Friday, June 12, 2015

When less is more

I’ve been watching film noir movies lately, specifically the classic films done after World War II, when a new consciousness emerged. It accepted the world as a flawed and dangerous place, and the people in it equally flawed and equally dangerous. It is also because the movies that are described as noir are artfully conceived.

For instance, yesterday I watched a DVD of Crossfire, a 1947 movie with a theme of intolerance and ignorance. It originated with the Richard Brooks novel, The Brick Foxhole, which was about a homosexual murder, but the movie censors in 1947 would have none of that. The producers changed the character to a Jew.

Crossfire was produced as a B-movie, with a small budget. But because it is so well made and broke new ground (confronting anti-Semitism), it was nominated for five Academy Awards and in addition, it did well at the box office.

As director Edward Dmytryk explained it, during the opening scene he wanted to cut the expense of a fight scene, plus keep the murderer’s identity a secret. So he and his cinematographer devised a shadow-play fight. As the movie opens we see the shadows of two figures struggling, we hear the sound of blows being landed. In a 90-second sequence we are given all the information we need that someone is being beaten to death. It is confirmed as the sequence ends when the dead man is flung into camera range.

What was done to save expense actually is a brilliant move on the part of the filmmaker.

When more is too much

Crossfire successfully avoids displays of violence, and presents a suspenseful story through dialogue and human interaction. I wonder if the modern film viewer, addicted to special effects and graphic violence, would accept a story told in such a way.

Special effects are sometimes being used in lieu of making a good movie with a good story. I am not opposed to CGI, but massive action sequences using CGI can actually be boring, rather than exciting.

I found myself yawning during the battle over Metropolis in the Superman movie starring Henry Cavill as the Man of Steel. Was it really any better than the original two Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve, which used comparatively low-tech effects? In one of the infamous hacked Sony memos there was an executive who complained that in Man of Steel (2013) Superman crashed through the windows onto the floor of office buildings more than once (I counted three times). Why? Because money was spent on the effects and the filmmakers could not waste those repetitive shots?

I admit I am not part of the demographic the filmmakers are looking for. They want to bring in young audiences, the guys who play video games, and maybe those guys love that sort of action. The mindless scenes of violence and destruction, accompanied by eardrum-busting sound effects, induce boredom in me, not admiration.

Apparently I am not the only movie viewer who thinks this way.  Sarah Larson, at, wrote an opinion piece called, “An Open Letter To the White Walker Army,” which, among other points concerning an attack by zombies in a recent episode of Game of Thrones, says:
“To be fair, White Walker Army, it’s not just you. It’s the entire tradition of long, boring fight scenes in movies, on TV, everywhere, made more stultifying by recent years’ onslaught of visual effects, able to conjure anything. I’m sure they enchant some of us, including their creators [Emphasis mine]: you wights, for example, appear in various lovingly rendered stages of decomposition. Some of you are “super-fresh,” dead for a week or two, your flesh only beginning to fall off; some are “mid-decomps,” dead six months to two years, and looking terrible; and some are greenscreen wights, dead as a doornail with decomp to match, rattling around full of negative space. I’m not a zombie connoisseur, but to me, all of you nincompoops, however brilliantly executed, have the emotional pull of an army of ants, minus the ants’ dignified social structures and attractive formic-acid exoskeletons.

Many people love battle scenes and C.G.I.; zillions of them strap on headsets to kill friends and strangers in live-shooter video games all over the world. Plenty of those people must find zombie battles exciting, whole fields of yuckos scrapping and yelling and dying; to me, they’re just a lot of frantic silliness.”
I just love it when thinking people agree with me. It makes me feel I am not alone.


Kirk said...

There's a similar shadow fight in Cat People (1942) though that's between a man and a panther. Do that movie today and I'm sure they'd show the panther, and not the panther's shadow, ripping the poor fellow to shreds.

Postino said...

Did you see Cat People, the remake with Nastassja Kinski, about 1982 or so? It was much more graphic, an objection critic Pauline Kael had.

I think people today are too desensitized to graphic gore and violence, and subtleties such as shadow play would not do for them.

Kirk said...

I did see the one with Nastassja Kinski, but a long time ago. I'm sure it was more graphic, but for some reason the violence doesn't stick in my memory. Which brings up another point, unless it comes as a complete surprise, such as the guy getting his head blown off in Pulp Fiction, I tend not to remember graphic violence very well. I'm not shocked or offended by graphic violence, I just find it boring if it goes on too long. I don't know if that's desensitization or not.