Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Just a few weeks ago, I complained that much of the critical body was off-base in deriding Spiderman 3 for its overstuffed plot and epic ambition. I argued that this content-based approach to reviewing movies is a fundamentally weak mode of criticism even by journalistic standards. I think it's fitting for plot-demanding audiences and opinion-driven commentaries that are so marketable today, but as criticism it flounders under its own bloated self-importance. Now comes threequel number three from the endless Hollywood summer arsenal, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. (The second, Shrek the Third, isn't so much a movie but the cinematic equal of the fast food with which the film cross-promotes.)

Given the market-value of this film and its status as both "blockbuster" and "sequel," I suppose it would be easy to lambast its running time, convoluted plot, etc., which is precisely what many critics have done. They may as well have re-printed all of their reviews for Spiderman 3 and switched the names of the films, because the reviews are practically the same. The movies, however, are nothing alike. Yes, both are incredibly long (which is a critique only a consumer-friendly critic would bother mentioning), and both feature extensive plot trails that are borderline impossible to follow. However, while Spiderman 3 was content to lean on the viewer's recognition of the previous films' freshness and popularity, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is only interested in moving ahead, digging deeper into its own mythology, and moving farther away from the easily defined limits of the Hollywood blockbuster. Sure, it speechifies, a la Braveheart and Lord of the Rings, it features cartoonish caricatures, e.g. the monkey, parrot, and two duos of quirky side characters, and it resorts to lots and lots of noise during its climactic duel; but it does all of this with a spirited sense of whimsy, off-setting the increasingly serious tone of the movies and the genuinely strange nature of its oceanic universe. These touches of movie convention, which take inspiration from Star Wars, Kurosawa, old-fashioned epics, and silent comedies of the silent era, lend the films a stable sense of familiarity as they plunge deeper (unexpectedly) into the stories of side characters, working against the more simply stated rules and atmospheres of the original film.

Before looking at the details of At World's End, it is first appropriate to lay the groundwork by looking at the underrated Dead Man's Chest, a film that assaulted the viewer with complex images that rather boldly proclaimed the filmmakers' lack of interest in recreating the naive innocence of The Curse of the Black Pearl, a film that was more of a direct homage to matinee serials, pirate adventures, and Errol Flynn swashblucklers. Dead Man's Chest instead builds elongated and somewhat disturbing sequences featuring an implaccable sea monster, The Kraken, feasting on helpless victims before enveloping the frail and creaking wood of various pirate vessels, including the Black Pearl, swallowing them whole underneath the sea. Dead Man's Chest is more about the dangers of the sea and the uncertainty of what lies beyond that horizon so romanticized in the first film.

Audiences detested Dead Man's Chest and critics ripped it, but its treasures were reaped by those unwilling to pen the movie as a hapless summer blockbuster who are more receptive to the nuances of all movies. Those who categorize movies in a simple manner disallow themselves from actually witnessing their images, seeing them, and processing them with a cynical bias they often impose upon the more expensive ones due to their "consumer" nature. To be fair, the film walked the line of comfortable familiarity a bit too much to really embrace the dark nature of its core; a case in point being how the dark scenes aboard the Flying Dutchman are countered by the more light-hearted nature of the land-based fight sequences late in the film which seemed to echo the first film's innocence. The film was nonetheless interesting cinema, if only for its strange deviations and basking in digital darkness.

On to At World's End...

In his excellent review of the film, Ryland Walker Knight explains:

"At a very basic level, like Irvin Kirshner's The Empire Strikes Back and James Cameron's Aliens, Gore Verbinski's two Pirates sequels disrupt everything (the worlds, the narratives, the structures) the first film (in each trilogy) rightly set up at the outset. The Caribbean world of Verbinski's trilogy is, after the first film, one of constant shuffling, of tangential narrative ruptures: the world of the film, like the world we audience members live in, is chaotic. Of course, this Caribbean world is not the world we live in. In our world, there are no giant mythological squids or sea goddesses, but there are, however, pirates — and daily acts of piracy. And there are social dictums, social pacts, that we appropriate and reconstitute on an individual basis, to live with ourselves, to live with the world. The main thrust of this trilogy is that reckoning: How will we live in the world when our autonomous freedom is continually challenged?"

Interestingly, where the pirates represented the villains in the first film's rose-colored vision of the world, the two sequels envision pirates as a dying breed of individuals willing to fight for freedom. Moreover, where much of the original film is spent on some kind of land with the sea essentially serving as the passage through which our land-based heroes must travel in order to reach destinations, At World's End is set primarily at sea. It is a game of cat-and-mouse, with constant betrayals and backstabbings before arriving at the waters of Shipwreck Cove, where the final stand is made. The three films seem to represent a progression from land to sea from first film to third, with the sea representing the horizon in The Curse of the Black Pearl, a more dangerous and lively world in the second film, with ships inhabiting the waters as well as its surfaces.

In At World's End, the sea is where most of the action occurs and the land is the distant place. The scenes of discomfort take place on land and aboard the stagnant quarters of the East India Trading Company vessels, each ship looking exactly the same, a direct reversal of the disorganized nature of the Black Pearl and Flying Dutchman. But the land-based drones of the East India Trading Company must take to the sea in the third film and can only rule with an iron fist with the heart of Davy Jones in their clutches. While Lord Beckett appears to be more self-assured in the film, attempting to embody the pirate image he so rigorously desires to destroy, he meets his end stradled by the Pearl and the Dutchman, which both unleash canon fire upon his ship. The perfectly constructed and stained wood shatters around him, blown to bits by the creaking lumber of the pirate vessels which now reclaim the seas.

Apart from the mythical archetypes throughout the film's storyline and freedom versus fascism plot, the film is focused on pure moments which seem to exist between the endless interludes of meetings and conversations. One example of this is the re-introduction of Davy Jones, a creature so hell-bent on destruction in the previous film, first seen wiping a tear away from his face with a tentacle in At World's End, fondly reminiscing on his memory of love as his ship wreaks havoc in the open waters. Jones takes no joy in the spectacle of destruction here and is more focused on regaining his own dignity as the would-be villain were it not for Beckett, who controls Jones and his ship. This allows us to see Jones more as the shadow of a pirate who at one time may have understood the joys of piracy, i.e. freedom but has since been taking that from others since his own was stripped of him. His tentacles slither and shake when he is emotional, the skin around his eyes, nose, and mouth tremble, and we see him for the defeated soul he is in these films. His only moment of regaining himself is his ruthless killing of Beckett's number one henchman before directing the Dutchman into the maelstrom to duel the Black Pearl. His tragic story demands that he die in the end, but he does so having embraced the pirate freedom that he had taken away from others for years. He collected their debts to the sea, but his own demanded that he plunge to the depths.

