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Film as Martyr - or Sacrifice On The Pyre Of Advancement

Dear Kiddies and 'Thon visitors,

Everything evolved can earn a name as a 'yardstick of civilization'. The advancement from Sputnik to the Apollo 11 to the Enterprise may be, to some, more important than the evolution of music as championed by Motown and Sun Records, but they do share the commonality of having moments that define the leaps and bounds of an industry, rather than merely baby steps towards the future. Film is the same. Some movies are important because of advances in storytelling styles, some because of the imagery they use, and some because of technical achievement.

Today, as part of the Misunderstood Blog-A-Thon, I, for as much as I'd like to get into my 'comedy-of-psychopompic errors' interpretation of David Lynch's Lost Highway, decided to explore a larger perspective - that being the true reason some films are made, and why 'story' is often thrown to the lions in favour of the growing pains of innovation.

 Right... "OOPS"
Right... 'OOPS'.

We all know that 1927 was an important year in film, mostly due to the fact that The Jazz Singer (1927) is, in essence, the first talking picture. In that film, musical numbers were heard by audiences, and the world changed. People wanted sound. The little-known Lights of New York (1928) was the first film that was ALL talkie. It sucked. Now I'm not going to get into the many sacrificed films that hobbled the creative and wonderful industry of silent cinema with the advent of the talkies, since I've already done that here, but imagine all the 'made for silent' masterpieces that were tossed in favour of an inferior talkie. I mourn their unpassing.  England's first talkie was a silent too: producers of Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929) decided to inject sound after production began. As you watch, it's easy to see the awkwardness in the sacrifices made to appease the audiences, at the cost of Hitchcock's original vision. 

Other technical milestones include films like The Toll of The Sea (1922) and Becky Sharp (1935). Have you heard of either of those? Me neither. The Toll of The Sea is famous not for its tale, but for the fact that it was the first film shot in colour, whereas Becky Sharp was the first Technicolor feature ever made. These movies are not considered good, but to be polite, we'll say that they were worthy of sacrifice  to the advancement of film history. 

On the flip side, we have film firsts where the risk was successful in enhancing the experience. Greed (1924) was the first film shot entirely on location and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) was popularized by its visuals, a new German artistic style called 'Expressionism'. The rest is history.

Expressionism evolved along with storytelling until a rash of tales where we followed an Anti-hero that often ended in tragedy.  An impressive feat in original film-making that earned itself it's own genre ... Film Noir. With its popularity, I'm sure that more than a few Films Noir ended up being forced to change the story just to properly pigeonhole themselves into that Genre. 

Along the same lines, a major breakthrough in the Western Genre occurred with Johnny Guitar (1954), which saw a shattering of stereotypes from the White Hat = Good Guy / Black Hat = Bad Guy to having a Western story with two females as the primary antagonist and protagonist. Perhaps director Nicholas Ray was not more concerned with his vision than with his story, but when we leap to Peter Greenaway, hyper-symbolic director of  The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and The Pillow Book, many would say he intentionally infuses so much imagery that his films aren't even about the story being shown, but tales contorted around religious symbols, and works that could hold up to many different interpretations.

I know you don't need an exploration of the pain associated with CGI special effects and the advent of digital media, but I will touch upon Rotoscoping. To some, it's a perfectly outrageously expensive way to break a perfectly good film.  Take A Waking Life (2001), or the better known A Scanner Darkly (2006), (shown below), and though some people will tell you the visuals are beautifully ethereal, others will leave the theater because it's making them dizzy. 

What all this is getting at is often... very, very often, a film sets out not to be an exercise in lesson-teaching storytelling or high-art entertainment, so much as it is an exercise in technical or artistic advancement, otherwise known as an 'experiment'.  Many of these films are more about the process than the product, and rather than misunderstanding what the story is about, we simply miss the less noble point of a production - cash for the Research and Development division of Industrial Light and Magic.

At the same time we should be happy, since blockbusters with great stories that also have great special effects like The Matrix and Terminator II can look back at everything that came before and thank them for their sacrifice to make such things as these.

The concept that all films are made with the director's vision in mind, well, just ask Terry Gilliam about that nightmare.  Sometimes films succeed in being something good and important because of their innovations, but often, they're just fuel on the pyre of 'getting there'.

This entry is part of the Misunderstood Blog-A-Thon happening over at Culture Snob. Go check it out!

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I think you are right on: Man cannot live on technical advance alone. I've read far too many people who go crazy about digital images to the point that the content within those images is irrelevant. (See Inland Empire, for example). I haven't seen A Scanner Darkly, but Waking Life was the first Linklater film to truly disappoint me and I think it's because you can judge it rather simply. Since it was filmed then animated over the film images, would it have worked if it had just been a "regular" movie? I think the answer is clearly, "No, it wouldn't have."

But if Waking Life wouldn't work as a non-animated movie, wouldn't that mean that its form and content were well-matched? Or are you arguing that there is no content?

 One of my criteria for a movie is whether it would have worked in another medium/format/structure: as a novel, told in a different way, as theater ... . I particularly like those works that must be unique to their medium, or that draw meaning from their formats.

I like the idea that innovative movies oughtn't be judged negatively on narrative/thematic grounds but instead valued for what they contributed technically. The tool has to be mastered before it can reach its potential.

On the other hand, a tool is only as good as the use to which it's put, and technical advances in cinema are meaningless until filmmakers employ them to advance their aims. The true innovators discover new ways to match form and function.

And thanks for participating in the blog-a-thon!

I think if Waking Life had been animated from the beginning or shown as film, either way it wouldn't hold up. When you compare it to the great flow Linklater produced in Slacker, Waking Life just seemed meandering. It's sort of the style vs. substance argument. If it's going to be all style, it really needs to be at the top of its game to make it without anything holding it up. As a comparison, I'd take David Lynch's Mulholland Drive vs. Inland Empire. Neither really make any sort of coherent sense, but he made Mulholland Drive with such skill and finesse, that it was spellbinding whereas Inland Empire turned out to be a pointless bore.

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