?

Log in

No account? Create an account
entries friends calendar profile Previous Previous Next Next
Praise for modern movies - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
fernwithy
fernwithy
Praise for modern movies
You know, I'm a traditionalist about a lot of things, and I'm often one to say, "Sheesh, what's the matter with us these days?"

But after reading an article that spent all kinds of time bashing modern movies and movie stars as compared to all those brilliant stars of yore... I just feel a need to chime in for the defense.

First of all, there's no star system anymore. The reason we don't have "brand" stars the way we used to isn't that there aren't terrific actors out there, but that there's no studio machine behind them, crafting a careful image of what they should be doing. Actors and their agents are making most of their own calls. So you don't have a "John Wayne character" anymore. And you don't have a studio hyping its stars like McDonald's hypes Big Macs.

And you know what?

I think it's producing better performances.

Sure, the old glamor would be nice, but the branding process had a lot of side effects, one of which was that the characters actors were playing weren't the characters in the script--they were the characters the studios had decided the actors would be. Sometimes it was a really good match (Clark Gable as Rhett Butler comes to mind), but there was a lot of boxing in going on, and actors didn't stretch themselves. Maybe it's my writerly brain that thinks of actors as people hired to play the characters I write, but honestly, I think that we've made, you know, progress. Now, if I write character X and Actor Y is cast in the role, I can be reasonably sure that Actor Y will read the script, study the part, and give an actual performance. It may not be a great performance--I doubt there's any more talent in one generation than another--but it will be an honest attempt.

It's true that I wouldn't recognize a Tom Hanks imitation, or a Leonardo DiCaprio imitation. This isn't because they're not good actors (I'm neutral on both of them) but because when they play parts, they're playing parts. Isn't that a radical thought?

There's also been a movement toward more natural screen presence as the years have gotten us more used to the form. Early movies were very much dominated by stage acting, which is a subtly different animal simply because distance from the audience is much greater than the distance from the camera, and the gestures that look just right on stage to express something look a bit grandiose on screen. The field has evolved and it handles the medium better.

This writer also complained that new stars look "too young" (as opposed to, say, Mary Pickford, I suppose...) I'm not sure he's noticed, but as you get older, everyone looks younger. Also, if stars today are "children pretending to be grown-ups," it's not because the stars have gone downhill; it's because that's the whole milieu of the world. Why hang it on Hollywood? I don't know about the writer, but I don't get up in the morning, frown deeply, and think, "I must be an adult today." I just happen to be one.

As for the movies and scripts themselves... well, honestly, there's a lot of drivel out there. There always was. We see the better old movies now because those are the ones that have stood the test of time. And yes, I think they're choosing to honor some movies that aren't quite up to snuff artistically in order to score political points or show their sensitivity or something. But is the ratio of drivel to quality any higher? And is the quality really higher quality? The Wizard of Oz is a fine movie with many great memories attached to it, but, quite frankly, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is better filmed, better written, and better performed. Though it does lack dancing munchkins.

There's also been an evolution in narrative since the studio age. It started in books in the 1920s, as character became a greater focus, and has moved into the movies slowly. To move from the sublime to the ridiculous, just look at the evolution of the superhero movie and/or TV show. Superman is never going to class as great art, but it's gone from a bunch of totally one-dimensional paper characters to people who have conflicts and desires that might not mesh with their missions, and who make mistakes. That's made him a better hero, because it actually costs him something, and he sometimes, on rare occasions, learns. Audiences expect this now.

Sigh.

Just felt like venting.
25 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: March 3rd, 2006 06:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'd agree with most of this, except the "too young" comment. Recently I got my hands on the DVDs for early Emergency! episodes and you know what stood out? Old people who really looked like old people... Wattle necks, crows feet, wrinkles, the lot.