Other standout sequences come in the form of passing moments, in which not only the world of the film is established and built-upon, but that imbue the characters with feeling. It is true that they mostly remain type characters rather than full developed and dimensional individuals, but Verbinski's visuals and brief asides from the complications of the plot actually enable the characters to take some kind of form. Jack Sparrow interacting with his hallucinations of himself in Davy Jones' locker are among the film's finest moments, as well as the bitter rivalry between him and Barbossa, which remains playful throughout the film. In these seemingly arbitrary asides, the film takes life in the sumptious visuals. Another moment of visual beauty is an image of the Pearl cutting through the waters dark, speckled waters (looking very much like space) at the edge of Davy Jones' locker. Another such moment involves the pearl, quietly sailing through the icy wilderness before approaching the end of the world.

All quibbles over logic and plot details aside, At World's End is a movie about moments. It may be an empty embodiment of mythical archetypes on a superficial level of narrative details and plot developments, but it revels in its crazed nature and gets a wit of enjoyment out of portraying them. Through all the action and cartoonish moments of caricaturizing the side characters, the movie actually takes itself serious based on its focus on the strong performances on the part of the cast, of whom Bill Nighy's Davy Jones is the easy standout. Nighy is commanding in portraying Jones' fury and enslaved emotion, and the digital artists that brought him to life may well be the first to imbue a digital character with a performance of subtlty and sublimity, one not achieved (in an artificial "non-human" sense) since Frank Oz's puppetry of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.

It is certainly true that these "Pirates" sequels, both Dead Man's Chest and At World's End, are not cinematic masterpieces as defined by classical or contemporary standards, but that's nothing to aspire to. To achieve such a status, a film must meet a checklist of requisites. However, like all of art, cinema is not defined by its meeting of a certain standard of excellence. In the case movies, Narrative (as a broad idea) sets the rules for the familiarity, convention, and identification, and good movies work within them and beyond them to provide images of depth and feeling.

Unfortunately, emotional reactions to sights and sounds on a screen have been devalued in contemporary mainstream critical discourse and pop entertainment just the same, which is why the ambitions of these films are not rewarded, but instead blasted for their bloated nature of "being too long." This fuels a mentality that suppresses one's ability to experience moments and feelings as brought on by images and sounds. But that mentality is one all too common amongst critics and moviegoers, and the fact that these movies are routinely slammed is evidence of an overall inability to experience a moving narrative image.

Dead Man's Chest and At World's End are richer films than many critics are claiming. They celebrate the familiarity of movie conventions and mythical storytelling. While they do not master either end of that spectrum, they explore both sides through the complexity of their compositions and willingness to take enjoyment in their own strangeness and invention, risking a convoluted plot in the name of pure cinematic moments.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Oh The Memories

Girish Shambu has recently written about the difficulty of and desire for remembering films, their images and their sounds. His post wonderfully evokes the pain and beauty of cinema. An excerpt:

Over the years, I’ve steadily become aware of a film as being not something abstract or intangible but instead a collection of concrete, material details: shots and cuts; bodies, gestures and speech of the performers; movement; sound and music; color and light; d├ęcor; setting; compositions; duration; etc., not to mention absences such as offscreen space and events, and ellipses. A film contains hundreds (thousands) of such details, and in the aftermath of watching a good film, I have a great desire to savor, hang on to, remember those scores of details that struck me, affected me.

We are enraptured by its moving parts and how everything about a good film works together, but these moments are transient. To try to recall or "store" such moments of cinematic feeling in our minds is next to impossible. To me, this is cinema in a nutshell; forever cemented in our minds, yet always fleeting. Every element of a single moving image exists precisely to enable its existence, but is already out of existence by the time we process it in relation to the fluidity of the composition it creates. So, how we construct a memory of cinematic images and the elements contributing to them is central to both appreciating cinema and participating in its being.

Though I think Girish is spot-on regarding this ever-increasing desire of recalling cinematic moments and that how a film tells a story is the story itself, I think the elements (shots, cuts, gestures, bodies, etc.) making up these images, while concrete and material, actually become abstract and intangible. They do so in their embodiment of both oral and written language, somehow always fading away but becoming permanent this process. A maddening duality of opposites, for sure, but this is cinema, as well as the individual and cultural experience with memory.

Focusing on the conrete and material details of the image is the one and only starting point of a knowing criticism of cinema. Visuality has no doubt assimilated elements of orality, literacy, and textuality into its being, but it becomes abstract and intangible in how its various elements interact in such a way that they individually exist differently in relation to one another due to their constant pushing up against each other, challenging each other, juxtaposing with each other, and so on. While formalistic details are the entry point into a responsible criticism, they cannot by themselves account for a lasting memory of cinema. If one can react to and understand what feelings and memories these material details create, only then can she or he comprehend how they do so.

Girish's lament of the imperfection and inevitable failure of cinematic memory is a direct reflection of the abstraction and intangible nature of cinema as created through the complex relations among its concrete elements. These relations create that abstract connection to memory. Therefore, how we perceive and interpret these relationships (and likewise our ability to understand and analyze them) is essential to both experiencing and remembering the transient permanence of moving images.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Cinema 2006: Old Joy

One of the defining "problems" of cinema is representation. Rarely can an image merely exist. Documentary or fiction, all movies in some form or another adhere to a narrative structure, therefore any image of that movie is constructed and positioned in relation to that narrative framework. The nature of that structure may differ, but since cinema is itself a culmination and extension of various art forms, narrative media and technologies, it has been positioned in a narrative spectrum from which it cannot escape.

While Deleuze may have been overly simplistic in labeling Italian Neo-realism as the liberating movement in cinema, his summation generally holds up insofar that many films of the neo-realism variety were explicitly reflexive of classical styles and refused to adhere to a connect-the-dots mode of film language that the early days of cinema necessarily offered. While much of American cinema moved along that same plane of film language (keep in mind that I'm writing in generalities so as to avoid a dissertation here), neo-realism films created gaps in films language, turned the system of signification that the moving image had become upside down and explored narrative possibilities from a standpoint of subtlty and abstraction. It was still reliant upon those very classical traditions in order to deviate from them, but they opened up what Deleuze calls the time-image, an image free from representation despite being made possible through its properties. The time-image may or may not more stringently adhere to classical narrative structures, styles, and traditions, but the key is that it expands upon them and confounds the comfortable familiarity of their cliches. The time-image does not allow the spectator to see less than the image, but rather enables her to see the whole image, in so doing moving beyond mere representation. This notion best surmises Deleuze's claim that cinema is another world altogether, not a symbolic representation of one.

Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy seems to me an extension of the essence of neo-realism. From a narrative standpoint, it is straightforward, chronicling the overnight camping trip of two old friends. Structurally, Old Joy exhibits simplicity, starting with Mark (Daniel London) receiving a call from his friend, Kurt (William Oldham), inviting him to meet up and hike through the woods of Oregon. Although this short description encompasses the extent of the introduction from the standpoint of plot, the film announces itself as one of real images (despite their apparent lack of stylization) and subtly stated emotions from its opening shot (a bird sitting on the roof of Mark's house). The actors' faces envelope the frames; Mark and his pregnant wife share few words in the film's opening scenes, but in the camera's intimate observation of both of them, the spectator can explore the same ambiguity transpiring between the characters. Nothing is really stated. We don't uncover any plot points other than is made visible in the compositions. Instead, we have an emotionally complex visual design through what appears to be simplicity.

I am spending so much time on this opening sequence because it establishes an atmosphere that permeates the film, setting up the viewer's knowledge of Mark and his wife before incorporating Kurt into the narrative. From a representational standpoint, we can gather what we know about Mark and Kurt based on the images and the dialogue, but this film is not about easily compartmentalized feelings and actions. It's about the feelings underneath the memory.

When the two meet up and begin their trip, the film enables the viewer to immerse herself in the lives of these individuals through the sublimity of the "ordinary" images. The images in fact are far from ordinary and capture every small detail of Kurt and Mark's relationship - from joking at the gas station, uncomfortable pauses when they scramble for things to talk about, shooting cans with beebee guns, and conversing about their lives over the past 20 years in short sentences, carefully phrasing their thoughts do to their own uncertainties about themselves and each other. All the while, the emotions conjured by the images is both hard to pinpoint, yet overwhelming in their nostalgia. The spectator knows nothing about these people outside these few days it follows them. We only know the extent of their relationship based on their own insider accounts of old memories. But this coupled with the observant nature of the film's images - whether it's panning the tree tops or lingering on facial expressions - result in a joyously bittersweet experience of reminiscing and enjoying the transient beauty of an old friendship. The backdrop of the densely wooded forrest only further emphasizes the isolation of such feeling and memory, and the film's contrast of these men and the woods they walk in builds the perfect atmosphere in which to set this nostalgic journey.

In its gentle simplicity and seemingly straightforward observations of these characters on two days of their lives, Old Joy builds a relationship between spectator and image brimming with ambiguity and nuanced emotion, mirroring the relationship between Mark and Kurt. Tensions are abound, and as much as we would like to easily categorize the aspects of the relationship and the feelings emerging from it, such simplicity is not ever possible within the seemingly simple relationship. The main struggle within the spectator/image relationship is (in general terms) the confusion over obervation and identification. Both infer a greater idea of representation, as if the viewer's observation of these characters triggers one's own experiences, thus we have identification through observation. Are we the characters or are we watching and identifying them? Further, what does it mean to "identify" with a character at all? Questions such as these are immensely difficult to answer, even if one has unlimited time and space to do so. They concern the greater relations between individual and cultures and narrative/cinema. With regards to narrative, cinema does separate itself in its visual nature. The purpose of narrative is to form a representation, but the very idea of seeing and hearing an action existing in its own place and time seems to conflict with this notion.

Old Joy exemplifies this relationship between spectator and image. And this comes through in dynamic of the characters and the deeply intimate portrait presented by Reichardt that both lets us into their minds, yet keeps us at a firm distance, as if to remind that every moment and every aspect of lived experience is subject to perception and interpretation. That tension defines Kurt and Mark's relationship as it does the cinema/spectator duality. While it ultimately introduces so many questions in its presentation of this narrative and these characters, what underlies the images and narrative structure is an examination and reflection on the very idea of experience and nostalgia. The images then serve to reflect the ambiguities and abstraction shared between two people whose experiences cannot be surmised by the language between them, but intead by the memory and feeling of such experiences.

Old Joy's sublime images and simple presentation of narrative exhibit a beauty about cinema (as a medium) that no amount of critical rumination can capture. Mark and Kurt's relationship - all its struggles, misunderstandings, and beauties - is not suggested through (or represented by) the images, but rather exists in the images themselves and our perceptions and interpretations of them. That is cinema, and that is the human sociocultural experience.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

A letter to Richard Schickel

Dear Mr. Schickel:

I know that you probably cannot hear me down here in the lowly blogosphere as you sit atop your pedestal at Time Magazine, and that you would not stoop to such a low as to read something on one of these unworthy blogs. But if you so allow me, I would like to bring a couple of points to your attention.

Your article in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times correctly addresses some very important and serious issues currently plaguing film criticism, specifically regarding the favoring of opinion-voicing over "disciplined taste, historical and theoretical knowledge and a fairly deep sense of the author's (or filmmaker's or painter's) entire body of work." Interestingly, I should point out that I too have recently written about these very issues here on my own blog, not that you would know. I argued that certain areas of the film writing community perpetuate the consumer mentality to which they pander, and that real criticism is often much more difficult to find (in the journalistic circuit) amongst the many empty expressions of opinion that permeate a majority of mainstream film reviews. However, while you point to blogs as the corruptors of film criticism, your arrogant tone and uninformed claims regarding the film blogging community are evidence that the very problems you speak of invade the highest levels of journalistic criticism, especially your own.

Your stature as a published and respected critic, Mr. Schickel, does not entitle you to make broad claims about us "busy bloggers" that lack any validity or reasoning. However, since you have done precisely that, you have shown yourself to be among the very imposters of film criticism you label bloggers to be. It's a shame that you don't have one of these "less permanent" blogs, in which case go back and erase or edit out the hypocrisy of your argument. Because you are unable to do this, I can only advise that it would be in your best interest as a true critic to heed your own advice before voicing an opinion on something about which you seem to know very little.

Sure, any critic can express an opinion about blogs, but, to use your own words, true criticism is more than just an opinion.


Ted Pigeon

[For some of my thoughts on blogging and criticism, check out two entries I posted a few months back: Why Blogging Is Essential and A Blogger's Reflections. Both contain typos, for sure, as they were written at a time in which I was editing my posts less. But that sums up the flaws and the (potential) beauty of blogging.]

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Pop Reflexivity and Opinion-Based Reviewing

While I agree with the many critical assertions that the third "Shrek" film is a blatant cash-in to capitalize on the massive success of the previous two films, the journalistic critical community's overwhelming reliance on this is evidence of the many problems with film criticism. In short, this criticism (if it can be called that) is a cop-out. I'm not saying that one cannot take a political/media economy approach to film criticism. But relying on it to explain a film's flaws while neglecting to offer sound reasoning is precisely the reverse of what criticism is - or should be - about.

