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.

We Need to Talk About Kevin

spoilers for We Need to Talk About Kevin

 

It’s always interesting to see how storytellers strip down their pieces to deliver a precise, focused message. Distilled narratives have always been far more fascinating to me than labyrinthine thickets of intersecting plotlines and heaps of deep characters. Perhaps my attention span is just sorely lacking, but I like to believe there’s something special about these barebones pieces. They capture the fundamental essence of a feeling and nothing more. It’s why I’m so fascinated by directors like Nicolas Winding Refn who strip down their films until there’s nothing left but unadulterated audiovisual stimuli.

 

I recently watched We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lynne Ramsay, and it does something novel to simplify its message down to the core. It’s a story about the relationship between a mother and a son, the latter of which turns out to be a misanthropic, hateful outcast. The film primarily concerns itself with the intersection between mother and son and the seemingly inevitable hatred present in some people, but there’s a moment when it could easily veer into the political. The film builds up to the son, Kevin, going on a killing spree at his high school. However, the filmmakers had no intention of making a film about gun control, so they made a simple narrative change: they had Kevin do his killing with a bow. 

 

It’s a simple change, but it radically changes how the piece is read. If he had used a firearm, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that people would take the film as justification for stricter gun laws. But that’s not what the film is about. It was never intended to have a political message. It tells a story about evil and interdependency, nothing more and nothing less. Including a gun would muddle this message and greatly lessen the raw emotional impact that Kevin’s unstoppable decline has on the audience. We Need to Talk About Kevin shows the importance of focus in storytelling. A piece that tries to do too much can end up doing nothing at all.

It Follows

A good horror film builds layers of dread slowly and meticulously, generating a nearly unbearable sense of fearful anticipation in the viewer before finally resolving it. It Follows performs the first step beautifully. Its voyeuristic long shots, paranoid circular pans, and corner-of-the-eye glimpses of the monster create such terror and tension that many claim to habitually glance over their shoulder after watching the movie. It’s a palpable, visceral anxiety that few modern horror pieces manage to achieve.

On the other hand, a good horror film also has satisfying moments when all of the tension is broken. This is where It Follows falls flat. The film’s monster is terrifying because it’s elemental and mysterious, a being that the viewer and the characters can’t quite fathom. The terror that it creates so effectively is cheapened a bit when it builds to fight scenes that pit a group of friends against an invisible, Herculean, shape-shifting brute. In order for a resolution to be satisfying, it must be compatible with the means used to build fear in the first place. Otherwise it can come off as a shoehorned action sequence intended to universalize the film’s appeal, which is never a good thing.

Don’t let me scare you off from this piece, though. It’s worth a look solely for its elegant generation of anxiety and stripped-down horror. But be wary of the action, as it dulls the film’s edge.

Green Room and Unrestrained Brutality

The strength of the horror genre lies in its ability to build up layers of tension and dread, to pile the audience’s fears into a fragile tower until it finally knocks out the foundations and allows the whole thing to come crashing down in a crescendo of terror. A good horror film repeats this throughout its runtime, creating mountains and valleys that work the viewer into an inescapable stupor of fright. It doesn’t sound particularly pleasant, but it’s a formula that has appealed to the masochistic side of countless fans throughout cinema’s history. Green Room is a masterwork in pacing. Anxiety is generated skillfully and without respite, and when it erupts into violence it doesn’t hold back.

It’s not a film for everyone. I still haven’t decided whether it’s a film for me. I’m more apologetic towards violence in cinema than some (see my piece of Refn’s Only God Forgives), but Green Room toes the line between hard-hitting gore and nauseating snuff. I’m not criticizing the film for it, but the violence certainly makes it a difficult piece to digest. I’m not comfortable saying I liked the film, but it’s hard to deny that it provides a visceral, unapologetic look at the depths of human depravityand that’s exactly what it sets out to do.

They Look Like People

Although mainstream horror has faltered in recent years, terror junkies have enjoyed a string of rock-solid films from independent studios. Check out my posts about The Invitation and Hush for a few examples. Perry Blackshear’s They Look Like People is another hard-hitting entry in this dynasty of independent horror, but it brings some fascinating dynamics to the table.

Rest assured that, like most of the great horror pieces that have been cropping up, They Look Like People generates terror by slowly building tension and dread rather than through cheap jump scares. Blackshear pulls off some interesting moves in order to achieve this. (minor spoilers ahead) For instance, as a result of some repeated sequences that occur when the protagonist goes to sleep, I found myself dreading a terror lurking in the dark every time the day’s light began to fail. The film relegates its fear to certain times, warning the viewer through stylistic moves when a frightful crescendo is about to build. The effect is that viewers aren’t surprised when the horror culminates, but the built-up dread is just as effective at making the audience want to cower in terror.

The film also gives a compelling, cathartic look into the relationship between two friends. Without spoiling anything, it’s a beautiful story about one man who notices too much in the world and another who tries to block it out. The way these two men interact and how their priorities and affectations clash forms the backbone of the film’s emotional effect.

If you’re a fan of modern independent horror, or if you’re looking for a good place to dive into the psychological terror Renaissance, They Look Like People is worth your time.

Mr. Holmes and Shifting Perspectives

A few days ago I set aside some time to watch Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes. I was surprised that I hadn’t heard anything about it. It seems like a Holmes movie starring one of the most beloved British actors in history would get a lot of publicity, but I really hadn’t heard much talk at all. It’s not a groundbreaking or exceptional film, but it certainly tells an emotionally satisfying and thought provoking detective tale that’s worth an hour and a half. What I really enjoyed about it, though, was the grace with which it weaves together distinct plotlines into a cohesive narrative.

The story is split into three separate series of events: Holmes’ outing in Japan to seek a plant that provides youth and enhances one’s memory, his final case that leads to his retirement, and his activities many years after his removal from the world of detecting. These three sequences could easily have been tossed together into a jumbled mess, but Condon manages to tie them together with poise and deliberation. Many recent films have tried to manage similarly complex plotlines and fallen flat on their faces (see Snyder’s participation-trophy-worthy Batman v. Superman. Actually, don’t see it), but Holmes never feels disorienting. This is partly due to the clear changes in setting that clue the viewer in as to what bit of Holmes’ story is being shown, but the key is distinct causal relationships between a sequence and the time shift preceding it. Every turn feels motivated, allowing the audience to understand where they actually are in the story and why they’re there in the first place. It’s very similar to chapter 3 of Brave New World, which I happened to be teaching the day after I watched Holmes. Huxley manages to wrangle the perspectives of three separate characters into a single chapter, and the result is one of the most effective pieces of worldbuilding in the entire novel. Shifts in perspective and time can be incredibly effective tools for a storyteller, but one must be sure not to lose cohesion in the process of utilizing them.