Saturday, 25 August 2007

we want our film to be beautiful not realistic

No cinephile can have failed to notice, over the past few years, a certain tendency, fuelled at least in part by advances in digital film-making tools, towards an increasingly self-consciously artificial visual style. It is difficult to pinpoint a starting point for this trend, though we can see it at work, for instance, in sections of The Matrix (Andy & Larry Wachowski, 1999). In its most extreme form, it has given us three films (to date, with more sure to follow) that place actors in a completely digital universe - Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004), Sin City (Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller, 2005) and 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007). In less extreme forms, the tendency manifests itself in a number of ways - for instance, in the digitally-graded colour tones of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003), in the intoxicatingly saturated colours and impossibly swirling leaves of Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002), and in the visual gap between the first two Harry Potter films and Alfonso Cuaron's third instalment, with its luminous silvery and occasionally sepia-tinged tones and its iris fades.

Ted Pigeon has recently written a fascinating article (link) on the impact of digital media on cinema; but what interests me is not digital media per se, but the trend, which they seemed to kick-start, towards increased visual artificiality. Digital techniques are only one aspect of this tendency, which also comprises, among other things, of a marked propensity towards a postmodern visual pastiche of historical genres - film noir in the case of Sin City, 1940s studio films in the case of The Good German (Steven Soderbergh, 2006), and everything from the giallo to the spaghetti western to the Hong Kong kung-fu film in Kill Bill (Quentin Tarantino, 2003-2004).

The avant-garde and art-house cinemas, of course, have long played with the idea that the cinematic image, despite any claims made by realist film theoriticians such as Bazin and Kracauer, is essentially an artificially-created construct with no bearing on or relation to reality. The illusion of realism created due to the medium's photographic nature is precisely that - an illusion.

None of this is in any way a new revelation; what is interesting is that, as digital technology makes the link between photography and cinema increasingly tenuous, so too, it seems, does the mainstream audience's expectation of realism decrease. Bar exceptions such as the musical genre, mainstream cinema has always tended towards an essentially realist approach to the image. Even if what is being depicted is clearly alien to the real world, the cinematic images that represent it strive for an impression of reality - attempting to make the audience suspend their disbelief and accept that what is on the screen is real. The image is transparent - what is important is what is represented, not the image itself.

This recent trend demonstrates a clean break with this tradition, giving us instead films that revel in their artificiality - from the comic-panel-come-to-life shots of Sin City to films, such as Shekhar Kapur's upcoming Elizabeth: The Golden Age (at least what we see of it from its trailers) that favour floridly, elaborately beautiful visuals closer to painting than to any imaginable photographic representation of historical reality. These are images that are not afraid to show us they are images, that do not feel the need to pretend to be real; and that are thus entirely free to go as far as they wish in the quest for beauty and expressive, emotional power.

This is not new ground, of course - the expressive manipulation of the cinematic image is as old as the medium itself, entire movements (such as German Expressionism) were built on very similar ideas; it would be difficult to find a single great film-maker, living or dead, whose films do not bear witness to an at least implicit engagement with the image as artifice. What is new (apart from the aforementioned input of digital media and the postmodern tendency towards pastiche) is the extent of these ideas' penetration into the Hollywood and international mainstream. We have David Fincher's (at least pre-Zodiac) swooping cameras, Darren Aronofsky's formal compositions, Zhang Yimou's swirling colourscapes, Chan-wook Park's baroque mise-en-scene, Baz Luhrmann's carnivalesque scenes, even the dashes of surrealism that colour the two Pirates of the Caribbean sequels.

It might be pure coincidence that for the past three years the Palme d'Or at Cannes has gone to resolutely gritty, social-realist features; or it might perhaps represent a critical and academic backlash towards this increase in cinematic artifice, and a retreat to the safety of realism. Admittedly, these tools certainly can, and definitely have, been misused to create vacuously pretty but soulless showreel movies. But it seems clear to me that, regardless of their individual quality, in blowing open the established conventions of cinematic realism, in tentatively mapping out the path for a new, digitally-aided postmodern impressionism that is starting to dominate both mainstream and art-house cinemas, these films have ushered in an exciting new range of possibilities waiting to be explored.


Lara said...

If I type fast enough I can beat Robert's post which will point out the reference to Of Montreal!!!


Nice article...It amazes me how independent film appears to reverse the Hollywood trend, as though it is not confident in its own ability to create anything better unless it completely switches mode...however, rather than it switching mode, I think it might have something to do with the gate-keepers rather than the relative quantity of production from individual film's the pseudo-Beatnik hipster attitude...

However, yes, the realist bias still lingers around like a bad egg pickled in a jar since the 20s...I recall reading an article on the recently enough established film-philosophy site which praised the virtues of the documentary film as a form superior to the fiction film because it demonstrates the height of realism and is therefore less immoral (apparently)...what's more, the random-i.e.: not calculated- selection of framing etc. will (apparently) decrease the amount of authorial intrusion and filmic artifice (apparently)…

*sigh* perhaps this trend will usher in a new era, but I’m a pessimist, so I predict “no”…

Robert said...

maybe I noticed it before and decided to give you a chance ;P :D

I can't really comment on the article as I agree with everything discussed.