This is just one example of what is essentially an expression of opinion. Qualifications for film criticism in journalistic circuit require an individual who knows a little something about the movie industry, can conjure a few clever puns, and structure a short essay. This is how many readers perceive film criticism, and it's hard to blame them given the prominence of such "criticism." Anyone can express her or his opinion about a film - that's not difficult. But to articulate an argument and defend it elevates opinion into criticism. (Furthermore, this approach to criticism and its content fundamentally misunderstands the importance of the medium itself.)

Unfortunately, our news media culture tends to prize expression of opinion over intelligent criticism: keep it short, keep it sweet, and don't bother providing a reasoning for your argument - just throw your conclusions out there. This is the cultural attitude towards most issues involving politics, art, etc., and unfortunately many film critics perpetuate it. Rather than asking questions of a movie, observing details, engaging in thoughtful commentary, and piecing together an argument based on knowledge of the medium, they lay down the "answers," or opinions often based on nothing. A film is too much of one thing, not enough of another. [For those who haven't read this absolutely essential piece on criticism by David Bordwell, he outlines the problem with criticism far more efficiently than me. If you have read it before, read it again.]

Not all critics are guilty of this. In fact, there are many wonderful critics in the journalistic circuit. For example, on the topic of Shrek the Third, A.O. Scott's review, while brief (as most journalistic criticism demands), raises many thinking points about the nature of the film's underpinnings and, interestingly, a subtle commentary on these very issues of opinion and criticism as manifest in American popular cinema. An excerpt:

"Expressing a sometimes explicit animus against the Disney versions of well-known European folk tales, the franchise set out from the start to scramble the traditional polarities of good and evil, setting itself up as a more sophisticated, knowing brand of pop-culture magic. But those old stories — and those classic Disney movies — were almost more complicated than the parodies allowed. Their eerie subtexts and haunting ambiguities have always been more crucial to their power and appeal than the overt lessons they teach. “Shrek,” “Shrek 2” and “Shrek the Third,” by contrast, are flat and simple, hectic and amusing without being especially thrilling or complex. Their naughty insouciance makes their inevitable lapses into sentimental moralism all the more glaring."

Focusing on the supposedly witty references to previous narrative styles and elements, Scott exposes a facade permeating much of pop entertainment and pop criticism. This parodic approach to comedy and satire is typical of many digitally animated films and a surprising amount of television shows. Although these clever references appear to be satirical and sharp in their commentary, they exemplify the cultural trend of favoring quick-witted opinion over real critiques. And how fitting that one who understands criticism and its purpose - A.O. Scott - point this out. The "Shrek" films are most guilty of this; they appear to jab at fairy tales and Disney, yet they themselves very much follow the same pattern of moralism and syrupy endings. As Scott says, the referenced narratives are typically far more interesting than the film referencing them. But because contemporary films seem to be only what consumers are interested in, no real knowledge of these past stories exists outside these references.

Movies are not "texts" in the same way that a languaged argument is, and therefore cannot build arguments as an essay might. But they are capable of offering commentaries of a different variety - through narrative structure and visual style, juxtaposing different familiar elements and achieving new images through reflexivity, in a broad sense. This, I feel, is essential in storytelling, cinema, and communication; not empty referencing, but more subtle variations on styles and structural patterns. True reflexivity builds upon an idea and is more aware of the details of what it is reflexive upon, unlike the flat commentaries offered by the "Shrek" films and countless other pop-reflexive narratives. In these films and other pop narratives, real commentary or criticism is lost somewhere amidst the self-aware, endless referencing. These narratives may appear consciously rejecting the often shallowly interpreted and understood traditions of more traditional narrative, yet are unconsciously reliant on them to exist all. Pop-reflexive cinema is nothing more than an uninformed expression of opinion. (And opinion without reasoning or knowledge is not much of anything at all, as anyone who has ever seen or read Ann Coulter knows.) Unfortunately, this defines much of critical discourse in our media culture. With its championing of empty opinions and content over form, it is a criticism deserving of the pop-discourse it perpetuates.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Following the Ideal Sequel: Where Spiderman Went Wrong

Spiderman 3 (Sam Raimi, 2007)

All criticisms aside (and I have many), Spiderman had a colorful sense of exuberance in its images and characters. Sam Raimi's film was deliberately hokey, revelled in its own naivete, and felt oddly fresh in its familiarity. What it lacked in excitement, it made up for in playful charm. When Spiderman saves Mary Jane and swings with her between the skyscrapers of New York, the images breathe with life as Danny Elfman's choral music swells. That Spiderman looked cartoonish slinging himself through the streets of Manhattan didn't take away from the beauty of the moment. Though far from a truly memorable superhero film, it's no wonder that the film drew such strong box office, especially in the first summer after September 11th.

With Spiderman 2, the visual freshness was maintained and built-upon, with a far more real (though still noticeably animated) Spiderman swinging through town. While the story remains pop drama, there was something endearing to Peter Parker's undying desire to confess his love to Mary Jane, while saddled with the responsibility of keeping the people safe. Its villain, Doc Ock (brilliantly played by Alfred Molina), was much more memorable than Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin, and the film manage its action effectively - both in relation to the film's overall structure as well as from shot to shot of each individual sequence. Raimi seemed more comfortable directing large scale action, and the visual effects were employed to unify with the live action elements, rather than create distance between them (as in the original film).

With a touching story for the hero and villain and visual flair to the action scenes, Spiderman 2 capitalized on its seemingly effortless screenplay. Its personal drama was brilliantly complimented by a unique intensity to the villain and action sequences that the first film lacked. Despite its larger scale, Spiderman 2 felt personal, written and made by filmmakers who cared about the genre and characters, and it showed in its compositions and structure.

The rythyms, compositions, and structure of Spiderman 3, however, feel forced and inconsistent, not only in relation to the previous two films but within the film itself. This is of course the built-in problem that many sequels face. Especially on the heels of such a well-structured and thoroughly original sequel (let alone movie), the next film is typically self-consciously trying to replicate magic, e.g. Alien 3, The Godfather Part III, X-Men 3. But in the case of Spiderman, its not for lack of creativity. Raimi and company certainly try to accomplish new things with the story and character, but they often render themselves moot because the film wanders aimlessly exploring the film's possibilities as if they feel pressured to do so. The resulting film is an awkward mix between corporate studio wishes (appealing to every demographic and having "a little bit of everything") and true creative instinct. The film goes for big moments too consciously and it fails in delivering the emotion it seeks to conjure, whether that's exhiliration, envy, or rage.

