Cinema Short Takes
by Matt Bynum
A discussion of the state of modern Cinema, with the goal of bringing about a reformation in film-making, replacing today's dismal movies with Cinema that is insightful and invigorating
English Actors (04-May-1998)
Acting is a skill that takes many years to refine; it is not something that happens as a result of being featured on the major talk shows or on Entertainment Tonight. Today's moviegoers are being conned and cheated - most of the people whose images appear on the big and small screens are not actors. Some notable exceptions are those actors who appear in BBC Television productions. One senses that these BBC actors treat their profession seriously. Part of this might be the English inheritance of many centuries worth of staged plays. An actor that is serious about the craft should consider studying the timing and inflections that many English actors so readily possess.
Digital Revolution (04-May-1998)
The capabilites of movie theatres will be changing, according to Variety of 16-Mar-1998. "The ability to electronically transmit films to theaters, rather than shipping a physical print, would afford exhibitors with increased flexibility in terms of play times as well as the potential to create alternate uses for their theaters. Unshackled from the limitations of 35mm prints, [theaters] will have the ability to show anything from sporting events to a Broadway play."
One of the important elements of the film "grammar" involves juxtaposition. The Russian filmmaker Lev Kuleshov demonstrated this technique in the 1920's. According to The Liveliest Art by Arthur Knight, "Perhaps the most famous of Kuleshov's experiments was one involving an old film with the actor Mozhukhin. From it, Kuleshov obtained a close-up in which Mozhukhin appeared perfectly expressionless. This same shot he inserted at various points into another film - once in juxtaposition to a plate of soup, once next to a child playing contentedly with a teddy bear, and again next to a shot of an old woman lying dead in her coffin. Audiences shown the experimental reel praised Mozhukhin's performance - his look of hunger at the bowl of soup, his delight on seeing the child, his grief over the dead woman. For Kuleshov, however, it was a conclusive demonstration of his theory - based on what [G. W.] Griffith had already achieved instinctively - that it is not merely the image alone, but the juxtaposition of images that creates the emotional tone of a sequence."
The Art House (27-April-1998)
In America Goes to the Movies, Barbara Stones explains the role of an Ďart house'. "In its purest definition, an Ďart house' is a theatre that caters to a specialized audience of film lovers, those how embrace movies as a serious art form akin to dance or literature. First established during the 1920's, the art house or 'little cinema' movement focused on avant-garde and critically- acclaimed films that fell well outside Hollywood's commercial mainstream. While art houses represent a small percentage of the total number of American movie theatres, they have a disproportionate influence on the development of American cinema. Innovative filmmakers of successive generations often receive their earliest education in film style and content at the local art theatre." (As an example, see New York City's FilmForum Art House website.)
Compelling Stories (11-April-1998)
The mission statement of Pixar is one that other production companies should emulate. According to its website, "Though Pixar is the pioneer of computer animation, the essence of our business is to create compelling stories and memorable characters. It is chiseled in stone at our studios that no amount of technology can turn a bad story into a good one."
Working Within Limitations (08-April-1998)
In the film Citizen Kane, there is one scene that is particularly striking. The scene takes place in the Great Hall at Xanadu (the massive Kane estate). The film crew that assembled this scene was not working with an unlimited budget, but they did have ingenuity, and a willingness to use the materials at hand. As a result of this, the visual impact of the scene was more powerful than what was originally planned. As described in The Making of Citizen Kane by Robert L. Carringer, "The set as a whole is very different from the artistic plan...[the] problem was to preserve a sense of monumental scale for this set while at the same time significantly reducing its cost. [The] solution was extremely ingenious. Only the most prominent features of the set were actually built from scratch - the fireplace and the doorway treatment to the left of it. The staircase was modified from an existing set. The walls were left bare except for occasional hangings and ornaments, but low illumination and strategic placement of statuary helped to camouflage this. Rolls of black velvet were hung in the empty spaces, causing them to register photographically as extreme depth. The result is a very sophisticated piece of optical trickery - the eye continually reads more than it actually sees. On the screen, the scale, the exaggerated depth perspective, and the lighting plan all work together to give the Great Hall a powerful sense of the vast and foreboding."
Credits roll continuously in today's movies, naming each actor, technician, and anyone else remotely involved with the project. Early films had credits of very short duration when compared to the credits of today's films. Rather than subjecting the audience to long credits that create a distraction from the film, it would be better if all involved would forgo this name recognition (even actors!), and work as a team, with the focused goal of putting together projects of the highest quality. Individual talent should identify themselves not according to their placement in the credits, but according to how well they have accomplished their task, and how well their work has blended and fused with the works of other team members, so that the result is a living, breathing work, multi- textured, filled with nuance, providing a delight for the senses, and rich morsels to provoke introspection and solemn musings.
