Is Cinema dying?

cinemaSince its release 3 weeks ago, Furious 7, has been breaking one record after another at the box office, scoring the second-biggest worldwide opening of all time ($397.2 million) behind only Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, and recently has become the fastest to reach the $1 billion at the global box office. Since its launch in 2003, the car chase franchise, Fast and Furious, has collected over $3.5 billion in the global box office.

The phenomenal commercial success of Furious 7 has been attributed to the public’s curiosity in the recreation of its star, Paul Walker, who was killed in a car accident before completing the shoot. Of course, there are other factors, chiefly the thunderous special effects and the out-of-this-world stunts that unstoppably hammer the senses of the audience from beginning to end. Amazingly, in spite of their incredulity and absurdity, these senseless effects have become the most compelling and attractive elements in movies for today’s audience, who flock to cinemas seeking fleeting excitement rather than an engaging dramatic narrative that underpins the art of cinema. The question is: can we consider watching Furious 7, a cinematic experience?

Vision:

Cinema as an art is a specificity of vision, the vision of an artist -the director, who expresses his own thoughts, beliefs, ideas and emotions and engages with audiences’ sensibilities through the aesthetics of visual images. The director develops the screenplay, sometimes with a writer, and chooses his own cast and crew, whom he trusts in achieving his own vision, without the interference of a third party. This of course is not the way blockbusters, such as Furious 7, are made in Hollywood.

When I asked Furious 7’s director, James Wan, about the ambitions he had when he embarked on this project, he said: “The most important thing for me was satisfying the franchise’s fans and audience.” You hear these kind of statements from a baker or any other trader, whose goal is to fulfil the needs of his customers, not an artist who wishes to express himself through his art.

The truth is that the studio didn’t hire Wan to colour the film with his own vision or to reflect on his conception of the meaning of life, but because he had perfected the Hollywood formula in his horror movies, such as Insidious and The Conjuring, which yielded a very impressive box office figures. So all he needed to do was studying the previous Fast and Furious movies in order not to stray from the winning formula, because Hollywood is too wary of the inherited commercial risks of original ideas.

Wan had also to adhere to a screenplay that had been developed by studio writers, who receive their orders, not from the -mostly defunct- development department, but from the international marketing and publicity departments that care little for the artistic merit or integrity of the final product,  concentrating instead on its potential commercial profitability in the increasingly dominant international markets, such as China and Russia, whose audiences are avariciously  hungry for gratuitous violence, absurd action  and special effects.

This shift in Hollywood filmmaking philosophy prompted its critics to argue that what Hollywood has been making in the last 3 decades is not cinema, but rather commercial products called movies. These movies are not helmed by auteurs, but  made by groups of business executives, financiers, lawyers, publicists and marketers, who are ignorant in the art of cinema but excellent in the business of producing and selling commercial products, as they did with Furious 7, which, in spite of lacking vision and substance, has been a commercial miracle.

Substance:

In the early years of cinema, movies consisted of rudimentary scenes, like a train thundering forward or raging ocean waves or swarming crowds in a public gathering. But as the language of cinema evolved, filmmakers were able to tell stories by using actors, music, lighting, cuts in different size and of different angles, and editing to create a coherent narrative, driven by drama, suspense and thrill. All the new cinematic innovations were used to create complex characters who take the audience on a thrilling emotional journey as they endure challenging life experiences such as romance, war, crime…etc.

Of course, characters in movies can be fictitious, invented by the screenwriter or the director, and exist in an illusion of reality, but they are often drawn from the spectator’s reality and act like him in dealing with their challenges and solving their life problems, which makes it easier for the spectator to immerse himself into their world and empathise with them in their predicaments. These stories inflame emotions, provoke thoughts and enlighten the minds, and linger forever.

In contrast, Furious 7 lacks any meaningful substance or compelling characters to emotionally connect with. Instead one leaves the theatre exhausted and indifferent to the chaos that has been witnessed. Obviously, the goal of the film was not telling a story or exploring characters, but rather fleetingly exciting the audience with gratuitous digitally-enhanced action sequences.