Many have criticized Spiderman 3 for offering too many villains, too many plotlines, too many "big" moments. But my criticisms reside not in the film's ambitious disjointedness, which can actually be a good thing, but in how generically an instrusively the film's elements interact with one another. Individual sequences lack the drive they strived for, and what seemed fresh in, say, Spiderman (hokey plotlines, etc.) seemed incongruous with this film's ambition of embodying a more serious, darker drama. None of these elements worked well together because the film felt, by and large, manufactured. The film introduces its plotlines and felt obliged to develop them to logical conclusion. Not only does it feel calculated, but Spiderman 3 lacks vigor and feeling. as if it was comfortable enough to rest upon the spectator's familiarity with the wonder of the previous films and therefore feels no incentive to conjure some on its own.

Had the film been more focused in terms of its plot structuring and was less stuffed, I get the feeling it still would have suffered the same problems. That's why I find it difficult to accept criticisms that the film lacks cohesive structure. While perfectly structured piece of classical filmmaking can achieve great things, so too can a disjointedly structured one. Within the images themselves, the elements don't move with life as they did in the previous film. Interestingly, one of the major subplots involved Peter Parker dealing with an inflated ego and learning to find his true innocent self once more. But the film seems to suffer from the same problem, confident in its own creation despite not really offering a cinematic experience it so well acknowledges the previous entries were.

Nevertheless, the film exhibits a tension underneath its manufactured nature, and that is the creativity trying to break through. When I claim that the film feels more like a studio's film than a director's film, I don't mean that Sony all of the sudden stole the reigns from Sam Raimi, but rather that Raimi himself has suffered from studio laziness perhaps due to the massive success of the previous films. The film never feels as though it's not a Sam Raimi film, but that Raimi's images have been filtered through a watered down, lazy-inducing system prizing plot quantity and "big" moments over locating subtlety in dramatic scenes as well as the action-oriented ones. Like Peter Parker with his hair down in his face, sporting all black and swinging his pelvis at women on the sidewalks, Raimi seems too eager to impress out of recognition of his own acknoweldged talent. But, as mentioned, his filmmaker prowess isn't totally eradicated. There are moments of genuine inspiration - notably when Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church) becomes the Sandman and tried to form his own body out of a pile of speckled sand, as well as the scene in which Mary Jane breaks up with Peter in Central Park. Raimi's camera locks onto Tobey Maguire's emotive eyes so magnetically and finds true heartbreak in the moment.

To its credit, also, the final action sequence seems in the spirit of the comic books that inspired it, with Sandman and an underused Venom teaming up to battle Spiderman in, on, and around a construction site. The scene has the courage to be true to its somewhat pretentious roots, but Raimi has no problem with it and it is both goofy and enjoyable. The following scenes of closure to the character's individual subplots are as painfully artificial as Raimi has ever been, unfortunately. Spiderman 3 closes on a serious point that effectively sums up its assuming and egotistical nature about itself.

Unlike Spiderman, this film never quells its bloated assurance of its own worth, which is why it feels so comfortable experimenting to employ so many familiar and simple plot devices rather than really exploring this world and its characters. The filmmakers seem comfortable to rest upon their own accomplishments with the last two films. As Spiderman swings about the city's towering structures looking more real than ever in Spiderman 3, the naive sense of wonder created by his previous travels amongst the skies is all but drained away and Spiderman becomes all the more unreal.

Monday, May 14, 2007

"We Can't Be Too Careful When It Comes to our Children..."

In light of the recent smoking regulations imposed upon movies by the MPAA, I must point out a particularly memorable blog entry on the matter. Since the MPAA has added smoking to its ever-expanding list of "strong" and "intense" things earning films an R rating, MaryAnn Johanson over at the Flik Filosopher has posted a short list of other things that the MPAA should be watching out for. The more I think about her point about car chases, the more I realize that last year's Cars should have been rated R. It's only appropriate. A short excerpt:

"Are we seriously considering the impact the appearance of Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johansson on film is having on our ugly daughters? Must we force our precious young boys to constantly compare themselves to Ashton Kutcher and Orlando Bloom? And self-esteem is not just about physical appearance. Should we be surprised when our children size up their athletic ability next to, say, Will Smith as Muhammad Ali or The Rock as himself and find themselves lacking? Should we be surprised when our children look at their utter lack of brains and talent and feel belittled next to the prodigious gifts of a Meryl Streep or a Phillip Seymour Hoffman? I propose that from now on, films featuring anyone gorgeous, brainy, or artistic or athletically endowed receive an automatic NC-17.

We can’t be too careful when it comes to our children, after all."

Cleaning Up The Movies: Commodification Cloaked in Morals

Scarlett Johannson smoking a cigarette in "Lost in Translation". It's ok though: the film is rated R.

It's official: smoking has now joined the ranks of illicit sex, homosexuality, teen alcohol/drug use, extreme violence, and foul language as cinematically taboo, unless your film is rated R.

Some consider the MPAA's recent efforts to discourage smoking in the movies long overdue. When the news broke last week, there was a strange aura of positivity to the many reports published online and in print. Based on these reports and reactions to them, it appears as though this ratings system change is a good thing. It is only the culmination of something our movie culture has been moving towards for the better part of 20 years. The actual news itself is secondary to the point that this newer, more strict view of smoking has actually been in practice for quite some time in the MPAA's biased assessment of ethical standards in cinema. But the news reports seem to support the notion that it's long overdue and desperately needed. No doubt this news is constructed to be positive and that we - the recepients of news media - are conditioned to believe it. Those who don't support it are painted as promoters of poor health. Though this may seem appropriate on the surface, its implications are disturbing.

The big question is this: do movies promote/support/encourage smoking via their representations of it? In the eyes of many, yes they do. According to these folks, the entertainment industry "glorifies" decadent acts, among them mentioned above. From this perspective, a child's exposure to these acts in entertainment may lead them to consider partaking (Could you imagine all the kids who would be smoking if Peter Parker was a chain smoker?). This "life imitates art" stance, however, is numbingly simplified and too easy an explanation (if it can be called that) for the relationship of entertainment and a culture, or, more specifically, an image and a spectator. The common response to "life imitates art" ideology is, unfortunately, equally wrong-headed and simplistic. This is of course the "it's just entertainment" defense, held by those who claim to have no connection to that which they see. I suppose one naive view deserves another in response, one that only regurgitates the problem of simplification rather than enabling it to expand. The simple nature of these perspectives often demand that things exist in dualities.

