Here’s a thought: why study films? There are other art forms that tell stories, that make us feel specific emotions, and that promote a sense of beauty and the spectacular. What, then, separates film from any of these other mediums?
Prose fiction is the obvious example of another narrative art form, but we can also point to graphic novels, poetry, music, and even painting. Now, admittedly only two of those habitually tell stories these days, but that doesn’t mean that the others are incapable of conveying some kind of narrative. Poetry is one of the oldest and finest narrative forms, despite the fact that these days it trends towards emotional snapshots rather than plot. The Iliad, The Charge of the Light Brigade, and even The Jabberwocky can all attest as much. Music, likewise, has often been used to tell stories. Among my favorite examples is Loreena McKennitt’s The Highwayman. As for painting, still images though they are, paintings have often be used to tell stories. Napoleon’s court painter, Jacques-Louis David, was also one of his chief propagandists. Many of the paintings David made told idealized stories of the Emperor’s triumphs, and thereby helped to craft Napoleon’s public image.
Any of these art forms is also capable of conveying any emotion that film can convey. Novels and graphic novels are again obvious in this, given that they are typologically very similar to film. And no one is going to argue that poetry can’t instill feelings of loss and fear, joy and hope, heroism and cowardice. Music, meanwhile, may be the most interesting and complex of all these emotional mediums, along with being the oldest. If there are limits to its emotional range, we haven’t found them yet. And, as for painting, no one who has ever seen a painting by Caspar David Friedrich is ever going to argue that painting is not the emotional equal of its peer mediums in both range and complexity.
So how does film stand out? What makes film special? The answer is that it isn’t an art form, as such.
Right now you might be rolling your eyes at me. “Not an art form? What is it then? A bar of chocolate? God’s gift to mankind?” Or maybe you’ve already gleaned what I’m going to say from the title of this post.
Film isn’t an art form because it’s an industry. That is to say that narrative film is not a singular act of artistic expression. Instead, it’s a collection and repackaging of many different creations. Individually, writing, cinematography, lighting, acting, composing, etc. are what I would consider pure art forms. But film, in aggregate, really isn’t about any one of these. It’s about the collection, intermingling, and coordinating of their individual effects. It’s meta-art, or, to put it another way, art made industry.
Okay, so why does that make film interesting? There are two major reasons that I can think of:
First, as I discussed in my post on Films vs. Books, the output of information in a film is different from that of its component art forms. Essentially, every moment of watching a film is made up of lots of different kinds of art, all of which are trying to tell you something at the same time: there’s the framing, the lighting, the acting, the music, the dialogue and so on and so forth. Our brains process all of that information, but its hard for us to be consciously aware of all of it at the same time. The mixing together of these different art forms, and their changing over the film’s runtime, makes for an emotional experience that is often far less cerebral and far more visceral than any one art form can produce on its own. In other words, a well-assembled film can be greater than the sum of its parts.
The second reason this industrial view of film is interesting, is that it is almost always the work of many different artists. We often speak about films as though they were the solitary productions of directors: “Have you seen Tarantino’s new film? Spielberg’s done it again,” and so on and so forth. But that is a gross simplification. The director’s job is a creative one; it’s true. But it’s creative in an odd way. The director, in some senses, is the film’s curator. His/her job is to coordinate the efforts of dozens (often hundreds) of different artists into a cohesive whole, to “direct” in fact. In many ways that’s the lynchpin role of the whole project, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of ascribing sole authorship to the director.
That means that a finished film does not consist of a single voice. Just as film is an aggregate of many different art forms, an individual film is an aggregate of the efforts and creative visions of all the different artists who contribute to its creation. True, the director’s vision comes through stronger than the others. As, often, does the producer’s. But everyone contributing to the film has a hand in crafting its message and steering its course.
There is something exciting, organic and enigmatic about a process where no one person can completely control the form the final work takes. Because it has multiple creators, a film takes on a kind of life of its own. And that can be both a great curse and a great blessing to the quality of the finished work. Sometimes the organic messiness of this process leads to a finished film that seems to lack integrity, or that simply does not hold together. But other times, especially in the hands of a skilled director, the multiple artistic voices that go into the film harmonize together to create something more beautiful than any one of them could have managed alone. And that, I think, is a phenomenon worth studying.