Classically-minded film buffs, like myself, tend to lament the supposed decline of good movie making in contemporary Hollywood. “Movies used to be so much better in the old days,” we say. “People tried to make works of art back then, not two-hour toy commercials.”
There is some truth in this statement, insofar as certain trends in the modern movie industry do favor commercial interests over artistic pursuit. Hollywood does prefer derivative works, such as remakes, sequels and adaptations, to original properties. Certain technological developments-CGI, handheld cameras, better editing tools-have partially supplanted storytelling as the basis of filmmaking. Though there are certainly exceptions, both in indie and mainstream cinema, these just serve to emphasize the soullessness of Hollywood’s primary output.
All arguments must be qualified, however. It’s easy to be blinded to previous generations’ shortcomings by nostalgia, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a medium changing as it ages. Humans grow, develop and reorient themselves every day. We should not be surprised if the art they make undergoes similar transformation.
CGI, for example, is not the cinematic Antichrist some purists have made it out to be. I understand special effect and their appeal. Done subtly, they create the impossible without removing viewers from the film’s world. They can allow an actor to play a pair of twins, using another actor’s physique (“The Social Network”) or remove a character’s nose, to give them a more sinister, snakelike appearance (“Harry Potter”). The art of motion capping-mapping out a person’s movement and using it as the basis for a CGI character-is particularly exciting. It means actors can dive into the most alien and inhuman of roles without sacrificing their craft. Andy Serkis has proven, with his motion-cap work as Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, this technology has a real future. Stephen Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin” will prove if motion-cap can now carry an entire movie.
CGI only becomes a problem when it’s used as a shortcut to replace time-consuming, but far more satisfying practical effect: stop-motion, trick photography, puppetry, stunt work, models, hand-drawn animation. Computers can only go so far in emulating real life, and some works benefit from the solid, real world presence of their creations. The original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” may seem a bit kitschy with its Jim Henson-made turtle characters, but it’s far more fun to watch these physical beings fight than frameworks animated on a Macbook. The same goes for “Where the Wild Things Are” and Carpenter’s version of “The Thing.”
Handhelds and faster editing, likewise, have reduced the average shot length in modern movies, so we never focus on a single image for too long. We’re cutting from one angle to another, to one character’s face, to a scenic view, to ten different explosions, all while the camera’s jiggling uncontrollably. Naturally, this emphasis on rhythm and chaos disorients and keeps us from paying attention to scenes, dialogue, and the tenets of basic story. But used correctly, spurts of quick editing vary up a film’s pacing and contribute to its theme. Digital handhelds are an essential tool of low-budget, guerilla filmmakers as well as, allowing for more would-be directors to enter the field and make their first movies.
We mustn’t forget the good trends in modern filmmaking either. Hollywood just realized over the summer that “star vehicles” no longer work. You can’t put Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts in a movie together and expect it to make money. Although some actors are still considered “bankable”-Johnny Depp, Robert Downey, Jr., Angelina Jolie-the field has opened up. Directors can now focus on hiring actual talents rather than just the biggest names. It also means they can use fashion models and family members in place of talent, but hey. You win some; you lose some.
Essentially, there’s no technology or technique in film that’s inherently bad. Everything starts off neutral, before context and use defines its quality. It’s a tired example, but a true one, that some filmmakers thought the advent of sound, color and digital would mark the death of cinema. They haven’t. They only expand upon the ways in which films can express their ideas. So feel free to protest modern day film hacks, the Michael Bays and Uwe Bolls, and how they abuse film craft. Just don’t mistake their tools as the problem’s genesis.