There is no question that viewers are greatly affected by entertainment, individually and culturally. Not only does exposure to entertainment (television and movies) physically account for substantial portions of the average individual's day, but the narratives and images themselves reflect and project concerns, preoccupations, fantasies, fears, and desires both unconscious and conscious to an individual/culture. The question still remains, however, of just how much influence these narratives and images have. But there is no easy answer to that. One's relation to the social world and participation in it is dependent on so many factors, both subtle and overt. To simplify the innumerable contributing aspects to one's sociocultural existence greatly undermines potential for abstraction and nuance in relationships and institutions of the social, in particular artistic representation. Walter J. Ong (whose book Orality and Literacy is indispensable) claims that technologies and media outlets not only emerge from acknowledged existence of one another, but that they gradually restructure thought-processes so as to accord to the structures of those media. Framing this discussion through the Ong lens then suggests that simplified approached to media with a strict emphasis on content reshapes the medium to accord to its perceived content. In other words, the medium itself changes to enable the very content it's been perceived to promote. And the medium is commodification.

Ever so slightly, art forms and useful media are transforming into products. Obviously, the commerce aspect of cinema has and always will be exist; but in terms of classical US filmmaking, the commerce is progressively eradicating the art. The current sanctions of the MPAA best reflect and sustain the view that movies are nothing more than advertising enterprises meant for consumption. Rarely can an image, character, action, or idea serve the purpose of abstraction or aesthetic value. In this hyper-commercial culture, we are made to think that the only way of interpreting anything is from a standpoint of consumption, promotion, and advertising. Objection to product placement or ruthless advertising campaigns is secondary to the fact that their overwhelming prominence in all facets of society is restructuring how we view and act upon social institutions and members of them. Commodification has become a mode of cultural discourse. It's the air we breathe. Some claim that this only affects the young, but the recent news of the MPAA clamping down on smoking is evidence that this movement affects all areas of American culture. And as long that we remain focused on the ethics of smoking, violence, or any other controversial representation, we are missing the the real issue that commodification is the means by which we process and interpret lived experience in consumer culture.

Nowhere is this more evident than in mainstream entertainment, cinema, television, music, and beyond. In keeping with a discussion of cinema, the issue of smoking is an interesting manifestation of the problem of thinking in terms of consumption. Critics and film scholars aside, movies are largely perceived as endorsements. Given the amount of product placement in films, it's hard not to see them that way. An image can rarely exist outside the sphere of commodity insofar that even attempts to move away from this line of thinking is a self-conscious attempt at doing so and is still defined by it. In this model, product placement and advertising represent the medium, but the message is the image itself, the representation of an idea or lifestyle that becomes commodity. In a consumer-friendly PG/PG-13 movie atmosphere, a character cannot smoke unless: she or he is a villain or if the smoking is part of her or his character arc (representing something that must be overcome. Either way, that character must have a good reason for smoking that cigarette. This is a small example, but it succinctly exemplifies the cultural attitude toward mainstream movies and has contributed to shaping them as such. Replace smoking with sex, alcohol use, violence, etc. and the model is the same. These cultural ideas of consumption are so deep rooted in American cinema and economy and is perfectly reflected in the ever-shifting MPAA rating system, which infantilizes movies and conditions them to be neatly packaged products ready-made for consumer purchase. This affects how they are made and perceived and therefore shapes an understanding of cinema a consumer enterprise. While no one can deny the billions of dollars spent by studios to make films and the billions more their films make, this very machine keeps growing larger and larger our perceptions of the medium itself have gradually been conditioned to understand it as such.

The problem that is becoming ever-more pronounced in this heightened age of electronic commercialism is one of representation. In a medium/message model, the medium is the image and the message is the narrative. While I prize the collapsing of this duality, as it would enable greater ways of perceiving and building our social reality and technologies, it's hard to escape. Images do not intrinsically exist is symbolic representations, but they unfortunately become that in a narrative framework, and gradually we condition ourselves to not see the images and instead perceive them as representations of the narrative underneath. This results in an awkward tension between abstraction and cliche, one that underlies cinema as an art form. But if spectators move away from the comfortable familiarity of convention and a "film as commodity" perception towards cinema, the medium itself can expand and enable the depth of nuance of which it is capable. Outside the focus on plot, narrative, and representation, an image can exist differently, create abstraction, and yield a greater mode of thinking outside the same narrative and representative structures that enable their existence. While one must always acknowledge narrative, new narrative and image possibilities are only unlocked when narrative serves the images, rather than the other way around. Only then can we culturally de-commodify the moving image.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Critic and the blockbuster

In the Sunday edition of the New York Times, Manohla Dargis has written an excellent article about the evolution of the rocky relationship between critics and blockbusters over the last 30 years. Adopting a somewhat removed approach from this apparently intensifying struggle, Dargis articulates (in my mind, at least) a deep problem with criticism - both academic and journalistic. She writes:

"The negative rap on blockbusters is partly due to the literary bent of a lot of critics, who privilege words over images and tend to review screenplays, or what’s left of them, rather than the amalgamation of sights and sounds in front of them. But the sneers also suggest an underlying and familiar contamination anxiety. In the 1980s “Top Gun” wasn’t just a glib divertissement; it was evidence that MTV had infected the movies like a deadly virus. In the same grim light “300” isn’t just a shell of a movie; it’s proof that the movies have been infiltrated by an outside force, namely video games.

The threats have changed over the years — from television to music videos, comic books, digital technologies and so on — yet what has remained constant is the idea that the movies are under siege. But if the movies have taught us anything it is that they are brilliant adapters. They mutate and shift, stretch and adjust, and they neutralize those threats the way an organism absorbs nutrients, by assimilating them. We call some of these movie mutations comic-book flicks and compare still others to music videos, sometimes with a sigh, sometimes with a smile. We complain about car chases and forget that D. W. Griffith was among the first to put pedal to the metal on screen. And we condemn blockbusters for, if we’re lucky, doing the very thing we say we want from the movies: giving us a reason to watch."

Her thoughts seem to echo my own on these issues, since I too have written about the problem of the blockbuster that plagues film criticism. Interestingly, her article also touches on other issues that have received much treatment on this blog over the last few months, and that is digital cinema. Her last paragraph, quoted above, says it all. It points to the very hypocrisy of some critics and viewers, while also offering a new approach to how to view the movies.

