I recently re-watched James Cameron's 1986 film, Aliens, because it is one of my favorite action/sci-fi films and it's been so long since I've seen it. From beginning to end, I was under its spell, marvelling at the film's seemingly simple ability to stir my imagination and engage my senses. This feeling made me want to understand what it is about the film that compelled me feel as such, or any film for that matter. I often endure similar experiences watching other films, even though they may affect me differently emotionally or intellectually. It made me realize how hard it is to try to make sense of the experience of seeing a great film. But what is it a film like Aliens or any other that someone may regard as great that makes that viewer emote so strongly?
A genre film like Aliens is very interesting, especially in light of more recent films similar to it (e.g. Doom), which are for the most part unbearable. Is there really so much difference between a film like Aliens and a film like Doom As a critic, I think about these issues all the time, as all critics should, and I wondered how easy and tempting it is to pin it a simple solution by saying that the characters are better developed or the screenplay is better structured; things like that. These are common cliches that critics employ to distinguish a good film from a bad one. But I'm not sure it's so simple.
What is it that allows a film to resonate in your mind or hold any meaning? The cinema is indeed one of the most complicated forms of media because it combines so many other media and technologies together. The specific elements of a film, such as cinematography, mise en scene, editing, music, etc. all contribute to a narrative and are the result of conscious and unconscious choices made by filmmakers in committing moving images to a screen. From a viewer perspective, each spectator is obviously very different and brings different experiences, questions, and expectations to a film, whether it's an action vehicle like Aliens or avant garde cinema. Based on how viewers react to the images of a film, filmmakers have tailored images to what audiences respond to best, thus creating a system of familiarity so that a viewer can identify the pattern and make sense of it in the context of a narrative. Obviously, the narrative medium commonly employed by cinema has been influenced by other media which have built narratives such as fiction novels and theatre. So, by the time cinema came around, filmmakers and viewers applied many of the same pre-established narrative norms and values to their approach to cinema, thus making the medium of film itself an extension of previous media, which as Marshall McLuhan and Walter Ong have stated, all emerge from textuality, which itself emerged from literacy, which itself emerged from orality. In other words, all forms of media emerge from other media because media alter consciousness according to experience with a given medium.
The narrative has been manifested in different media in a variety of ways, but its evolution within cinema reflects a greater idea of visuality. To make a long story short, film is about seeing, and the relationship between the image and the viewer. The filmmaker must utilize other media and technologies to make a story and the many elements that make it up visible, so that the images on the screen occupy a space. But from the narrative tradition, cinema also must occupy a time, because without memory or sequential arrangement of time itself, there can be no narrative form. The narrative iself has existed for so long and through so many different cultures because it reflects human beings' need to communicate and to enable understanding. Therefore, the fascinating thing about cinema (apart from it representing the culmination of electronic, print, and oral media) is that in order for its images to make meaning, or make sense, they elements of cinema must occupy space and time. The technological tools for constructing, arranging, and presenting a film allow a filmmaker to present space and time in unique ways, but in recognizable ways. Because images are presented and made visible with a viewer in mind. The relationship a viewer holds with the image is spatial and temporal, and images can facilite that relationship in many ways.
At the birth of cinema, films borrowed heavily from previously storytelling media to communicate ideas and create meaning, but as I alluded to earlier, the evolution of the cinematic medium presents the critic or the viewer with a fascinating travelogue of how images are made, consumed, and intepreted. And, like any other medium, cinema has expanded with the viewer's capacity to comprehend moving images, making sense of stories visually.
Critics often look to content when discussing why a film is good or bad, but, what many fail to understand, to once again cite McLuhan, is that the medium is the message. The actual content of a film is irrelevant. the most perceptive of critics are aware that it's the medium itself that creates the message, rather than the idea that there are messages or content out there seeking an appropriate medium to be its host. How viewers make sense of moving images is more dependent on how they familiarize themselves with conventions of narrative, style, and genre, which are all patterns of categorization meant to allow for comprehensive consumption.
That is part of David Bordwell's broader argument of how filmmakers, critics, and viewers engage cinema; he deals with image consumption by looking at the institution of film criticism in "Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Intepretation of Cinema," and investigating stylistic tropes in American cinema in "The Way Hollywood Tells It." Bordwell's overall claim that the cognitive processes by which viewers associate images with ideas is how filmmakers, critics, and viewers ought to be approaching cinema. His thinking reflects an expanding capacity to understand cinema and a progressive approach to criticism. He advocates that critics be more analytical of the images themselves and how they are arranged within stylistic traditions and practices as well as presented on the screen and made visible for interpretation.
