There is an interesting debate brewing in my mind after a visit to two little corners of the blogosphere. Should a movie's substantive value be deemed nonexistent simply because style takes precedence in that particular film? Or does the artifice sometimes disguise the substance beneath the style, and perhaps entertainment value also? Admittedly, this is not a new debate. Formalists and realists have been arguing this for a while in some form or another. The germ of this began at Jeremy Richey's Moon in the Gutter where people are arguing about the value of the film Sin City (2005) under a post he entitled Images From The Greatest Films of the Decade: Sin City (A Film Directed by Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller) . After I complimented Jeremy on his selection of Sin City as one of the films he honored with his beautiful frame captures, Samuel Wilson commented:
I respectfully disagree. The exact faithfulness of Rodriguez' [sic] adaptation is the movie's great flaw. Comic book dialogue works according to a different narrative logic from movie dialogue. Transcribing Miller's dialogue directly on film ended up sounding stilted to me. I admit also that I liked the Sin City comics initially, but grew tired of Miller's obsessions by the end of the third series -- which does leave possibly the best story, "A Dame to Kill For," to be adapted in a second movie. I can admire the movie visually (those are nice captures) and I suppose it can be appreciated as a formal experiment...This elicited a comment from J.D.:
Well, the stilted sounding dialogue seemed, to me at least, to be kinda the point, drawing attention to the artificiality of the whole thing - this is, after all, a hyper-stylized world right out of a Mickey Spillane novel. I think that some actors did a better job with the dialogue than others. Clive Owen and Mickey Rourke, for example, fared very well, while Michael Madsen, not so much, but I think that it is more to do with the strengths and limitations of various actors in the cast.Put me squarely in J.D.'s camp, seeing as how I agree that Sin City is an ambitious attempt to pay simultaneous homage to both the film noir genre and the graphic novel medium. Some of the noir elements are diluted by the time the story reaches the screen, in part because this is a filmed adaptation of a medium that was already adapting a film genre. Post-modernism at its best, no? And J.D. makes a good point. However I feel about the film, he is correct in saying that some actors, Jessica Alba and Michael Madsen in particular, did not serve the material well under the constraints of the screenplay. But does the artifice of the film undermine its value? Film is an inherently artificial medium, and isn't anything put before the lens already influenced unnaturally by the very presence of the camera? So you can see why the argument that a film lacks substance or reality, holds little water with me.
It was with that frame of mind that I must have carried some of this debate over to another site I frequent, Ed Howard's Only the Cinema, where we discussed a better example. When Ed posted his 50 Best films of the 1980s, I was taken aback by the absence of a few films, but when I brought some of them up, amongst them, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Blade Runner (1982), Ed responded:
Tony, some of those I do like but don't consider list material (like Raiders, which is fun but hardly any great masterpiece)... and others I respect but don't have much personal love for them, like Blade Runner... an effects showcase...Blade Runner has always been and continues to be a flawed film, no doubt. But it did move the cinematic medium forward visually, and has proven to be highly influential. Besides that, it clearly falls into the larger context of film history as a new iteration of film noir (see an earlier post on Blade Runner) much like Sin City does. So it is working on more levels than an ordinary film. And, in my mind, Raiders is a tougher case to argue. As I said in response to Ed at his site:
Sure, it is a Hollywood blockbuster, but it is hardly a trifle in film history. It is a significant homage to an often neglected genre, the Saturday morning serial. It is near flawless in its execution as an action-adventure film. As a suspense thriller, though it may be forgotten after repeated viewings, it rivals the work of Hitchcock (especially in the how-did-he-film-that department). And it doesn't fall prey to the trite dialogue, or wooden characterizations routinely found even in the original Star Wars trilogy.Ed's response:
Tony, Raiders is undoubtedly a great action-adventure flick. To me, though, the Hitchcock comparison is more revelatory for the differences than the similarities. Hitch was a sublime craftsman with an unrivaled technical mastery, but this formal acumen was rarely used only in service to the suspense or the action. There is invariably something deeper, something of substance, going on in Hitch's best films, whether it's the depth of the characterization, the thematic and psychological subtexts, or, as in Psycho and North By Northwest, a certain playfulness with the formal conventions of genres. As good as Hitchcock was at entertaining, I think he was always conscious of making his films interesting beneath the surface as well. Raiders is all surface. I enjoy it, and I'm certainly not judging it negatively for its popularity, but there's just nothing there beyond a fun adventure. To the extent that the Indiana Jones films have any substance at all, it's in the form of a regressive Orientalism that shows through much more clearly in Temple of Doom but is present in the first film as well.Let's remember that before Cahiers du Cinema first crowned Hitchcock as an auteur he was often dismissed as a genre director in much the same way that Spielberg has been. Thematically, Spielberg has matured in a way that make his particular concerns much more evident in his recent films, concerns such as his fascination with World War II and Nazi Germany. This theme is treated in a much more adolescent way in his earlier films, 1941 (1979) and Raiders in particular, which were fed by his childhood "education" through movies. His exploration of the effect of the war, and more specifically the Nazis, on his father's generation matures during the course of his career so that by the time he directs Schindler's List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), he cannot trivialize Nazi Germany nor America's involvement in the war as he does in his earlier films. Seeing as he could not simply get from there to here without an evolution in his art, there is then a value to Raiders of the Lost Ark that deepens once its place in the broader context of Spielberg's filmography is examined, if only to serve as a contrast to his later films. The fact that the film seems to be "all surface", as Ed puts it, is not necessarily so because of the foundation it initially establishes in his progressively conscious thoughts on WWII. So I'd like to hear from my readers on this. Are entertaining films to be dismissed as lacking any substantive value, or might a viewer glean something deeper from them the same way one can in "pop art"? Tell me about some of the movies that you were surprised to find went deeper than you once might have thought. Or tell me why such movies should correctly be viewed as simplistic or superficial.