Plastic surgery has changed the ratio, I think, of how many actors look "old" as they really are.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 3rd, 2006 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Well, old people looking old is one thing. What the person was talking about was leading men now looking too young to be "men." Instead, they're "boys pretending to be men." As opposed to craggy people like Gable and Wayne. :eyeroll:
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 3rd, 2006 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
(His point appeared to be that the rising generation doesn't look intimidating. That the generation of the time he's looking at was conforming to the standards of its own time just as much as the generation of today is conforming to its doesn't seem to register much. They're all playing at being grown-ups--aren't we all?--but the rules of what constitutes the role have changed.)
sophonax From: sophonax Date: March 3rd, 2006 07:00 pm (UTC) (Link)
You know, I pretty much never expected to agree with you on anything involving movies.

And yet here I am, agreeing with everything you've just said.

(Not that I don't love some of the really great old stuff--in fact, my favorite movie ever was made in 1968--but even the best of it succumbed to the obnoxious branding trend you described. I wouldn't say we're totally free of the whole branding thing--although I wouldn't recognize a Tom Hanks "impression," I definitely have a good feel for what a "Tom Hanks movie role" is--but I think on the whole, the situation is improving.)
alkari From: alkari Date: March 3rd, 2006 07:54 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree with most of what you are saying, and a definite Yes to the demise of the studio system and its effects on the quality and style of acting.

The one difference I tend to notice when viewing old movies is the quality of the scripts, and the dialogue. The most distressing tendency of many movies today - and yes, the HP ones are very guilty of this!! - is the substitution of special effects and modern technology for actual script and plot development. The attitude "if we throw a few more millions at it to get a bigger bang, it will be a btter movie" is alas, all too common I believe.

It alienates me, because I find it talks down to the audience, with many producers and directors assuming that we will all be beguiled by fancy stunts, fabulous explosions, and lots of CGI. Why do you need a great script when your audience will walk out being wowed by the special effects?

Over the last few years, I have been going to various film days organised at one of our major universities, and run by one of Australia's best known film critics, a fascinating and erudite person. These days have conentrated on actors (though some are themed) and we see extracts or trailers from almost all the films of the chosen actor, plus see three movies in full during the day. I have been to days on actors such as Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Bette Davis, Dirk Bogarde, etc. Sure, there was plenty of trash there, but my lasting impression is of a time when directors concentrated more on the essentials. Unless they had a Cecil B de Mille budget, they could't DO huge special effects, and thus their films would sink or swim on the quality of acting, script and plot, and general production.
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: March 3rd, 2006 09:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
See, the thing is? The special effects problem does not apply to our times. It applies to then, too. What we take for granted now--sound and color, and even film itself--was, back then, a special effect. Entire movies were created simply to flaunt this effect. Screenplays, stories suffered as a result. People in talking pictures spoke just to be heard, not to advance the story or say anything of depth. The studios wanted to impress the audience with this new effect and nothing more. Considering that special effects the way we know them now have been around for a while, maybe the lack of depth in the screenplays is a problem, but it's hardly new.
purple_ladybug1 From: purple_ladybug1 Date: March 4th, 2006 05:13 am (UTC) (Link)
Like Dorothy's silver slippers turning red.
keestone From: keestone Date: March 3rd, 2006 08:07 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very good points.

Not to mention, a lot fewer highly successful actors are coming out of their star movie careers practically destitute (a la Mickey Rooney) or not at all (a la Judy Garland being given uppers, downers, etc to keep her working, etc, etc, bye bye Judy). Not that it's impossible now, but the studio contract system had a very bad history of completely screwing its stars over.

There is a tendency for Hollywood to cast "mother" type roles much younger then the age being played, yet there is also a notably new trend of casting teenagers instead of twenty or thirty somethings to play teenagers. If that's one of the reasons the stars are getting younger it's a very good thing.

Actually, I think we still have "Brand" stars to some extent, they're just not owned by a single studio. We go to see or specifically avoid a Tom Cruise movie or a Julia Roberts movie, or a Harrison Ford movie.

buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: March 3rd, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
the characters actors were playing weren't the characters in the script

Yes they were--the writers were just as monotored and controlled as the actors were in the studio system. Every aspect of filmmaking fell under the control of the system. Honestly, I think that what you described happens more now than it did then, as you've basically a writer submitting a play raw to a producer who will do to the script what he wills--as opposed to how it was in the studio system, when the producer would get what he wanted from the get go. He was controlling the writer, see?

We see the better old movies now because those are the ones that have stood the test of time.