Undeniably, cinema creates fake realities, but each reality should be based on some logical rules in order to be accepted by the spectator, and that’s what is frustratingly missing in Furious 7, which features stunts, created by computers, that defy all the rules of logic and physics, stretching the limits of plausibility beyond human acceptability, such as the head-on crash of two speeding cars, rendering them into a twisted wreckage, yet the drivers emerge unscathed and ready for a fight, or the car that tumbles from a precipice of a cliff down a steep valley, disintegrating into metal pieces yet its flesh-made passengers leap out of it in perfect physical condition as if they had just come out of a make-up session. It seems that the filmmakers were so tempted by the infinite possibilities of effects that computers can provide that they lost interest in the logic and credibility.

I am not against the fantastic, but they have to reflect the film’s reality and conform to the laws that underpin it. For instance, it’s not unreasonable to see the application of laser swords in Star Wars battles, because their use is congruent with the space reality that the director created. But the characters of Furious 7 are earthlings made of flesh and blood, not of unbreakable metal, hence it becomes harder to empathise with them when you strip them of their humanity. Therefore, instead of embarking on an emotional journey with the film’s characters, the spectator’s mind is overwhelmed by the racing cars that survive all calamities and sometime fly in the air, without even having wings.

Evidently, the purpose of these effects is not serving the film’s narrative or deepening its characters, but numbing the spectator with inane entertainment, and that was what Vin Diesel, the star and producer of the film, confirmed to me. “Our goal in this film is to innovate the newest and most complex special effects in order to please our fans.”

The Form:

As mentioned earlier, the director utilises a variety of visual tools, such as the size and angle of the shot, editing and music score, to create and enhance the drama in his movie. Sometimes, he extends the shot to give the characters time to reflect or do a seemingly mundane but revealing action in his own environment, giving the spectator the chance to connect and empathise with him. For instance, the long shot in Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” in which the commander inspects his soldiers in their trenches on the front, introduces the commander to the audience through his reactions and the environment that he had to deal with. On the other hand, We can’t connect with the commander in Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” when he arrives to inspect the Japanese bombardment damage because the director cuts too fast for the sake of the fleeting sensationalism, which has become the norm in the current Hollywood movies.

Furious 7 abandons the principles of visual drama and relies on the constant movement at a breathless pace,  igniting temporary sensation rather than emotions and engagement, leaving the audience with vague memory of having been briefly excited rather than the enduring contentment of scenes playing again and again in one’s head.

Hollywood:

Hollywood stands accused, by its critics, of sacrificing the art of cinema for commercial profits, deculturation of movies and the casting away of all manner of dramatic cunning laboriously built up over decades. This is not surprising, because Hollywood is not run by filmmakers but by business people, who answer to their investors in Wall Street. “My job is to keep my company profitable and ensure that my employees provide food to their families. I am a businessman, not an artist,” a studio boss tells me. His statement makes a lot of sense. Then is it right to blame Hollywood for the degradation of cinema?

Hollywood executives’ answer has invariably been: “We just fulfill the public need. As long as there is demand for our movies, we will continue to make them.” Granted, but some charge Hollywood with conditioning the young generation to find the absence of emotions pleasurable by constantly hammering their sensory systems with special effects. But one must not forget the impact of the technology and the internet that has given rise to a new generation that wants everything instantaneously without waiting. This generation demands constant excitement and is easily bored by reflection and contemplation. Will they ever develop a taste for narrative, for character, for suspense, for acting, for irony for wit, for drama? Isn’t it possible that they will be so hooked on sensation that anything without extreme actions and fantasy will just seem lifeless and dead to them?

So it seems that humanity, in its entirety, is regressing and becoming possessed by the machines that provides our needs with astonishing efficiency and speed, whether it’s supplying information via internet searches or producing sensational special effects in Hollywood movies.

Solution:

“If you want substance storytelling then go TV,” a studio executive tells me. Indeed, with their movies failing to compete with Hollywood blockbusters in cinema theatres, many of the great directors and screenwriters have moved to working on TV shows, where they find a creative environment, free of the constraints of Hollywood’s filmmaking. So will TV replace cinema for visual storytelling, and will the cinema theatres transform into special effects venues?

 

Sam Mendes uses two different parts of his brain for Theatre and Cinema

Originating in ancient Athens, theatre had dominated human culture for nearly 2500 years, offering its audience a live performance of actors who communicated their experiences to them through a combination of gesture, song, speech, dance and music, until the advent of cinema, an illusion of moving images that gained a hold on the public imagination.

