It’s been another slow week for movie news this week. Significant movie news anyway. There was a photo from the set of Fast & Furious 7… not a single shit was given by me. Ain’t It Cool managed to post an entire review for Prisoners (Which is apparently excellent) and called the film Neighbors the whole way through. That included capitalising and bolding every instance of the word “Prisoners”. Took 5 hours for them to fix it. That’s literally how dull this week as been for film news. Which leaves me with a dilemma. What do I write about this week? I’ll tell ya…. or you could look at the title of this article. Today I’m gonna talk about 5 things I feel are gradually damaging the art of mainstream cinema. Click the link dudes and dudettes!
No.5: Everything must be explained, over and over and over…
When people discuss the dumbing down of films this is partially what they are discussing. Now, I have no trouble with films being accessible and reaching out to a wider audience, but that doesn’t mean you need to treat everyone like a dribbling moron. For example: In Man of Steel (Which I quite enjoyed) the capabilities of the World Builders are explained at least 4 times before being unleashed. We even see one in action in a dream sequence. If by the time you reached the final act and were not sure that the World Builders would build the world the way Kryptonians would want it, ie: to terraform the planet, then you are a dribbling moron. There’s even a moment where a scientist character who is there to do the exposition roles says they will terraform the planet at which point one of the soldiers asks “what’s terraforming?” as if the scene was an educational show.
This sort of storytelling habit manages to waste the viewers time, especially those that grasped what was happening the first time… so pretty much everyone. You then risk boring the audience by regurgitating the same information, sometimes even from the same character’s mouth. It accomplishes nothing to help move the story along. A scene is meant to start at the latest possible point and end at the earliest moment. The aim of a writer is to get in, do the job and get out as fast as possible. There’s exceptions but if a scene was longer than the main dramatic element required then it had better well be filled with actual character development or depth. Many people would say Taranatino wastes a lot of time by having characters just talking about random shit. Occasionally he does, but generally he is giving you front row seats to those characters relationships and the inner workings of their mind.
If the film has already had a scene that explains what the relevance of something is, even if in the real world someone else would have to have it explained to them, you never repeat. Assume that the characters now know and if needed chuck in a line to indicate that. What should have maybe happened is mention a device called the World Builders, keep their abilities vague, and when they come down to the planet then the film can spend a few lines explaining what they do as we cut back to the people of Metropolis watching them descend. There should certainly not be a scene in a dream where this is also explained because that is stupid.
This happens in many films because the producers, writers and directors assume you may have forgotten already. It is also a by product of films being too full of events and sequences that crucial exposition is then fumbled to the point that they feel they need to handle it multiple times in case it got lost between actions scene B and C, instead of just ensuring it was done correctly in the first place.
No.4: Action beats must happen every 10 minutes
Ever checked the pacing of the average action film? More often than not they’ll conform to the rule that there must be an action “beat” every 10 minutes. It doesn’t have to be some grand chase sequence or fight scene, it can be as simple as two characters briefly coming to blows for a few seconds. It’s been a long held belief with film making that you need these action beats to happen every 10 minutes because the producers worry that the audience will lose interest with too much of that talking stuff. It’s so written into the DNA of the summer blockbuster that when The Wolverine dared to slow the film down for about 20 minutes in the middle many reviewers commented negatively that it sagged in the middle. Personally I think the scenes where Wolverine is hiding out with Mariko are some of the best moments of the film… although it does end with him waking up in shock as he dreams a samurai is about to attack him. An action beat right there cos it has to happen.
This sort of thinking is insulting to the audience and gets in the way of providing us with actual fleshed out characters. It also leads to action sequences that fail to drive the story forward or provide any sort of character details. Now The Wolverine, for the most part, did an excellent job of framing its action within the context of the story. Although maybe the fight on top of the bullet train and against the giant robot man was a bit unnecessary. The worst offenders these days are action scenes that literally come out of no-where. You know the scene where the hero has literally just learned something important and then OH SHIT THE WALL JUST EXPLODED AND NOW THERE’S ROBOTS EVERYWHERE! Like that moment in the second Matrix film where the whole thing happened.
I should extrapolate on that. In The Matrix sequels almost every action sequence happens because the characters have just walked into a location that’s perfectly suited for a fight and so a fight must happen. Hey Neo, you can walk across this courtyard, or you could fight 100 Agent Smiths!!! Sure, that fight showed how far Agent Smith would go to catch Neo along with his obsessive God complex, but why did a fight have to happen there? A little later the other characters have grabbed what they need but AWWW SHI-IT, the only phone they can get out from is at the other end of a highway we’ve never seen before and now there’s a load of agents chasing them. Queue 12 minutes of action sequence that existed purely so characters could get from A to B and the act of them driving there wouldn’t have been enough.
