Saturday, June 13, 2009


As I catch up on all the old films I've never seen, and I could never catch up if I saw 6 a day and limited myself to what was made before 1945, the differences between then and now are striking. Besides a mode of cutting (much slower) and a level of discourse (most of the golden age writers came from Broadway), there's a sense of place that is so resolutely real and beautiful.

Films used as part of their production value actual locations, often as part of the spectacle of visual entertainment. Movies had traded from the very beginning on showing something you had never seen before, whether or not it was a train coming into the station head-on, the beheading of Ferdinand, Death playing chess, or what images were kicking around inside of Fellini's head.

Film, being a photographic and (deceptively) real representation of what happened in front of the camera, brought the world to us.

Producers would as part of their production strategy, cast the location as well. Even small family dramas such as "Rebel Without A Cause" use striking locations to give a sense of scope and natural beauty. (Hitchcock, perversely, would fake some of his up, but that's an epistological discussion for another time.)

Of course filmmakers use trickery, intercutting, and stunt doubles to convince us that they travelled to Rome to shoot their ancient saga (and not Bronson Canyon). But the setting was considered an important character in the film.

We saw vistas used to dramatic purpose as late as the '80s - I remember "The River Wild" being more interesting to look at than to listen to. But in the current age of CGI, producers have gotten used to, and audiences have grown to expect, any spectacular and fantastic visual fireworks that can be created with computer graphics.

So we get the nuanced cityscapes of "The Dark Knight," the miles of weather-ruined vistas of "The Day After Tomorrow," and the virgin-sand blue sky chicanery of "Castaway."

It's all spectacular and beautiful. And it's fake.

They can do anything. 90% of what you see in "Star Trek" doesn't exist in the real world. Everything down to the lens flares coming off the lights on the bridge was created in a room of computers months after shooting, and I'm not entirely sure about Chris Pine either.

TV with the 100-cuts-a-minute CSI style editing feeds into our need to see something shinier, faster, brighter than the last half-hour. We expect it now; we've culturally forgotten that locations and place used to be an important part of the texture of movies.

Movies used to show us people, real people, in big places doing interesting things.

No wonder people don't fall in love with the movies anymore. "Casino Royale" attempted to reclaim this dynamic after the cartoony "Die Another Day." And that's why I prefer "The Eiger Sanction" which seems to be shot entirely on a mountain, to "Cliffhanger" which only tries to convince me for certain key scenes. And even when it got boring, which it certainly did, I could always let my mind wander to look at the scenery.


Baron said...

I am reminded of all the John Ford films that took place in Monument Valley, or both the vistas and small personal spaces one can see in a Kurasawa film. I find I vastly prefer the older films for the writing, The Big Sleep, Casablanca for its incredibly dry and witty dialog even though largely shot on a studio lot is something you dont see very much anymore. At least not in mainstream cinema.

The latest Star Trek wasnt a bad film for what it is, in fact I would rate it in the Top 2 or 3 of the franchise. I agree about The Eiger Sanction vs. Cliffhanger

Roger L. said...

Great point about the "writerly" films. The production value, perhaps, was the great acting and writing in the old studio mode.
Thanks for reading,