Thursday, 30 May 2019

The Cabbage Fairy

Une naissance de cinéma?

A barely sixty second theatrical stylisation, which, by virtue of being recorded by a motion picture camera, becomes cinema. Here a woman, the "fairy" of the title, dances a magical dance among the cabbage patch. The early cinema was full of dances. Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) and the related Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) both by William Kennedy Dickson, A Serpentine Dance (1896), this time by Georges Méliès, and Au bal de flore (1900), also by Alice Guy-Blaché. Perhaps this was merely a convenience on the part of these early filmmakers desperate to find a particular subject matter that would lend itself to the specific selling points of the moving image? However, I like to think it was an effort to dramatise something of the dance of light that occurred when a strip of celluloid passed through the projector.

As the story continues, the "fairy" begins plucking newborn babies from the behind the cabbage leaves and placing them surreptitiously on the cold hard ground. Robbed of its specific context and this description sounds especially horrifying; like a kind of proto-Lynchian nightmare befitting a film like Eraserhead (1977). However, if we were to read the subject-matter on a more metaphorical and less presentational level, then it becomes difficult to see the film as anything other than a work that seeks to find a connection between the fantasy of childbirth (as depicted here) and the birth of the cinema itself a nascent innovation.


The Fairy of the Cabbages [Alice Guy-Blaché, 1896/1900]:

The Fairy of the Cabbages has frequently been called the first narrative feature. I think the term is interesting because it points to a possible origin of how the distinction between "fiction" and "reality" in regards to film classification first came to be. Why is The Fairy of the Cabbages considered a work of narrative, but a film like Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory in Lyon (1895) isn't? Because the latter was an actuality and as such exists only as a historical document, while the former had theatrical effects, costumes and make-up? I don't think so. If we adhere to the notion that "every picture tells a story" then the film by the brothers Lumière is no less a narrative than the one by Guy-Blaché. Both films tell a story.

Nonetheless, the distinction between a "film" (meaning fiction) and a "documentary" (which is often approached by the arbiters of cinematic culture as somehow separate to "films"; like, as if it's fine to place Aguirre, the Wrath of God [1972] alongside Fitzcarraldo [1982], but hardly ever alongside Grizzly Man [2005]) continues to this day. However, between the influence of the Lumière's and the influence of Guy-Blaché, we can see that the ideological struggle between the cinema of social realism and the cinema of escapism is not merely reserved for contemporary considerations on the disparity between Ken Loach and the Walt Disney studios, but is something that has existed from the very origins of the medium itself. The Fairy of the Cabbages, both as a metaphorical study and as a piece of surviving history, represents a birth of cinema, but maybe not the birth of it.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

George Lucas

Architect of the Modern Blockbuster

I recently began writing two successive blog posts that were essentially extended rants about the aesthetics of the modern blockbuster. So far I haven't been able to finish them, perhaps because deep down I suspect they contribute very little to the current discussion beyond clinging to an imaginary standard that never really existed. The crux of each post is tangentially related to the look and stylisation of the Hollywood blockbuster as typified by the contemporary films of the Walt Disney studio, and by extension, its ever ubiquitous Marvel subsidiary.

My main issue with these films - beyond their derivative nature, questionable moral subtext and obvious cash-grab mentality - is that, in their over-reliance upon green-screen technology, motion-capture imagery and elaborate computer generated effects, they seek to mimic the artificial look of the modern video game, but without the interactive, immersive aspects that make video games so compelling and multi-dimensional in their storytelling capabilities.

While I will attempt to finish these posts at some point in the not too distant future, the subject matter nonetheless got me thinking about George Lucas. Lucas is someone whose work I appreciate only in fragments, but nonetheless he's a filmmaker I find myself coming to the defence of whenever he's criticised for spurious reasons. Like Fritz Lang before him, Lucas could be described as the architect of the modern blockbuster. Countless filmmakers, from Griffith to Godard, Eisenstein to Hitchcock, could be charged with having changed the course of the popular cinema, but Lucas has the rare distinction of having changed it twice.


