Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Technology vs. Technique

Volpone, clearly forgetting that everything I say is objectively true, takes issue with my statement that innovation is basically a historical rather than artistic matter:

We can fault Casablanca for its style, as casual viewers. Nature, the ultimate casual viewer, did not care that modern medicine was not available to the Romans. They went on dying of diseases now easily preventable, even the ones with the best medicine of their time. That doesn't mean a study of Rome has nothing to offer us, or that medicine Rome wouldn't have been worth the effort. We can't -- or mustn't -- ignore the fact that Casablanca is a stylistically antiquated film. We can choose to accept that and look for those parts of it that still have merit.

For the record, I don't accept the premise that Casablanca is "stylistically antiquated." In fact, the techniques it uses to tell the story -- the style of cutting, the choice of when to move the camera, the placement of the camera and the use of reaction shots -- remain standard throughout the film and television industry. Shoot a movie or TV show today the way Casablanca was shot and no one will consider you a fogey; heck, movies are shot like this all the time. And of course there are some respects in which Casablanca is more technically sophisticated than most movies being made today. The amount of care taken over the lighting, for example, is miles ahead of most movies now; lighting of Ingrid Bergman's face in close-ups is used not just to make her look good but to mirror changes in emotion and mood. I don't think, say, Spider-Man can match these older films in terms of lighting technique. In other words, if the style of Casablanca seems "antiquated" it's in part because it's better-made than most of today's movies, not worse-made.

The technology available to movies has improved, it's true, but the technique of movies, in my opinion, has not. In a previous post, I wrote about a tremendously long and complicated tracking shot in a number from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). With today's superior technology you could move the camera around even more, and faster; the difficulty of moving the old technicolor camera is somewhat visible in Meet Me in St. Louis, if you care to look for signs of the difficulty. But what does it matter? Most movies today are notable for their over-reliance on cutting (harkening back to the movies of the late '20s or early '30s, before movies like Citizen Kane showed the advantages of long takes) and their avoidance of long takes, an avoidance stemming from various factors including, probably, a lack of rehearsal time. I certainly think that that shot in Meet Me in St. Louis is superior, in filmmaking technique, to anything in, say, Chicago.

I'm also generally skeptical that new visual techniques constitute an advance. Volpone mentions Samurai Jack as an advance over previous television shows, and he's not the only one; the reviewer Charles Solomon at blasts the Batman animated series for not using stylized movement the way Samurai Jack does. But it tends to be the rule that stylization wears less well, over the years, than straightforward-looking stuff. The UPA cartoons of the '50s, which were considered the ne plus ultra in animation art at the time, now look rather dated compared to the straightforward Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons. Some of the things that became popular in the late '60s and early '70s fell out of favor again within a few years, such as the use of the zoom lens. In general, new options in visual storytelling tend to come and go, with the old options, the straightforward stuff, dominating.

And as technology advances, the advantages of pure technology become less and less noticeable, with the result that what we thought was an advanced piece of filmmaking can wind up looking terribly dated. Heaven's Gate (1980) relies on more advanced filmmaking technology than Gone With the Wind (1939), but now that both films are technologically outdated, the superior technique of GWTW makes it look far less dated than Heaven's Gate. This will happen to many of today's films. Heck, it's already happening; the CGI effects in movies made only a few years ago are starting to look laughable. Pretty soon Lord of the Rings will seem like a technological dinosaur and it'll have to be judged on its technique and style alone. I think the verdict will be: it's well-made, but it's not as well-made as Casablanca.

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