Spectacle is not the problem; mediocrity is

21 December 2010

This paper was originally delivered as part of The age of the spectacle: developing critical thinking in a time of eye candy panel at the VATE Jubilee Conference on Tuesday 7 December 2010

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory

Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)

In 1895, French cinema pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first film they ever made. It was a 46 second long, continuous shot that was taken from a single fixed position. The film was called Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon). The image of the workers filing out of a factory was not so much what was of interest in the film but it was the technology itself that enthralled audiences. They were seeing something they had never seen before – moving photographs. Other early filmmakers then went further to explore the potential that cinema had in order to create optical illusions and primitive special effects that were designed simply to mesmerise the audience. Cinema began as a form of spectacle.

While cinematic storytelling techniques were developed almost immediately, the idea that the visual component of cinema would be regarded as subservient to a story did not really occur until the 1910s when the classical Hollywood era of cinema began. This era, which lasted until the 1960s, defined the cause-effect narrative structure that we are now accustomed to, which includes making sure that the means in which cinema is constructed is kept hidden from the viewer.

A Trip to the Moon

A Trip to the Moon (1902)

However, one thing that has remained true throughout the history of cinema is that it has always primarily been a visual art form and therefore what some may call eye-candy is in fact the essence of cinema.  And just like the audiences watching the people exit the factory in 1895, we are still fascinated with what technology can do and we want to be dazzled by something we haven’t seen before. Hence, the type of spectacle that cinema delivers has constantly changed to include sound, colour, panoramic screens to compete with the advent of television, special effects and today we have IMAX screens, new 3D technology, computer generated images and digital effects that continue to push the boundary of what can be achieved on screen.

So we aren’t living in an age of spectacle because spectacle has always been a part of cinema.

In terms of how we relate to popular culture now, I do not believe that spectacle is the problem. Instead, mediocrity is the problem and mediocrity intrudes upon all forms of cinema. A loud, noisy, big budget special-effects driven action extravaganza may draw more attention to itself when it succumbs to mediocrity but this doesn’t mean that all spectacle films are bad and it doesn’t mean that it is not a problem other films face. As an exercise, try to think of how many comedies, romances, dramas, thrillers or family films that you’ve seen over the past decade that were worth your time and money as opposed to how many were completely disposable. Genuinely good films are in the minority, however, that’s nothing particularly new or revelatory.

The first major crisis of mediocrity in film history (in terms of the dominant Hollywood cinema anyway) was during the 1950s and early 1960s after the old studio system was dismantled. The industry fell into the hands of business people who only saw film as a commodity and much of what was produced in that era were second rate attempts to capitalise on earlier successes. However, the New Hollywood era of the late 1960s and 1970s turned this trend around when a bunch of film literate filmmakers who were heavily influenced by European cinema were given a shot to make something different, since nothing else seemed to be working. Coinciding with the growing counter culture revolution the New Hollywood era is still arguably the finest point in American film history and it also resulted in an audience of cinemagoers who were hungry for intelligent and artistic films that they could engage with.

Top Gun

Top Gun (1986)

Unfortunately it’s been downhill from the 1980s onwards as Hollywood has become increasingly about producing films that adhere to specific formulas in order to be most effectively sold. There was a slight peak in the 1990s of independent American filmmaking and Hollywood films taking an independent sensibility but most of that ended after 9/11 terrified everybody into bunkering down to make safe, crowd-pleasing, unambitious distractions that toe the line and not dare be subversive. We’re still in the wake of that era and it hasn’t helped cinema that so many good writers have moved into television.

So where does that leave contemporary cinema? With all the good stuff that’s happening on made-for-cable television is cinema now just a refuge for brain-numbing banality? Not quite. There are still extraordinary films being made and screened but they do run the risk of drowning in the tidal wave of mass-marketed junk. Furthermore, there are plenty of formulaic crowd-pleasing films that are actually extremely good and commendable for doing something original and interesting within the confines of their generic trappings. And some of these films are films that we’d all identify as spectacle films. The trick is to become visually literate and culturally savvy enough to identify the spectacle films with merit and the ones that offer a vacuous and empty experience.

Part of the problem is that film is increasingly being taught in the context of it being an English or Literature text rather than being aligned with things like Art History and Fine Arts, like it is in many universities although that is changing too. So when you approach a visual art form as a purely narrative text you do run the risk of missing what it actually is that defines the film and that’s the elements of film style that in their most basic form can be summarised as the four areas of sound, cinematography, editing and mise-en-scène. Mise-en-scène, which is what we actually see in the film, can be further broken down into setting, costumes, lighting and acting-style. These elements of film style can exist without the film containing any substance and that’s when we get mediocre films, but these elements usually are vital in telling the story and sometimes they are the story.

