Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Where have all the fun films gone?

I was discussing this last night with my girlfriend: why are all the fun films all over 10 years old? I’m talking about the films that you watch repeatedly and enjoy thoroughly every time. Films like Back to the Future, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Princess Bride, The Never Ending Story, Labyrinth, the original Star Wars trilogy, Dirty Dancing, Grease (ok, maybe the musical/dance films are just me). Everybody probably has similar films even if they don’t share my tastes. Films that are associated with joy, fun, innocence, and fond memories that transport you back to the time and place that you first watched them every time you see them. Where are the comparable films today?

I can be a bit of a snob when it comes to films. I appreciate fine artistic films, seek out independent and foreign language films, and love to watch a film that knowingly toys with cinematic conventions and the restrictions of Hollywood. I’ll often turn my nose up at overly commercial films or blatantly crass or manipulative films…….however inside me there is always that little kid who first became fascinated with cinema through films that existed purely for fun. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are film related: going to watch Labyrinth in the Apollo 6 in Wallasey with my dad, watching cartoons in the primary school hall on rainy days, seeing Karate Kid II in a mini-cinema on a ferry back from Holland whilst holding down a bout of sea sickness/food poisoning (ok the last is less “fond” and more “green”). The glow of the cinema screen and TV set held me enraptured as a child. Not because of the films that were presented on them rather the experiences, emotions, and sensations they induced in me and the way that the stories entered into me during viewing and became my own.

Have I become hardened by film viewing? Does it become harder for films to connect with you on such an instinctive, emotional level as you get older and you start thinking about a film too much and not feeling? Or have the films changed? I can’t think of any films over the last 5 years that have moved me, enraptured me, and left me in a state of absolute joy. The only films that come to mind are animated and predominantly produced by Pixar. Only in the animated realm do filmmakers seem to have a licence to detach their films from the harsh realities of life and focus on stories that are pure escapism. Yes, it is easier to achieve this using cartoons but live dramatists have been achieving the same thing for millennia so why are all films, no matter how FX-driven, currently unable to sever their ties to reality? Take Back to the Future (BTTF) for instance. BTTF takes a cartoony highschool kid and transfers him to a world that is not his own (the 1960s). There he must overcome many obstacles (getting power into the time machine; stopping his teenaged mum falling for him, etc) so that he can return to an improved version of normality. This is a classic Aristotlean dramatic structure and works so well because of the initial detachment of the protagonist (Marty McFly) from his reality. In the unfamiliar world the normal conventions and expectations of reality can be abandoned (or rather replaced by historical, kitsch, cartoony conventions) and so experiences can be heightened and played out for pure fun. The shackles of reality do not bear down upon the protagonist.

I’m sure there are recent films that use a similar dramatic structure but all seem to carry too much of the reality with them. I don’t think I am alone in my disillusionment with the current decrease in film as pure entertainment. You just have to look at the genres that consistently perform well in DVD sales: comedies and horror films. Audiences don’t want to take dramas home. Artistically respectable, innovative, and experimental films are only bought by collectors who place them on a shelf at home almost for prestige value not because they ever actually intend to watch them (sadly, I often fall into this category). The films that audiences constantly return to are those that have a good, easily accessible story, and move them in pleasurable ways. Why, when I have gone to the DVD rental shop recently have I completely failed to find any films that fulfil these requirements? Where’s the nerd-wins-cheerleader’s-heart films? Where’s the girl-becomes-dance/music-diva films? Where’s the fantasy films with imaginations bigger than my own? Where’s the intimate awe, the enrapture, the comfort?

I think Hollywood needs to either start taking itself VERY seriously and start producing artistic, philosophic, and intelligent films that don’t crumble under the pressure of the business men and focus groups. Or, they need to throw caution to the wind, stop trying to appeal to everybody, stop focussing too much on the technology, the glitz, the “cool” factor, and make films from the heart. Then maybe I’ll remember why I originally fell in love with film.

Friday, May 06, 2005


I stumbled across a wonderful documentary about the history/theory/practice/future of film editing the other day. I was reading this month’s Wired article on George Lucas and it mentioned an interview he did for a documentary called Edgecodes. Apparently, Lucas’ true calling is as an avant-garde filmmaker and experimental film editor and it is to this that he is planning to turn after StarWars (once he has finished cashing in with the merchandising, of course). The wired article is very interesting to learn about Lucas’ part in the evolution of special effects and non-linear digital editing (he personally financed the development of one of the first non-linear editing systems, Editdroid in the early 1980s). However, even more exciting is Edgecodes.

Edgecodes is a documentary produced by Travesty productions in Toronto. It is available for purchase on-line and can either be downloaded (thank god for broadband!) or purchased as a DVD from their website: I really wish I had encountered this documentary three years ago when starting my research. Without a formal film school education I have had to teach myself editing and the theory of continuity from books, dissecting films, and experimenting with my own films/animations. After 3 years (plus a lifetime) of a long hard slog I finally feel as if I have an understanding of how an editor approaches a film and how they regard the art of editing. Edgecodes gives you an insight to this in 75 minutes…..Nuts!

The film is primarily made up of taking heads discussing the development of film editing whilst examples are intercut with their dialogue and the entire film is edited in a way that highlights exactly what they are talking about. It is a wonderful resource for obscure early cinema clips such as Keaton in Sherlock Jr. walking into the cinema screen and being tormented by the editing. There is also a replication of the classic Kuleshov Effect. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this effect it was the first time that the potential of editing for creating meaning through juxtaposition of shots was formally shown. (Lev Kuleshov was a Russian Filmmaker and theorist who, in the 1920s along with the likes of Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin, and Dziga Vertov experimented with the potential of editing for the creation and manipulation of meaning, primarily as propaganda. The Kuleshov Effect refers to the juxtaposition of an actor’s expressionless face with one of three point of view (POV) shots: either a bowl of soup, happy child, or a dead woman. The supposed effect is for the viewer to project different emotions on to the face of the actor depending on the POV shot: hunger, parental pride, or loss and sadness.)

The most satisfying part of the documentary for me was to hear renowned film editors theorising on the reasons why they edit and why editing works. Like a lot of supposed opinion in this area most of what was said could be related back to text books, such as Zach Staenberg (editor of The Matrix) describing editing as being about making decisions based on graphic, spatial, temporal, and rhythmical relationships between shots which is a direct reference from Bordwell and Thompson’s ‘Film Art: An Introduction’ (1979/2003). The acceptance of this theory by film editors shows that either it must have some grounding in truth or the editors just don’t have any better way of expressing their intuition about their art. The same can be said for the comments about the reason why editing works: each comment can be directly related to film text books and, whilst thought provoking, don’t really get us any closer to an understanding. However, the overriding impression I gained from Edgecodes is that the editors are eager to understand, they spend their lives experimenting on themselves, trying to induce and control their experiences and so they are eager for any new technology, technique or theory that allows them to do this. I feel that they (and by result, their audience) will be the ones to really benefit from any greater understanding about the psychology of the edit I can produce. Here’s hoping.