This gets at something about film I want to talk about.
Director: BOOM, tough actin' tenactin!
Blogger: Judi Dench
Tall: Bill Nighy
SO GOOD AT BEING AWFUL: Penelope Wilton
He can be nice?: Tom Wilkinson
"Say the first word that comes into your head?" "Truck": Ronald Pickup
Racism is now comedic: Maggie Smith
D to the T to the F: Celia Imrie
ARM GESTURES: Dev Patel
I will also declare my love for her to every mother: Tena Desae
Cool mom: Lillete Dubey
Cool name bro: Diana Hardcastle
Here's the thing about Film. It's photography. That's why we have the profession of "Cinematographer"/"Director of Photography".
All a movie is is a series of images.
Which means that one question we can ask about a film is "What is the film pictures of?"
We can break the answer down into two basic categories that define setting rather than the things in the setting:
1. Not Real
Not Real settings are, obviously, not real. And I don't mean "Narnia" isn't a real place so that's a Not Real setting. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was filmed in New Zealand and the Czech Republic. So even though Narnia is, in the diegetic world of the narrative, a magical land distinct from the regular world, what we are actually seeing is New Zealand and the Czech Republic. A movie's plot HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH WHAT I'M TALKING ABOUT. I'm talking about what's being filmed. So we're stepping OUTSIDE the narrative, the finished product, and looking at when the movie was being made, at what the camera was pointing at (if there was even a camera).
A true "Not Real" setting occurs in 300. What we see of "Sparta" and "Thermopylae" is actually a computer generated. The actors stood in front of a blue screen and, after filming was finished, Tech People replaced the blue screen with awesome landscapes that aren't at all real.
All animated movies, like Aladdin or Toy Story or The Lion King, take place in "Not Real" settings. Avatar has a Not Real setting.
We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story takes place in New York City. New York City = a real place. But because We're Back! is an animated movie, the New York City we're seeing is not a Not Real setting. In other words, what the pictures are of is not real.
Real settings are real. So The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is showing us photos of a real place.
Most movies have Real settings.
There are movies made entirely inside a studio, on sets. These are still Real, because we're still seeing a real thing.
You have movies that crossover. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cool World, Enchanted. Sometimes a film with a big stunt has a single blue screen moment. Or something like Transformers has a flashback that takes place on the planet of Cybertron and is totally computer generated, so thus a Not Real scene is inside an otherwise Real film.
Avatar is the highest-grossing film of all-time (not adjusted for inflation) because, I think we can all agree, on how fucking cool the Not Real place was. The land of Pandora was more than a background, it was a character, shown and developed.
I don't think there's inherently a weight we can assign to Real or Not Real. I wouldn't say Real movies are inherently better than Not Real. Regardless of Real or Not Real, the images should be interesting, should be of things we want to see.
So one important question we can ask is "How aware were the filmmakers of setting?"
It would be stupid of me to say most filmmakers don't think about setting/cinematography. But I think there's more of an emphasis placed on narrative than on "what the pictures are of". Story is great. Making sure the actors are doing the best job possible is great. And as much as people love a good story, I think filmmakers may tend to forget that people also love pictures.
As important as story is, what a film is showing us, is, I think, more important.
This is why I get tired of close-ups.
Imagine you've always wanted to go to Sydney, Australia. And your friend, Aubrey Plaza, is going (for a month). And you're jealous, so a few days before Aubrey leaves, while you two are at lunch, you say "Hey! Take pictures of the Opera House for me, please!" And Aubrey says "Yeah, of course!" Time Passes. Aubrey leaves. One day, you're sitting on Facebook and you see "Aubrey Plaza has uploaded a new album entitled 'Sydney is beautiful'". Not only that, you have a new notification! "Aubrey Plaza has tagged you in an image." Yes! You're really excited. Aubrey is awesome! You knew you could count on her! You click to see the photo annnnnnnd. It's a close-up of Aubrey's face. The description is "Just for you [insert your name], the beautiful Opera House!" You can sort of see it? You recognize part of the shell. A tip of it is sticking out from behind the top of Aubrey's head. A side of it is visible off Aubrey's cheek. You click on the next picture. It's another close-up of Aubrey. The description says "The Harbour Bridge!" and yet Aubrey's face is eradicating 70% of the bridge. You click on the name of the album so you can see the rest of the photos. There are 192 pictures of Sydney, Australia. And you see that EVERY SINGLE ONE is a close-up of Aubrey's face. Aubrey is fucking gorgeous, so, yeah, there's nothing bad about the pictures...but...you never really get to see Sydney.
