Monday, December 19, 2005

Great Films

This Sunday's New York Times had an interesting article on the disappearance of stunningly bad movies, with the idea that the disappearance of colossal failures has also led to a decrease in the amount of truly great movies, leaving us with a bunch of good, but uninspiring movies. This is something I'd definitely agree with, especially coming off one of the weakest years in American cinema in a long time.

There were two American movies that I loved this year. I saw a lot of good movies, but only two really imprinted on my consciousness, and both were incredibly ambitious, frequently critically maligned films: Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and Domino. Sith did get generally good reviews, but at the same time, the negative reviews were filled with a venom, sheer emotional expression that you couldn't find in a good review for a film like Good Night and Good Luck. Domino was really hated on, cited as a nadir for cinema. I really wanted to see a film that could provoke such strong reactions and I was not disappointed by the film, I think it's pushing the so called MTV style to its limits, creating a film were the narrative is secondary to the editing. It's practically an avant garde film, taking a fairly standard narrative and transforming it into this visual art object.

These were two films that did new things with the medium and had a startling level of ambition. Sith was about the destruction of the universe, and the complete breakdown of one man's life. It's a massive movie reaching so high that obviously some people are going to say it fails. It's not safe, and the basic problem with so many of the prestige movies coming out now is that they're safe, they distance themselves from the audience, showing us events, rather than really engaging the viewer in what's going on.

One of the big problems with a lot of the big movies coming out at the end of this year is that they're set in the past. I've got no problem with the occasional period film, but the fact that seven out of ten best picture nominees at the Golden Globes are set in the past is a bit excessive. There's a lot of issues with doing period films, most notably the fact that it's often difficult to emotionally engage with the people in these films. Frequently, they're so caught up with issues from that era that it becomes hard to relate with the characters as people, and in the case of films based on historical events, we already know everything that's going to happen. So, a film like Good Night and Good Luck is entertaining, but you're never really caught up in things emotionally because you already know what's going to happen.

The other major problem with that film is that there's too much emotional distance between the audience and the characters. The film looks good, but the filmmaking isn't used to draw the audience into the characters' minds. I would point to Irreversible as the ultimate example of the filmmaker's choices making the audience feel the events. The film wouldn't have the power that it does if the character was a stationary observer. The medium's power is in its ability to engulf the audience in events.

When I watch the films that I truly love, there's always a moment where I sit up and just smile because the film is so perfect there, you can't help but be overwhelmed. It's not even happy moments that do this, in 2046, the scene on the train where Faye stands on the train and titles show time passing, I was just in awe of the moment, the emotional impact overwhelming there. Similarly, in Domino, the end of the film when the casino is blowing up and Keira is firing two machine guns, it's so excessive and over the top, you can't help but smile. And watching the end of Revenge of the Sith, I had a huge smile on my face because the ending was perfect.

In a film like Good Night, Mystic River, countless others, they receive huge critical acclaim and awards, but there's no real excitement there. Clint Eastwood was hailed for making sturdy, classical films, implying that this new style is bad. The medium has changed a lot, I would argue for the better, but it's the fact that people make such crappy films that gives fast editing and moving camera a bad name. A film like Mystic River is good, but it doesn't even try to be great. To be great a movie needs more than just good performances and story, you need good filmmaking too. Now, good filmmaking need not be showy. Watching a film by Kim Ki-Duk, you can see a restrained style, but the way he frames shots gives them a huge amount of meaning and beauty. There's an emphasis on using the frame as a way of commenting on the characters, and you just don't get that in the weak prestige films.

And this gets back to the issue of making really bad movies. A film like Mystic River is safe because there's no personal investment, it started as a book, was turned into a screenplay by someone else and then directed by another person. Who's film is that? Can you really call it a Clint Eastwood film when all he did is direct it, and poorly I might add. Same for Milliion Dollar Baby, it's the product of so many people, there's no real emotional investment.

I've talked about this before, but why is it acceptable in films to make stories that aren't your own? It's absolutely ridiculous. Of the ten films nominated for best picture at the Golden Globes, only two aren't adapted from something else. There are two original screenplays, which is absolutely ridiculous. Why would you want to tell someone else's story? In some cases, it is worth doing because you such a passion for the material. Domino is a film where Tony Scott clearly loved the material and that's why he made it, and at the same time, his movie made great use of the medium, not jus telling the story, but truly making it into something that could only be done in film. But does anyone really care about Mrs. Henderson Presents, or was it just a case of someone looking at the demographics and thinking it had a chance of making money.

If you're making someone else's story, there's almost always a loss of quality because it's a second generation piece. You have to fit the story into the constraints of a film, rather than building a film that will use those constraints to its advantage. Look at a film like 2046, this is a movie where the creator is clearly totally emotionally invested in it, and that results in a passion and beauty far exceeding nearly any other film released this year.

Getting back to the first point, all great movies have a leap of faith moment, when they attempt something risky that could either take the film to a higher plane or end up getting laughed at. Magnolia is a film that's hugely ambitious and certainly had the potential to bomb horribly. There's a moment about two hours into the film where all the characters sing along to 'Wise Up,' an extremely risky move that could come off utterly ridiculous, but in the film, it completely works and winds up as one of the film's greatest moments. It's that creative risktaking that makes the film so powerful, and when you compare Magnolia to a film like Mystic River, Mystic River seems laughably pathetic. The epic grandeur, scope, filmmaking and emotion dwarf the "well told" story of Mystic River.

Saying that filmmakers should stick to the "classical" template that Eastwood was so praised for is absolutely absurd. The painting from the Renaissance might have been good, but is anyone saying that we should just try to replicate that style. No, things have moved on and the medium has evolved. So has film, and to try to lock it into a boring template is weak. To be honest, I too would rather see a film that aims for the stars and ends up falling short than something that just plays it safe. Sith may be more flawed than a lot of films, but it does so much good stuff, it makes up for it.

Even in my own work, Ricky Frost is pretty good storywise, but it's the filmmaking that hopefully makes it into a successful film. It's the use of music and strong images that make it more than just a teen angst story. We could have told it in the classical style, but by juxtaposing images, dialogue and music we made an engrossing film.

It may be tough to work within the system and produce an original work, but even if you have a standard story, use the filmmaking to make it extraordinary, like Domino did, or to push the emotions to an apocalyptic level, as Magnolia did. The whole world might have been at stake in Narnia, but that didn't engage me as much emotionally as did the lives of nine people in the Valley in Magnolia.

1 comment:

Nursing Home Furniture said...

I personally thought Revenge of the Sith did a lot to redeem the new Star Wars films. Attack of the Clones was one of the worst films ever