Friday, May 20, 2011

Film Tropes and Twists in the age of Information Overload

Nathaniel at Film Experience Blog makes a passing remark about Von Trier's bizarro Nazi situation, and then turns his attention to a more interesting issue (Thank God): is it possible for us to be taken off-guard by a movie these days?

Nathaniel's right, these are changing times. Django Unchained's script has already leaked and been circulating, and in no time at all -- literally with the simple perusal of a fellow blog -- I know it's going to be perhaps his most controversial movie yet. In terms of speed and density, discourse has outpaced the ability of the audience to engage their cultural artifacts. Movie reviews will offhandedly remark that "the twist was (effective/implausible/predictable)" and think they're being opaque, but they're not. Even knowing that there's a twist in a movie will alter your entire perception of the film.

This is a curse that seems to have uniquely affected M. Night, although in very arcane ways. His career peaked right at the moment when basing a movie on a "twist" was still possible, and this was a big dramatic mechanism for him, especially in his early movies. Since those groundbreaking revelations in The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, people have lost their appetite for his retroactive game-changing reveals, and his whole artistic identity took a hard blow. People were lukewarm on The Village, cold on Lady in the Water, and positively hostile toward The Happening. Honestly, I thought Lady in the Water was interesting, constructing a subtle fairy-tale ecosystem, hermetically enclosed within the ruins of crass vacation motel kitsch.

And M. Night hasn't been able to recover his artistic footing. He seemed to be flirting with self-conscious irony in the marketing of The Happening, but it did nothing for him (not many people even picked up on it). He tried to move into zeitgeist CGI popcorn blockbuster territory with AirBender, but nobody bought it. I think it was just too big for him. And while I still think the whole Facebook "Send M. Night back to film school" meme was unnecessary and mean-spirited, I still acknowledge that these were unfortunate twists for a twisty director.

Of course, Nathaniel's making the same point about Von Trier's work (did you ever think you'd hear M. Night in the same analysis as Von Trier?). He's pointing out that, though AntiChrist didn't depend on twists and surprises, it DID depend on the visceral reaction you get out of seeing something sudden and gruesome happen on a cinema screen. Same, I think, with Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void, which I just rented this past week. It's on NetFlix Instant -- what more clearly signals that a film's lost its "arthouse shock" credibility? At any rate, I suffered the entire time from Information Fatigue. The visuals were bizarre and breathtaking, but I also kept thinking, "Wasn't there supposed to be more sex? When do we see the fetus? Is it time for the shocking climax yet?"

This also describes the reasons that I've been indifferent toward a lot of the "mind-bend" movies on tap lately. I'm Still Here, Catfish, Exit Through the Gift Shop -- these all sounded seriously fascinating, but I never pushed myself to go see them. Knowing, ahead of time, that they all depended upon self-sabotaging twists and revelations gave me the sense that I wouldn't get anything real valuable out of the experience of actually watching them. Like the rest of the wired-up world, I can't really be caught off-guard any more, and even suspecting that a film is trying to sucker-punch me has the automatic effect of turning me off to it.

Nathaniel frames this as a lack of appreciation for the unknown, and he wonders "if this will cycle back culturally to valuing secrets". I don't think that's really the root of the problem. I think it's (as I said above) sheer speed and density of information that's shining this punishing light into the dark spaces of discovery, and I don't think it'll go away. Information is kudzu, climbing all over everything, and there's no reason to think it will suddenly backtrack and become respectful.

I think, instead, the medium will have to adapt to the environment.

After all, there are some aspects of the film-attending experience that are immune to information-dilution. The key quality that's going to survive information-overload is the pure sensory experience, the synthesis of visual and sound that only activates at the moment of apprehension. It's something that Aaronofsky has really been straining to perfect, and it's worked out well for him... you could describe Black Swan or (even more so) Requiem for a Dream shot-for-shot, and you still wouldn't take much away from the immediate visceral experience of actually watching the films.

Cinematography and sound-editing are going to be EXTREMELY important in the future, perhaps more important than writing or timing. You can prepare yourself for a twist or a jump-cut or a shocking scene, and by preparing for it, you'll blunt its effect on you. But you can't prepare yourself for an incredible, surreal, perfectly toned close-up or photographically-composed landscape... at least not in the same way. Films like Blue Valentine and Never Let Me Go can sustain a heavy assault of spoilage, and they're still beautiful films that draw in the eye.

And here's the thing -- I think even the slow wits in Hollywood studios are starting to understand this. The great films of previous decades -- Deliverance, Blade Runner, Terminator II -- were relentlessly plot-driven, labyrinthine in their shifts in momentum, exercises in pacing and expectation and unexpected dialogue. Newer blockbusters, films like Avatar, Bourne, and now Thor, don't try to play on anticipation and disclosure like those older films did. They allow their plots to form organically, around tried-and-tested myths and tropes, so that they can be concerned with the immediacy of experience, the shaking of the camera and the complete sensory immersion in Asgard or Pandora.

Critics will groan over the lack of creativity in writing, about the utter failure of originality in the era of the adaptation, but subconsciously, they'll appreciate the increased emphasis on the senses: Zack Snyder's slow motion, Christopher Nolan's formal experiments in montage and sequence, Tarantino's use of well-known tropes to create truly inspired single moments. And even as they complain about those plots, they will also spoil them for us, and in the future, it won't particularly matter.

1 comment:

Garreth said...

So, yeah...this: :After all, there are some aspects of the film-attending experience that are immune to information-dilution. The key quality that's going to survive information-overload is the pure sensory experience, the synthesis of visual and sound that only activates at the moment of apprehension."

I couldn't agree more. But let me add another movie to the list that meets these criteria: Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Now, I've not watched many movies through my laptop with earphones, but if you do so with this movie, the soundscape is amazing. Tied to the surrealistic, chaotic narrative, the audio is more than ear candy. It's an experience in and of itself, and you are rewarded every time you experience the film.

Thanks for you insight, as always.