As we find ourselves in the middle of yet another awards season let us take a moment and reflect on why we, people who have nothing to do with these damn things, care? And let us also add another item to this mental exercise – acquisition formats.
In the past three months the number or articles, tweets, posts, messages and smoke signals I have seen about films like Carol, The Revenant, The Hateful Eight and, yes, even Star Wars has been so staggering that even my daughter, who does not use the Internet has become familiar with several of them.
Although she has not asked me if this will be Leo’s year to finally win the Oscar I imagine it is not far off. She goes to school and the things that filter down to a Kindergarten student are somewhat astounding. So while the Star Wars movies have made their way to her, the debate of film vs. digital has not.
Which makes it more apparent that these discussions and debates are marketing and promotion and hold little value. The number of reviews and comments I have seen about The Revenant that say much of anything beyond the extreme nature of the shoot or the newness of the camera used I can count on one hand. More has been said about the acquisition format of the films I have listed than about the qualities of the films or the actors or even whether people like them.
As someone who is interested not only in watching films but also in making them I find myself carried along with these narratives. These aspects are interesting, up to a point. That The Hateful Eight is being presented in 70mm in some locations is less interesting to me than the “roadshow” aspect of these presentations. Which are not one and the same. Yes, it will look different but that the film will have an intermission, that there will be a printed program, that the filmmakers are making an active push to say, “This is why you should see this film in a movie theater and have a shared experience with your fellow human beings,” is much more interesting to me than knowing the image has not been manipulated for my viewing pleasure.
Yet all anyone can say is, “Boy the frame is really wide!” and “He did it for interior scenes” because “It makes the blocking really noticeable!”. Which is well and good from a technical point of view but little is being said about whether the movie is any good. Or whether people are finding the movie-going experience to be interesting, new, rewarding, worthwhile or anything else. Very little is being said about this aspect, which is what we should all be talking about.
The same is true of The Revenant. The experience is “immersive”, the bear attack is “realistic” and shooting only with natural light is “cinematic”. But then all of the comments concerning the film itself are either snarky or flippant, to one writer being thankful to have made it through the film (which is clever because their experience seems to mirror that of the main character…) or just that most in general found the film to be difficult to watch and grueling. Because, of course, when you watch a film that is about one man’s incredible tale of survival against all odds you expect it to be light and chipper and leave you feeling giddy.
Because, of course, The Revenant is not trying to offer a unique film-going experience with anything other than the film itself. Which is not to diminish the film, the filmmakers or what they have achieved. But you cannot help and see that although these two films, which have in a way become pitted against each other (one for resurrecting not only a near-forgotten acquisition format [and lenses] and the other for being the first to make use of a cutting-edge technology) are getting attention for parts of their productions that are not the most interesting thing about them. That they were acquired under harsh conditions using these interesting technologies maybe isn’t what we should spend all of our time talking about.
The same can be said for Carol, for different reasons, and even the new Star Wars. Article after article has been written and shared about the formats chosen, the reasons why and what wonderful results have been achieved. Except, of course, the results we should be focused on are the films themselves. Not excluding the lighting and the look and grain structure but absolutely not limited to these aspects either.
I am ranting now and I try not to do that with strangers so forgive me. I have been paying more attention that usual to the state of film (that state of celluloid), largely because all of us are. What I find odd is I am not sure what is being presented (the end is nigh) reflects that actual state of things. When The Walking Dead, Carol and fifty other well known television shows and films are making use of the super 16mm format – is the format really dead or about to be? When Kodak announces the release of a new, hybrid super 8mm camera are we living in the end times of celluloid acquisition?
I know many filmmakers are currently being asked to weigh in on the future of film and that is why the endless articles are appearing, but it would seem, and forgive me if I am wrong, that the timing of this is about two years too late. Filmmakers and studios bonded together to give Kodak a reprieve. Now, indie filmmakers who had previously embraced low budget technologies to inexpensively make their films are choosing to make their new movies shooting using celluloid.
Perhaps it is healthy that this issue is near constantly mentioned. That unlike two years ago when few were speaking about the future of this format it was truly in jeopardy, now people are paying attention. I do not know.
What I do know is that a great deal of attention is being paid to how the movie was acquired or how it is viewed but little is being said about whether people like or dislike the movie.
Perhaps that is what award seasons are good for, with numerous categories that cover technical achievements and more artistic ones, there is the opportunity to celebrate all of these aspects of film making. That feels more like the working theory than the actual practice to me.
In practice awards seasons feel like another way to market and sell movies. Because we don’t talk about whether Carol is a better film than the new Star Wars. We don’t compare them for many different reasons. I used to think this made sense. Cliffhanger should not be pitted against Casino, they are different kinds of movies with different aspirations. Yet we lump Carol with Tangerine and Sicario together because of their budgets or subject matter or who the filmmakers behind the films are and, obviously, that makes much more sense.