Thursday, April 2, 2009

A little more art, and less entertainment, wouldn't hurt

I remember learning in English class in high school how the Elizabethans were informed of the things that were going to happen in a play before the play started. So the play they were about to watch and listen to was already, in a rough manner, in their minds. I don't know if this was the same practice for plays before that time period, but wouldn't be surprised if it was.

They would do that for reasons other than by way of introduction. Perhaps it could be likened to walking fully around a building before entering it, as though they were getting something out of the way before biting to the meat of the matter.

Or take the scop who composed Beowulf. Many a time he betrays, albeit in dim portents, what is about to suddenly happen. And then after the event has happened, like say a battle with a monster, the event is retold numerous times, by one character to another. The event is not revisited per se (not a double-back), but is re-set, like a tree growing longer, stronger roots - or wider and wider rings around its center.

It is the additive layering in a work of art (not always strictly in the abovementioned form, but in many forms) that suddenly hits you with the jolt of the reality of its living center. Being merely devoted to what is going to happen next - though not in itself an impediment - gets conquered.

I dread to think that what they were getting out of the way is what we today as a modern culture have taken up as the main constituent of our diet.

If I might make a harsh transition from theater to film: I think it's important for someone not to know what is going to happen in a film of course - SPOILER ALERT, SPOILER ALERT - but what level of shallowness have we attained when simply not knowing what's going to happen next is concomitant with what film is all about?

There's a difference between not knowing what's going to happen next simply adding to the enjoyment of a film, on top of which something yet better subsumes it, and not knowing what's going to happen next being something like the sole point of a film. (Whether it is defying expectations through deliberate shock, twist in plot, or the more unpronounced wanting to be not predictable.)

I guess when the showing times for movies are classified under "entertainment" they aren't lying. The filmmaker is reduced to mere performer. We know that merely defying expectations is one of the lowest, lamest levels the artist can hit. It's one of the things that I don't like about Hitchcock's aesthetic, not to mention career; though I am a big Hitchcock fan. No, the filmmaker is not just to play the audience "like a piano".

And of course film, with its ever present "cut", so often abused and so often mistaken as to what stitches a film together, is prime turf for the "defying of expectations".

The cut (which in the fully developed film aesthetic is not what pieces the film together but is rather a necessary evil, to be couched and drowned as much as possible in the film's totality, which paradoxically has the effect that the cuts employed become beautiful) has been the bane of both film and film-viewing, enslaving both in a deadening, one-eyed shallowness.

I wonder: if a film's quality is diminished to the degree that it's plot or otherwise is known beforehand, then is it all that great of a film? That is to say, if a film is good only on first viewing, and is either weak or boring after that; if we always follow the story of a film at the behest of its cuts, then what is the point?

Again, I do think a film can be ruined for someone by being told everything, whereas if they watched the film without knowing anything they could then return to it often afterwards and enjoy it more and more. But really though: if you were told the whole plot of Terminator 2: Judgment Day beforehand would it be any less of a film when you actually watched it? No, not really. You wouldn't mind watching it again as well.

On a lowest common denominator scale: can a film be both predictable and compelling? My answer is yes. My answer is yes because the art of film does not depend on being unpredictable. Of course, neither does it depend on being predictable. The point of film simply rests somewhere else.

Which brings me to the film I was going to review, but will have to wait until later. A Hitchcock film.


Enbrethiliel said...


After reading this, I remembered one scene from a movie that relies very heavily on the element of surprise: Freddy Kreuger's appearance in Tina's second dream in A Nightmare on Elm Street. I feel kind of bad that I didn't watch it properly the first time (literally pausing the video every few seconds, since I was getting so scared) because I have a feeling that the second viewing won't be so powerful.

On the other hand, anyone who has ever watched a Slasher movie has a pretty good idea how the rest are going to turn out: which characters will survive to the end, etc. There are also certain visual effects in that first Nightmare movie that some people can watch over and over, because they really are amazing.

So, yes, I do agree that a film can be both predictable and compelling. Yet I also avoid spoilers like the plague. I think that one difference between Elizabethan theatre and our movies is that much of the pleasure from the latter comes from letting oneself be surprised.

Paul Stilwell said...

Thanks for stopping by this post. :)

You know, I *still* have not watched A Nightmare on Elm Street. If you were pausing the film every few seconds then it must be pretty scary. It is Wes Craven after all. I've heard his Last House on the Left is really scary too.

Reminds me of my traumatizing experience watching Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom when I was a kid. I must have blacked out during the heart-ripping scene, though my eyes were still watching, for I can't remember the trauma going past the cavern of bugs.

But back to the subject...I also avoid spoilers like the plague and will even refrain from reading a non-spoiler review before I see something that I'm really looking forward to. I agree, much of what we find pleasing in a film is just simply dependent on the element of surprise; it's the way film is. As Tarkovsky said somewhere, film is the most mechanical medium (as in seperated from the stop-and-go of our own minds).

Enbrethiliel said...


What happens when you do get a spoiler? I know I overreact to the point of irrationality.

My mother mentioned the twist in The Sixth Sense when the movie was still in theatres, and that is why I still haven't seen it!