Archive | September 2011

The Science of Spectacle

It goes without saying that a good film usually has a good story. You’ve probably heard the something along the lines of “all visual, no plot, no substance” to describe mindless summer blockbuster CGI orgies. And that’s a valid criticism. However, what about movies where visuals ARE the storytelling, and provide the substance? I have long believed that visual creativity is as important a component to movies as having a strong story. Some of my favorite movies bank on this.

Take my childhood movie (as in pretty much the only movie I watched from 7-10): “The Lion King”. It’s widely beloved, as its recent two-week reign atop the box office 17 years after its release attests. But compare it to other Disney animated classics. Its storytelling is cut-and-dry as it gets. There’s little exposition. We learn all we need to know about the characters from the archetypes they embody. They develop and change on the fly, through musical numbers and inspiring speeches.

It has none of the elegant emotional complexities and yearnings that featured so prominently in “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Ariel was having an identity complex that culminated with her transforming half her body. Belle was filled with wanderlust, and gave it up to save her father before falling in love with her captor. “The Lion King” is revenge tale. The biggest emotional conflict is Simba hemming and hawing ab0ut whether not he should return home.

Addtionally, its music isn’t as strong as “The Little Mermaid’s” or “Beauty and the Beast’s”. The score is majestic, but most of the individual songs don’t quite glue themselves to your brain like “Kiss the Girl,” “Be Our Guest”, “Under the Sea”, or “Gaston”. Lyrically, Tim Rice is excellent at telling stories through music (I particularly love his work in “Jesus Christ Superstar”), but he’s not as skilled as Allen Menken and Howard Ashman at the playful, creative rhyme schemes and wordplay that I love in “Mermaid’s” and “Beauty’s” music. I also think “Be Prepared” was the weakest song in the modern Disney revival catalog until it was shoved aside by everything in “The Princess and the Frog”. But that’s for another time.

Despite all I just wrote, I love “The Lion King”. It’s easily my favorite Disney film. Why? The spectacle. “The Lion King” was an exercise in producing images that could only be achieved in animation, and Disney’s team would be damned if they didn’t blow your mind. One of the advantages of animated storytelling is that incredible images feel completely organic. We don’t think “that’s just special effects” because the whole movie is technically special effects, without any uncanny valley. Scenes like Simba’s conversation with his dead father have more impact in an animated film, because as far as we care, this is really happening.

Hans Zimmer’s score would be overwrought in most movies, but it’s completely fitting for this film. You better believe that I want this movie to end with swelling music as Simba ascends pride rock, followed with a happy ending with the title card ending the film on a drumbeat.

“The Lion King” fuses visuals with its storytelling. Its story might be kind of rote, but with visual creativity like this, any story seems fresh. Directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff weren’t compensating. They were telling this story the way it was meant to be told, with giant, bold visual strokes. They didn’t just succeed. They created a movie that represents the apex of American animation.

Chills and “Children of Men”.

What do we want out of movies? It differs for everyone. Some just want to be entertained. They don’t want an existential discourse with their friends after they’ve seen a film. That’s fine (as long as you don’t demand your money back after seeing “Tree of Life”). Some consider hyper-intellectual discourse about movies a given, and will ham-fistedly shoehorn  it into any movie discussion they can. Again, that’s just fine. Just don’t do it unless you know what you’re talking about.

I can go both ways, depending on my mood and the movie I’ve just seen. “Tree of Life” was impossible to talk about without sound like you had just exited a philosophy round table, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Movies that ambitious ought to be dissected for personal meanings. I also consider “Raiders of the Lost Ark” to be the best film of the 80’s, based entirely on the entertainment value of Nazis being melted real good by God.

But what I really go for are movies that hit me with that tingle in my spine. I’m not talking about an 80’s training montage chill (though those are good too). I mean movies that blindside me with a moment of beauty, honesty, or majesty that renders me dumbstruck for a few moments.

The one that comes to mind, more than any other, is “Children of Men”. I think “Children of Men” might be the best movie of the 2000’s (it alternates with “Millennium Actress” and “Spirited Away” for that honor). It’s a gripping sci-fi thriller, yes, but its heart emerges in one key scene that had me sobbing in the theater. Please don’t watch this if you haven’t seen the movie.

This long, long take culminates in an extraordinary scene when a battle is temporarily stopped because of a baby. The first baby born in 18 years. Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, but sci-fi movies rarely stop and give proper gravity to some of the extraordinary things that happen within them.

As moviegoers, we’re conditioned to think that the crux of “Children of Men’s” story (a world gone to hell because there are no future generations to live for) is a device and nothing more. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. Sci-fi has a long history of quick-fix scenarios that give the audience instant emotional investment in the story. Luke Skywalker could easily be called Everyman, AND he loses his aunt and uncle almost right off the bat. The Nostromo in “Alien” has a cat on board. In “Dark City”, a man realizes that his ideal life with a beautiful, loving wife might be imagined.

Quick emotional investment is key to sci-fi. It gets us invested in the world and the story takes it from there. “Children of Men” didn’t need to include a scene that grounded the film in emotional realism. It had plenty going for it as a straightforward thriller about a man protecting the world’s only baby and her mother. But this scene added gravity to the film that it would’ve lacked otherwise, and that sci-fi almost always lacks. And my spine was chilled, my friend. Chilled to the cord.

Welcome to The Sixth Station

Hey all! Welcome to my movie blog. Often, when the spirit compels me, I’ll sit down and write an essay about a movie I particularly love, or an aspect of movies that intrigues me, or something else entirely. I love movies, and I love writing about them. Here’s an outlet for both.

I feel I should explain the title. The Sixth Station is the name of a piece composer Joe Hisaishi wrote for Hayao Miyazaki’s brilliant “Spirited Away”. It plays over one of the film’s most memorable scenes, when the protagonist, Chihiro, takes a very important train ride with some very unusual fellow passengers. 


Unfortunately, the clip isn’t available online, but the music is:

The scene is arguably Miyazaki’s and Hisaishi’s finest moment. Anyone who’s seen the movie immediately remembers it, despite its seeming lack of importance to the story. In a review of the great “Grave of the Fireflies” (by Isao Takahata, who, along with Miyazaki, co-founded Studio Ghibli, which produced both films), Ebert refers to what he calls “pillow shots”, or seemingly extraneous shots that allow scenes to breathe between plot developments. They help make the world of the film come alive.

The train scene is as good an example of a “pillow scene” (to coin a new phrase, I suppose) as I can imagine. It takes place at a pivotal juncture in the story, and allows the audience a chance to breathe, to meditate even. The music is perfectly suited for this purpose. Hisaishi can compose a stirring, heartstring-tugging string section with the best of them, as evidenced by other pieces in this film:

But “The Sixth Station” doesn’t follow a predictable path of rises and falls. It lingers, pulses, dissipates, returns. It’d seem erratic and unsettling (kind of like Trent Reznor’s score for “The Social Network”) if it weren’t somehow so peaceful. It’s the best piece of music from one of the best modern film composers, and it helped Miyazaki create one of his best scenes.

%d bloggers like this: