Two of last years’ biggest films are about film; so as cinema as we know it is undergoing a radical and rapid transition – film to digital to 3D to CGI – are we now becoming momentarily nostalgic? Are we feeling slightly panicky for what we are about to leave behind, leaping forth into the great unknown abyss that technology offers, possibility upon possibility for wonderment and stimulation?
In Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film in 3D, Hugo, George Méliés, an ageing erstwhile illusionist turned film-maker (played by Ben Kingsley), says about cinema, ‘If you ever wonder where your dreams come from, look around: this is where they’re made.’
And truly, films have captured our imaginations – our wildest imaginations – since the beginning. We love the movies because they are about stories, and stories are important to us. Stories are an important medium; through which we document history, teach lessons we feel are significant, pass on knowledge and reflect on what it means to be alive. Stories are also important because while their key feature is that they are stories, allowing us the freedom with which to create them in any shape, form or figure, not restricted by the laws of physics, rationality, reality or reason, we like them because we like to think that stories – no matter how they are told – are about us.
In fact, this is one of the things that Hugo is about. It explores the birth of cinema, the idea of the ‘moving image’ and how it transfixed audiences immediately. And yet, the early movie industry starts to unravel, as the growing disillusionment with the illusion of the moving image itself begins to set in. It soon becomes simply not enough. Hugo charts the fall of film-maker George Méliés, in a period where cinema is transitioning, as his fantastical, beautiful, radical and surreal movies go out of style in a post-war time, where people begin to want stories that reflect reality, and within reality, the pain and conflict that seems to dominate life in that time. People grow tired of the grandeur of the illusion, the beauty of the gimmick: instead, they begin to want something more integral, more meaningful. And yet, even as cinema lurches forward to render George’s films outdated, in later decades, there is beauty in his art that remains timeless. At the end of Hugo, a hall full of people stand up to applaud him, now an old man, as they watch his early movies: moving images that have been made to capture your heart, your imagination. And so, while we find that cinema changed because people simply demanded more, the film leaves you with the idea that grand illusion might still be enough.
So – is cinema meaningful story-telling or grand illusion, or the perfect amalgamation of both, one to compliment the other?
Perhaps it is with this nostalgia that Scorsese made Hugo (interestingly, set in Paris though everyone annoyingly speaks in tight British accents, in 1931), and Michel Hazanavicius made the French film The Artist (interestingly, set in Hollywood in 1927), which won several of the biggest Academy Awards this year, including Best Motion Picture, Best Actor and Best Director.
The Artist, which has been one of 2011’s most acclaimed and talked-about films, was a terrible disappointment to me. It was emotionally shallow, it was corny, predictable and safe, and didn’t really engage me with any of its characters or have me investing in any of them. And this is a pity; the story, after all, could be an incredibly human story. It is one of a silent movie-star and his fall from grace and fame, with the birth of ‘the talkies’; films with audible dialogue in them. The Artist, working with a plot that could have been potentially emotionally and intellectually stimulating, then fails at being either. It seems to miss several points that it should be making or exploring. It skims over tangents that could be interesting – the demise of the silent movies, the coming of a new generation of films that ‘talk’ and this man simply refuses to ‘talk’ – to present a predictable love-story plot, with some gross over-acting, made in a predictable format and style, with a predictable ending. No risks are taken, no hearts are broken, no one cares either way.
But ah-ha. There is a catch. The Artist is a silent film itself. It is a pretentious exercise, made to seem ‘sophisticated’ and ‘radical’ (‘Oh a silent film in 2011! What a brilliant idea!’), and yet one that is totally meaningless and unmoving, and so it becomes nothing but a gimmick. But the whole world is taken up with this film. Critics have lauded it; the Academy has it awarded five major awards. The whole world has bought into this trick – this horrible, cheap gimmick that you are forced to endure, all the while feeling insulted that they thought you wouldn’t notice.
It makes me wonder if we are giving into gimmicks more and more now, and forgetting that we once demanded that cinema be about meaningful story-telling.
Certainly, with the way that technology has dictated the evolution and radicalisation of contemporary cinema, there is a lot of room for gimmicks and thrills. It has enabled us to excuse bad screenplays, bad performances and bad plots as being simply something we must tolerate in movies that we convince ourselves are otherwise ‘good’. With films like Avatar (2009), landmarks in the history of cinematic achievement, we have quietly learned to ignore the fact that good screenplays, good actors and good stories are what make good films. Why don’t we insist that films be good – in every way? Why must the colossal, immense ones always falter in integrity, forcing predictable and corny plots down our throats for the price of ground-breaking visual effects or fantastic art direction?
There have, of course, been incredibly good films made: films that are sweeping, visually stunning, epic cinematic achievements in style and technique, and yet are moving, important and offer some reflection on the questions that mean something to us. Spielberg, of course, is particularly good at this. Schindler’s List and E.T remain particularly timeless and special, but even the ones that are less so, like Catch Me if You Can, are incredibly stylish and beautiful, while remaining true to its purpose. More recently, District 9, the alien-movie set in South Africa that sets out to allegorize Apartheid, bust the ‘alien movie’ stereotype, creating something that was perfectly balanced: aliens, big guns, big explosions, flawless action scenes, and yet a film that resonated deeply because of its brave choice of theme and setting, and the good screenplay and performances that carried the story and its questions through with clarity.
Audiences and critics always have and must continue to play an integral role in the development of contemporary cinema; asking that films get better, not worse, and better in every way, not just in some ways; demanding that technology enhance, not plunder, what is good about cinema and the cinematic experience for an audience, allowing the story to thrive again.