News and Commentary – What We Want from the Movies

What do we want from the movies?  Let us summarily dismiss questions of taste.  Movies are like wine—you can’t tell someone what to like.  The wine you like is the wine you like.  So too it is with cinema. To talk about what we want from the movies, then, is to ask something less personal but more profound: what is it that we value in a film; that is, by what criteria do we to consider a movie worthy not simply of our affection, but our attention? 

This question has inspired me here, as one of my heroes once described, “to cast [my] half-baked bread on the waters, [and] trust on the efficacy and cooperation of many minds.” And in that spirit I offer this tentative manifesto, summarizing five elements that ought to be valued in a movie, ranked loosely in order of importance:  A movie worth talking about should have something to say.  It should be authentic, and aesthetically rewarding.  It should be an expression of the form, and reflect a distinct voice.

Something to say.  In the essential Dylan documentary No Direction Home, Bob Neuwirth recalled, with some pride, what served as the gold standard for the musicians of the 1960s: whether or not they “had something to say,” which “was basically how people were rated.”  This is not as daunting a challenge as it might seem.  Most movies have something to say—even movies that are designed to be fun. (Arthur has something to say. The In-laws has something to say. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn, has something to say.)  Having “something to say,” however, implicates content: it’s also what you have to say, and being held accountable for it.  Pretty Woman had something to say—something dishonest, retrograde, and morally reprehensible. 

Authenticity.  A film worth our time should be a sincere expression of the intention of its creators.  Let us not mince words: A movie with an ending that was changed due to reaction of a preview audience is a lie.  And a bad lie at that, because changing the ending does violence to everything that came before, leaving the film not just soulless, but incoherent.  Movies tell stories, but they are, necessarily, radical abstractions even from the fictional “realities” that they present—they show some things and not others, and with particular stylistic expressions and distinct perspectives all chosen from a vast range of possibilities. These choices should be thoughtful and, especially in retrospect, logical. Thus upon first viewing an ending might surprise, but during subsequent screenings that conclusion should seem increasingly inevitable, as the choices made by the filmmakers along the way, however subtle and easily missed at first, mark the path towards its destination.  And more generally, on authenticity, if the movie is faking, why should we care about it?  

Beauty.  Following the credo of the French New Wave, truth is more important than beauty, and so authenticity has the higher priority. But film is an art form, and so once we’ve got truth covered, enormous value can be placed on the aesthetic qualities of a movie. Direction, cinematography, dialogue and story, production design, editing, and, of course, performance – the artistic achievements of the constituent parts that make a movie – are there for us to be observed and appreciated.  Ideally such talents are not on call for the purpose of showing off—however well done, these elements should be in harmony with one another, thematically appropriate, and, always, in the service of the story.  (Jack Lemmon’s monologue in Short Cuts is a marvelous performance in a great movie—but it is so spellbinding it almost stands apart from the action rather than fitting in.)

Filminess.  Movies are movies.  They are of course commonly adaptations of books and plays, but they are not books.  And they are not plays.  If you want the book, read the book.  Go see the play.  A movie adaptation is not a “version” of something else, it is a film inspired by other material.  Film is a distinct art form, and, to invoke Sydney Greenstreet, when we talk about film, we’re talking about film.  And so to the extent that a movie can be recognized as an expression of the cinematic form – one that, ultimately, is only intelligible as a movie – is a quality to be held in esteem.

Voice.  This is a more controversial proposition, because it risks getting bogged down into endless controversies about the primacy of the director.  And my own view is that film is an essentially (and especially) collaborative art.  But without embracing a narrow or dogmatic commitment to auteur theory, I am prepared to advance the notion that it is better for a movie to be the recognizable expression of a distinct voice – or, if you prefer, of a distinct house style (which invites greater recognition of other participants) – than one which appeared to have rolled off an assembly line.  To recognize, from the first reel, that we can say “this is a Rohmer” or a Hitchcock, or an Ozu—this is preferable to the anonymous. 

There they are, five elements that describe what we want from the movies.  Though as Bill Murray in Ghostbusters might have put it, “actually, they are more guidelines than rules.”  And also, of course, a movie might display all of these five elements, and it might do so with verve and panache—and you still might not like it.  And that would be ok.