storytelling

Villeneuve’s Arrival and Balanced Innovation

(spoilers for Arrival)

Decrying the state of cinema has always been popular, but now it seems to be particularly in vogue. Recently, I’ve heard people argue that cinematic innovation is not just slow as a result of cultural trends, but because of artistic limitations as well. That is, after a century of development, everything that is worth doing in film has already been done. I’m not talking about technical innovations and gimmicks like Cinerama or 3D; I mean in the sphere of storytelling and film form. Looking back at the French New Wave era, or even the German Impressionist movement, I can definitely see why some critics aren’t pleased with the comparative innovative spirit of today’s cinema. But to claim that film has reached the apex of its development is, I think, shortsighted.

And I’m not just talking about the most obscure, avant-garde corners of the art form. In fact, I think some mainstream films are innovating more meaningfully than the least accesible experimental pieces. I recently watched Villeneuve’s Arrival, which sits firmly in the mainstream sphere, and I think it’s a perfect representation of balanced, meaningful innovation in film storytelling. It encapsulates exactly what a modern film ought to do in order to maintain a substantial audience while also exploring new artistic territory: take an old trope or technique and turn it on its head. It’s an old trick; taking old motifs or expected patterns and inverting them in some way has been popular among experimental musicians for a long time now, but only a select few filmmakers seem willing to do it.

In the case of Arrival, Villeneuve takes a tried and true tool of cinematic storytelling, the flashback, and uses it in a way that few filmmakers have attempted. Throughout the majority of the film, the protagonist (Louise) experiences what appear to be flashbacks to her life before the death of her daughter. Just as in any other film, these visions give the viewer context that frames her actions during the events of the film. However, at the film’s conclusion, it’s revealed that these supposed flashbacks are actually flashes forward: the alien language that Louise is studying enables people to experience time in a nonlinear fashion, and throughout the film she is actually seeing premonitions of events to come.

It’s a simple inversion. Villeneuve takes a standard cinematic tool and turns it on its head. There are no ridiculously long takes, no experimental color flashes, nor even any particularly obscure storytelling structures or techniques. These things are certainly valuable at time, but filmmakers looking to make movies that are both innovative and accessible should be thinking like Villeneuve: take an old trick and make it new.

The Challenges of Film Familiarity Pt. II

(This is a continuation of an article I posted on March 26th, 2017. If you haven’t read that post, click here to get caught up.)

I posted the above on reddit.com/r/truefilm to start a dialogue about the theory’s implications for the delivery of film education. I got a few interesting responses, but the most notable one extended the theory to encompass all forms of visual media and consider its social implications. Here’s an excerpt from his response:

(As is completely understandable in a casual forum, /u/mosestrod made some grammatical errors in his response. I preserved them for the sake of accuracy.)
The moving image is so familiar to us insofar as it is our everyday, it does – as you suggest – produce both passivity and conformity with the what is. Film mimics reality better than any other art form. But this pretence is also its risk, and we’re always threatened by the loss of that capacity to critically confront the artwork, to break its spell. Few even recognize the hold but finish as if having been mesmerized. You’ll often hear people talk about getting lost or absorbed in film, which is necessary, but so too is that moment in film that break the trans-fixation…
…We can perhaps probe even further the moving image; the infamous Baudrillard argued the image-world had produced a simulation of reality that had substituted itself for reality. That the hold of the TV was like the gods of old, and consumers sat fixated on the truths it delivered ready-made into their minds; moving only to make the regular libations and offerings of coin. What does it mean to switch fluidly from a film channel to one on baking to an advert and so on? How does art as a separate sphere survive this? What does it mean to carry around a screen, a smart phone, so you can be always plugged into the network 24/7? So many of our experiences come to us via. the moving image; I’ve been to so many countries, and worlds, I’ve seen shock and awe live, danced in prisons and inside volcanoes. But have I ever actually lived it, experienced it? All those moments are no longer lost in time, in rain, but captured, colonized, stored in ventilated server warehouses in Arizona, replayed and doled out. I can exchange my independence for access to this image-world and the wonders it delivers to me like all the rest. The avant-garde once made it their task to breach the separation of art and life, well our industrialized society did it for them, but at the expense of both.”
(/u/mosestrod)

This comment spurred me to consider two important implications of film familiarity. The first relates to how film familiarity can warp our perception of what is real and what is entertainment, breaking down the barriers between experience and media. In the modern world we’re exposed to an unprecedented volume of visual stimulus, from commercials to cell phone screens to pieces of art. If we accept the idea that film is a medium that closely resembles our perceptions of the real world, then how are we to determine what belongs to our world and what belongs to the world of the image? With this challenge in mind, overcoming film familiarity becomes a much more meaningful task. Before I had thought of it simply as a way to facilitate the analysis of the form, but if we concern ourselves with the social implications that /u/mosestrod raises, then it serves a different purpose entirely. It becomes a method of demarcating what is real and what belongs to film. It constrains our perception of reality and determines what we internalize as art and what we accept as experience. Thus, our ability to overcome the rapport that accompanies our innate film familiarity determines the extent to which we can identify reality for ourselves rather than have it preselected for us by the visual media that we consume.

So what are the implications of this extension of film familiarity for the delivery of film education? For one, it certainly ups the gravitas of the endeavor. We’re no longer just teaching people to appreciate and understand an art form, but rather we’re teaching them to filter the information they’re exposed to in order to separate reality from fiction. There are also some important practical implications of this shift in pedagogical duty. For instance, I think for the purposes of a beginning level film class it will be crucial to develop visual literacy for a wide range of image-based media, not just the feature film. Of course, actual films should be the focus of the course, but including other forms of visual stimulus will ensure that students establish a strong base for overcoming film familiarity in all spheres. Perhaps the deconstruction of advertisements and visual social content will help facilitate this.

/u/mosestrod’s post also got me thinking about another implication of film familiarity: film’s status as an exploitative medium. Motion pictures rely on their ability to place viewers into a sort of “spellbound” state of mind in order to achieve their emotional effects. But film’s entire ability to place us in this state relies entirely on the existence of a subconscious familiarity with the medium in the first place. In a way, it’s targeting a weakness of our mental capacities in order to shift our perception of reality for a limited time. Is this the case for all forms of art? Are they simply targeted doses of stimulus that leverage our instinctual quirks for the purpose of entertainment? Perhaps I’m getting off task with this, but it could be interesting to consider what mental weaknesses, if any, are targeted by other forms of media.
This concept of film as a medium that takes advantage of an instinctual weakness also has some interesting pedagogical implications. Primarily, it harkens back to the issue of balancing an emotional connection to the piece with intellectual disinterestedness. If film really does leverage emotional quirks, those quirks must be kept active in some capacity to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced. In order to break down how a film works we must be able to remove our latent film familiarity, but in order to see its intended effect we must allow some of that film familiarity to remain. Perhaps encouraging multiple viewings would strike this balance: the first one to watch the film as intended, the subsequent ones to understand its technical elements. This may be impractical for a classroom scenario, but striking the proper balance between these two observational modes will be crucial to developing a deep understanding of the form.