George Lucas on the set of Star Wars, circa 1976-77 [photo-credit: Lucasfilm]:

With the release of the original Star Wars (1977), Lucas would build on the populist run of earlier 1970s blockbusters - including, most prominently, The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975) and Rocky (1976) - to create a film that placed the emphasis squarely on spectacle, engagement and escapism. In doing so, the success of the film and its subsequent shift in focus towards marketing and merchandise, brought to an end a short-period in American moviemaking where the watchwords were introspection, cynicism and ambiguity.

While earlier films of this period, such as Midnight Cowboy (1969), Easy Rider (1969), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Taxi Driver (1976) to name a few, had centred on the perspective of drop-outs and anti-heroes, the theme of America's loss of innocence and the realities of male prostitution, poverty, drug abuse, the Kennedy assassination and the war in Vietnam, Star Wars would instead bring fantasy and mythmaking back to the popular cinema with a story intentionally aimed at the largest possible demographic. As such, it was devoid of anything that might prove to be too challenging, experimental or mature. While the techniques and special effects were groundbreaking for the period, extending as they did on the innovations of Stanley Kubrick's great masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the storytelling and characterisations - that theme of good against evil - were intentionally retrograde; closer in fact to a 1950s western or science-fiction serial than to a contemporary work such as The Passenger (1975), All the President's Men (1976) or 3 Women (1977).

Star Wars would prove to be a genuine cultural phenomenon. It spawned a billion dollar franchise, a host of native and international imitators, and changed the way subsequent filmmakers and studios thought about genre, merchandise and special effects. Tellingly, it's a story that is still being told to this day, with five additional "Star Wars" movies finding their way to the multiplexes during the last five years and at least another five planned for the coming decade. This longevity makes Star Wars arguably the most influential film of the twentieth century.


Star Wars [George Lucas, 1977]:

Two decades after Star Wars, Lucas would reshape the cinema once again with the release of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). While not as fondly remembered as the first film, or even its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), directed by Irvin Kershner, and Return of the Jedi (1983), directed by Richard Marquand, I would still argue that the success of The Phantom Menace solidified the modern infatuation with the "brand" in popular cinema. Outside of the James Bond series, The Phantom Menace was a film that proved to Hollywood executives that an intellectual property with enough brand recognition could transcend the generations; that a self-contained film that already had a clearly defined beginning, middle and end could still be mined for more content, so long as such content was marketed as a genuine event.

In the same year that original works like The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense and The Matrix were establishing a cultural identity for their own era, The Phantom Menace was appealing to nostalgia. It was a throwback movie, specifically manufactured to bring in the now adult audiences that grew up with the original trilogy and the young audiences that had discovered the series more recently through repeat showings on television or re-branded "special-editions" on VHS. The Phantom Menace provided the blueprint that studio executives have followed ever since: find an old property with a built-in fan base and create a follow-up that also functions as a thinly-veiled remake. In its construction, The Phantom Menace was designed to satiate the appetite for a new Stars Wars movie, but it was also intended as a way of re-introducing the franchise to a new audience. It presented a mirror image of the original narrative - with its young hero taken under the wing of a Jedi master to learn the ways of the force, who meets a series of colourful, mostly non-human supporting characters, and then gets to grapple with the lure of the dark side - but with enough minor cosmetic changes to appear new.

In its success - $1 billion at the worldwide box office to date - The Phantom Menace inadvertently created the precedent for later franchise reboots such Batman Begins (2005), Casino Royale (2006), Alice in Wonderland (2010), Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), Fast Five (2015), Jurassic World (2015), Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), Ghostbusters (2016), Ocean's Eight (2018), Halloween (2018), and so on. The brand became king.

If the original Star Wars had helped to change the way movies were marketed, promoted and sold to an audience, then the innovations of the Star Wars prequel trilogy also helped to define a new language that subsequent blockbusters have taken to imitate, almost as a standard. Over the course of their production, Lucas would move away from location filming, relying instead on having his actors perform scenes in front of a giant green-screen, with the backdrops added-in digitally during post-production. By the second instalment he was no longer shooting on 35mm film, but pioneering the use of high-definition digital cinematography, which is now commonplace.

