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Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Seen a good film lately?



No? Neither have I.

In my view films have never quite worked. The medium doesn’t really deliver - which is why so many of us still read books and now blogs. At times a film seems to offer some kind of promise, but usually it fades into pap. Intense, loud, emotional, lavish, action-packed - but still pap. 

With few exceptions, once you’ve seen a few films then you’ve seen all there is to be seen. There are only a limited number of plots and guess what? You've seen them all.

But take a look at this:-

The room was empty, and under the flare of the gas a solitary chamber pot stood forgotten among a heap of petticoats trailing on the floor. This room afforded him his ultimate impression. Upstairs on the fourth floor he was well-nigh suffocated. All the scents, all the blasts of heat, had found their goal there. The yellow ceiling looked as if it had been baked, and a lamp burned among fumes of russet-coloured fog.

For some seconds he leaned upon the iron balustrade which felt warm and damp and well-nigh human to the touch. And he shut his eyes and drew a long breath and drank in the sexual atmosphere of the place. Hitherto he had been utterly ignorant of it, but now it beat full in his face.
Emile Zola - Nana - published 1879
(and many thanks to Macheath for suggesting it to me as a good read.)

Writing such as this may present images to the reader, but they are to a significant degree the reader's images and not exclusively Zola's. Zola's pen creates the sordid atmosphere of nineteenth century Parisian decadence - an atmosphere you could cut with a knife - but it is partly the reader's atmosphere too.

With films, this depth of personal involvement is not nearly so significant. The image requires much less input from the audience - the images are just there. Supposedly this is where the film-maker's art lies, but visual cues for a mass market are hardly likely to be subtle.

Rationalized division of labour takes all the sense out of his work. Machines relieve him, not merely of drudgery, but of the possibility of performing any creative or spontaneous act whatsoever. And this is now true of his leisure as well as his labour; he has almost ceased even to try to divert himself, but sits and suffers a standardized entertainment to trickle over his passive consciousness.
Aldous Huxley - Do What You Will - published 1929

Films are rarely thought-provoking either, because we've seen the plot before and in any case, they are almost always too short to develop a plot of any complexity.

As for characters - when you've seen a film star in one performance, then you've usually seen their whole gamut of emotions from A to B as Dorothy Parker said about Katharine Hepburn. The same trademark expressions, the wry smile, raised eyebrow, cynical scowl or whatever - doesn't matter which character they are playing. 

This is perhaps why Shakespeare is still enjoyed four centuries on while Spielberg will fade away. No shortage of verbal cues in Shakespeare and somehow I think there is a real difference here between stage and screen too.

I know I’ve pushed this rather too hard, in order to make a point, but on the whole I think there is a point to be made. Film doesn't make it as an artistic medium and because of the nature of the beast things will never change.

Too few plots, not enough time to develop the plot, too little involvement from the audience, too many well-known faces and somehow the moving image makes the limitations all too obvious.

9 comments:

Roger said...

Well, I enjoyed 'Best Marigold Hotel' and 'The Artist', but I don't expect to go again till after Christmas. Put bluntly the old are not worth making films for, the key market is 10 year old kids who do appear to go regularly - and buy popcorn.

To my mind film sits somewhere between 'great art' and the circus, it is a means of making a living for actors etc and so potboilers are needed to fund the occasional decent film. The ratio - about 100:1. Shakespeare is certainly well regarded, but not for his current box office receipts.

I like the one about taking a whore to culture.......

Sam Vega said...

Roger's point about film being 'twixt great art and the circus is brilliant- one to remember!

I have seen some very good films, but the best seem to resonate in a purely personal and idiosyncratic way. I am conscious that others will not appreciate them in the same way, and that re-watching is invariably a disappointment. I think the main limitation is the inability to convey subtlety and the interior sensibility without some intrusive "voice-over". Films of Henry James novels give the game away most poignantly. He would take pages to qualify and particularise a feeling, and then some team in Hollywood reduce it to a thumping great cliche.

A few months ago we started subscribing to "Love Film", but I have to conclude that I actually don't. I "Like Film".

A K Haart said...

Roger - I agree with Sam - 'somewhere between 'great art' and the circus' is superb and 100:1 about right.

Sam - yes, I find the impact of some films to be very personal very infrequently.

Interested in your comment about "Love Film". I've wondered about it but haven't tried it, mainly because I suspect, that like you I don't really like films.

As a contrast, I'm still reading Zola's "Nana" quoted in the post. I'm looking forward to reading a few more chapters this evening over a glass of wine. I never feel like that about films.

Macheath said...

Glad you're enjoying it!

I wonder if it makes a difference watching films in colour.

My pet hate is adaptations that mess about with classics - especially the ones that add female characters to the cast (39 Steps and King Solomon's Mines to mane but 2). I deeply resent the implication that the audience is incapable of enoying the story without some injected romantic interest.

A K Haart said...

Mac - I certainly am enjoying it. Not exactly Wilkie Collins is it!

Maybe there is too great a distance between the writer and the final film. I don't think actors help - too keen on promoting themselves as far as I can see.

duffandnonsense said...

I disagree vehemently - and I do 'vehemently' really well!

I could watch 'Gigi' and 'Caberet' over and over and still find new details in them. Recently 'Tinker, Tailor' achieved the almost impossible in shrinking le Carre's plot to two hours without losing the subtlety and the poignancy. And 'The Artist' was a superb 'artistic' creation beautifully performed and filmed. And Spielberg is a genius. His 'ET' is a childhood (and adult) classic, and the first 30 minutes of 'Saving Private Ryan' changed war films for ever.

I could go on and on but that's enough 'vehemency' for today!

A K Haart said...

David – I thought someone would disagree vehemently!

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Speilberg will certainly fade away, as will the sort of "stars" whose emotions range only from A to B.

There is, however, a bit more to cinema than thrillers and the Hollywood "A" list.

James Higham said...

In my view films have never quite worked. The medium doesn’t really deliver - which is why so many of us still read books and now blogs. At times a film seems to offer some kind of promise, but usually it fades into pap. Intense, loud, emotional, lavish, action-packed - but still pap.

With few exceptions, once you’ve seen a few films then you’ve seen all there is to be seen. There are only a limited number of plots and guess what? You've seen them all.

You're quite right. Leaving aside your Huxley fetish [ :) ], books generally allow more freedom.