Unlike theatre, which is confined to a stage and hence often limited to exploring mainly inter-personal conflicts, cinema is able to drop its characters into different environments  whether it’s on earth or space, expanding the scope of conflict and drama.

Since its inception, cinema has ventured to distant lands, the oceans’ abyss and faraway galaxies, reimagined the past and dared to explore the future, and it has even inspired new scientific discoveries. Nonetheless, theatre still remains a formidable and prestigious art of storytelling, and even produced some of the best performers and directors in the world of film. One of them is British Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes, who tells me when I meet him at the Meridien Hotel in New York that Theatre and Cinema are two completely different beasts. “It’s two different parts of my brain,” he says.

Mendes began directing plays in his early twenties at Cambridge university where he studied English literature. Aged 24, he directed Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard in London’s West End, starring Judi Dench. Soon, he joined the Royal Shakespeare company, then the National Theatre before he took the helm of the Donmar Warehouse and ventured, as far as Broadway in New York, becoming one of the most prominent stage directors in the English-speaking world.

In 1999, he made the leap into film with American Beauty, which gained him the Oscar for best director. Ironically though, he doesn’t attribute his success in film to his experience in theatre. “There are certain similarities about film and theatre, but there are many more dissimilarities,” he explains. “I mean, there are similarities in that you’re working with actors and you’re working with a script and you’re working with your visual imagination, but it’s a completely different process in so many ways. Filmmaking is so slow, and it’s not organic.”

Indeed, while plays are made in chronological order, enabling the character to grow and evolve as the story progresses forward, film is usually shot nonlinearly in separate segments, which the director assembles later in the editing the room. “You try to put it all together whereas theatre emerges all at the same time,” he adds.

One wonders then, why so many theatre directors end up migrating to making films?

“The joy of movie as opposed to theatre is it’s 360 degrees, whereas in theatre you’re staring at one perspective,” Mendes expounds. “So the joy for me of getting on a set or location with an actor and be able to circle them and find the best place to shoot them from. It’s a huge gift for a movie director coming from theatre.”

Hence, theatre is commonly regarded as a playwright and actor’s medium, whereas, with its vast reservoir of technical tools and visual techniques, cinema offers the director limitless powers and full control over his creation that he could only dream about on the stage.

One of the filmmaking aspects that Mendes finds liberating is the ability to capture an actor doing several shots in different ways and then choose the propitious performance in the editing room. In contrast, actors repeat the same stage performance that was agreed on in rehearsals for months, and he, the director, can do nothing about it.

Nonetheless, theatre teaches its directors how to sustain audience’s commitment for two hours or more, by changing the rhythm of the evening and by learning to tell a story.

“That’s very important in an era where commercials and music video  directors get to direct movies often,” Mendes stresses. “They’re brilliant visually but one thing they are not used to is holding an audience’s attention and that’s something that you have to do in theatre without recourse to close-ups, or special effects.”

Thus, it’s not uncommon for theatre directors to surpass other veteran film directors in their cinematic achievements, most notably Orson Welles, whose film Citizen Kane (1948) is still considered one of the best films ever made.

Having excelled in making movies, including the Oscar-nominated Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road and Skyfall, Mendes turned his attention to TV, producing the BBC series Call the Midwife in 2013, and Showtime’s Penny Dreadful this year.

“TV is where my two parts of the brain (Film and Theatre) meet,” Mendes enthuses. “This is where you’re able to take the time that you would in theatre to develop characters, to let scenes play out over real time, to not rush, to not drive things forward excessively, but at the same time, also to use everything you know about shock tactics and surprises and narrative twists and dramatic cuts that you learn from movies.”

In spite of the differences, in terms of creative methods, presentation and level of control, among these mediums of storytelling, Mendes finds them equally fulfilling as an art of self-expression. “When I finish a play, I can’t wait to start a movie and when I finish a movie, I’m desperate to do a play again, although these days I just feel like all I need is a holiday,” he laughs.

Who could blame him? Other than producing Penny Dreadful, the 48-year-old director helmed three major plays in the last couple of years, Richard III (2012), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2013) and King Lear (2014). These days, he is preparing for the next Bond movie.