Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My friend the cinematic acrobat.

I had an IM conversation with a friend today that infuriated me. Admittedly, I egged it on by using hyperbole to entertain myself. I do that sometimes -- use sweeping generalizations to get someone's goat. For instance stating that all experimental film is masturbation or saying that I don't think the study of film theory or history is important. I don't know why I do it, but sometimes I can't help myself. Anyway, one way or another my use of hyperbole led to this friend telling me that my films are only good, not great, because I use only simple visual language and rely heavily on actors and dialogue rather than camera movement to tell my stories. I shot back that I thought his films were visually stunning but lacking in human warmth. He probably meant what he said, and honestly, I meant what I said too -- not as objective fact but as personal preference. The truth is, I really don't like Kubrick's work. I find it to be artistically mouthwatering on a visual scale but cold, unempathetic, and distant. Not surprisingly, this friend worships Kubrick. There's nothing wrong with that.

What irked me wasn't that we approach filmmaking differently or prefer different kinds of films. What irked me was that he considered my "simple" approach to be pointless. Why make a movie, he asked, if I wasn't setting out to make something visually revolutionary? To me, this question is about as stupid as asking Hemingway why he wants to be a writer if he's not going to write flashy Faulknerian sentences. After all, the novel is a medium of language. Limiting oneself to a minimalist approach does not make full use of the medium.

That is the argument my friend made to me. Film is visual, so if your shots are not designed to impress first on a visual level and only secondly on a storytelling level, you might as well direct plays for the stage. If I had been in the same room as him, I honestly might have punched him. I would have apologized afterward, but I would have enjoyed it.

My friend pursues filmmaking because he is in love with the visual above all else. I pursue filmmaking because I am in love with the multitextual above all else. I like film because I love how you can shape an emotional moment through performance, through clothing, through sound, through set dressing, and yes, through placement of the camera. But as I said to my friend, for me, the camera is a machine. I trust the human communication of the actor over the machine any day. He likes lots of flashy movement. I like straightforward shots that focus on performance. In my book, neither one is wrong or right, just different flavors of filmmaking. Perhaps my friend would prefer to live in a world where everyone makes movies the same way he does. I thank God Faulkner never asked that of Hemingway. Otherwise perhaps no one would know the power of a good clean sentence.

1 comment:

  1. There is no wrong reason for making a film. There really isn't any wrong way to construct a film. The entire history of cinema and really of any art medium is about breaking a loosely acknowledged set of rules so that you either A) put forth a new set of them or B) recombine or reinterpret older rules in a way that has the illusion of originality.

    Personally, I like Kubrick's films. He's far from the only filmmaker in the world who visibly played with intricate camera staging and form. There's Bergman, Tarkovsky, Godard, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Resnais, Welles, etc.......

    All of that really isn't important, in general. In the end, the most widely affecting films always have a powerful story with powerful performances. Wouldn't you know it... Kubrick, Godard, Bergman, Tarkovsky, Kurosawa, Ophuls, Resnais, Welles, etc. have all been criticized in one form or another for their lack of affecting performance here or there.

    I think the truth lies in between the lines.

    Great films usually have all three: good use of camera and editing, a powerful story and powerful performances.

    Know someone whom I'm not incredibly fond of? Lars Von Trier. Yeah, he plays around with film rules but he's not groundbreaking, he's obsessed with metaphorical stories about the decadence of American politics, and the performances in his films are.... obvious. Not poor but just blah. obvious. There's a real example of a filmmaker who's overrated.

    I will contend one point. That is, even the best stories, be they written by Faulkner or Hemmingway (and I happen to love Hemmingway, btw) have a structure you can pick out if you REALLY sit there and analyze it.

    Any good writer has theories about what the structure of his novels and stories should be. At some point, however, the use of those theories, rules or structures became second and subconscious to the expression of the stories they either wanted to write or had to write. At the creative point in any artistic process, the work goes beyond mere rules and is often driven by something more primal and honest.

    Filming a scene, for instance, no matter what the camera setup is, ceases to become a theoretical foray as soon as you call "action!" That's when you finish doing your creative job and let your actors start doing theirs.

    My point in all of this is that I firmly believe that you can't ignore any aspect of an artistic medium which, like everything else, plays by a set of rules that you follow or break to varying degrees.

    I also don't think you should ignore human emotion, either. Experimental films occasionally have a couple of ideas to show, but they have nothing to do with stories in their purest form.

    Narrative films, on the other hand, can do with complex visual ideas or do without them. In the end, it's really up to you, the filmmaker, to show us and let us hear what you think we should see and hear in whatever form you feel is best. Before you get into the whole issue of final cut and test screenings, anyway.

    And thank God for that.