And a lot of them haven't survived the test of time: they've been destroyed or weren't restored in time.

The Wizard of Oz is a fine movie with many great memories attached to it, but, quite frankly, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is better filmed, better written, and better performed.

That's not a fair comparison. The Wizard of Oz was filmed in a different time than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There were different filming, writing, and performance standards then. We can't view cinema in a timeless vaccuum--otherwise we'd be rejecting a lot of terrific movies simply because they don't stand up to modern stanards. Would it be fair to say a certain type of art or music is better than the other simply because the art had advanced more over time, even if the older piece was just as good as the newer?
buongiornodaisy From: buongiornodaisy Date: March 3rd, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Screenplay. Not play. Arg.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 4th, 2006 02:18 am (UTC) (Link)
That's not a fair comparison. The Wizard of Oz was filmed in a different time than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

That's the point, though--standards have changed. And yes--acting and screenwriting have become better over the years. But musical standards and showmanship have gone down. And yeah--I think it's fair to decide what's better and what's worse.
tunxeh From: tunxeh Date: March 3rd, 2006 10:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
A lot of good points here. Another is that the movies we remember from those old days are the ones that were good enough to still be worth seeing today. That's a small fraction of what was made, and it's unfair to compare it to the typical film of today — it will be easier to make the comparison, say, 20 years from now, when we have a better idea what today's classics are (Oscar nominees are a good rough cut, but there are plenty of Oscar films that don't stand up to time, that will seem quaint and silly when looked at after long enough time).
sixth_light From: sixth_light Date: March 3rd, 2006 10:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Superman is never going to class as great art, but it's gone from a bunch of totally one-dimensional paper characters to people who have conflicts and desires that might not mesh with their missions, and who make mistakes. That's made him a better hero, because it actually costs him something, and he sometimes, on rare occasions, learns. Audiences expect this now.

I find it really interesting that you say this, because I was watching the original Superman movie last night, and we came to the same conclusion: it was not a particularly good movie because none of the characters grew or changed. Later incarnations of Superman (I'm thinking of Lois and Clark and Smallville, specifically) are a lot better because there is character growth.
sea_thoughts From: sea_thoughts Date: March 3rd, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC) (Link)
I agree that it's a good thing the studio system died (not least for the many demands it placed on its stars) but I do agree that many stars still have their 'persona'. Julia Roberts started out her career as the feisty, fun-loving girl from the wrong side of the tracks. Now she's still feisty but her characters usually come with a lot of baggage and often have an aura of mystery around them. Same with Tom Cruise - used to be cocky and physical; now he's intense and physical.

And even though character development has come a long way, I think dialogue has deteriorated.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 4th, 2006 02:23 am (UTC) (Link)
I think dialogue has deteriorated

The funny part of this is, when a director goes to the stylized dialogue of old, it's automatically classed as "bad dialogue." The poor SW movies... they used perfectly classical, memorable dialogue, but George Lucas has been classed forever as a dialogue hack.
sea_thoughts From: sea_thoughts Date: March 4th, 2006 02:27 am (UTC) (Link)
Stylised dialogue is fine as long as it's got STYLE. Lucas's dialogue doesn't have style and it's not realistic either. If you want people speaking in a special way, at least make it beautiful; otherwise, stick to proper dialogue.

Sorry. ^^;; Didn't mean to rant.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 4th, 2006 02:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah, but see... that's the thing.

There's nothing more inherently beautiful about "As God is my witness, they're not going to lick me..." and "Your focus is your reality." It's just that one is part of an old movie, and another is part of a new movie, and dialogue has moved on in the years in between.
sophonax From: sophonax Date: March 4th, 2006 03:11 am (UTC) (Link)
Really? I don't recognize either quote (I've spent too long away from Star Wars), but the first one has passion and feeling behind it, expresses a specific desire, and lets you a little bit into the character's head (however hokey that head may be). The second one is entirely abstract, totally meaningless out of context, and appears only to be an insight into the philosophical system the character ascribes to, with no information whatsoever given about who the character is or what s/he is feeling or what s/he intends to do.