Christian Metz and others have theorized that due to the intricate nature of its signification system, cinema is indeed a language. However, I'm inclined to disagree fundamentally with this assumption while acknowledging its similarities. Images are produced and assembled for consumption much in the same way that the alphabet, words, sentences, paragraphs, chapters, articles, speeches, lectures and books are. However, while the same system of signification is often imposed upon film (and to an extent needs to be), the history of cinema has shown that visuality is capable of being totally beyond the realm of language. It will never be totally separate from the origins of speech and language, but the elements of images interact with each other and can function differently within cinema, yielding new images.
Which brings me back to originality. The idea of originality - in which something exists pristine, totally new, and independent of all other action, media, and behavior - is an idealistic notion that is more a reflection of the system of signification of which it is a part than an actual plausible force. It's nothing more than idea. There is no way for anything to actually meet the standard which its definition sets forth. Especially in media, it is totally impossible to create something "new" because that new thing is the result of old ways of thinking being approaches differently and progressively, and a consciousness that has been shaped by previous systems and media. So, in a sense, everything is an extension of something else, which relates back to the notion of cinema being a culmination of so many different forms of media. In order to construct images within a medium, you must first see images and become familiar with what they are, how they are seen and made. Is there a such thing as a totally original image, let alone totally original moving image? Of course not, because every image is assembled according to what its makers and viewers have already seen, consciously or unconsciously. This holds true of still images, definitely, but with moving images, it gets much more complicated.
Gilles Deleuze wrote (and I'm paraphrasing here) that there is a difference between good cinema and bad cinema (substitute original and unoriginal for good and bad). Good cinema, to Deleuze, re-assembles elements already familiar to makers and viewers and situates them differently, thus allowing them to interact differently than previous, which forges a new kind of image. Because a medium of moving images is so complex, there are innumerable components that contribute to the image and which make those images move and "mean" as Bordwell puts it. And an original/good film can consciously or unconsciously (maybe both) situate those elements that have yielded familiar patterns and sequential arrangements, and allow them to interact with each other differently, thus creating a new space and a new time. A good film does not merely regurgitate old images, but creates new ones based on prior knowledge of how images are made, positioned, and consumed. The content or the message is almost besides the point - any plot or story can be made new, fresh, and interesting on film.
So, whenever I think of why I find the experience of watching particular films pleasurable, I think of these things, which is partly the inspiration for the title of this blog. Our cognitive processes and social makeup are so amazingly complex that we can only scratch the surface when it comes to understanding them. A good film situates its elements and its narrative within its own unique and "new" space and time. There is no set way of accomplishing this, and certain films may achieve this in totally different ways. Some are more self-aware than others, some comment on narrative or stylistic conventions of genre while commenting on them, others react to ways of seeing and understanding character and present their story elements in opposition to dominant ways of thinking. Still, other great films fuse together different images through history and art of ideas manifested, seen, and understood in different ways, such as images of heaven, hell, horror, goodness - abstract notions that have manifested themselves in art, societies, and history in various forms. There are an unlimited number ways of creating new images because when new images are created and made familiar, they can thus interact and transmorgify by contrasting with previous images or comprehending the elements that allowed that new image to be situated amongst previous images, perhaps challenging previous representations of an idea
Cinema is a media dreamscape that represents the artistic culmination of the evolution of media and visuality. We need not consciously impose old values to it or catch ourselves up on the content. Rather, we need to free ourselves of such a mentality and approach cinema as freely as possible. The medium itself is always changing and expanding along with our understanding of it, and that is reflected in the new images I see in films all the time. Regarding content, the form creates the content. Therefore, the content can really be anything. I don't consider Aliens (a masterful film in my opinion) any less of a movie than Citizen Kane because of its subject matter. We need to move away from these very notions, which purport that the content decides the quality and that the media is just the vehicle for that. This mentality has plagued film criticism for so long and it has corrupted how many viewers approach and interpret films.
So when somebody asks me what separates quality cinema from bad cinema, the short answer I give goes something like this: a good film can be any film. It situates itself within a space and time, facilitating a spatial and temporal relationship between myself in the image that provokes thought and emotion, and it can do that employing devices both new and old.