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Crisis in Criticism

As some loyal readers may have noticed, I recently embarked on a facelift of my site that would make it easier for readers to find older essays (courtesy a fancy image slider) and would give the whole reading experience a cleaner appearance, including larger (hi-def) illustrations. In the posts to come, I plan to also include video analyses where applicable. All of this, I might add, is being done as I continue my work as the Provost Postdoctoral Scholar in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where I’m prepping a manuscript based on my dissertation on sound technology, practice, and labor in the Los Angeles-based film industry.

One of my core arguments in that work, and one that continues to define my relationship with cinema and media studies, is that there is very little value in over-estimating the perceived effects of technological change, stylistic innovation, and other paradigm shifts in the process of filmmaking.

At the moment, the industry’s transition to digital production and exhibition continues to stir debate among high-level filmmakers and critics. Most recently, David Denby spilled some digital ink on what he called the “conglomerate aesthetics” of digital Hollywood. In his lengthy piece for The New Republic, Denby — who is a film reviewer for The New Yorker — blamed the industry’s current business model for diluting the “language of film,” that is film style, and stripping narratives of depth, drama, a sense of pace and space, and, most of all, character. Denby suggests that movies don’t breathe anymore; they are engineered to move at a hurried clip with little or no regard for character development. At the same time, he lauds this form of “neo-primitivism” as a key ingredient of modernism — the stripping away of excess in form and narration. It’s also the hallmark of what some have called the post-classical. He cites Paul Greengrass’s two installments in the Bourne series — Supremacy (2004) and Ultimatum (2007) — as bold embodiments of a post-classical filmmaking style that is as much about the story of Jason Bourne as it is the fight-or-flight experience of the protagonist in dizzying car chases, foot chases, and fist fights shot with hand-held close-ups and edited at breakneck speed.

Denby’s article appeared just after I had seen Side by Side, a new documentary co-produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves on the industry’s inevitable transition from celluloid to digital video. Reeves enlists the help of cinematographers (Anthony Dod Mantle, Vilmos Zsigmond, Michael Chapman), editors (Anne Coates, Walter Murch), visual effects supervisors (Dennis Muren), producers (Tom Rothman), and directors (David Fincher, George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, and others) to reflect on the ongoing history of digital imaging in American cinema. Smartly, the film offers little in the way of bias toward either film or video. Instead, Reeves lets his interview subjects vent their hopes, frustrations, and fears about the aesthetic and technical differences between the two mediums. In some cases, the arguments have been heard before. James Cameron and George Lucas take great pains to educate Reeves and the audience on the distinct advantages of digital filmmaking. Noted skeptic Christopher Nolan and his dp, Wally Pfister, are less kind to 3-D and video’s pixel inferiority to 35mm and 70mm film. Others, including David Lynch and Steven Soderbergh, admit they’ve been having an affair with video and may be ready to ditch film permanently for their digital mistress, mainly for economic reasons. David Fincher is less interested in debating the technical veracity of either medium, and rather than feeling nostalgic for celluloid, chooses a path of least resistance by asking video manufacturers such as RED to push themselves to make a better camera, a better sensor, a better system that not only mimics the fine-grained textures of film, but also offers a range of new possibilities to filmmakers such as low-light shooting.

An air of inevitability is most evident in the way most of the film’s interview participants react to the encroaching dominance of digital production (shooting and editing) and exhibition. As Reeves takes his audience through the technological evolution of video production — from Dogme 95 filmmakers shooting on a Sony PC7e camera to Soderbergh shooting Haywire on the RED ONE camera — it’s hard not to be swayed by the admittedly deterministic argument that technical advances in image resolution have reached a point where 35mm images and 1080p hi-def images are virtually indistinguishable. When comparing scenes from The Celebration and Chuck and Buck, both shot with Sony handycams, to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, shot on the RED EPIC, the resolution differences are, well, epic. What Reeves reveals, however, is that the technical history of professional video cameras and formats is marked by its nostalgic, even obsessive, relationship to 35mm. When, in the mid 2000s, Panavision decided to market a digital version of its camera systems, one was designed to look and feel like a film camera. The Genesis featured a solid-state drive mounted to the top of the camera that resembled a film magazine perched on top of (or slightly behind) the camera body. Early versions of the Genesis did not feature immediate video playback, which signaled a further resemblance to 35mm. That processing of any kind — “digital dailies” — was required irked Fincher, who instead chose the Thomson VIPER to shoot his first digital feature, Zodiac, in 2007.