In the age of niche markets, in which films seem to be split into very distinct categories appealing to certain demographics, Dargis' argument is stinging and necessary. It's impossible to sum up "the movies" in just a few words, although many have attempted to do so by focusing on the kind of stories associated with them. The only way to really speak for "the movies" is to forefront the fact that they represent a narrative fusion of sight and sound. We like to categorize them as blockbusters, indies, foreign-language, animation, etc., but in the sense that they all of them bind a story in space and time on a two-dimensional screen, they are all the same and all different. A great deal of movies are made by studios to appeal to their target demographic, focus on dollar values rather than cinematic quality, and ultimately embody the very pinnacle of commodification. And while I wouldn't think to pretend this doesn't exist, perhaps we overshoot its prominence. Perhaps, heaven forbid, that we are conditioned to approach and therefore see movies in a specific way, disallowing ourselves from seeing their subtle beauties. Inevitably, we must do some categorizing, but if viewers can break free from thinking of movies as commodities, then perhaps they may allow themselves to see the images of a film differently than they would from a consumer standpoint.

I know this approach sounds overly optimistic, as if all movies are beautiful and important. While I don't feel this way, I also don't think that there are inherently bad "types" of films. In the middle of her article, Ms. Dargis splendidly acknowledges some of the more dazzling moments in blockbusters over the years, in doing so proudly expressing her love for the movies and the vast array of emotions their images and sounds may create and forge within the consciousness of the viewer. Summer blockbusters may tend to showcase the overt exhiliration of movement and action in the form of simple storytelling, but sometimes this can yield great cinema. Critics must not ignore that spectacle has always been apart of the movies and is not limited to the birth of the box office blockbuster of the last 30 years.

The social and economic surroundings have no doubt shifted so as to allow greater commodification and consumption of the movies, but we tend to sometimes place too much emphasis on these factors, in so doing failing to really see the beauty and greatness - both of the subtle and grand variety - of some of these blockbusters. This is not to say that we should happily ignore economic factors in the mass production and consumption of movies. These things most definitely play a role and deserve their place in the evaluation of cinema and criticism. But just because box office numbers began rising to new highs at a certain time in the mid-1970's doesn't mean that these factors have always played a great role in the enterprise of filmmaking. It is likely true that higher budgets often correlate with broadly stated emotion and recycled images. But to shut oneself off to the many pleasures that movies of all kinds can offer is to misunderstand the fundamental beauty of the medium itself and the many narrative media and technologies that enabled its existence.

Movies are about what we feel from audiovisual stimulation. These emotions may be subtle and difficult to understand, or they may be outstretched fantasies of cultural myths of heroes and villains. To spare my own attempt to recount some of the undeniably memorable blockbuster moments over the years, Ms. Dargis puts it best:

Blockbusters that endure strike a balance between the spectacular and the ineffably human, whether it’s Peter O’Toole framed against the never-ending desert in “Lawrence of Arabia” or Keanu Reeves coming down to earth in “The Matrix” as he realizes that he knows kung fu. It’s the epic story of America refracted through one family in the “Godfather” films. It’s a mechanical shark and Robert Shaw remembering the U.S.S. Indianapolis in “Jaws.” It’s Tom Cruise hanging by a thread in “Mission: Impossible” and Christian Bale standing amid a cloud of bats in “Batman Begins.”

Absolutely crucial to understanding cinema and being responsible critic of it is an emphasis on those sights and sounds, not on economic or demographic categories. Blockbusters, like any other movie, can conjure emotions both big and small, genuine or superficial, deeply felt or overwrought cliches. But this is what the movies are about. No matter how sophisticated we may be about them in claiming to prize pure abstraction and rich character and dialogue, the much larger picture of the narrative power of moving images is comprised of movies of all shapes and sizes, including "blockbusters."

[For related ranting on these matters, check out my previous posts: "Summer of the Sequel"... again, Hollywood's New Genre Films, and Minority Report: Shameless Product Placement or Scathing Social Commentary.]

Saturday, May 5, 2007

"Nothing is More Human than Artifice"

Update: Excerpt now finalized.

"I do indeed say that writing is artificial, and maybe one of our divergences is due to my not having explained that I do not consider being artificial necessarily bad at all, but rather of itself good. Nothing is more human than artifice. Only human beings can make products that are truly artificial–extensions into the outside world of the interiority of human consciousness or, if you wish, appropriations of the outside world into the interiority of consciousness."
- Walter J. Ong

[The following excerpt is a small section of the paper I have recently completed concerning Film Language, Deleuze, and digital cinema. The paper's titles is Digital Artifice: Toward a Revisioning of Cinema and the Interpretation of Images. The above quote serves as something of an introductory passage for the paper and its explication of the relationship of language to technology. Keep in mind that this is but a small section. I would post the entire paper, but I am going to hold off for now in the interest of perhaps presenting and/or publishing it. That is if I'm lucky.]

A Digital Problem

Since cinema has ingrained itself in our collective consciousness and restructured thought, it is essential to analyze its stylistic and compositional techniques that have cemented themselves in our minds regarding how we see the world. Furthermore, to understand the thought processes it enables and works through, it is important to examine how its emerging technologies sustain or work against classical conventions of filmmaking, practices which have dominated American cinema, David Bordwell argues, even as it has moved into its supposedly “postmodern” age, a fallacy in and of itself (Bordwell, 2006).

According to Lev Manovich, cinema provides “lens-based recordings of reality,” (2001, p. 294) consisting of unmodified photograph recordings of real events taking place in real physical space. The camera “records” reality, says Manovich (2001). But to Deleuze, cinema embodies another reality, another space, another time (Uhlmann, 2004). Here, we have problem of conceptualization, highlighting the issues raised in trying to understand a medium that is a culmination and collision with many other media, electronic and otherwise. Thus, the importance of film technology is incredibly important and critical in possessing an understanding of what cinema is. Manovich claims that cinema captures an already existing world, whereas Deleuze claims that cinema does not represent a world - as a language might - but instead is its own world based on the spatial and temporal relationships it forges in the time-image.

If we define cinema by Manovich’s description of being a filmed reality, then any distortion of that reality compromises the integrity of the image. For cinema to be cinema, space and time must be captured photographically. Interestingly, Manovich does make mention of the birth of the moving image being in animation, but he keeps the two separate (2001). Manovich defines digital cinema as “a particular case of animation that use live action footage as one of its elements” (2001, p. 298) Thus, for Manovich, digital cinema is not really cinema at all, but animation, which is why he claims that the digital age is bringing cinema full circle and connecting it with its roots of animation. He traces the history of cinema to animation, a narrative medium that never involved film. Cinema was then born from the traditions of animation as a means of capturing motion, only it marked the beginning of photographically capturing images within a certain time and space. Interestingly, images of hand-drawn and digitally animated films are made to look as if they were captured photographically. From a cinematographic and continuity perspective, they are strongly influenced by the photographic properties of cinema, while obviously stretching the camera’s “recording” of actual movement.