To this day, the stylisation of the Star Wars prequels is a point of contention among fans. Compared to the original trilogy, The Phantom Menace seems garish and artificial. For all of its pioneering effects work, the original Star Wars was a modestly budgeted adventure film that still showed the influence of Lucas's work on his earlier, "new Hollywood" movies, THX 1138 (1971) and American Graffiti (1973); markedly more grounded, even gritty films. The special effects of Star Wars may have been a little more elaborate, but it wasn't a film without precedent. One could recognise its aesthetic in everything from the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, to films like Silent Running (1972), Logan's Run (1976) or the television show Star Trek (1966-1969). By point of contrast, who else in 1999 was making films that looked like this?


Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace [George Lucas, 1999]:

Images taken from: https://starwarsscreencaps.com/star-wars-episode-i-the-phantom-menace-1999/

Flash-forward twenty years later and it's difficult to think of a mainstream blockbuster that doesn't look like this. From Sin City (2005) to 300 (2007), from The Last Airbender (2010) to A Wrinkle in Time (2018), from The Avengers (2012) to Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), from Jupiter Ascending (2015) to Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017), to Black Panther (2018) and beyond, the visual language of The Phantom Menace has become ubiquitous. That it now represents the absolute aesthetic criterion for all big-budget Hollywood and international cinema makes it easy to forget that this particular style had no real visual precedent prior to Lucas's film. For all of its faults and shortcomings, The Phantom Menace was a genuine game-changer.

While analogous blockbusters, such as The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001), would employ green-screen technology and extensive CGI, the result was still somewhat closer to '90s era blockbusters like Jurassic Park (1993) and Independence Day (1995), or a then contemporary film like The Matrix (1999), where, despite the reliance on computer generated manipulation and digital world-building, there was still an actuality to the images; a sense of real actors interacting with "real" locations and comparatively more naturalistic lighting. In those films, the special effects were mostly being added into live action environments. By contrast, The Phantom Menace went all-in, creating fully realised digital worlds that its real-life actors could explore and interact with. It was taking the CGI world-building of Pixar's work, such as Toy Story (1995), and bringing that technology into the conventions of the live action cinema.

The subsequent films of Lucas's trilogy, Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005), would only push the visual aesthetic even further. By the time the third and most visually sophisticated of the three films was eventually released, Hollywood had finally caught up. Even Peter Jackson and the Wachowski's were now following in the same direction with their subsequent efforts, King Kong (2005) and Speed Racer (2008) respectively. The language of these films was being translated; the standard was being set.


Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith [George Lucas, 2005]:

Images taken from: https://starwarsscreencaps.com/star-wars-episode-iii-revenge-of-the-sith-2005/


King Kong [Peter Jackson, 2005]:

Images taken from: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDReviews21/king_kong_2005_dvd_review.htm


Speed Racer [Lana & Lilly Wachowski, 2008]:


Guardians of the Galaxy [James Gunn, 2014]:

While I'm no great fan of this particular style of filmmaking, one has to concede that it's now a recognisable part of the language of the modern blockbuster. Audiences are able to accept visuals of this nature as the new normal, while for me they still feel alien to my conception of cinema based on the kind of films I grew up with. However, with the subsequent release of every new modern blockbuster, from the aforementioned Black Panther, to Aquaman (2018) or Alita: Battle Angel (2019), or to the more directly related Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018), the technical and aesthetic influence of Lucas and his prequel trilogy is plainly felt.

And yet, Lucas is not a reference point for modern-critics when they rhapsodise about this kind of cinema. The negative perception of the prequel trilogy means that the kind of heightened imagery and CGI stylisations that Lucas helped to normalise are not a part of the filmmaker's current narrative. For many, the prequel trilogy was unnecessary and remains a black mark in the history of the franchise. For older critics, Lucas's innovations are tired to his success and his success remain in the past; for younger audiences, the modern cinema has taken its current shape simply because the available technology has enforced a kind of designated user-model. Maybe such opinions hold truth. But the fact remains it was Lucas who made that first great leap into this kind of new-digital aesthetic, which Hollywood (and elsewhere) has eventually followed.