The backwards engineering ethos that inspired Panavision to make the Genesis more like a 35mm camera than a video camera speaks to the reticent, if not entirely hostile, attitudes of high-level dp’s and directors who hold the belief — rightly or wrongly — that video is still an inferior medium. It would seem that the nostalgia for 35mm goes beyond discussions of “grain,” but also involve the look and functionality of hardware, too. I remember the same concept being replayed by record labels in the late 1990s with re-issues of “classic” and noteworthy albums using original LP art and, in the case of Deutsche Grammophon’s “Originals” series, the image of a grooved LP on the surface of the actual CD. The digital-ness of the CD was essentially hidden under an image of its analogue counterpart. In the case of Panavision and the early Genesis systems, they were essentially hiding an inferior sensor beneath a familiar 35mm façade. Side by Side suggests rather convincingly that when Jim Jannard founded RED and created the RED ONE camera system in early 2007, he produced a product that owed very little to its analogue past, except perhaps that it had a lens. It didn’t look like a 35mm camera, nor was it designed to be one. It was lighter, more compact, and with later models it became even smaller. This intrigued filmmakers like Fincher and Soderbergh for the myriad creative possibilities that digital camera systems could yield filmmakers — longer takes, low-light shooting, greater image manipulation in post-production, not to mention the overriding economic incentive: solid state drives are a heck of a lot cheaper than 35mm stock. In fact, the doc stressed the clarity and film-like texture of this shot from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it played in the doc. The shot is even more interesting because of the digital trick it employs to stabilize the image by utilizing a shifting aspect ratio (or, frame within a frame) that adjusts to the movement of the mobile camera rig, thereby producing an eerily static tracking shot.

These sorts of aesthetic choices are not the film’s primary interest, but they do raise a series of questions about the stylistic contours of digital cinema and its relationship to 35mm. This swings back to David Denby’s article, which doesn’t mention the ongoing history of digital cinema, except to suggest that “digital is still in its infancy.” It’s not exactly clear what aspect of digital filmmaking is still in its infancy, but there is a strong sense that Denby ties together “conglomerate aesthetics” with stylistic techniques that are most associated with innovations in computer-based picture/sound editing and computer generated imagery. In his view, the language of high-budgeted movies began to disintegrate in the 1980s and reached a zenith of sorts around the millenium when, as he puts it, action sequences in Gladiator destroyed “something staged clearly and realistically in open space…by sheer fakery and digital ‘magic’ — a constant chopping of movement into tiny pieces that are then assembled by computer editing into exploding packages.”

Indeed, Denby is making the case that corporate ideologies that govern modern studio practices are intimately tied to screenwriting techniques, narrative formulas, and filmmaking practices such as editing and digital effects “magic.” Quoting Denby at length, the handshake between studio policy and filmmaking technique is expressed thusly:

Constant and incoherent movement; rushed editing strategies; feeble characterization; pastiche and hapless collage—these are the elements of conglomerate aesthetics. There is something more than lousy film-making in such a collection of attention-getting swindles. Again and again I have the sense that film-makers are purposely trying to distance the audience from the material—to prevent moviegoers from feeling anything but sensory excitement, to thwart any kind of significance in the movie.

Denby may have a point. Studio ideology is indeed governed by the idea of investing one dollar in a project with the primary goal of making two. As recently as a few days ago, Warner Bros. severed ties with longtime producing partner Joel Silver — The Matrix, Sherlock Holmes — in an attempt to curb spending on cushy, long term deals with producers. In exchange for a modest severance package ($30 million for the rights to roughly 30 features), Silver lost his offices on the Burbank lot and his financing with the studio. Silver will be fine, though, as he already has a multi-year producing deal set up with Universal. But the fact remains that studios are tightening their wallets and when they do open them up, they choose to invest in reasonably safe properties — sequels, adaptations of successful novels or comics, and to a lesser extent auteur projects.