Nudity in Film (24-March-1998)
There are those that say that there is nothing wrong with nudity; that the human body is "nothing to be ashamed of". This statement is true, given the proper context. It is right for a woman to reveal herself to her husband, but it is not right that she should reveal herself to a voyeur. The sight of a nude woman, to a man, is an invitation for intimacy - an intimacy that can only be realized within the bonds of Holy Matrimony. A woman who reveals her body to the world is nothing less than a prostitute; she is teasing her audience to partake in passions that can never be fulfilled. Modern films reveal the human body carelessly, making base and common the intimacies expressed in a holy and mystical union. These films wreak havoc upon the emotional and spiritual well-being of society. Such films should be forbidden, and should be replaced by films that affirm and uphold each man and woman's holy and genuine desires for belonging, fulfillment, and companionship.
Pushing Our Buttons (20-March-1998)
There is a reason why many of today's intellectually-challenged movies are able to make so much money. Movie marketers have become smarter, never missing a trick. NBC's Thursday night television line-up, which includes Seinfeld and ER, is prime real estate for movie ads that push the upcoming weekend releases. Now there is nothing wrong with good marketing techniques. But movie companies have reduced the public to automatons - as workers whose vision extends no farther than the next weekend, and who tune into Seinfeld (because that is what everyone else does), see the latest movie ad and say "That sounds cool, gotta go see that one." The reformed filmmaker understands that life is more than "living for the weekend"; this filmmaker has a broad sense of vision, and his films will relay this perspective to the audience.
Health Nuts (17-March-1998)
Popular movies can be categorized as "junk movies" in the same way that fast food can be called "junk food". Junk food might have the appearance of something that is appetizing, but it cannot feed the inner appetite. Such food has empty calories, little nutrition, and is harmful if taken continuously. The same is true with popular movies - most are not much more than "eye candy". To combat junk foods, health foods are gaining increased acceptance - more and more people are asking questions about health and nutrition. In the area of cinema, there needs to be a similar "health movement" - to instruct the public on what constitutes healthy movies. Those that insist on healthy standards for movies might first be eyed with suspicion, like the "health nuts" of the 1960's. But eventually, more and more of the general public will understand that health and healing must be sought in all areas of life.
Direct to Video (17-March-1998)
The depreciatory phrase "direct to video" is used to describe a "Grade B" film that is not good enough to be shown on "the big screen" - even though there have been many films of less than excellent quality seen in the today's movie theaters. Today's movie theater audiences desperately need to see good films. But in order to get into the movie theaters, an independent filmmaker might need to try an indirect route - that is, first release the film to video or other avenues (DVD, television, the Web). There is no reason that a film released to a "lesser" media cannot later be re-released to play on "the big screen". An independent filmmaker should examine the ever-changing marketplace and devise the proper strategy so that his films can find their intended audience.
Brand Loyalty (14-March-1998)
There is not much brand loyalty among moviegoers these days. The name Disney invokes fond memories amongst parents, who henceforth escort their children to the movie theatre to view the latest Disney offering. But Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame can hardly compare to Snow White. Fine Line Films (http://www.finelinefeatures.com) is one film company that distributes independent-style features who is attempting to establish a "brand loyalty" among its viewers (this is not to say that Fine Line Films productions are necessarily worthwhile.) A reformed filmmaker should follow this same practice - slowly building audience loyalty with small budget but excellent quality films.
No Stars (14-March-1998)
Although the four-star rating system gives a quick overview of a film critics review, this system is not adequate. How can one critic give a movie "four stars" and another critic give the same movie "one star"? This indicates that many reviews are highly subjective; that is, there are no set of standards that the reviewer uses to determine if a movie is "good" or "bad". The ultimate subjective review is the "thumbs up/thumbs down" response. Conscientious film viewers need in-depth reviews that examine each film thoughtfully and with care.
No Linear Story? (14-March-1998)
In his review of The Real Blonde, Gene Siskel says "Refreshingly, this film does not have a linear story. Rather, during the course of the movie, we meet a bunch of attractive characters and watch them grapple with life and each other." Doesn't this sound like a typical soap opera - a "story" with no beginning or ending, and therefore, no resolution? Perhaps Siskel is tired of watching movies that all have tired, recycled storylines - and so, any relief from these dreadful movies is welcomed. The real solution is for filmmakers to create films with dynamic and meaningful storylines that have strong resolutions.
Hollywood Goes Global (14-March-1998)
Films that do poorly at the US boxoffice get a second chance with overseas audiences. Some films earn up to two thirds of their income overseas. Unfortunately, the types of film that are easiest to "sell" are ones that are filled with the standard staple of sex and violence. Hollywood now exports its corrupting influence worldwide. The good news is that when reformed filmmakers finally gain a market foothold, the distribution mechanisms will be there, ready to be used.
Updated by: Matt Bynum