We are experiencing the pinnacle of this problem right now in cinema, as digital technology is ever more prominent in mainstream, independent, and foreign films (McLean, 2007). The term "film" supposes that the means through which a moving image is presented is on film and photographically captured. But this definition is fundamentally contradictory of film’s narrative promise of providing a world into which the viewer may escape. The emergence of digital technology directly calls into question what constitutes a produced moving image and raises the question: does cinema need to be photographic to be considered cinema?

Digital cinema is often understood as digital effects in movies (McLean, 2007), in which a digital component is added to a photographically captured image, keeping true with Manovich’s definition. Much like animated films, the digital is often understood within a culturally cemented understanding of cinema as “film,” in that digital technology is processed in relation to photographically captured images. But what constitutes a pure photographed image? While a camera captures "actual" reality, that reality is represented on film differently than the eye may perceive it. While the camera is an obvious technological extension of physiological components of the eye and the brain, as is all of cinema, but what can we account for as truly being "real." Digital images on film represent a component of cinema outside of "film," yet it is often comfortably situated amongst our ideology of cinema as film. Therefore, digital images are designed to stand-in for “the real” (McLean, 2007); they synthetically add elements to a composition that the camera did not capture, but they are still positioned as such.

In terms of classical filmmaking, digital effects often serve the same purpose in their execution of classical norms and conventions (McLean, 2007). Since The Abyss (1989), digital effects have become increasingly prevalent in American filmmaking, in both big budget blockbusters, e.g. the computer generated dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), the shape-shifting T-1000 in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1992), or the spider-bots in Minority Report (2002), and lower budgeted art-house and independent films. How these digital effects are employed often vary incredibly. Nevertheless, their design remains the same: they exist as digitally added components of a photographically captured image. Although they do not take up space as “real” elements of a composition might, they are meant to feel that way. They may be incorporated to add to the narrative as the viewer sees it, in reflexive films such as the consumer apartment sequence in Fight Club (1999) or the visual presentation of Harold Crick’s very structured lifestyle in Stranger Than Fiction (2006), or they may be used to enhance a composition dramatically in small, almost undetectable ways.

Although their use varies depending on the narrative, genre, and stylistic aspects of a film, digital effects are meant to appear to take up the same space as the filmed aspects of a frame. Thus, these effects may be understood as organic extensions of classical filmmaking styles. While they exist to expand photographic capabilities, their place in narrative filmmaking is to sustain the elements of style as established by norms and standards defined long before the technology existed (McLean, 2007). However, digital effects are of growing prominence in many different films to the point that they work against their supposed purpose of upholding already established stylistic conventions. The fact that they are noticed and that the viewer can identify whether an aspect of a composition is “real” or not signifies a separation of the digital from the analog, a separation suggesting a tension. If the viewer can identify that a particular image or component of an image is digital, then the digital is not serving its purpose to stand-in for what the camera can actually capture.

An interesting example of the dualistic relationship between the digital and the analog is Star Wars: Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005), a film that is realistically about 90 percent digital effects and 10 percent “real”. This is of course a rough approximation. The point is that an overwhelming portion of the film exists entirely digitally, which calls into question whether it should be called a film at all. It is a prime example of the shift Manovich explains in which cinema is being launched back into the realm of animation, becoming more of a painterly art than a photographic art. However, it returns to its painterly roots after having been strongly influenced by photographic properties, as mentioned previously, which can result in problematic ways of conceptualizing cinema. Herein lies the tension.

How digital images (both digital effects and digitally captured images) sustain classical filmmaking traditions through its photographic qualities is evident in Star Wars: Revenge of Sith, which follows a specific stylistic and narrative design. This makes it an interesting artifact of study for exactly how those stylistic and narrative elements are communicated, sustained, or altered through the film’s reliance on digital effects. However, its outward embracing of digital technology is subsidized by its use of such technologies to form a narrative that may have existed without it. The digital components of the film are designed to be perceived as analogically real. Therefore, the film’s attempt at classical structuring and stylistic devices is ultimately artificial. Compositions, movements, editing, and photography employ the digital to execute a thoroughly analog image; but such an image is not possible under digital terms Thus, the digital effects are essentially counteractive to the film’s intent of sustaining classical filmmaking and narrative values.

These films decisively exemplify the tension between “film” and “digital.” Many critics have lambasted the films and other effects-heavy productions, citing that they are overly reliant on effects and therefore not really “films”. Nevertheless, despite being problematic, the Star Wars prequel trilogy represents a significant exploration of digital technology in cinema; often times, they result in awkward movement-image effects, but there are moments laden throughout all three recent films that display a true time-image in their marriage of the digital and the analog to the point that they are unnoticeable and the image itself becomes new. Rarely are these moments seen, however, since many scholars have focused on the movement-images. Such criticisms tend focus on the presence of the digital and the presumption that a “filmed” reality results in more effective cinema. But this too is a problematic approach.

Since cinema has been defined by its photographic qualities for more than a century, the emergence of the digital as positioned in relation to that century’s worth of photographic properties seems to establish digital cinema as a betrayal of cinema's "realness." But cinema, in its narrative origins and manipulative nature, is a fundamental distortion of “reality” in that it locks movement to a specific space and time not our own; that is its purpose. From a Deleuzian episteme, one that collapses language and technology, cinema is not a representation. Therefore, to focus on the notion that a camera better captures a world and represents it than digital images do is incredibly problematic. Cinema is its own world; it’s own image. It does not represent and replicate movement but creates movement (and therefore time) in its complex compositional relations and elements, which constantly transmogrify to interact with one another so as to form an image that a spectator can “see” (Deleuze, 1989). The extent to which the spectator can “see” the whole image – essentially, that which is unseeable – depends upon those very relations that forge the movement on screen. Therefore, the problem with the Star Wars films isn’t in them being so reliant on digital technology, but rather in how they employ digital technology for the purpose of recreating the movement-image. To focus on the overwhelming presence of digital effects in the Star Wars films as the reason for their problematic nature is more a reflection of the ideology that the term “film” and film language imposes and assume on cinema and its spectators.

Deleuze claims that in its abilities to embody sight and sound as the eye, ears, and brain capture it, cinema becomes another world, another image, rather than a mere representation of perceptions of stimuli (Deleuze, 1986). Since cinema is a culmination of various media and technologies, to envision its properties as purely photographic would be to limit its capabilities and its visual potential. Nevertheless, the properties of language have categorized cinema and its narrative components to be a certain way, as is reflected in the recent Star Wars films, thus shaping an understanding not only of its content, but of the form itself.