In the same way that a filmmaker like M. Night Shyamalan receives nothing but scorn and derision from the mainstream American film culture, even when hugely successful and acclaimed works like The Dark Knight (2008), A Quiet Place (2017), Us (2019) and the upcoming Midsommar (2019) are plainly modelled on (if not derivative of) the style and themes of his own films - specifically Unbreakable (2000), Signs (2002) and The Village (2004) respectively - so too has Lucas's legacy been intentionally diminished.

I think there's an element of spite in each of these instances. Since Lucas and Shyamalan both made films that became successful enough to be considered a "cultural phenomena", their historical significance was assured. As such, it's been important for the establishment to ensure that this early success is the only thing these filmmakers are known for; even if it means sabotaging the reception and reputation of their subsequent work. To wilfully deny any filmmaker their obvious influence on more acclaimed cinema is, culturally speaking, shameful.

Saturday, 25 May 2019

Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy


Adventures in jazz discovery

On a personal note, I love how so many of the great jazz albums use modern art imagery as an influence on their sleeve designs. "Bird and Diz" (1952), "Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet" (1957), "Time Out" (1959), "Mingus Ah Um" (1959), "Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation" (1961), "Getz/Gilberto" (1963). Like those albums and others, the cover art for "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is pure abstract expressionism; the imagery capturing something of the sparse, near-ambient nature of the music contained within. As an explosion of modernism - which suggests images and emotions, as opposed to outright stating them in clear or simple terms - the artwork evokes the music and vice versa; creating a statement, both aesthetically and culturally; framing jazz, the genre, as somehow existing hand-in-hand with the earlier twentieth-century innovations in modern art.

As a record, or as an experience, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" could be described as like entering a darkened room with a mosquito. At first, the constant vibrations of the insect, as it buzzes, unseen, in the darkness, might evoke a particular sense of discomfort; a feeling of anxiety that suggests something bad or unpleasant is about to take place. Give it time however, and the hissing, whirring and buzzing sounds of the instrumentation as it passes from speaker to speaker, phased, as if again like an insect, dive-bombing around the head and ears of the attentive listener, becomes immersive, even hypnotic. Listen hard enough through the clamour and cacophony, and the melodies and counter melodies, the locked-in rhythms, become clear.


Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy [Sun Ra and His Myth Science Arkestra, 1967]:

The opening track, 'And Otherness', feels like a clarion call across a desolate plain. North African influences seem to swirl about its discordant horn-sounds and complex rhythms, adding little blocks of colour and atmosphere throughout. There's an air of the ceremonial about this - something regal and majestic almost; like it could be the soundtrack to the inauguration of some new God-head or future king - but it's all too fragmented, as if the event is being recalled from the depths of an out-of-body experience or a chemically induced daze. 'And Otherness' sets a tone for the rest of the album, embodying the kind of free expressionism that typifies subsequent tracks, such as 'Thither and Yon', or the epic 'Adventure-Equation.' Here things start to stray into the realm of the pre-psychedelic, with its distorted drum pattern and layers of additional percussion building slowly; so drenched in echo and reverberation that the rhythm track becomes like the heavy flutter of a billion butterfly wings. Later, the horns arrive in waves of melody, ebbing and flowing across the tribal bedrock of drowned percussion, trilling and ringing; threatening to become a song in the conventional sense before unravelling again into something less structured, more formless, more free.

