Film as Industry vs. Film as Art

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.

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Beauties and their Beasts (Part 2): Film Review

In my last post I discussed Disney’s new live action remake genre and its business/consumer implications. This week I’m going to take a closer look at the new Beauty and the Beast and the reasons it fails to deliver, at least from a critical perspective.

Part of the issue is a simple matter of botched design: animated character design, and live action costuming. In the original film the characters were stylized, as one would expect from an animated film. That gave the artists leeway to make them quite appealing. We look at Lumière, for instance, and we see a figure that we accept as human, despite the fact that he is a candlestick. In the live action version the artists were constrained by the fact that everything needed to look realistic, or the animated characters wouldn’t mesh with the presence of real live people like Emma Watson. Lumière, Cogsworth, Mrs. Pots and all the rest therefore had to look far more like real candlesticks, clocks and tea-kettles than they did in the animated version. That means that they looked less like people, and that the character design was far less personal. Of course, there was almost certainly a way to design around this problem. At the very least, the filmmakers ought to have swapped out the original film’s furniture characters for something they could do well (so long as it wasn’t the weird puppy gremlins from the recent French film). In any case, the character design on all the furniture creatures was unpleasant to look at and failed to fully communicate the humanity of the characters involved.

The human characters in the film also suffer from bad design. I’m mainly talking about the poor costume design here, but the lighting, the sets and the cinematography all compound the problem. Garish and clashing colors combine with mediocre lighting to make the live action characters into no less of an eyesore than the animated ones. What’s more, we get so many of them on the screen at once, generally with little attention to visual rhythm and negative space, that the film’s visual space gets overloaded with ugly and chaotic imagery.

Of course, all of this is little more than window-dressing. No matter how garish the film might look, a well-written story would have made up the difference. Here, the new Beauty and the Beast falls victim to its own mandate to be. The original animated film had a brilliant and tightly written story. On the one hand, Disney clearly wanted to imitate that structure and recreate its success. On the other hand, the filmmakers recognized that they had to offer some kind of variation and new content other than the shift from animation to live action. They had to make a film that was the same as the original, but different.

The new version therefore features such variations as Belle’s backstory, altered secondary and tertiary characters, new dialogue, and different lyrics for some of the songs. These are all superficial changes. So how is it that they have such a tremendously negative effect on the film’s narrative?

My answer to that is simply that they distract us from the underlying strength of the original film’s structure. The discovery of Belle’s somewhat grim backstory, for instance, is made into a major story beat within the new film. But that backstory has no purpose within the structure of the film, and little enough meaning in relation to the film’s themes and conflicts. It produces nothing more than drag on the story’s emotional flow. In other words, it’s pure fat that should have been cut in the name of narrative economy.

Then we have the altered characters. Maurice is now an artist/clockmaker instead of an inventor, Lefou is now gay, Mrs. Pots now has a husband, and the wardrobe is now a demented singer/avant garde clothing designer. The film goes out of its way to give all of these characters tangible features and histories, but in doing so it ignores the deeper behaviors and characterizations that made them compelling in the first place. The truth is that deep and believable characters don’t emerge because we know extra facts about them, or because we spend more time exploring their backstories. A character with one line, or no lines, can be more compelling than a character with over a dozen. What matters is a character’s situation, and the way he or she brings that situation to bear upon the story’s conflicts. Knowing more about these characters, ironically, makes them less believable because it insulates them from their role in relation to the story’s main conflicts. They become caricatures, not because we spend too little time with them, but because we spend too much. What’s more, all that extra time exploring these unimportant characters is time not spent exploring the film’s central conflict.

I would argue, therefore, that the new Beauty and the Beast’s great failing is not that it attempts to imitate the formula presented by the original. Instead, its failing lies in the inclusion of new material that does not suit the old. In an effort to make the new film different, the filmmakers added in all of the fat and messiness that was no doubt sacrificed to make the original film so strong. Their new material, instead of adding to the film’s good qualities, distracts from them. It obscures the underlying power of the story beneath a mountain of small weaknesses, and renders the final film tedious rather than enjoyable.