What I think makes Terrence Malick so amazing is how totally aware he is of what he's showing us.
If you look at his filmography, you see narrative being pushed to the margins, and an increase in "showing".
Days of Heaven
The Thin Red Line
The New World
The Tree of Life
Did The Thin Red Line have to be 171 minutes? I don't think the plot alone warrants that length. But Malick is aware of showing us war. Of showing beauty and horror and the land. In Red Line, the narrative is overwhelmed by the photography. And in New World we see narrative is pushed aside by the wonder of the natural world. And in Tree of Life the viewer is forced to determine the narrative by making sense of the photography.
A movie like American Beauty gives us a bunch of scenes of people in high school and people in their homes. The photography isn't anything special, which sort of gets at the monotony of the domestic life. Which is reflected in Kevin Spacey's totally unhappy character (well, all of the characters are, at least early on, unhappy). Then he becomes obsessed with Mena Suvari. And the basic photography of common/"meh" suburban existence is BLOWN AWAY by this:
Dreams are good. But being aware of the present is, I think, necessary.
And I would equate this relationship to that of Narrative and Photography in film. Narrative is the dream. Photography is the present.
Films that strive and strive and strive to reach the dream, never stopping to take in the beauty of the present, can succeed, because a good story is a good story. But. What do you miss out on? How many stories are there about the Parent Who Is Obsessed With Work and the Significant Other and Child who suffer because they want the attention and affection of the that obsessed parent and can't get it. The the Significant Other or Child dies and the Parent Who Is Obsessed With Work is like "HOLY SHIT WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING WITH MY LIFE!?!!?!"
"But the narrative is the present!"
If you're thinking that, I don't think you understand what I'm talking about.
There's some Japanese saying I can't remember exactly and Google isn't helping me with but that Mr. Ted Gup told us in our Creative Non-Fiction class. It's much simpler than this, but here's the gist: when riding a horse at full speed, one cannot make out the flowers.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel takes the time to notice the flowers. It's a Real setting. But it's also using real people. The extras aren't always actors. What we're seeing isn't always staged. We're seeing...actual moments of of real life captured on film. Non-fiction is brought into fiction. And that, to me, makes the movie far more interesting than it may have been.
Noticing the Flowers makes any movie more interesting. Ben Affleck did this with Boston in both Gone Baby Gone and The Town. There Will Be Blood does this with the barren landscapes (which is also reflective of Daniel Plainview). Fight Club takes us from Trendy Commercial Apartment (detailing the contents in catalog style) to Dilapidated House. The lack of close-ups, the use of medium and long shots, means that we, as the viewers, see a lot of the Real places Jack and Tyler maneuver through. A Knight's Tale could have saved a ton of money on set-creation by scaling the film down by using smaller sets and more close-ups. Instead: large sets, lots of medium and long shots. And I think the movie is MORE INTERESTING because of what it's showing me, the photography, not just the story.
Basically, a film is like a photo album. And I'm of the opinion that EVERY GOOD FILM can pass the test that it's interesting to watch without sound. That we don't need dialogue. When movies started, we certainly didn't have or need dialogue. The core of cinema is photography. So how can you have a good movie with bad photography?
I think Photography is the greatest strength of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I mean, I found the narrative charming and fun and way more enjoyable than I could have ever imagined. But I was also interested in what the film was showing me. Story be damned. I didn't want to miss a single picture.
So. Please. Argue with me. Find me a film that is good with dialogue and sucks when muted. I don't think you can do it. A good film isn't compelling because of what is said. Music and Dialogue augment the images on screen. Anyone who treats the images as secondary is missing the point of film.
The Assessment is over, check back Wednesday for the final sections of the inquiry