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The Blog of Photographer Steven Gray

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Cinema and Ideas

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I had an interesting conversation in my film practicum class yesterday.  To understand the context, I need to give some background on the instructor.

Dr. Karimi is eighty years old this year, and has a tendency to monologue on whatever strikes his fancy on a given day.  By the time a student reaches his practicum class, he can expect little more from the lecture meetings than the topic de jour.  All of the actual work for the class is done outside the classroom, so attending the class at all is more of a courtesy to the instructor than a necessity for a grade.

Be that as it may, the class is worth attending every now and again; mostly for the same reasons that I enjoy oral histories.  Given Dr. Karimi's age, the amount of time he has spent as filmmaker-turned-teacher, his personal stories and perspectives can be incredibly interesting.  This is made even more interesting for the people he claims to have been friends with during his college days.  The list gets longer every semester, but right now it includes Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Alan Watts and Stanley Kramer.

So, yesterday's conversation.

One of Dr. Karimi's pet subjects, based on his sixty-plus years of observing film culture, is dehumanization in cinema.  Dehumanization is a reference to the effect of the film's elements on its characters and story, and the consequence for the film's audience, over a period of time, is desensitization to visual depictions of cruelty, and the onslaught of vicious language from one human being to another.  Dr. Karimi likes to ask his classes about what they expect from the films they watch.

When asked their thoughts on language and violence, the stock student response is "realism;" that a lack of coarseness or violence will cause a film to lack authenticity.  This response is ignorant.

A matter of great concern to me is that the concept of true cinema is lost on many self-professed student "film buffs."  For cinema to be a form of artistic expression, I firmly believe that the study of film (whether in a formal setting or simply as a self-directed appreciator), must return to the early days of the silent, experimental films and camera tests and trace the heritage of film from then to the present day.

All cinema has its roots in documentary, because it began as a novelty.  From Edison to the Lumiere Brothers, early films simply captured moments from everyday life.  The famous scenes of the train arriving, factory workers, families dining in their gardens; these were all familiar scenes that people knew very well from their own experience.  One could say that the thrill came from seeing the familiar in such a larger than life setting.

Like everything else, film must evolve, or it stagnates.  It didn't take long for early experimenters in film to realize just how many creative effects were possible in motion pictures.  From traditional photographic techniques like double exposure, to (for the time) new techniques that relied on nothing more than the raw mechanics of the camera, such as reversing the film or changing the speed.  Naturally, editing techniques became more sophisticated as well; cutting and splicing grew from early use as special effects (disappearing props and people, ala Georges Melie) to a highly-refined art of its own for the creation of montage and, wonder of wonders, parallel story lines!

Bear in mind, all of this took place in the absence of sound.  Until the advent of sound experiments in film in the early twenties, film was a purely visual art form.  Title cards had their place, but there was a burden on the director, cameraman and actors to convey thoughts and ideas in strictly visual terms.  And this is where the idea of "pure" or "true" cinema comes from.  Rudolf Arnheim wrote on this extensively, and Alfred Hitchcock was also in agreement with the philosophy that cinema worked best as an art form when it relied on visual communication.  Arnheim went so far as to make the case (and convincingly so) that when dialogue was given more precedence than the work of the camera to communicate information, it was no longer "film as art," but "filmed theatre."

The idea of "filmed theater" was perhaps more relevant in the 1930s, when Arnheim wrote the majority of his essays and theatre retained more influence in popular culture, but the idea still holds weight.  The progression of film from simple one-reel recordings of a train arriving to highly artistic (and often alarmingly complex) documentaries, heartbreakingly tragic comedies, and artistically-brilliant dramas that reflected the concerns of their time, in the space of only a few decades, is absolutely staggering.

Arnheim contended that the advent of cost-effective sound in film retarded its development when it was just short of reaching its zenith as an art form.  The sophistication of pure visual experience was reduced again to a commercialized novelty as films reinvented themselves as "talkies" with restrictive equipment and a new generation of actors faced with the cognitive dissonance of what they had seen in silent films versus what was desired for films with audible dialogue.

It didn't take long for the color processes to emerge and reinvent films yet again.  No sooner had dialogue been mastered and a new style of acting been standardized than films were once again pushed back to the realm of novelty with the promise of color.  An objective viewing of color films in the 1930s against their black and white counterparts makes it apparent that different levels of craft went into the visuals of the different chromatic schemes.  Going back a step further, the visual aesthetics and sophistication of silent films often far exceeded what was seen in later years.

An individual more enterprising than myself could maintain an entire blog just on the battles of film and television throughout the 1950s and onward, but sufficed to say that every time films made breakthroughs in style or allowable content, commercial interests either marginalized them or held them back as the studios struggled to maintain their grip on culture against the onslaught of television.

And, with some unforgivable omissions in the timeline of film history, we come to the present day.  With television and movies (and now digital distribution) all competing, visual entertainment is starting to all look the same.  There are a few exceptions, of course, but by and large, television has caught up with films in regard to production value, and it looks like some uneasy truces will soon fall into place between studios and multi-platform distributors.  But it seems that the ups and downs of film history have left audiences confused as to what films are actually about.