I should give you some good examples of an action sequence serving the story and characters well, and for this I turn to Michael Cera. Yup, Scott Pilgrim Vs The World is one of the best examples of a modern action led film using it’s action sequences to serve the purposes of the story. Each evil ex that Scott must face is another part of his insecurities about accepting that his girlfriend has a past. The defeat of each ex is him getting over the idea that he maybe doesn’t measure up to her past experiences, a thought process that isn’t helped by her emotional baggage preventing her from committing to Scott himself. The fights all happen at key moments in his characters progression. The first ex appears just as he is realising the mess he’s gotten into with Ramona and Knives as the two girls as chatting with each one oblivious to the fact they are both kinda seeing Scott at the same time. The following exes all appear when Scott is at a low point, they form a hurdle he must overcome in order to fight for the right to be the right guy for Ramona, not just to prove his worth to her but crush the self doubts he has regarding his own confidence issues when it comes to his belief that he may not be good enough for the literal girl of his dreams.
All films have action beats, not just action films. A comedy will (hopefully) build towards a certain comedic set piece as it moves along. A romance will have an up and a down in the character’s relationships. A horror movie will provide a creeping moment of dread, or more likely some form of dismemberment. The trouble is that a lot of mainstream films are training you to expect these moments every 10 minutes. When they don’t happen you can start to feel that the pace is too slow. Idiots may even label the film as boring. Maybe it is boring, that could entirely be the case, but chucking in an explosion isn’t always the answer. Sometimes sitting two characters with opposing ideals in the same room and having them talk about their views is all you need.
No.3: Relying on the past to provide the now.
This isn’t a stab at remakes. The act of retelling stories has been around since the days of cavemen. It’s how a story is passed from one generation to the next. Granted, it should really only be done when something new can be brought to the table, which isn’t often the case these days. What this part is about is relying too much on events of previous films to give your fans a cheap feeling that they got what the film was doing rather than leading them to an actual real moment of revelation.
Joss Whedon’s been doing this for year by having characters constantly making pop culture references. It’s OK when one character who displays attributes of being a pop culture junkie of some kind makes these references but when every single character is making these jokes it starts to get a little bit silly. The Avengers, as fun as it was, had dialogue that was not only made up of constant pop culture references, feeling like the Avengers played by the cast of Buffy at times, but they even made a joke of it with Captain America not getting the jokes. Now the Captain America bit I can let slide because it demonstrates in a simple way just how out of time he is. Did the film really need Tony Stark pointing out that a member of the crew on the Helicarrier was playing Galaga though?
Worse than this is a recent trend in remakes to just directly reference/copy moments from previous entries in the series. For example, throw away lines of dialogue in Transformers films that are lifted straight from the animated movie just because the fans will recognise them. There’s a number of moments in Transformers: Dark of the Moon where someone was clearly chuffed that they had Leonard Nimoy doing a voice (as he did in the 1986 Transformers movie by the way) that they had him spouting twists on famous lines from Star Trek. At one point he says “the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many”, a phrase that is a twist on one of Spock’s last lines in Wrath of Khan. This brings me neatly to…
Star Trek Into Darkness… Jesus H Christ. Here’s an enjoyable enough film but man did they shoehorn some poor referencing in here. Spoilers by the way. Towards the end of the film Kirk heads into the warp core to fix it the only way he knows how. By kicking the shit out of it. This leads to a scene where he is dying on the ground behind a pane of glass as Spock comes to have a few last words before his friend he spends 90% of these new films at odds with dies. This, in turn, leads to Spock shouting “KHAAAAAAAN!!”, entirely because it’s a thing people remember from Wrath of Khan. This sort of laziness happens at multiple points during the film, the odd line here, a Tribble there, and all because the writers felt they needed to “pay homage” to Wrath of Khan. The worst moment of this sort of nonsense came about 40 minutes into the film though.
