Wednesday, September 23, 2009

While you're away, I cogitate

As we view the earliest films, I want you to see how people drew on previous forms of expression and entertainment in order to craft the new medium. Those first movies, with their fixed perspective on unscripted scenes of ordinary life—the factory day ending, people disembarking from a boat, a couple feeding their child—are nothing more than animated photographs. The decision to film the arriving train at an interesting angle represents a decision to bring drama to the proceedings. The troublesome boy stepping on the hose is our first example of a script, a story.

Méliès takes his lessons not from photography, but from the stage. He not only crafts theatrical pieces, he constructs elaborate sets and moves from scene to scene through the use of the dissolve (know that term). He also employs special effects, some learned from his stage magician's act but others only possible with the invention of film. Multiple exposures and the use of cuts let his imagination take on reality.

What you're seeing is film develop its own language even as it borrows from the visual and narrative language of other forms that precede it. I started watching Watchmen last night (I had avoided the film, though—or perhaps because—I like the graphic novel) and it made me think about how film continues to compete with and borrow from other forms of narrative. One complaint about the film leveled by critics is that it tried to merely emulate or reproduce the images from the graphic novel rather than develop its own way of approaching the material. It's a complaint you could level, in a different form, at other adaptations. After all, films of books or plays borrow something of their narrative structure, even if there's no visual structure from which to lift. Though some of the shots are indeed exactly from the book, the director still has to present movement between those shots, so it's not as if the device spares him from having to employ some creativity. So far, he seems to handle that pretty well. However, I'd say that the narrative itself is a challenge for the unitiated to follow—or to care about. The actress playing Silk Spectre is dreadful. (The other actors seem fine, but Ozymandias's German-with-a-lisp is a profoundly wrong choice.) The conceit of the original material is that only Dr. Manhattan is superpowered, but the people in the movie shatter people's bone (and blocks of granite) as if they were super beings; that's just wrong, and misses the point. The script isn't working well to hold the narrative threads together. I find that the problem isn't the look of the thing but that, in trying so hard to have his film look like another art form, he forgot to labor on a script that didn't merely lift words from the graphic novel. Forms of entertainment always inform each other and borrow back and forth, but you still have to labor at every element.

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