing special, but his character was significant. So, this form of unfair criticism can go both ways: it gives unfair negative responses to good performances and unfair praise to undeserving ones.
The Corollary to the “A Slice of Cake” Theory: The corollary to the “A Slice of Cake” theory involves an understanding of the two types of good cinema. Now, I’m going to talk about the two types of good cinema in a minute, but first I need to talk about two ideas (realist tendencies and formative tendencies). These two ideas are not the two types of cinema. They are two ideas. Then, I’ll talk about the two types of cinema, which are, as I refer to them, the “seventh art adherents” and the “Gesamtkuntswerks”.
Now, If you read a lot about film theory and anaylsis, you’ll find two prevailing opinions: the realist school (whose founders are August and Louis Lumière, and whose deans are Andrè Bazin and Vittorio de Sica), and the formative school (whose founder is Georges Méliès, and whose deans are Sergei Eisenstein and D.W. Griffith). Remember: as I talk about this remember the “A Slice of Cake” theory! The realists referred to the nature of photography and used it to say that the purpose of cinema was documentary, founded in realism. (This sounds like it doesn’t subscribe to the “A Slice of Cake” theory, huh?) The formativists felt that creation was central to cinema, that manipulation of the setting and script and the camera can form a new and unique set of images. In essence, the rivalry between realist and formative opinion is summed up in the two earliest masterpieces of cinema: the Lumière brothers L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat and Méliès’ Voyage dans la Lune. One documents real events, the other is fictional and dramatic.
Dziga Vertov, the famous Soviet director, believed that the camera housed more potential than the human eye, and he attempted to document it in his realist masterpiece, Man With a Movie Camera. What is significant about this was that his film was realist, and yet attempted to demonstrate how much of the world we can’t see, by unveiling the patterns and parallels and paradoxes around us. Because of this, realism is not bound in the shell of reality, it is designed to make reality even realer. Meanwhile the formative technique completely ignores the parameters of reality, attempting to create something completely different. Most films we watch today, no matter how realistic they seem, are primarily formative, in that they create characters, plots, and settings.
Now, we have come to realize that the parameters of reality prevent movies (realist or formative) from being slices of life. They are, instead, slices of cake. And there are two types of cake to choose from. Each leans toward one respective tendency or another.
The “seventh art adherents”, as I call them, lean more toward the realist school. This name comes from the term “the seventh art,” which refers to cinema. To be a “seventh art adherent” one must be focused on the problem of that art, or in other words, be focused on how to manipulate that particular art. That art is the film itself—the actual, physical filmstrip. Being able to manipulate the film at hand is the true issue. The solution to the problem of the seventh art, according to montage theorist Sergei Eisenstein, is proper application of montage. “Montage” is the French word for editing. In essence, montage is the juxtaposition of frames, which helps the active movie-goer (or competent movie-connoisseur) draw conclusions from what is going on before them. “Seventh art adherents” recognize that the most important part of a picture is the picture itself. Because of this, they often adhere to the principles of realism, which encourages fealty to the film and the image being recorded. Therefore, a movie doesn’t need good acting, score, special effects, or even sound to be considered good. Many of the greatest and most intriguing films ever made were made by “seventh art adherents”.
The other type of a good film is what I call a “Gesamtkunstwerk adherent,” and they lean more toward the formative school. This name comes from the famous composer Richard Wagner, who attempted to combine the great art forms into one single gesamtkunstwerk, or “complete work of art” in German. These movies arose at the advent of sound, and have come to dominate the American form of movie-making ever since. Great movie score (the fourth art), fantastic acting (which includes facets of the sixth and seventh arts), exacting choreography (the sixth art), sharp dialogue and script (the fifth art), brilliant set direction (the first and second arts), and good cinematography (the seventh art) all combine in these to form “Gesamtkunstwerks”. These are often very engaging for a movie-goer and taxing for a movie-maker, making them extravagant or enjoyable on many levels. Often, what a movie lacks in one department can be compensated for in other departments. This can be both good and bad. However, the downside to such movies is that they require less audience involvement to truly be appreciated. The “seventh art adherents”, on the other hand, need a good, active, participatory, and perceptive audience to truly get their message across.
So, the corollary to the “A Slice of Cake” theory is that there are two tendencies toward that slice of cake, and that there are also two types (flavors, perhaps?) of cake. The two tendencies are realist and formative, and the two types are “seventh art adherence” and “Gesamtkunstwerks”.
Auteurism: “Auteur” is the French word for “author”, and the term has come to be used in cinematic circles to refer to directors who truly take over the production of a film on every level. These directors are those who observe the doctrine put forward by Stanley Kubrick: One man writes a symphony, one man writes a novel, one man should make a movie. These directors, because of the nature of their work, often reflect much of themselves into their movies. We learn a lot about Orson Welles while we watch Citizen Kane, we learn a lot about Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita, and we learn a lot about Alfred Hitchcock in Vertigo. Because of these self-reflections, movies become much more vulnerable and personable, as opposed to such industrialized, massive projects as those Hollywood films which have end credits that are longer than the movie itself. Also, these self-reflections lend to a thematic consistency from movie to movie, and a director’s entire oeuvre becomes better.
An auteur doesn’t have to be a director, an auteur is often seen in the form of a writer. But the truest of all auteurs is the writer-director.
Morality in Film: My argument in regards to the inclusion of adult content in movies is taken from Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange. In the novel, a young man named Alex DeLarge who goes around with his friends committing senseless acts of “ultra-violence”. After accidentally killing someone, Alex is arrested, and in exchange for less prison-time, Alex agrees to participate in a psychological alteration experiment called the “Ludovico technique”. Upon returning home a brainwashed robot of morality (or, a “clockwork orange”), he is haunted by his old victims and ends up attempting suicide. He survives the suicide attempt and is eventually returned to his original state.
The argument of the book is not to say that the “Ludovico technique” is bad. After all, no such technique exists, and so to rant against it would be pointless. Instead, the “Ludovico technique” is used as a comparative device. The question asked is this: Is there any difference between Alex after the technique and Alex before it, between Alex the robot and Alex the sadist? (I borrow those words from Pauline Kael). What Burgess says in A Clockwork Orange is that there is no fundamental difference between a brainwashing technique and a society that desensitizes its citizens. In essence, the sadist Alex was just as much a “clockwork orange” because of his lack of conscience. What Burgess decries is a society that glorifies violence, as well as a society that does not allow the exercise of agency.
This is my issue with morality in films. Originally, the inclusion of sex and violence in films emerged with the desire to have those films act as a sort of “Ludovico Technique” themselves, creating an aversion to violence that most people would not have otherwise. However, instead of sensitizing the public, they have come to desensitize the public, and in the end, they have done nothing more than make a bunch more clockwork oranges. Therefore, it is nothing but a deception to say that the inclusion of sex and violence in films is good for society. Furthermore, it is nothing more than a cop-out to make more appealing trailers and feed the lusts of movie-makers.
Awards Season: Awards season is a big deal, particularly for American films. The advantage that awards season brings to the person striving to become a competent movie-connoisseur is that it helps introduce that person to new movies. It also contributes to a film’s legacy through approval by a given filmmaker’s peers. I have gone through and explained each of the major awards and helped to demonstrate how each award emphasizes different things. Awards season generally awards Gesamtkunstwerks instead of “seventh art adherents”.
I hope that this summary of my blog up until this point proves useful and not merely superfluous junk. I hope it doesn’t bore those few who have already read most or all of my blog. I hope that it acts as a helpful reference and review. I will continue to build on the principles laid out in this blog as I post more lists, reviews, analyses, and comments.