However, Denby incorrectly shifts the blame for conglomerate aesthetics to filmmakers — writers, directors, editors, and likely everyone else in the production chain. They are blamed for not holding shots long enough, for sacrificing character depth in favor of cheap thrills, and for hollowing out emotionally charged scenes with visual effects. He uses an example from Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor to illustrate his point, and hints that “people who know how these movies are made” told him the limits of digital filmmaking are to blame. Whether filmmakers are guided and ultimately constrained by studio ideology, or have become slaves to their digital toolboxes, Denby dismisses the creative and professional attitudes of practitioners in the production chain by assuming that film crews maintain a single, unified goal. In academic parlance, “agency” is a particularly fashionable term that emphasizes our own activity within society, and speaks to a person’s ability to assert themselves within a social world. In film and media studies, in particular, it’s not uncommon for historians and critics to routinely overlook the agency of creative professionals who are not the writer or director or producer of a work; that is to say, the names on the marquee that often drive discussions of authorship. These three above-the-line roles work alongside dozens of other artisans, craftspeople, and practitioners who are equally engaged on a creative and economic level with the artistic demands of a film. Not everyone in the production chain has sipped the kool aid that makes movies bad.

Given the general authority of either a writer, producer, or director on a film production, it’s often true that most editors, cinematographers, composers, costumers, mixers, and production designers defer some creative agency to these above-the-line principals. As a collaborative art, most filmmakers defer their own creative agency at some point or another during a shoot. But each practitioner brings to their work a creative perspective that is based on their own professional history, training, and creative taste. Of all of these factors, taste is perhaps the most difficult to define, since it’s both highly personal and ephemeral. Taste is often about feeling and responding to a scene, line of dialogue, or shot with a certain emotional intensity. Most editors and mixers I’ve spoken to admit that they often get hired because of their taste. Left alone to make editorial decisions, these professionals rely on their creative agency to solve the day’s problem or make sense out of senseless footage.

When Denby talks about how studio conglomerates have made the choice to construct films in shallow terms, he acknowledges that filmmaking is about choices. Studio figureheads, however, are not responsible for all choices. Instead, most creative choices are often positioned, executed, and derived by below-the-line professionals who must bear the brunt of technological change, economic re-structuring, and the aesthetic curiosities of auteur directors. These professionals are constantly engaged with the material they are tasked to edit, mix, sketch, sew, and compose. It’s easy to make generalizations about the speed, look, and tone of movies without some pointed analysis of any of the crafts I’ve mentioned that are responsible for those textures. Jim Emerson wrote a widely praised piece on how the Lower Wacker car chase in The Dark Knight doesn’t hold up to the scrutiny of continuity editing principles. It’s a valuable piece of criticism because he takes the time to investigate the work of an editor, and while I don’t necessarily agree with Emerson’s conclusions, his analysis reaches beyond the pale of most criticism to examine why (and how) the movie works on a functional level.

One of the biggest discoveries I’ve made in my work is that most creative decisions made by filmmakers are shaped by the visceral notion known as feeling. Feeling guides late night editorial decisions, groggy early morning decisions, and nearly everything else in between. Filmmakers — and I use that term in its widest possible sense — look at a scene and if something feels right, then they make the cut…or cut the cloth…or add the musical notes. It’s difficult to quantify feeling, or attribute finite rules to it. Feeling can best be described as a way of organizing ideas and executing those decisions based on an individual logic. Feeling is also directly tied to taste and the way a filmmaker goes about making creative decisions.

When I was writing my dissertation, I asked a re-recording mixer how she makes sense of her work, which involves taking a massive amount of sound materials (tracks of dialog, music, and effects) and organizing them into a cohesive whole. She turned the table on me and asked how I’m making sense of my dissertation project. Am I making decisions to cut things? Am I choosing to start a chapter with a particular sentence? Am I linking certain chapters with similar ideas? It was a very smart way of answering my question because she knew that we both organize material, make editorial cuts, and try to create a work that flows from chapter/scene to another.

We can certainly disagree on the choices that are made, but to dismiss the system that governs those choices ultimately reduces the professional agency of filmmakers who work on high-budgeted, blockbuster features. That kind of rejection assumes that we fully understand the logic of practice that drives filmmaking decisions. It also assumes that most choices are made in a top-down fashion by studio trolls.

