Keeping it Reel



I’ll admit it: I’ve got some problems with critics. It’s not just that I tend to disagree with most of them; it’s that I don’t feel many of them dedicate the amount of time, consideration and thought necessary to properly analyze a piece of art. But what really sets me off is when a critic attacks a medium for being something it shouldn’t be anyway. In the case of film, it irritates me to no end that a criticism so often boils down to the caliber of the writing and the strength of the acting performances.

For the man on the street, writing and acting might be the central concern about a movie. Is the story good? Does it engage me, does it make sense? How’s the acting? Will I believe the performances and will they captivate me? These seem to be legitimate concerns for a mainstream, movie-going audience. But if you’re going to be a serious critic of filmmaking, or a not-so-serious one, but you happen to be getting paid for it, you owe it to yourself and your audience to disabuse them of the false notion that writing and acting are of such central importance; if anything, they are probably the least important aspects of a film.

That may sound like an audacious claim, but hear me out.


A film is not a piece of writing. It may start with a script, but on the other hand, it might not.

A film is not a performance art. It might have actors; on the other hand, it might not.

A novel can’t exist without a writer, without words, without plot and character.

A play can’t exist without an actor performing.

What then, can’t a movie exist without? A film or digital camera, light, a subject to shoot. That’s it. You can go out onto the street right now, armed with your iPhone, and shoot a film. It might be good; it might not. But that all depends on your talent, doesn’t it? That’s what filmmaking really is. It’s the artistic expression of whoever is shooting the film, or whoever is directing the shooting of the film.

The next great film?

The next great film?

This seems pretty obvious when you think about it, but again, at first blush, it’s not what most of us commonly think. We’ve been conditioned by awards shows and by comparisons of film to other mediums, whether it’s novels, comic books, or television, to believe that a film must have a strong plot, good dialogue and exceptional performances, even though many of them do not.

How many times have you heard someone say that “the movie wasn’t good as the book it was based off of”? The problem with that claim is that the person judging the film is expecting it to deliver the same kind of experience as a book, and by its very nature of not being a book, it “literally” cannot do that. Ultimately, it’s an unfair comparison, in the same way that you can’t capture a car chase or a fight scene on the page of a novel in quite the same way as you can on film.

But let’s back up again for a moment and examine what a film really is; what are its origins?

A film is a magic trick, and I mean that in both the figurative and literal sense. The very first films were created by actual magicians like Georges Melies to create visual illusions to screen before awed audiences. Women disappearing in the blink of an eye, objects changing shape and size, impossible voyages to the moon. Melies used time lapse photography, multiple exposures and editing techniques to achieve moving images that would not be possible in the real world, and to the people of the time, it was the same thing as sawing a woman in half on a stage or making a dove appear out of a handkerchief.

Melies' A Trip to the Moon.

Melies’ A Trip to the Moon.

Even the idea of a “moving image” on film is a magic trick. We are merely seeing still photography sped up to a certain rate (usually 24 frames per second), causing the illusion of movement and continuity.

Film is about deception and manipulation. It’s about imitating reality but then bending it to the filmmaker’s whim. And so every time someone laments the use of CGI or special effects in a film, or claims that it gets in the way of story and acting, they’re essentially saying that they don’t understand film.

Film has always been a special effect; the technology might have changed, but the intent is the same.

Meanwhile, scripts and acting are relatively new additions in the world of filmmaking. When we look at Melies’ work, we don’t admire the great performances or the brilliant plot; we appreciate the skill with which the filmmaker pushed the boundaries of his medium forward by experimenting with new processes and special effects. In the same way that we might admire Hemingway’s spare, staccato prose or Faulkner’s manipulation of time and space or Kerouac’s stream of consciousness narration as being important literary experiments that opened the doors for other writers to continue pushing the boundaries of the art form, so must we realize that in filmmaking, it’s the manipulation of the audience through the constructed reality of sight and sound that is of paramount importance.

