Saturday, May 23, 2015

The State of Film

"How do we know movies are worthwhile? When you think about it, is it not just some grand hobby? Maybe there was a time when you could make films that mattered, but now? Most of our world is rubbish."
-Hayao Miyazaki

These are words that have stuck with me since seeing the Miyazaki documentary "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness." He's one of the greatest animators and storytellers in the world. His films are beloved by children and adults alike the world over. The documentary proved him to be a wise and contemplative thinker, but is his assertion correct? Is it impossible to make films that matter in our rubbish world? Now, first of all, I suspect he said this very off the cuff, as a question to himself, not meaning it as a definitive statement. But the question still remains.

The context leading to the statement shows a man who had been thinking back on his life, and his father (basing a character from "The Wind Rises" on him), and lamenting the state of the war torn world during WWII. In those days film was a growing medium. Filmmakers were still learning what they could do. Even earlier than this, the earliest filmmakers experimented with the technique of filmmaking inspiring everything we know today. It was an interesting time for film technically speaking. However, considering the times, they also used film as a means of propaganda, and an essential means of escape. These old films hold up today (including our own modern contributions) to tell younger generations the state of the world at the time. These are important films, and war, fighting, suffering, and all manner of love and pain continue and will continue. These things will inspire more stories in the future the same way they always have. Much the way stories have been told for years, whether spoken, or in print, or on screen, story will continue. And furthermore it's important for it to do so.

Perhaps for those behind the scenes, at times, the making of film can feel like a passing fancy or a grand hobby. It isn't until later that we realize the importance of a film. Film, and story in general, can mean different things to different people, but nevertheless it remains a significant part of our everyday lives.
"...for me the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us identify with the other people who are sharing this journey with us."
-Roger Ebert

It is for a similar reason I love film. They allow a window into another world, and another viewpoint. Often, even inadvertently, they teach us things we wouldn't have learned otherwise. For some, they are even a great means of socialization. The people on screen lift us out of our lonely places and teach us how other people live and operate. That allows us to empathize with people we'd never meet. They transport us to different places, times, and cultures. They stoke our curiosity, and our imaginations to dream things we may never have thought to otherwise.

In one scene of Richard Linklater's "Waking Life," a man tells a woman that he's writing a novel. When she asks what the story is, he replies, "there's no story, just people, gestures, moments, bits of rapture, fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest stories ever told." Collectively this is film. But film is not only tied to beautiful stories of emotions. They can be a means of escape, and humor. They can be both satire, and truth. 

But what of today's Hollywood overtaken by sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes and comic book movies? Is creativity dead? No of course not! Hollywood has indeed been overrun with these types of films, yet because of them they've made the money to continue making films, and that's what we want. In fact, we allow them to continue this trend, because we get a nostalgic excitement for these things, and once they've started we have to see how they'll finish them. So a series of multiple films is also inevitable. Yet even within these new films based on old things there are new methods, new inspirations, that include allusions to modern day issues. As if to mark the time period in which the film has been made. This goes without analyzing the fact that as our hopes and expectations for these remakes and sequels continue to grow, the quality has been getting better as well (if a little inconsistent). There are off years, but even summer blockbusters have gotten better. Compare today's super hero films to that of hero films of the 90's. The level of art and expectation continues to grow. The hero fad will die out eventually, but remakes and sequels have been a pattern in Hollywood since the old days. However, their existence does not demonstrate a lack of creativity, or signal the death of originality. For every big budget Hollywood blockbuster there are numerous smaller films being made. There is room for creativity and originality in both.

And what of the visual element? Have we seen all there is to see, and now all that remains is recycled camera movements, animations and editing techniques? I imagine that if filmmakers believed that they wouldn't bother making films anymore. Visually impressive films come every now and then, but they are far from dead. We haven't yet made it to a point where there are no more ways to achieve the visual element of film. Dreamers and visionaries will continue to pursue new interesting ways to tell their stories.

And lastly, what about the consumption of film? We are far from having reached the best possible 3D. Right now the majority of films do not take proper advantage of it. The image is dimmer, and it seems to cut off our peripheral vision. Most films do not take proper advantage of the capabilities either. Every now and then there's a "Gravity," or an "Avatar," where the film feels like it's missing something when viewed in standard 2D. But most often films in 3D are like "Mad Max" (a great film nonetheless) that has only one scene in which they pander to the audience with a shot of objects flying out of the screen at us, just so no one can claim, "they did nothing with the 3D" (no doubt a requirement of the producers who want the extra revenue of the bloated cost of 3D tickets). As long as it remains a profitable means of consuming film, the powers that be will continue making their films in 3D. But one day films shot in 3 dimensions will be a truly revelatory experience. I'm afraid to say, technology just isn't quite there yet to make 3D truly compelling and practical in every film despite attempts to make it so.

Add on to that the expansion of IMAX. If only every theater had IMAX screens. Films should be displayed on the largest screens available. As the technology behind film gets more sophisticated, the types of visuals we can expect in film to become more stunning as well. So, much like the filmmakers back in the early days, experimenting with film to see what can be done, there is room for exploration in today's film industry. There are still experimenters and innovators working today: Richard Linklater, Christopher Nolan, and James Cameron, to name a few. They still strive to see where film can take us, wondering how they can tell a story in a way that hasn't been done before. 

This leads me to one of the more promising home entertainment innovations on the horizon: virtual reality (or will we all go to a theater and strap on VR headsets?). It's coming in the very near future, and filmmakers are going to find ways to tell stories that we can walk into and see in 360 degrees. Whether these will be truly worth it or not (like the failure of most 3D films), we'll have to wait and see. Whether this newer medium, or method of filmmaking, will be considered important or not is yet to be determined. Nevertheless it'll be an experience worth waiting for.

All this begs the question, "what makes a film important?" Is it the story being told? The time in which it's released? Is it the method or technique of the filmmaking? Or perhaps even the way it's consumed? Perhaps, and in all likelihood, it's a combination of all of these. Having recognized that, it's hard to imagine a time in which important films are truly impossible. In the days before the internet, film and TV were important means of spreading information. Yet today, because of the internet we have far greater access to films from any time period, and from all over the world. Perhaps film played a more important part in the lives of the people living before the invention of the internet, but it's because of the internet that we have greater exposure to important films.

As I sat watching "The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness," I couldn't help be struck by his words. I still think about it from time to time, but I can't believe them. Perhaps filmmaking and film viewing is just some grand hobby. People can (and do) live without them, but that doesn't mean, for most of us, that films don't matter. Perhaps, in some existential conversation, we could come to the conclusion that nothing we do is important, at least not what most people do. However, no matter what time we live in, whether fiction or non-fiction, there will be fascinating stories worth telling, and they'll be told in ever more visually impressive ways. And whether a film is widely considered an important film or not is something only time will tell. But one thing we will know for certain, these stories will matter to us.