The interesting thing about “conglomerate aesthetics” and its top-down schema is that it bears a passing resemblance to Justin Wyatt’s “high concept.” According to Wyatt, a high concept film is one whose plot can be explained in twenty-five words or less, and features an array of tie-ins from the corporate parents that invested, distributed, and marketed the film. The “high concept” film came of age in the 1980s with hallmarks like Top Gun and Flashdance and their pulsating pop-synth soundtracks (also available on LP and cassette!), slick music-video-inspired visuals, easy-to-follow plots, and charismatic leads. Wyatt’s theory hinged on the idea that high-budget, corporately synergized movies were slowly eroding the fabric of classical hollywood narration in favor of something far more disjointed:

The modularity of the films’ units, added to the one-dimensional quality of the characters, distances the viewer from the traditional task of reading the film’s narrative. In place of this identification with narrative, the viewer becomes sewn into the ‘surface’ of the film, contemplating the style of the narrative and the production. The excess created through such channels as the production design, stars, music, and promotional apparatus enhances this appreciation of the films’ surface qualities.

The debate continues whether we have forsaken classical narrative — causality, goals, deadlines, emotional investment — in favor of something more modular in the words of Wyatt or nihilistic in the words of Denby. One way of testing this crisis hypothesis is to reflect on the films of the past that received this kind of criticism. One problem with Denby’s analysis is that he, like many other highly articulate film scholars, has a bad memory.

To create some distance from today’s films, Denby talks glowingly about a previous generation of individuals who invigorated the system with new ideas: “Stanley Kubrick’s cold, discordant tableaux; the savagery, both humane and inhumane, of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah; the crowded operatic realism of Coppola in the first two Godfather movies; the layered, richly allusive dialogue and sour-mash melancholy of Robert Altman; Steven Spielberg’s visually eccentric manipulation of pop archetypes…” Many of these innovations in commercial filmmaking were originally considered regressions, gaudy, sad imitations, reactionary, and just plain wacky at the time of their releases. Speaking of Spielberg, Raiders of the Lost Ark is now considered the benchmark of good action filmmaking, yet here is Pauline Kael’s review from 1981:

These marketing divisions are a relatively new development… Their growing power isn’t in any special effectiveness in selling pictures; it’s in their ability to keep pictures that don’t lend themselves to an eye-popping thirty-second commercial from being made or, if they’re made, from being heard of. In the new Hollywood wisdom, anything to do with people’s lives belongs on TV… it appears that Lucas and Spielberg think just like the marketing division.

But Spielberg’s technique may be too much for the genre: the opening sequence, set in South America, with Indy Jones entering a forbidden temple and fending off traps, snares, poisoned darts, tarantulas, stone doors with metal teeth, and the biggest damn boulder you’ve ever seen, is so thrill-packed you don’t have time to breathe—or to enjoy yourself much, either.

Not enough room to breathe. Too busy. Too much to take in. Ironically, I’ve used the film’s truck chase to show undergraduate film students how spatial geography isn’t sacrificed for speed and “energy.” It’s an example of Spielberg’s “cutting for clarity” method, which I talk about here. It’s all about causality, deadlines, and character goals. It’s all about the story arc (and the ark, as well). In Wyatt’s case, Top Gun is mostly remembered for its pop-icon characters (Iceman, Maverick, and Goose) and slick visuals, not its relationship to corporate synergy or Kenny Loggins. Well, maybe Kenny Loggins.

When Tony Scott passed away earlier this summer, there was a deluge of critical praise about his work. For critics like Wyatt, Scott was the poster filmmaker for out-of-control, over-the-top, and nutrition-deprived aesthetics. These assessments were recently walked back by a number of critics in favor of more positive notices. He is still the poster filmmaker for whiplash style, but now it’s a compliment.

My point is that with some critical distance, the perceived crisis in American movies is greatly exaggerated. The transition to digital shooting and delivery, as articulated in Side by Side, carries a similar message about seeing the forest for the trees. When you consider the opinions of the interview subjects, digital filmmaking is a crisis in form, not function. Filmmakers will find ways to adapt their methods to new cameras, as they did during the conversions to synchronized sound, color photography, and widescreen processes. When Denby writes about the meaninglessness of digital environments, he’s responding to something with the same discomfort that Kael felt when watching Raiders for the first time. Now, Spielberg is lauded not derided by the likes of Denby for his “eccentric manipulation” of pop culture imagery. Again, it comes back to the idea of how taste and feeling shape the creative decisions that filmmakers make all day, everyday. We can all disagree on an individual choice, but it’s a mistake to make a broad attack on the entire system because of those choices.

Somehow after the transition to sync sound and color, movies weren’t murdered by such technical innovations. Movies are always in crisis because critics — myself included — spend far too much time trying to fit them into neatly categorized piles of art and junk. Sometimes some art ends up in the junk pile and we spend the rest of our careers trying to atone for our mistakes.