Of course, my reaction will not be everyone’s reaction. I’d love to hear from anyone who loved or even liked this film. What made it compelling for you? How did the new material help to build upon the original film? After all, the film was quite successful in theaters. So no doubt Disney was doing something right.

Beauties and their Beasts (Part 1): Disney’s odd new genre

I finally got around to seeing Disney’s new live action Beauty and the Beast. Anyone who knows me will know that I was not looking forward to this film. Part of my lack of anticipation came from the trailers, which exhibited the film’s poor design and cheap production quality; part of it came from my earlier experience with Cinderella and The Jungle Book, both of which I turned off halfway through. But mostly I just found the appeal of such a project incomprehensible. Disney’s original animated version of Beauty and the Beast is one of my favorite films. I understand remakes of old films when their visual style or the surface values they present have become outdated. But, to my mind, the original Beauty and the Beast is as relevant and watchable today as it was when it first came out. Why would I want to see a newer and less finely crafted version, when I could simply go back and rewatch the old one?

The reasons that Disney would want to create such a film are obvious. It’s an existing piece of intellectual property, with a story arc that, at its core, has already been tested and proven at the box office. Disney is a large company, devoted to doing whatever turns a profit. There is nothing immoral, cheap, or surprising in the company’s interest in taking an old property that no longer delivers blockbuster returns and reviving it to its original profitability.

What shocks me is that so many of Disney’s customers seem eager to consume this refried material. Of course, it’s nothing exclusive to Beauty and the Beast. Maleficent, a botched half-way retelling of Sleeping Beauty, made around $250 million domestically in 2014. The next year Cinderella made $200 million domestically, and in 2016 The Jungle Book did even better than its predecessors at $364 million domestic. And now Beauty and the Beast has topped them all at roughly $500 million. What’s more, all of these films also did rather well in foreign markets. Clearly, therefore, there is a market for this style of re-adaptation of old films, despite the fact that the adaptations in question better reflect the quality of 2011’s Conan the Barbarian remake than that of their source material.

Why are people going to see these films? The honest answer is that I can only speculate. It could simply be a factor of how fondly the originals are remembered: people go back to see the new films because the old ones moved them so much and they want to recapture a piece of that old feeling in the theater. That explanation, however, begs the question of why every such remake doesn’t prove similarly profitable. Hitchcock’s original Psycho (1960) was the wonder and terror of the theaters. In 1998, Gus Van Sant directed a remake that failed to even cover its own costs. The quality of the remade film, while low, was certainly no lower than that of the new Beauty and the Beast.

Is it simply that Disney can do no wrong? That answer, to me, seems to dodge the question. If Disney can do no wrong, that is because Disney is doing something right by its audiences. People out there are seeing these films, time and time again, and coming back, time and time again, for a nearly identical experience.

Let us therefore assume that the films succeed, at least in part, on their own merits instead of on the merits of the originals. When I watch these films, all I see is a tedious narrative with a visual style that hurts my eyes more than it pleases them. But someone out there likes the films enough to keep coming back. Of course, the same might be said of the Transformers series. They are universally reviled by critics and yet people invariably keep going to see them. What is it the critics are missing? That is a question that requires a great deal more research and a future post. Odds are that the attraction of Disney’s live action remakes and of the Transformers series is completely different for their respective audiences.

What fascinates me about them, however, is how completely I find myself on the outside of those audiences. That total foreignness is somewhat new to me. Romantic comedies, for example, will never be my genre. But I can still watch a romantic comedy and understand what makes someone appreciate it. And there are well made romantic comedies that I truly love despite the fact they belong to a genre that often does not appeal to me. The same goes for superhero movies, horror films, and all manner of different genres. But I truly do not understand what makes these particular films popular. If you have an idea, or better yet if you think you’re a part of Disney’s target audience with its live action remakes, please let me know. I’d be very interested to hear what you think.

Later this week I’ll put out Part 2 of this post, in which I’ll discuss the new Beauty and the Beast in more detail, showing where I think the filmmakers went wrong from a critical/narrative perspective. From a business perspective, they are clearly doing something right.