The only similarity I can see is that neither is something anyone is likely to say in real life--stylistically and structurally, they're worlds apart.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 4th, 2006 03:16 am (UTC) (Link)
One's emotional and the other's philosophical, but aesthetically, they're on the same level--neither is representative of what real people would say, and therefore neither achieves anything like verisimiltude. As a more intellectual than emotional person, the philosophical appeals more to me, but that's just a personality orientation not an objective aesthetic difference. (Though the latter, at least, I could argue is something a preacher might say while preaching, which was related to the context--Qui-Gon says it to Anakin while teaching him. The former is Scarlett O'Hara, while puking up a rotten turnip. 'Cause yeah, I always soliloquize while puking.)
sophonax From: sophonax Date: March 4th, 2006 03:34 am (UTC) (Link)
One's emotional and the other's philosophical, but aesthetically, they're on the same level--neither is representative of what real people would say, and therefore neither achieves anything like verisimiltude.

But this argument only makes sense if you accept that aesthetic value=verisimilitude, and isn't that the proposition you're trying to argue against?

I also consider myself more intellectual than emotional (regularly scoring around 90% to the T side on all Myers-Briggs tests I've taken)--the problem is that outlining philosophical positions only works in movies as long as there's a solid base of characterization around it, and it's often more effective as the implication of actual action rather than being directly stated in dialogue--where it really does no useful work in moving the movie along. An excellent example is the original Matrix vs. the Matrix sequels--both were philosophy movies with tons of action, but the first one integrated the philosophy with the action and thus promoted a consistent and interesting worldview, while the sequels featured long scenes of yammering about philosophy intercut with almost totally unrelated action.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 4th, 2006 03:40 am (UTC) (Link)
But this argument only makes sense if you accept that aesthetic value=verisimilitude, and isn't that the proposition you're trying to argue against?

To the contrary, my argument was that we've achieved better verisimiltude over the years--a more nuanced ear for dialogue and characterization that better represents the sense of human experience. Whether the lack of verisimultude is emotional or intellectual is immaterial--it's a question of whether or not it achieves the level of suspending disbelief in the audience. At the time of GWTW, "As God is my witness..." did achieve it, and because of that, it has a certain cache that bullies contemporary audiences into accepting it. If the same line were put on screen today, it would be laughed at and ridiculed in every paper, while Lucas's "Your focus determines your reality" would have been considered unremarkable in 1939, while it was considered laughable in 1999.

In the case of the SW line, at least it's a priest giving a lesson to a would-be postulant, which is a realistic situation in which one might make a purely philosophical statement.

(Note that I know both lines by heart, of course. It's my belief that, art or not, lack of verisimiltude is what makes lines memorable.)

sophonax From: sophonax Date: March 4th, 2006 04:12 am (UTC) (Link)
To the contrary, my argument was that we've achieved better verisimiltude over the years--a more nuanced ear for dialogue and characterization that better represents the sense of human experience.

OK, understood. I agree with you that it's not so much a sliding scale (where more verisimilitude=better!) that determines value so much as an absolute threshold (as long as not's SO unrealistic that it throws you out, it's OK, even if it's pretty damn unrealistic). My point was just that in terms of memorableness, narrative function, and so on, the two lines given differed hugely for reasons that have nothing to do with verisimilitude, so it puzzled me that you'd say they have the same aesthetic value simply because they're both equally realistic (or unrealistic, as it happens).