Finally, back to what I originally intended to write about!

Where do expectations of realism factor into visual storytelling?

Films, at their core, are about the visual communication of ideas.  But when films began to risk losing their audience to television, films tried everything to hang on to them.  Epic "cast of thousands!" sword-and-sandal productions and the experimental technical gimmickry of the 1950s and early 1960s proved to be both financially unsustainable, and hardly a serious thematic competitor for audience attention as post-war prosperity and optimism was dimmed by the harsh realities of the American civil rights movement and the compounding effect of the Vietnam War.  Because of all of these factors, plus many more, I believe that a conscious decision was made to draw audiences back to the cinemas based on prurient interests.

The late 1960s saw the entrance of new ratings systems that allowed more creative flexibility, and, consequently, the ancient enemies of all Puritans, sex, language and violence.  And this was the point where there was a sharp degradation of film as a method of conveying ideas.

Films are excellent mediums for telling stories.  But the best stories are the ones that not only have interesting characters, but provide insights into life and culture.  Ideas.  But if films sacrifice substantive ideas in favor of fleshing out mere stories with extra violence, "shocking" language (our culture's definition of what constitutes vulgarity seems to be in a fresh state of flux), or sexuality, then one can expect nothing else than what we have today.  The expectation that realism in cinema comes from the content rather than the authenticity of the ideas it presents to the audience.

The argument that realism requires a certain kind of content usually includes a sub-argument that some characters or stories make no sense or do not ring true without their speaking certain kinds of language or engaging in certain kinds of behavior.  There is credence to this, but it begs the question of whether or not the film also contains an idea to accompany its content, or if the content is there for its own sake.  There is some subjectivity on this point, because each individual has their own personal criteria for what makes a film "good."

I hate to bring up Quentin Tarantino in this piece, because he is the go-to figure in these kinds of arguments far too often, but his name inevitably comes up, especially when speaking with college students.  Tarantino's films are notable for their violence and profanity.  Their are also fun to watch.  But are there ideas presented?  Largely, no.  There are traces of ideas, but the films themselves do not explore them.  Tarantino is a filmmaker concerned with stylistic experiments.  His films contain no originality other than the order in which he arranges elements of films which have influenced him.  His films exist in a closed universe where every element and much of the dialogue is homage to his predecessors, and Tarantino's skill is not in organizing them into ideas, but in organizing them into an entertaining order and style.

Conversely, Woody Allen is an example of a mindset opposite.  Allen's ouvre reflects a filmmaking mindset that is entirely consumed by ideas.  Some bold visuals are to be remembered from his films; the gorgeous, low-key cinematography of Manhattan, the 1970s interpretation of futuristic post-modernism in Sleeper, and the dreamlike monochrome cinematography of Stardust Memories and Shadows and Fog.  But the visual style of Allen's films is not the primary means of communication.  The ideas exist entirely in the dialogue, and despite Allen's frequent collaboration with excellent cinematographers, the visual style of his films are there solely as ambience for conversations.  In fact, Arnheim would most likely define Allen's films as the perfect examples of "filmed theatre," because they are primarily comprised of long takes of people talking to each other.

Perhaps the best example of a filmmaker who most successfully married ideas with the verbal and visual delivery was Stanley Kubrick.  Kubrick was a very bold filmmaker in every sense of the word.  He used cinematography to communicate both the outer actions and inner motivations of his characters.  He used montage, long takes and overall technical proficiency to create films that were visually inventive and artistic in ways that moved ideas forward.  He is one of my personal favorite filmmakers for this reason.

To sum up, the question is asked: "do films require certain kinds of content to convey realism?"  And this is the wrong question.

The question should be, "is the content of a film necessary to convey its idea?"

Film as an art form should not be tied down to realism.  If films were entirely realistic, they would be incredibly boring, because real life is rarely as exciting as a story written for film.  If we are to still refer to filmmaking as a form of art, it needs to communicate ideas, not simply provide escape or entertainment.  When a film is viewed, the idea should be made clear.

Recently, I was impressed with The Descendants for its tight focus on ideas concerning past, present and future family legacies.  Like Allen's films, much of the storytelling was in the dialogue, but it was also visually engaging throughout, and made conscious choices to explore characters through its camera setups.  There was language that some people I know found distasteful, but it was a rare case where characters and ideas were aided by frequent profanity.

The trouble with "dehumanizing" elements is that the problems led to the competition between television and film are no longer relevant, especially in the era of cable.  There is no longer any need for the content of cinema to be markedly more risqué or vulgar than television, because the standards are fairly interchangeable between films and cable television shows.  But after forty years, the expectations are firmly entrenched, and films are, from the beginning, written to be entertainment rather than to convey ideas through aesthetics.

I don't want to extend my speculation too far, but I am willing to state that the newest generation of movie-goers is almost incapable of judging films based on the quality of their ideas.  This isn't because of any lack of intelligence on their part, but a lack of variety and awareness of film history.  I honestly don't know what the solution is.  The films are there to be watched; it took me less than thirty seconds to get links to three classic films, in their entirety, from YouTube.  The problem is that too few people know where to begin.

Those who fail to study history...