Stanley Kubrick once famously stated, “If it can be written or thought it can be filmed.” Being one of the most critically acclaimed directors of all time and having produced such timeless cinematic experiences as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, one would suppose that succeeding directors would have pursued Kubrick’s charge. Unfortunately today, Hollywood has largely forgotten the creative pillars upon which it was built and appears to have embraced a different sort of charge, something in the likes of: “If it can be written or thought (by an eighth grader) then it can be quickly simulated by a computer.” Now don’t get me wrong, Hollywood has always been about rolling out big productions and making big bucks; however, during the last thirty years, Hollywood has essentially bulldozed the once longstanding tower of classic filmmaking and replaced it with a high-density subdivision of identical box-houses.
The shortcomings of neo-Hollywood methodology can be summarized two-fold by an increasingly flawed perspective on film narrative, and also a lost appreciation for the aesthetics of film. To further explain these two points, let us compare and contrast two recent epics of varying film philosophy, Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005) and James Cameron’s Avatar (2009). In a brief synopsis, the two movies might appear to have parallel plots involving like protagonists who each fall prey to wonder and turn mutinous towards their superiors, but beyond these surface similarities lay profoundly differing narrative methods and visual techniques. Whereas The New World is supported by classical narrative techniques such as limited dialogue and long meditative shots, Avatar is supported by more conventional storytelling techniques—constant special effects, computer graphics and fast cuts that relentlessly vie for the viewer’s attention and leave him or her with practically no room to comprehend the narrative. In terms of aesthetics, these two movies are complete opposites. While the entire aesthetic of the Jamestown set in The New World actually existed in reality and was physically captured on 35mm motion picture film, almost all of the aesthetic of Avatar was created behind the camera lens, and what was filmed wasn’t actually “filmed” but rather “interpreted” by a computer chip in an HD camera and recorded on a memory card as a stream of zeros and ones.
The directorial difference between Malick and Cameron might be likened to the difference between a painter and a graphic designer. Between the two it’s hard to say who holds the more worthy trade, but it is very easy to differentiate between their respective crafts. For some reason however, we do not distinguish between directors like Malick and Cameron in this way, but rather we group them in the same category as “respected filmmakers.”
In regard to differing film aesthetics, no computer has yet to be invented that can effectively simulate the cinematic motion and color achieved by film. This is why even quasi-conventionalist directors such as Christopher Nolan still use film religiously. Beyond the given aesthetic of motion picture film, the very nature of the classical approach of taking a “motion photograph” of tangible objects will always paint a picture that registers as “more real” in our minds, simply because of the fact that those objects actually existed. This is true even of sci-fi films; just watch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1981) or the opening scene of Alien (1979), or for some more recent examples of how classical film aesthetics have been used in harmony with CGI, watch Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) or Spielberg’s Minority Report (2002).
If the shift from classical storytelling and cinematography goes unchecked by both moviegoer and moviemaker, if Kubrick’s creative charge is ignored, if tradition is continually scrapped for latest technology trend, it won’t be long until the artistic merit that has been definitive of the greatest films ever made is largely forgotten. Now if you are one of those people who is reading this thinking, Well, I don’t really care about “comprehending the narrative” or “film aesthetics,” I just go to movies to be entertained, that’s fine. I understand that. However, this view begs the question: is it really worth driving to the movie theater and paying $12.50 (after student discount) just to experience the same trite “woah-that’s-cool” sensation every ten seconds, for two and a half hours? If all we are looking for in movies these days is exploding helicopters, hot babes in aviators and brainless “meals-on-wheels” jokes, it seems as though we’d be better off staying at home watching YouTube videos.
Originally published in Pepperdine University Graphic (Thursday, February 10, 2011)