Side two of the record is a thing of beauty. Moving from 'Moon Dance', with its at-first cacophonous use of percussion - which sounds like a junkyard orchestra hammering on the trashcans, or like a heavy storm rattling the pots and pans - it soon reveals a complex system of rhythms all rolling then breaking, catching a staccato grove, then fragmenting into organs and other instruments, all blowing bursts of melody, notes and noise. The lo-fi nature of the recording suggests something amateur or homemade but the talent on display is nothing of the sort. The final track, 'Voice of Space' is an almost eight minute excursion into ambient minimalism, with the same fluttering percussion and seesawing brass and woodwinds suggesting further hints of melody, before separating along paths of discordant expression. Some of the instrumentation seems to recall the influence of "Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima" by Krzysztof Penderecki, where the music has an inherent tension; a kind of clenching and unclenching of the figurative fists. Stabs of organ, like an ambulance siren, throw colour through the darkness, suggest an influence for the iconic introduction to the classic 1967 Van Morrison song, T.B. Sheets.

Recorded in 1963 but not released until 1967, "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is one of the many highlights of Sun Ra's prolific and pioneering career. While other albums would combine and refine his various influences - including jazz, funk, psychedelia, quote/unquote 'world music' and the foundations of what would eventually be termed Afrofuturism - "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is much sparser, seemingly less structured, but no less compelling. Every Sun Ra album seems to have its own colour and texture, capturing as it does a specific mood that sustains itself throughout. "Cosmic Tones for Mental Therapy" is no exception.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

Let the Devil Tempt Us

Jean-Claude Brisseau
In Memoriam

According to reports from the French mainstream media, filmmaker Jean-Claude Brisseau has passed away. A controversial figure in contemporary cinema, Brisseau had a style and sensibility that was singular, provocative and often charged with the supernatural. As an early disciple of Éric Rohmer, Brisseau shared his mentor's affinity for scenes of leisurely conversation, where set-pieces would often consist of two characters sitting down in a park or public space to discuss their relationships, the world and the mysteries of the universe. Unlike Rohmer's films however, such scenes were often punctuated by moments of brutal violence, a reverence to genre and explicit sexuality.

My introduction to Brisseau's cinema came in 2014 when I saw his penultimate feature, The Girl from Nowhere (2012). I can't remember what it was that brought the film to my attention but I do remember reading a plot synopsis and finding similarities to two of my favourite films from the same period: Lady in the Water (2006) by M. Night Shyamalan and Ondine (2009) by Neil Jordan. I've always had a personal interest in films about mysterious characters coming into contact with protagonists that have given up on life, and in doing so, bestow upon them a renewed sense of purpose. Added to this a particular fondness for films that deal with myths and miracles from a semi-plausible perspective and The Girl from Nowhere seemed a sure thing.


The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:

With its phantoms and its haunted memories, its strange encounters and premonitions, its relaxed conversations and discussions on art, the cinema, loneliness and grief, to say nothing of its thread of self-reflexivity, in which the protagonist's attempt to commit his memories to the page creates a subtle mirroring between the content of the character's text and the fantastical story unfolding on-screen, The Girl from Nowhere remains a fascinating and distinctive work. With its micro-budget aesthetic, its use of the director's own apartment as the principle location and its homemade special-effects, it also provided a template for my own work and the kind of films I wanted to make but never did. To this day, an image  from The Girl from Nowhere sits at the top of this very blog and provides a kind of shorthand for the type of cinema I find most bewitching.

Brisseau made other films that I love just as much as The Girl From Nowhere. Sound and Fury (1988) - which takes its title from a quotation from Shakespeare's Macbeth and has a similar juxtaposition between power structures, violence as a means to an end and the supernatural - finds the filmmaker following a line of influence from The 400 Blows (1959) to L'Enfance Nue (1968) with another film about a childhood on the fringes unravelling into brutality. In this film, Brisseau makes his first great leap in the aesthetic union between social-realism and poetic-realism, setting a template for the concerns and images that would come to haunt his later, more controversial features, such as Céline (1992), The Black Angel (1994), Secret Things (2002), The Exterminating Angels (2006) and À L'Aventure (2008).

Each of these films could be described as mysterious, hypnotic, classical and provoking, and would be more than worthy of a full, essay-length analysis of their respective strengths and weaknesses, and how well they deepen and enrich the political, aesthetic and metaphysical dialogues that run throughout Brisseau's work. In lieu of this kind of tribute please accept this small gallery of images taken from my favourite of Brisseau's films.