I get what Lucas was trying to do with the old-school studio dialogue, but I think that any experiment that tries simply to imitate an older style without bringing anything new to it or acknowledging that there has been any evolution in the style since it was popular is ultimately doomed to fail--in short, there has to be some sort of *comment* on the stylistic choice in order for its use to really take off. When a style is current, there's no need to comment on it because it's basically like water to a fish, the invisible environment. Once you've taken the style out of its original habitat, so to speak, it requires some sort of explanation as to what the hell it's doing there. Why is this style the best option for illustrating the story you want to tell? Lucas never really answered that question to my satisfaction in the prequels--other than the fact that some interesting and nostalgic movies were made in the style, what exactly is there about mannered dialogue, even-keeled delivery, short scenes, and encapsulated philosophy that makes it the best way to tell the story of a bright and caring kid who falls in love, receives training to hone his mystical talent, and then is persuaded by the flaws of his teachers, the plethora of bad things that happens to him, and overconfidence in his own abilities that nihilism is a better option than balance? Any number of styles would have worked to tell that story, but I never shook the feeling that Lucas picked the option he did just because he thought it was cool, without considering how exactly it was supposed to serve the story.
ginevra_nyx From: ginevra_nyx Date: March 4th, 2006 04:19 am (UTC) (Link)
But imo "I will never turn to the Dark Side. I am a Jedi, like my father before me," belongs in this category too, yet that line gets cheers in my experience. Those kinds of lines can still work if they hit the mark--and if they are supported by the rest of the story. Retching aside, Scarlet's speech makes sense after everything that's come before it, and she keeps her vow in everything that comes after it. Likewise with Luke's declaration.

I think "your focus is your reality" would have puzzled people in 1939 and that the problem now isn't that people don't talk like that, it's that they do talk like that. It sounds like a bullet point from a powerpoint presentation at a corporate seminar on workplace productivity or something: it's supposed to sound deep, but is devoid of meaning. By contrast "Do not try. Do or do not. There is no try" is a similar line in many ways, but it works because it's actually saying something. It's still very stylized, but once you've excepted that the line's pretty good.
may_child From: may_child Date: March 16th, 2006 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think "your focus is your reality" would have puzzled people in 1939 and that the problem now isn't that people don't talk like that, it's that they do talk like that. It sounds like a bullet point from a powerpoint presentation at a corporate seminar on workplace productivity or something: it's supposed to sound deep, but is devoid of meaning.

Actually, it has plenty of meaning. What you choose to focus on is what determines reality for you. Pretty simple, I'd say, and it proves to be very true for Anakin, particularly in ROTS: he chooses to focus on his dream of Padmé dying in childbirth, and his very efforts to prevent that fate are what lead to it becoming reality.

It's funny how true it is for the PT-haters -- they choose to focus on the hokier aspects of the PT movies, and that determines the "reality" for them that the PT is bad.

Similarly, the people who hated the OT -- and they did exist, in greater numbers than we're supposed to think -- focused on the hokier aspects of those movies, thus determining the reality for them that the OT was bad.
alkari From: alkari Date: March 4th, 2006 01:21 am (UTC) (Link)
Actually, I think we still have "Brand" stars to some extent, they're just not owned by a single studio. We go to see or specifically avoid a Tom Cruise movie or a Julia Roberts movie, or a Harrison Ford movie.

I think today's stars are just as likely to be typecast as before, and to be restricted to playing particular types of role. In the old Studio days, films would be written or produced FOR those stars, to give them a vehicle for their talents, or to show John Wayne as Yet Another Good Guy. John Wayne only ever played "John Wayne" after all. These days the process is more subtle, but regardless of their own acting talents (or lack!), many actors still find it hard to break out of the 'typical' roles and types of movies for which they have become known and the current system is just as likely to stultify any wider aspirations. Most actors today, in TV or movies, are just as 'bound' as they were in the old studio days, only the process is far more subtle. And frankly, I am not sure that mass audiences 'expect' character development any more now than they did back then. The dumbing down of a good story, or the 'let's put a nicer ending on it' is extremely prevalent, especially (dare I say it) for the US market. According to the perceived film wisdom, mass audiences don't like uncertainty, open endings or unresolved issues. Let's face it, they had to remake "The Vanishing" for US audiences, who (so 'they' said) would never have coped with the horrifying, haunting Dutch original.

Just as in the old studio days, the vast majority of today's audiences like the bad guys to get what's coming to them, the good guys to emerge triumphant, and the right couple to end up with each other. They like 'known' Good Guys to play those roles, and known Bad Guy actors to play the villains. Given his roles to date, I wonder how successful Orlando Bloom is going to be in future in terms of breaking away from 'hero' character roles? Sure, the later "Superman" movie is slightly better in terms of character development, but it's hardly what I would term a thought-provoking character analysis or character-driven movie! It is still really just "Saturday afternoon feel good" entertainment.

25 comments or Leave a comment