What makes a movie beautiful?
I haven’t written here for a while. Here are some thoughts I spilled last night to get the gears moving again. Some spoilers below for the movies discussed.
Beauty is something we can all immediately recognize, even as we can never agree to a person what is and isn’t beautiful.
Beauty is one of the aspects of a movie I respond to most of all, even if I can’t exactly define what makes a film beautiful. At least not in a way that I can apply consistently from movie to movie.
For example, I loved Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. But is it beautiful? Dazzling, sure. Visually stunning, absolutely. But I’m not sure I’d call it beautiful. Not as a whole work. There are certainly gorgeous shots, but beautiful shots can’t make a whole film beautiful any more than a few individual words can make a whole poem beautiful. My favorite films often have the same appeal of poetry to me; at their best, they evoke strong, specific emotions.A good poem can transport me into the mind and heart of the poet. Good movies can do the same thing.
What about my favorite film of Cuaron’s, Children of Men? I would call it one of the most beautiful of all films. Yes, it takes place in a grimy, miserable universe. Yes, it tells a story rife with death. But it’s a deeply humanist film, and its visuals are propulsive and actively serve the storytelling. The beauty of the images and the beauty of the story culminate in that tracking shot near the end when a brutal battle is interrupted, for a moment, by the sight of a baby. The moment is Cuaron’s masterpiece, taking an element that could have been mawkish all on its own and building to it with precision until he created a symphony of images and narrative that was as moving as any scene I’ve seen in a movie theatre.
Just as there’s more to making a painting truly beautiful than recreating a beautiful scene, the most beautiful films are always more than the sum of their parts. You know how much I love Hayao Miyazaki, and no one would argue over how beautiful his films are. He is the 21st century standard for imaginative filmmaking. And yet for as much as I love Miyzaki (Princess Mononoke will always be my favorite film) I don’t think he’s responsible for the most beautiful Studio Ghibli movie. That honor goes to Only Yesterday, the bittersweet drama by Isao Takahata. Its visuals aren’t as lush as Miyazaki’s (or even those in Takahata’s lovely The Tale of Princess Kaguya). The story, of a 27 year-old woman looking back on her childhood while casting an uncertain eye to the future, isn’t as obviously moving as the rich, propulsive plots of other Ghibli films. But there’s a quiet beauty constantly humming beneath the surface. Every scene is rich with life, sometimes sadness, sometimes delight, but mostly just everyday familiarities, moments that sing with truth. Sometimes the most beautiful thing an artist can provide is empathy.
Of course, there’s more to beauty in art than humanist affirmation. Have you ever read Flannery O’Connor? She specialized in southern Gothic tales of mean people doing cruel things to each other with passages that, out of nowhere, evoke feelings of something divine, even apocalyptic. The beauty in a Flannery O’Connor story is not the type that inspires wistful reflection. It is always at odds with the material, fighting through it, giving you fits because the mere suggestion of a shred of beauty in a story like A Good Man is Hard to Find seems so at odds with the material. And yet it’s undeniably there, made somehow more potent by its suddenness and brevity.
Those moments of beauty are my favorites. They pop up so unexpectedly and have the sort of permanent impact on me that truly inspires. For this reason, there might be no more beautiful film than The Night of the Hunter. Charles Laughton’s only film as a director tells a tale that is as dark as the woods at night. At times it is demonically sinister. It is filled with cosmic dread. And then, it finds the beauty. The scene where Shelley Winters body is found submerged at the bottom of the lake still retains its horrific power, even as it evokes the same feelings of grand religious paintings. The scene where Robert Mitchum chases the children through the swamps is one of the most deathly frightening chase scenes ever filmed, culminating in his character screaming one of the most fearsome screams in cinema history. The standoff at the end between Mitchum and Lillian Gish’s kindly caretaker of orphaned children is almost literal in its divine imagery, pitting Mitchum’s satanic false preacher against Gish’s guardian angel. It wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the film’s total conviction in its imagery. It wouldn’t be so powerful if it weren’t so convincingly ugly, if it weren’t so divinely beautiful.