A Brutal Game [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1983]:


Sound and Fury [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1988]:


Céline [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 1992]:


Workers for the Good Lord [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2000]:


The Exterminating Angels [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2006]:


À L'Aventure [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2008]:


The Girl from Nowhere [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2012]:


Let the Devil Tempt Us [Jean-Claude Brisseau, 2018]:

Brisseau's final feature-length film, Let the Devil Tempt Us, was released last year (re-titled for English speaking audiences as the less compelling "Tempting Devils"). Understandably, sexual harassment allegations brought against Brisseau following the release of his scandalous but hugely successful late-feature, the aforementioned Secret Things, effectively ended his reputation as a respectable filmmaker of merit. Outside of France his work has drifted into obscurity. Very few (if any) English-speaking media outlets have mourned his passing, or used the occasion to open up avenues of discussion surrounding his work. While one must treat allegations of sexual misconduct with the upmost seriousness and concern, the attempts to suppress the films of Brisseau - or those by Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Šarūnas Bartas, etc, etc. - seem reactionary, if not totalitarian, and do a great disservice to the many actors, technicians and collaborators who contributed to these works, and especially to the films produced prior to such allegations being made.

When groups talk of inclusivity, they often refer to social justice issues regarding representation. More female voices, more transgender voices, more voices from a non-white, non-western background. Such ideals are laudable and worth fighting for. But true inclusivity is also acknowledging that great art can be produced by anyone. From the most virtuous saint to the lowliest sinner, each of us has a story to tell, and a way of looking at the world that is unique, distinctive and possessing of our own inherent truth. Art is a way of looking at the world through different perspectives. Whether the artist comes from a place of vice or virtue, we can still learn something from seeing the world from their particular point of view.

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Lost Art

A Question of Aesthetics?

Below, several images from Sergei Bondarchuk's noted adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace", released in four feature-length instalments between 1965 and 1967, and included here as a reminder that "epic cinema" - even at its most conventional and mainstream - was once purely visual and spectacular in a way that the modern "event" cinema scarcely is.

Stumbling across an image from Bondarchuk's film on social media I was immediately struck by its iconography, its scale, its bold shot composition and its tremendous use of light and colour. Looking at this initial frame was like looking at a painting; it brought to mind the work of the great masters, Velázquez, Turner, Friedrich, etc. Following the link from the initial image brought me to the indispensable Blu-ray review site DVDBeaver where my mouth fell open at the sheer scale and spectacle of its captured images.


War and Peace [Sergei Bondarchuk, 1965 - 1967]:

Images taken from DVD Beaver: http://www.dvdbeaver.com/film/DVDCompare/war_and_peace_blu-ray.htm

Images like the ones presented above are thrilling because they point to a time when the cinema really mattered. A time when film was the dominant form of visual storytelling and when movies were statements, ambitious in their attempts to create not just stories but images that endured. Such images are a reminder that films were once recordings of events enacted for the benefit of a camera; that when an audience saw an image of a battle sequence involving literally thousands of extras, they believed the reality of it, because the image contained an element of truth. The viewer was able to appreciate how much planning and organisation went into creating such moments; orchestrating the actors and the movement within the frame, waiting until the wind was blowing the clouds in the right direction, or until the sun was at a specific point in the sky.

This is the lost art of the cinema, which has been diminished through the advancements of computer generated imagery. At a time when every aspect of an image or scene, from the location, to the lighting, to the positions of the actors and even the aspect ratio, can now be created and manipulated in post-production, shots no longer function as recordings of actual events. And while the effect of a film like Avatar (2009) - which was closer to animation than live action - was thrilling in its novel use of new technology to build and sustain a world and to present images that the eye had never before seen, it still can't compare to the sense of awe that is felt when we see the interaction between an actor and a landscape, or the scale of an image where every element of the frame is carefully designed, structured and controlled before the lens.