Fans of experimental, avant-garde or New Wave filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov,  Andy Warhol, or Godfrey Reggio already know this to be true. These filmmakers took our daily lives, our regular landscapes, our tedious realities and manipulated those repetitive images and sounds into something different. A car driving on an interstate all of a sudden has meaning in the hands of a filmmaker. A bird flying off a tree is suddenly something profound and emotional. Time-lapsed imagery of buildings or canyons begin to meld into one another. There is no acting, no writing, no narrative story, no dialogue of any consequence, and yet this is undoubtedly a film, a movie.

A still from Reggio's film, Koyaanisqatsi.

A still from Reggio’s film, Koyaanisqatsi.

In the same way that a great painter can lend significance to something otherwise meaningless merely with a canvas, a collection of paints and his practiced brushstrokes, a filmmaker’s talent for visualizing captivating images, the way that he or she moves the camera, and the choices made in editing that footage together is where the true art lies.

But those of us conditioned and raised on Hollywood blockbusters or narrative-driven movies expect characters we can empathize with and stories that will keep our attention. When many of us think of watching a movie, it’s because we want to see George Clooney or Leonardo DiCaprio and because the plot is intriguing to us in some way. Surely, you’ll argue, it’s not fair to hold a narrative film to the loose boundaries of an experimental film.

However, what we are unaware of, as we either respond positively or negatively to the movies that we view, is the extent to which the cinematography, the editing, the soundtrack and the movement and angling of the camera manipulate our appreciation or our distaste for a film more than anything that was written on a script page or spoken by an actor.

Consider for a moment what “acting” amounts to in a feature film: a medley of different takes, careful edits, stunt men and women, digital replacements, and voiceover actors replacing a main actor’s vocal performance. The director and editor are as responsible for the perceived acting ability of a particular actor or actress in a film as much as the man or woman being filmed. It’s not to say that actors don’t bring anything to the roles they inhabit, because they absolutely do, but ultimately, an acting performance is as much an illusion or special effect as an exploding planet captured on film.

The great illusion of movies is that we don’t think of these things. An effective edit between two sequences of film, possibly shot on different days in different locations with different people, might as well be invisible. If in one shot we see two people standing at a bus stop and in the next shot, we change angles to show their feet as a bus pulls into the frame, splashing water onto their shoes, we have associated two things that may, in real life, having nothing to do with one another. The shot of the two people standing on the bus stop might have been shot in Tokyo with well-paid actors, while the close-up shot of the water splashing on their shoes was done on a soundstage with underpaid stand-ins wearing the now-drenched shoes.



Narrative and experimental films are brothers, not distant relatives. They both rely on visual storytelling, on manipulating emotion with edits, camera angles, and soundtrack, and while a narrative film may differentiate itself from an experimental film by adding atop that mutual foundation a script and performance, these additions exist for the benefit of the film, not the other way around.

A plot is merely an excuse to make a film. Otherwise, why not write a book? An acting performance is in service to the director’s greater vision of manipulating image and sound to create emotion. Otherwise, why not perform a play?

Let’s talk a little bit about a filmmaker who personifies the divide between experimental and narrative quite brilliantly. Like Melies and countless others before him, Alfred Hitchcock continued to push the boundaries of filmmaking even as he experimented in the mainstream world of Hollywood blockbusters. Every film he directed introduced new ways of evoking emotion and manipulating the viewer–usually with the aim of inciting suspense, horror, and shock.


The Master of Suspense.

There’s a reason that Psycho is considered to be one of the best films ever made and that nobody can name the author of the book it is based off of. The reason is that Psycho makes a pretty lousy book: the protagonist dies a third of the way through the story, after all. Think of the famous shower stabbing sequence and then imagine that as a piece of writing. It’s not that you couldn’t achieve some of the same effects by writing about someone getting stabbed in the shower, but moving images will always be more evocative and more powerful than the written word when trying to convey something that is by its very nature both visual and visceral. Similarly, a sword fight is torture to read on the page, a car chase akin to reading about traffic. A smart filmmaker is always looking to take some extraordinary action in life and then capture it, form it, choreograph it and manipulate it into something that would be impossible to experience in real life. The way that Hitchcock used the language of film to edit together the stabbing broke the conventional filmmaking rules of the day and pushed the boundaries of film forward.

