Movies are the playground of Icons, Archetypes, Representations of a thing that is not the thing. It can be difficult to think of films being elusive in their meaning if you’re not a film critic or film maker because film seemingly takes away any need for imagination on the part of the viewer.
With Novels you see a picture in your head. In Art you have a plastic representation of a thing that is not the thing but its one simple picture or sculpture or installation that suggests, coaxes meaning out of you, your own meaning. But movies, at least most movies, and TV give you everything: pictures, dialogue, music. They consist of separate scenes that link together to tell a story and even if the scenes are switched around they are usually switched around consciously to better tell the story. The Art film removes the artifice of convention and tries to evoke in a more ambiguous way the experience of life we all share. It would be impossible to evoke the experience of an alien species, for example, as we can only speculate what an other-worldly point of view would think of the world. So if you see an art film and go, “What the fuck was that?” give it a minute and think and you’ll probably get a general idea of what is going on.
The above statements are obvious ones and have been repeated often and I repeat them here in an attempt to lay some ground work and figure out why a lot of recent modern films feel small to me.
At first I blamed new technology (the dreaded D-word) and an uninformed or under-informed crop of new filmmakers. “Perhaps,” I thought “these guys or gals haven’t done their homework, haven’t sat down with Renoir and Ozu, with Bresson and Altman, with Ford, Ford, Ford. So they don’t know how to really create a sense of place in a film, are afraid of wide-angle lenses, or watched too much TV and have been warped by it.”
I wish I could think of a better example but the only thing that pops into my head is the fairly recent Green Hornet film, which felt like seeing an amiable looking fellow walking down the street who was wearing a top hat, cargo shorts, three sweaters and carrying a bowling ball. Distracting but without any sense to it. In the action sequences, which involved probably killing innocent police officers (seriously, what were they thinking?) the shots felt very tight, too tight in fact. Even in The Avengers (hey, you see that one) there seemed to be a lack of wide shots even though there were a bunch.
Then I realized it’s not that there is a lack or fear around Anamorphic (though there probably is a little because of scared directors and dick cinematographers). It’s the result of a modern misunderstanding of what a film is, the evocation of the Iconic.
Think of classic films and moments from them. Casablanca, Jaws, the Harry Lime reveal in The Third Man, the Overlook in The Shining, everything in Star Wars, ad infinitum. These moments are stand-ins for the film, they evoke the entire world of the film, and usually bring warm memories of our favorite movie-going experiences. But they are not simply self-referencing Icons. Great films, both known and unknown, are Icons of themselves first, before becoming Icons or Avatars of a greater Pop Culture landscape and their power comes from this knowledge: what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t what you are seeing on the screen.
You can break a movie down by plot, the performances, big set-pieces, or whether or not they got the particular superhero’s costume right, etc. We take for granted that the things that are happening on the screen are actually happening when in fact they are not. It is a flat image (…FLAT image) that only represents though it seems to do a very thorough job of it. You don’t have to imagine what Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader looks like. You simply look at it. But why that image will be forever with us is that it EVOKES that final confrontation, the entire idea of a final confrontation, and it does it in a way that is similar to other type showdowns but it is uniquely itself, comfortable in its own skin.
That’s ultimately why remakes-boots-imaginings, no matter how brilliant they may be on the surface, will always fail if they do not heed the idea of the Icon, the stand-in-for. John Wayne is every cowboy that has ever existed. Michael Myers is everything you have ever been afraid of. Winnie the Pooh is every best friend you’ve ever had.
So I think two things are going on with modern movies and I’ll continue to speak in general terms since this is a very general concern that concerns American movies.
1)Our childhoods. The modern crop grew up with more access to this material than any generation prior. Kids could watch the hell out of TV in the ’50s but not the same show, not the same movie. I’ve probably seen Ghostbusters about 250 times and I am in no way exaggerating. (Ghostbusters may also be the perfect Icon movie that creates its own Icon within the span of time the movie exists on screen, this adds to its many charms, it is self-actualized)
So we deify the films of our youth and simultaneously, unconsciously, cut ourselves off at the knees and subjugate our talent. Lucas didn’t say, “Man I sure loved Flash Gordon so I think I’ll make something that’s almost as good but could NOT POSSIBLY be better.” He probably said something like, “I sure loved Flash Gordon when I was a kid…what if I made it better, with a better story and better effects.”
The kids behind the movies nowadays don’t seem to say this. No one is saying, “I’ll make a movie that’s better than Star Wars.” And while that would seem to be the mark of humility considering how impossible it would seem to be, artists shouldn’t be saying this. You need to slay the Buddha in the road without hesitation because audiences aren’t going to respond to your humility. They will respond to your audacity. You’re still allowed to and encouraged to love what you love but when it comes to your own art you’ve got to just say, “Fuck Back to the Future”.
2) Getting it Right.
We’re afraid to make mistakes. If you took a cursory glance at press releases for all the recent book and comic book adaptations the spin is, “Getting it right”. Getting Batman right, getting these sexy vampires right. In other words slavish attention to an unmanageable ideal. We’re no longer in the business of entertaining audiences, we are now slaves to them. Studios will make changes if word leaks about a character not doing something they did in the books in order to avoid…nasty Internet comments? No, in order to get as much money as possible. But maybe they are afraid of nasty Internet comments in Hollywood…the pussies.
Fans cannot, should not, and cannot be in charge of the creative process because they are fans. They may not know it but they want their hearts broken, they want to be taken to the brink of insanity, they want you to make them cry and none of that can happen if:
-They know everything that’s going to happen beforehand
-They actually have a hand in what’s going to happen beforehand
-They are actually listened to
Getting it right leads to lots of close-ups, e.g. Star Trek. So many goddamn close-ups in that movie. Yo Abrams, rent The Searchers! I kid Abrams though because I was entertained by that movie and 75% of Super 8. Those kids were phenoms! Childhood never felt so real on screen, or recognizable, since…I dunno the 80’s I guess. But then there was that lazy fucking monster. That uninspired monster. That CGI fucking monster that sums up my point fairly well.
E.T. wasn’t a giant snarling creature for practical purposes but he sure was Iconic. He represents the True Friend. He’s memorable in design, got those big eyes, and can be thrown right onto the list of pop culture icons I mentioned earlier. He was created to be filmed by hands that are connected to hearts and brains that think and feel. But the monster in Super 8 could have been the monster in Cloverfield or a monster in Star Trek or anything else. It only represents itself and nothing greater than that…or maybe the Mom dying in the movie, the trauma of it? I’m not sure because the movie didn’t make me feel anything for it.
So that’s probably why movies feel smaller to me nowadays though I still blame those pussies who are scared of Anamorphic. Nut up and watch some John Carpenter movies Goddammit. Then do your homework and watch some Howard Hawks. Then do extra credit and get your hands on Michael Powell and Emmerich Pressburger, the Archers. Because, modern movies, you feel small and insignificant. You feel like you’re too scared to say “This is a movie and you will watch it because I say so.” You lack conviction and are more interested in the nuts and bolts of “This was in the book, this looks cool because video games are popular, it looks real, etc.” and you don’t know that movies are metaphors.
It’s poetry, not math. So create new worlds or give up. Thank you.