The mysterious John Harrison has been captured after making all space flight obsolete by teleporting to Kronos and fighting a bunch of Klingons, because someone ordered Klingons to be in their movie. He’s locked in a glass cell, as many villains seem to be these days and has a dramatic discussion with Kirk and Spock. They ask him who he really is at which point the music hits a dramatic peaks and he exclaims “I AM KHAN!”. Kirk and Spock look shocked. The writers seem to think we should be too. Except here’s the problem. They were so wrapped up in that moment they failed to tell the audience, largely made up of non-classic Star Trek fans as the modern films are geared towards, who Khan was and what his significance is. Kirk and Spock have no idea who he is. They think he’s John Harrison and they just suspect he’s someone else, but they have no idea who Kahn Noonien Singh is. It is not established prior to this. They don’t even know about their cargo of frozen super humans, of which Khan was the leader, at this point. The only people this revelation is significant to is the classic Star Trek fans who know Khan is bad news. This entire scene was played out because they felt they had to have Khan in the film and they figured just having him be the villain was enough so sod basic storytelling.
This sort of thing has to stop because it is preventing actual stories from being told properly. It’s as though they feel that simply having something from the past versions of whatever they’re making is enough to provide a satisfying film. Who cares if the plot makes no sense provided we get those moments people may, or may not remember? Films today trade on nostalgia in order to provide a false feeling of satisfaction to the audience. Film makers need to stop chucking their obsessions with the past so front and centre on the screen and, instead, focus on forging their own ground.
No.2: Shaky cam. It sucks.
Back in the early 80s Rob Reiner used handheld camera movements, with all its unrefined edges, to convince you that Spinal Tap was a real band. In 1993 NYPD Blue used a similar technique to present to audiences a form of drama that was more realistic in its performances and tone than anything else that had been on TV at the time. The show was often parodied and mocked for what was soon to be termed as shaky cam. In the context of This Is Spinal Tap, NYPD Blue and shows such as The Wire having all camerawork be handheld makes 100% sense. It allows you to feel like an eyewitness to the events unfolding and the more naturalistic performances lend to this feeling. At some point someone decided to start shooting anything they could like this. And now I can’t concentrate on the film itself because I am being constantly reminded that a camera man is gradually unlearning all he ever learned about holding a camera to frame a conversation between two superheroes.
I’m not sure when this technique passed over from serious dramas to summer blockbusters but I do recall it being very prevalent in Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I get what he was going for here, note that during the film the cameras is always at eye level, it never pulls back to provide a hero shot of the destruction being wrought upon the world. He wanted you to feel like one of the survivors running alongside Tom Cruise and his irritating as feck family. It worked, to a certain extent, but then The Bourne films happened and suddenly everyone has to film their drama like that. Even Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace did it. And only one of those got away with it.
The technique is a distraction. It was an identifying element of the look of NYPD Blue, so when you see the same methods used elsewhere, often in entirely inappropriate films, it makes you conscious of the way the film is made. That is not meant to happen. It is not an immersive technique unless the world it is being used to represent itself is immersive and believable. Once you start using that technique to present fantasy it falls on it’s face. It’s like if you were to look through a window at Christmas and see no snow but you’re told it is a white Christmas because someone sprayed fake snow on the window. Using a camera technique meant to supplement reality only works if reality is the subject.
It gets worse when this technique is used to replace any sense of actual intensity in an action scene. When people are moving fast in front of a camera they do so faster than its 26fps can keep up with. This results in motion blur. Now couple action featuring motion blur with a camera that’s shaking about and you’ve effectively turned my cinema screen into a finger paining by a 5 year old set to a Hans Zimmer score. The image becomes hard to follow and the audience disconnects. There’s a sequence in Batman Begins where he attacks a group of criminals in a dock yard. This is shot up close with fast cuts and shaky cam. I let that scene slide because the scene is shot from the perspective of the thugs and Batman is meant to be shown as this unstoppable force they can barely catch sight of. The trouble is that same technique is used for the rest of the film’s action sequences involving hand to hand combat. It’s odd Nolan would even do this as he’s probably one of the most classical Hollywood in his general shooting as you get. Shaky cam action scenes also brings me neatly along to the next issue, where shaking the camera is exactly what isn’t needed.
No.1: If films are to be shot for 3D then they need to be shot correctly
3D is here to stay. Sorry, I know you likely don’t care for it. I’m all with you there (#Saynoto3D yo). The main reason I am against it though is because the technology and, more importantly, the technique isn’t there. Until a film can be shown in 3D with no loss of image clarity, no loss of brightness and with no 3D glasses the technology just isn’t there for me. Oddly, I think we’ll reach that point in your home before cinemas get there. For now, directors need to learn how to shoot 3D properly.