Psycho is but one example. Hitchcock used the opportunity presented by a story to create evocative and powerful moving images, whether it was the glowing glass of milk in Suspicion, the voyeuristic POV shots in Rear Window, the moody, dreamlike cinematography of Vertigo, or the crop duster chase sequence in North by Northwest. Even in Rope, where Hitchcock challenged himself to film a play by setting the entire movie within one apartment and never cutting away, Hitchcock used the movement of the camera to achieve an effect that is unique to cinema (although it is still considered to be one of Hitchcock’s lesser works, and not because of the performances or the script).

In one of Hitchcock’s most mainstream films, To Catch A Thief, the plot is clearly an excuse to make a film. Things that should be of major importance to a narrative story–the resolution of a protagonist being captured by the police, the set-up to an ambush and attempted attack on the narrator, and the capture of the criminal behind the whole set-up–occur largely off-screen. The film uses a familiar Hitchcock trope–that of the wrongly accused man–to set up opportunities for car chases, creeping around in the dark, and conflict between the two film stars, Cary Grant and Grace Kelly, whose romantic scenes eclipse the plot, complete with cutaways to exploding fireworks.

To be clear, I’m not arguing there wasn’t good writing or performances in Hitchcock’s films. To Catch A Thief, as but one example, has dialogue as sharp as a stiletto, and when as a filmmaker you’ve got access to Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Anthony Perkins and countless others, you’re going to get performances that are above and beyond the norm. But these actors starred in many roles over time and all sorts of great scripts made their way into films during the Hollywood years. What distinguishes Hitchcock from his peers was his style, his eye, his filmmaking ability to make you squirm, to build up the suspense to a boiling point and then to release it with a moment of absurdity and laughs. Great films certainly don’t suffer under good scripts or great acting, but they don’t require them either.


Travis Bickle, the inscrutable protagonist.

As a more modern example, let’s look at Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver. Moody, disturbing, evocative of decay and urban blight, of melancholy and that twilight sensation of being neither alive nor dead. But what kind of a story is it? Travis is an inscrutable central protagonist with no obvious goal, no central conflict that must get resolved. He is a character who does things that we as an audience don’t even entirely understand or empathize with. For most of the film, he is aimless and erratic. The end of the film explodes with violence, and while it has been foreshadowed with the purchase of the guns and the scenes with the prostitute, we are not privy to his internal thoughts; we don’t necessarily understand why he chooses to attack. But it doesn’t really matter, because Taxi Driver isn’t words on a page; a script is a blueprint, not the finished product, and the finished product is mesmerizing and hallucinatory, more like a dream than a coherent, logical narrative.

Let’s take another example: does anyone out there think that the most important thing about the original 1977 Star Wars film is the acting performances of its main cast, or the archetypal plot? No, of course not. But Star Wars is an amazing film, not a great novel or play. You can’t write about a massive Star Destroyer swooping over your head firing on a fleeing ship and get the same sense of awe and wonder as you do in the opening sequence of that film. You can’t communicate the exotic and beautiful image of a lightsaber with its hum and hiss as it sparks and clashes against an opponent’s blade with mere words. You can’t replicate John Williams stirring, bombastic score with an actor monologuing. Star Wars, as all good films should be, is more than a plot and some dialogue, performances and costuming; it’s an experience.

Similarly, what movie of 2013 can legitimately stack up to Gravity based purely as a filmgoing experience? Try to explain the plot of Gravity to someone and realize that you’re at a loss. Try to discuss character and motivation and realize that you’re missing the point. Who among us after watching that film in 3-D in an IMAX theater has thought to ourselves it would have made a better book or play?