Compare the images from War and Peace to a recent blockbuster, such as Aquaman (2018), and the heart sinks. The imagery from Bondarchuk's film is immediately arresting. It's complex; loaded with ideas, emotions and connotations. There's an element of artifice, which is unavoidable - the imagery wouldn't be possible without conventional movie lighting, special effects and smoke machines, to say nothing of the photochemical processes used to develop the image itself - but the artifice is more tangible, almost invisible. By contrast, the imagery from Aquaman is like something from a video game. It's artifice is obvious and unconvincing. The imagery is garish, cartoon-like. The shots convey no emotion or ideas; they're simply presentational.

Despite the months and months of pre-planning and pre-visualisation that must have gone into making these shots a reality, they're designed and directed without any sense of prevailing artistry. The shots from War and Peace are framed with an artist's eye. They have an authenticity and an ambition behind them. The shots from Aquaman exist because they're necessary to the story. There's no spectacle or tension to any of these images; no sense of awe or wonder. There's nothing at stake.


Aquaman [James Wan, 2018]:

With a combined length of over seven-hours, War and Peace is a precursor to the kind of modern event serials that audiences now obsess over, and that the critics say have surpassed the cinema in terms of their available talent and storytelling capabilities. I'd always found this claim to be spurious for a variety of reasons and looking at the images from Bondarchuk's film certainly illustrates the absolute void of quality between this and the current entertainments du jour, such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) or the Marvel™ 'cinematic universe.'

Most imagery we see today, either in films or serials (TV or otherwise), is illustrated text. Naturally there are still a number of films made by artistically minded filmmakers who think in terms of images and the context and sub-text that they might express, but the vast majority of consumer content consists of presentational coverage (mostly close-ups), bland colour schemes and cutting to provide pace. A large amount of imagery that we now consume is designed without intelligence or creativity.

While I don't mean any great disrespect by this, I find a programme like Game of Thrones to be devoid of any aesthetic value. Visually it strives to ape the style of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations - specifically the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - but ultimately has production values closer to Xena: Warrior Princes (1995-2001). Its storytelling isn't much better. For all the acclaim and column inches that have been devoted to its recent seasons, Game of Thrones is just a modern-day variation of a soap opera. It's Dallas (1978-1991) for audiences raised on "Harry Potter"; or Dynasty (1981-1989) with dragons and scenes of sexual assault.


Game of Thrones [Various, 2011-2019]:

Images taken from: http://kissthemgoodbye.net/gameofthrones/

Game of Thrones might be spectacular, like a video game, or like a piece of fantasy wall-art, but it isn't aesthetically thrilling in the way that Bondarchuk's film is. Every shot from War and Peace is a marvel of colour and composition. Its special effects are complex and nearly invisible. Its lighting is stylised but naturalistic. Each frame is its own story, expressing various themes and ideas. By contrast the imagery from Game of Thrones is just there. It's essentially coverage, stylised slightly in a way that might be termed "blandly cinematic", but there because the narrative dictates. The special effects are obvious and artificial. The compositions are dull and lifeless. The lighting is either too bright and flat - donating that the shot was created by having an actor stand in front of a studio green screen - or too dark with a permanent blue tint.

Aesthetically, Game of Thrones, like Aquaman, is third-rate filmmaking. Their stories and characters might be compelling and entertaining, but their spectacle is generic. Rather than beguile or inspire an audience through genuinely creativity or originality, they simply numb the viewer into submission through a combination of noisy bombast and grim sensationalism.

That audiences and critics have elevated these works to an absolute pinnacle of modern culture on the basis that they provide escapism alone shows how far the standards have fallen. This isn't to say that such works are terrible or without merit; I'm not saying that these specific examples are among the very worst that modern entertainment has to offer; but it still seems as if mediocrity has now been accepted as the gold standard.

When I saw the images from War and Peace it was a reminder that the term "cinematic" used to mean something; that shots were once composed with such a level of artistry, sophistication and care that they immediately captured the imagination and were transformative in the way that great paintings can be; that the actual tangible spectacle of cinema - its combination of content and form, the power of its performances and the authentic recreation of a specific time and place - could be a special-effect in its own right. I'm not sure if that's the standard that exists today, or if it ever was to begin with? To be continued.