There’s a number of things that damage how a 3D film can be viewed. Because the projected image loses a percentage of the total light projected the image itself appears darker, and lacks full colour range. This means that shooting any scenes in dark environments end up becoming extra unwatchable in a 3D cinema viewing. But hey, at least at home you can adjust the brightness and whatnot. What really doesn’t help is that many cinemas won’t adjust the brightness of the bulbs on their projectors to match the lower amount of light bouncing off the screen and into your now shaded eyeballs. Film makers could compensate for this by making the 3D versions of their films be adjusted for for this image deficiency but they can’t exactly account for the different set ups each cinema will have.
Another issue 3D film has is that is in the motion of the camera. Because the frames are being updated on the screen in an unusual manner, with separate left and right frames for each eye, any horizontal motion, along with shaking camera, can cause a break up of the image. This was especially obvious in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland where multiple times he had these big sweeping tracking shots then would be perceived as stuttering or breaking up as the camera panned across it’s location. It’s a mistake many directors seem to keep making. Or, more likely, they don’t care about. They know that once these films are out of the cinema than the vast majority of viewings will be in good old fashioned 2D. Even the split between 2D and 3D showings in cinema has moved back to a 2D majority. So why bother compromising a shot when most viewings of the film will not be in 3D. The trouble with this thinking is that the studios want 3D pushed. They want you to see it like that because that means they can charge a little more for that cinema ticket. To add to this, eventually home displays will be in 3D so why not future proof? I’ll give a good reason why, because the way we view 3D on lets say a holographic display of the future will be quite different to the 3D projection in our cinemas.
And here comes the fun part. The studios really don’t give a monkey’s right nut that you’re getting an inferior viewing experience because people keep paying for it. When they keep paying for it they can exclaim loud and proud about how Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time when less people went to see see it than saw Titanic. They don’t even bother to shoot films with 3D cameras most of the time meaning you get short changed with a film that ends up looking like a pop-up book. Last year I saw both the Avengers in 2D and 3D and Prometheus in the same manner. Prometheus looked great in 3D, barring the usual issues. It’s 3D presentation was well constructed, shots had been chosen purposefully to take advantage of the added depth of image and the whole thing looked grand. Avengers looked fucking terrible in 3D. There’s many points where I took off my glasses because nothing in the shot was 3D. I saw a trailer for Man of Steel that was the same. The reason is because Avengers and Man of Steel were post converted whereas Prometheus was actually shot in 3D with 3D cameras. Guess what technique is cheaper though.
I think if you give the format about 10 years we’ll be seeing 3D presentations that actually eliminate these issues. For now, though, we’re being asked to pay extra to see the trial run versions of the technology. There’s a few directors out there that understand the limitations and shoot around them. As much as I hate to admit it, Michael Bay is one of them. Transformers: Dark of the Moon had excellent 3D and he even experimented in places with 3D cameras strapped to the heads of wingsuit wearing stunt men. Wim Wenders (you have to see the 3D in Pina) and Ridley Scott are another pair of directors that get it. And James Cameron, as meh as he is now, really understands it. But no matter what they do, for now at least, they can’t compensate for many of the other issues 3D has, such as…
Many people plain can see films in 3D. Know anyone with a lazy eye? They can’t watch a 3D showing. Know anyone with poor vision? They’re out. Anyone with motion sickness? There’s a good chance that will mess with their head. Hell, many people flat out get stonking great headaches within minutes. A friend of mine can handle passive 3D but active shutter 3D gives him a migraine. I get eye strain, which seems like the easy option compared to the others ailments. Again, until we have holographic projections of these images that’s a whole lot of people who plain can’t see it. Couple that to the many people that just don’t want to watch 3D, or pay extra for the eye strain, and you have to start to think just who this is all for now?
These 5 things are what I feel are damaging the art of cinema today. These mostly effect the big Hollywood blockbuster style of films but you’ll see these elements creeping into more independent cinema. Have you ever seen a Duplass brothers film? They need to have their cameras bolted to the ground and the zoom button removed. There’s also a glut of poorly made 3D horror films doing the rounds in the straight to DVD market. Add to that the way many foreign markets love to ape the US style and you start to get an idea of how damaging these techniques and products of laziness can have on the cinematic art form. There needs to be a few more directors who dare to say no to the studio’s demands of 3D and to not try so hard to make their films fit in with the modern techniques that have emerged over the last 10 years. The result of this continued direction would be the death of cinemas as being the place to see any type of film as they all get edged out for action led, 3D, moron level dross. I’d rather that didn’t happen because some of my favourite cinema experiences have been with films that wouldn’t fit in that description. Hopefully, before too long, people will grow tired of the sort of films that make these mistakes and, hopefully, someone will pioneer some new, much more well thought out techniques for other people to ape.