Marie Antoinette

Marie Antoinette (2006)

So, telling the difference between films that are style without substance and films where the style is the substance is crucial. For example, Sofia Coppola (The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette) creates mood pieces with little narrative drive but the essence of her films comes with the way she constructs each scene and presents the world to us. The recent film The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) was criticised by some for being an average film because once we strip away the beautifully constructed visuals you are left with a generic hit man film. But the point is you are not meant to strip away the visual elements to then reduce a film to just one aspect of its identity and in the case of The American the use of cinematic space, the setting and the references to 1960s and 1970s European cinema were designed to create a complex mood piece that functioned as a metaphor for the way America situates itself in the world.

Finally, to look at two films from 2009 that are easily identifiable as spectacle films, we can see the difference between something that appeals to audiences craving unchallenging mediocrity and something that is trying to show us something different. The example of mediocrity is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, by director Michael Bay. This is a film that aims to do little more than distract us with explosions and cleavage. Being a spectacle film without a tangible story is not a crime itself, as that is how cinema began and continues to thrive in many art house and experimental movements. The problem with Transformers is that the spectacle is rubbish – it creates the pretence of excitement by distracting the audience with a constant bombardment of sound and motion, and most significantly, through the incredibly rapid editing (a trademark of Bay’s) that prevents the audience from ever latching on to anything that is happening. Transformers is an action film where it is impossible to follow the action. However, you are made to feel that you should be excited because the music swells and the editing quickens to inform you so.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

Not that rapid editing is the enemy but using it to distract from the otherwise emptiness of a film results in mediocrity. It also doesn’t help that the Transformers films continue a prevalent conservative trend in Hollywood of ridiculing intellectuals and government workers at the expense of the military who are seen as the real thinkers and noble characters of the film. Transformers is also extremely guilty of continuing the tradition of pornographically portraying its female characters as items of desire that always require rescuing.

Finally, we come to a film that is markedly different from Transformers and yet it is all too easily dismissed as junk cinema simply because it is spectacle. That film is James Cameron’s Avatar, a film that not only set the benchmark for 3D technology (in the sense that it is the only 3D film to date to feel fleshed out and not just a gimmick) but it created an all immersive world that allowed Cameron to give a modern spin to a group of archetypal characters and to recycle familiar narrative traits in order to tell a modern story based on contemporary concerns and attitudes.

One of the most extraordinary things about Avatar is its incredible technological accomplishment in using 3D and digital technology to create such a vibrant world. The textures, depth of field and seamless blend of digital imagery with human actors was truly remarkable. And yet, this was somehow viewed as a bad thing as if such a visually accomplished film was somehow an inferior product. One commenter on my blog declared it to be a terrible film but then stated, ‘Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical’.

This taps into the automatic bias that many people still have against the visual element of cinema. Furthermore, it taps into the belief that some aspects of cinema are praise worthy while others are not. For example, many critics seem happy to praise other isolated aspects of a film – like the acting, or writing, or maybe cinematography – but creating special effects is still frequently seen as somehow a lesser art form. A film is the sum of all its parts and learning to appreciate all these aspects is crucial for effective analysis.

Avatar

Avatar (2009)

But, what of the story at the heart of Avatar, which even I’ll admit is little more than Pocahontas in Space. The story is a simple one but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s therefore a stupid one. It certainly isn’t any more simplistic that the much-loved original Star Wars films. At it’s worst Avatar is a white-man-leads-the-natives-and-saves-the-day film, however, at its best it is an archetypal hero’s quest story were the villains are a militarised corporation who feel that destroying an indigenous culture and their environment is an acceptable action to take in order to pursue profits. The fact that some critics labelled it as therefore a left wing film just goes to show how deeply entrenched conservative values are in Hollywood. It’s a worry when being anti-genocide is regarded as being subversive.

So in conclusion, don’t worry about spectacle, worry about mediocrity. Cinema and popular culture are not the enemy but the influx of films and other cultural products that are designed to stupefy us are the enemy and they come in all shapes and sizes. Don’t be so quick to dismiss spectacle films as eye-candy as you may miss some of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-crafted films that are out there.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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