I don’t remember where I came across the question ‘Can we learn from film’? From time to time I think about this question. There are thousands of films. Each tells a story, often a scripted one. The stories are inhabited by fictional characters following the script. Many films are adaptions based on already existing stories or storylines. I would include television series in these reflections here as well, as they can be seen as long films cut into digestible pieces.
‘Can we learn from film’ hardly leads to a straightforward answer. Robert Ebert saw many films. His comments were often on point. How to talk about film like he did? He was a proper film nerd, personal and analytical in his judgements.
Films involve large crews. Hundreds or thousands of people work on a single film, busy with the task like ants building a colony. Money is part of film, how else to pay the crew, material, expenses? There are independent films of course, with smaller budgets and possibly more spirit. Expensive films are risky financially, therefore they often fall back on proven narrative formulas in order to function as a profitbale investment.
An artist friend once said ‘films are stupid’. I understand what he meant. In a way, films totally are stupid. Except when they’re not.
Sitting through a two hour movie demands attention and time. The internet offers many distractions, spending time with youtube videos or on social media platforms can feel like being sucked into a dark vortex for a couple of hours. By the way, ‘social media’ is a strange term. What just happened inside this vortex? Not sure. Internet, as film, can be just stupid. It most often is, actually. Slowly cutting vegetables can be a time better spent. You might be absorbed by the cutting, but there you will see what you will eat later on. You’ll see the matter to be digested. You spend time with pre-digestion, so to speak. Anyway, tv series are well suited for life in a city. You can follow characters over time. You somehow share or witness their trajectories. You develop feelings for them or start to feel ambiguous about them. Ambiguity means strength in recent tv productions. You walk along the episodes of a tv series, there is a movement to it, a longing as well. Wheareas films can have this 20th century vibe of having to squeeze a story into a two hour time frame and ask people to sit through it.
Some films are good. Even the good ones seem to have some flaws. But the individual flaws don’t alter the overall impression. One can like a film for particular reasons. A character or scene, the dialogues, the framing, the story arc. It’s hard to say or pin down. The reception of a film often remains vague, like ‘this film was pretty good’. Being a film critic must be a difficult, even frustrating job. Because films are stupid, somehow. You write a review that should render justice to a complex economic and human endeavour. You attribute some stars to the film. Then you see how, after a few years, a film can reveal itself in another light. Maybe aspects of it have been overlooked or misjudged. Maybe that silly scene did have some hidden, political undertones. Maybe that weird character did reflect on traits of that age through its gestures, its speech pattern.
Films are difficult to judge. Failed or underperforming films might turn into jewels, cult films, lying dormant for a few years. The quite many references, ideas, discussions that went into a single film can delay any sensical reception which has to unfold over time. Like a tree demanding space above and below the ground.
Some films or scenes or fictional characters plant deep roots into the wider cultural memory. They become more than ‘just a film’. They become windows into other worlds and propose ways of functioning, acting or being in the world. These stories, combined with the visual, are powerful, you want to enter them repeatedly; return as a witness again and again. The many casual, interpersonal, unrecorded discussions help to form a wider idea of what a film’s shifting position might be in the wider realm of cultural artefacts. As a fluid device, it can, potentially, sink deeper into this landscape, constantly navigating to find its relative place in the wider cultural psychosphere. From there it can radiate back to stories in development, engage a dialogue among stories and solidify cultural image traits. To give an explicit example, the Simpsons and South Park are brilliant in how they manage to weave and integrate current or recent cultural elements into their stories. The audience recognises these elements, enjoys the ride of listening to these elements re-emerging, re-vibrating. There is a sense of knowing attached to this experience. A sense of delayed, curated immediacy. The reception itself treated, folded, presented warped. You look at something that happened and everybody talked about, knowing that you will talk about it again. A textual incredibly rich, cultural feedback loop. The way these series treat references is top film criticism. And almost every film or series commit to weaving other stories and images into their own. What I mean is that films and tv series nowadays, when they shine, are not just stupid plain storytelling anymore, but textured, orchestrated, designed artefacts that do tell stories, but not just one, but many simultaneously with delayed impact models. What David Joselit mentioned in his essay ‘Painting beside itself’ also applies to current film and tv production. The audience wants to be engaged in a multilevel experience that overwrites the simple film/audience dichotomy, and be addressed as a subject in movement. This is, again, why tv format corresponds better to the time now. The story moves forward, there is a push, a navigational sense towards new plot points and multiple mini-conclusions. The visual and narrative material is rich to say the least, the design, clothing and location incredibly charged and composed. This is, essentially, painting 3D in its highest incarnation.
Then the stories themselves are often brilliantly written. Nowadays tv/films are watched for the writing, created by auteurs like David Simon, Nic Pizzolatto, Vince Gilligan, Jane Champion. They write scenes and characters so powerful they insribe themselves into the flesh of the viewer. You feel eluded, violated, touched, made pensive. Film is a pretty visual, visceral place. Stupid and great.