Words can't do this justice.

Words can’t do this justice.

I could go on and on. David Lynch is a brilliant filmmaker, but surely it’s the transcendent imagery of his work, the creepy long pauses, the played out, haunting effect of his directing that is the highlight over concerns of story and character. Jean-Luc Godard makes films that are bat-shit insane about traffic jams and often chooses to cut away from his actors to intentionally sabotage the audience’s ability to empathize with them. Hell, even Michael Bay, who should have no business being in the same paragraph as these other two filmmakers, with his incomprehensible editing of CGI explosions and mayhem, destruction porn and chaos in the Transformers films shares a sensibility with those early magicians of filmmaking, whose interest was in shock and awe, emotion and spectacle, not contemplative and serious-minded performances of perfectly written scripts. I can just about guarantee you that if Georges Melies was alive today, he’d be first in line for the next Transformers movie, if he wasn’t already filming it himself.

It’s really the movies of two people sitting in a kitchen talking forever and ever that have no right calling themselves films. They are recorded plays at best.

As much as I love Dashiell Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon as a novel, a recent revisiting of the 1941 film adaptation, which couldn’t be any more faithful to the source material than if they had just filmed the actual pages of the book and projected them on a screen for audiences to read, demonstrates the fundamental problem of forcing one medium into another. The performances, from Humphrey Bogart’s wise-ass, no nonsense gumshoe to the slithery Peter Lorre and the effusively theatrical Sydney Greenstreet, are tremendous; the cuts are invisible; the lighting is effective; the dialogue is crisp and cutting. It’s almost exactly as you’d imagine it if you read the book, and that’s kind of the problem. A film should be surprising, it should be different, it should show you things you wouldn’t normally visualize. As technically good as John Huston’s adaptation is, it’s too neat to be a film; it might as well be a TV show, a radio production, or a play–it would have been a hell of a play, especially with that cast.


Bogart was the best, but did this *need* to be a film?

On the other hand, look at the work of Stanley Kubrick, who had a habit of adapting literary works and making legitimate films out of them. Author Stephen King hates Kubrick’s The Shining, and the reason is because it stops being King’s work and it starts being Kubrick’s. A great filmmaker doesn’t just transfer one medium to another; he or she transforms that original work into something different, something that stands alone on the screen, that actually makes you forget that the original work even exists, whether it’s that film or Clarke’s 2001 or Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. As great a novel as A Clockwork Orange is, it can’t make you react the same as Malcolm McDowell belting out “Singing in the Rain” in the middle of a gang rape on a set with giant colorful, phallic sculptures.

If you want great dialogue, labyrinthine plots and clever turns of phrase, you would be better served picking up a novel. If you want to witness great performances, watch a play. And I don’t mean that facetiously. Seriously, please do pick up a novel or make an effort to go watch a play; don’t force film to be your only exposure to art, because even it can’t do everything perfectly.

A film can’t get me inside a character’s head or manipulate words the way a great novel can. A film can’t seamlessly awe me with acting, because there’s too much else going on, whereas in a play, my attention is entirely focused on actors who can honestly and completely inhabit another persona. These other mediums exist not because they were lesser forms of art just waiting around for something better to come along and replace them. They exist because they offer different experiences. We do both them and film a disservice when we lament that our movies don’t have good enough acting or strong enough writing. Let’s appreciate each of these mediums for their individual strengths and digest material that is ideally suited to those particular mediums.

By all means, let’s talk about storytelling and performance when we discuss films, but let’s also consider the contributions of other vital contributors, from the art department to the very talented men and women in charge of cinematography, score, set design, lighting, editing, and of course, the director, whose unique vision is ultimately the artistic product that we’re consuming.

A film has so much going on beyond performance, plot, and dialogue, and when we remember this, we can better appreciate this unique art form for what it has brought us and look forward less cynically to where it’s capable of taking us next.

4 thoughts on “Keeping it Reel

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