First, please let me say that this is a bit of a cathartic rant for me. I'm going to voice an opinion and I don't mean it to be confrontational, simply me venting about a topic that I feel pretty strongly about. And I know some of you will disagree, which I'm fine with. Hopefully, we can discuss it without hating each other.
I recently went and saw Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen. My sister-in-law runs a small local newspaper in my hometown and she occasionally slips me movie passes and in exchange, I periodically write reviews for her. One article I wrote was a piece where I went against the grain and said that I didn't like the Transformers movie.
However, having seen the second one, I have to say I was shocked and awed. I have never witnessed such a monumental failure of movie making and just general garbage. And I was stunned when my two nephews (granted, both teenagers) and their dates actually LIKED a movie that I basically feel is a travesty.
I'm not simply bashing Transformers 2. I'm attempting to USE Transformers 2 as a talking point to illustrate what I feel is a significant issue. I'm also going to use a few other points in this rant, feel free to agree, disagree, or comment on any or all of them
I feel that 'storytelling', as an ART, is declining.
Mastering a Craft
When I do something, I put my heart into it. It doesn't really matter what it is I'm doing, I try to do it to the best of my abilities. I freely admit, I get obsessed. When I dance, I want to be the best dancer I can be. When I work out, I want to know the best techniques and exercises I can use. When I write, I want to be known as an engaging, evocative writer.
To me, it's not about being 'the best ever'. Really, who can say who the best ever is? Timbaland's a great musician, but is he better than Kurt Cobain or John Lennon? Is Lennon better than Coltrane or Miles Davis? Is Miles Davis better than Bach or Beethoven? And really, I think one of the most important parts of civilization is setting the stage so that the people who come after you can surpass you. Timbaland may be great, but maybe 50 years from now, someone will be even better.
So to me, what's important isn't 'being the best', which is ephermeal and vague. What to me is a more important is, "mastering a craft". Knowing your art, your function, so well that you are aware of what really goes on in the process of making something. You should be aware of past masters, regardless of whether or not you agree with their work. You should know the history of your art. And then, you should be able to take those elements and then make them uniquely your own, make them YOURS.
And thus, regardless of who you think is the best, regardless of who speaks to you personally, you can say John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Miles Davis, Mozart, Beethoven, they were ALL masters of their craft, aware of stylistic elements and techniques available to them, but taking those tools and making them unique and personal.
The Craft of Movie Making
Now, let's apply that to the craft of movie making.
As a director, you should be aware of past great movies - You should be aware of pacing, narrative flow, imagery, iconography.
As an actor or actress, you should be aware of past great actors and actresses. You should know how they connected with their audience, how they made themselves evocative.
As a screen writer, you should strive to make your script authentic, cogent, and engaging.
Art is effectively the transmission of emotion. A sad song should make you feel sad, an angry song should make you feel angry. An inspirational movie should fire you up, a comedy should make you laugh. If you do not successfully transmit the emotion you are seeking to convey, then you have effectively failed as a movie maker.
Let's look at a recent masterpiece - The Dark Knight. The balance is simple - The constraints of an ordered society versus the dangers of a chaotic society. Now, the Joker represents that immorality, that chaos, that lack of a code. And his role is to transmit to the audience that terrors that would occur in such a world. AND HE DOES. The Joker is FUCKING SCARY. The love interest, Rachel Dawes, is sympathetic - She's attractive but intelligent. Men wouldn't mind dating a girl like that, women wouldn't mind being a girl like that. You want her to be rescued. When she's slain, the audience gasps, shocked and horrified.
Now, in the Transformers 2, the balance is - Technology can help our lives (the Autobots), but it also presents dangers to humankind (Decepticons). (The side theme is that toys are good to buy.) Megatron, who's supposed to convey the idea that over reliance on technology is bad, is actually a badass. Shia LaBeouf is so unlikeable that you are actually ROOTING for the Decepticons to kill him. Megan Fox is attractive, and her breasts jiggle when she runs. Really, that's all she contributes to the movie. So the only possible emotions you could feel are -- contempt for the humans. Or Arousal for one of the humans. Which means that, as a movie, the Transformers 2 is in fact a porno without the money shot.
You spend two and a half hours watching buildings blow up, Megan Fox fleeing (jiggling to freedom) from the explosion and Shia LaBeouf occasionally screaming "OOPPPTIMMUSSSS!" Or "Bumblllleeeeebeeeeeee!" or "Michael Bay, WWWHHHHHHHHHYYYYYYYYYYYYY?" For an actor, Shia Labeouf makes a great ring announcer; Basically his function in this movie is to periodically yell the name of whatever character you are looking at. Why would you need someone to have that job? Well, because the action scenes are so confused that it'd be impossible for you to otherwise KNOW who's in them, and you would not be invested enough in any of the characters to really give a damn what they are doing. This is directly opposite of the Dark Knight, where you actually look forward to seeing minor characters and know who each of these distinct characters are (Oh, that's the lady cop who's mom is in the hospital, OMG is Two Face going to kill her?).
What Went Wrong
At some point in the 90s (around Terminator 2), movie makers realized just how much they could do with special effects. They could blow up the White House, turn people into orcs, create meteors and aliens. And it got so easy for them to do so, that they didn't even really need to think about it. In Star Wars, so much effort went in to making each shot (filming on location, animation, sound editing) that each character had to be weighed carefully (Do we need a snow monster? Do we need a frog man?). But sadly, in the 90s, it became a crutch to get the audience fired up (I don't know what we should do in this shot... How about a fireball?) Characters didn't draw you in with superior acting, they blew shit up. In First Blood, you were pissed off at how badly Rambo was getting treated, you sympathized with what he went through in the war. In Rambo 3, HE BLEW UP RUSSIANS. For Friendship! The story telling was lost, replaced by 'pew pew bang!'. You didn't cheer because you loved Rambo, or because you hated the evil Russians, but because, BOOOOOM!!!!
This effect is not limited simply to movies. Think about ...
Final Fantasy 6. You have tons of playable characters. Each one has substories and plots. In fact, you as the player could decide who the main character was -- My main character was Terra, but yours might have been Celes, or Locke, or Sabin. Each is interesting and viable. In fact, in parts of the game, you'd have 12 characters out a once. There are multiple endings, based on what you accomplished in the game (did you rescue Shadow, or did you let him die?) and you are not forced to do subplots (you can completely skip Shadow's Dreams or Sabin's final lessons).
But in Final Fantasy 8, we are down to 6 characters, never more than 3 at a time. The plotline is Squall and Rinoa. The rest are just there as background characters. Selphie is Rinoa's friend, but that's about it. Zell's comedy relief, that's about it. Really, it's just a wedding party (bridge, groom, best man and usher, two bridesmaids.) The subplots are gone almost entirely gone, with the exception of the main, unavoidable subplot (a deeply unsatisfying tale which implies that the two lovers may well be brother and sister, but goes completely unresolved.)
The reason for this decline? Well, because there's so bloody much CGI in the game and making the CGI is so time consuming. Plus, once you make it, you don't want the players to just skip it. You can't kill the mechanical spider yourself, because that would fuck up the scene where Quistis machine guns it. And you can't have six different endings because each one takes so long to make in full CGI that the game would never come out. Squall can never fall in love with Quistis, because the animators only made the song and spaceship sequence with Rinoa. But each time you use a summon, you're treated to a 3 minute extravaganza where the summoned monster appears and devastates all, your very controller shaking with fury or possibly terror. Because, apparently, if there was one thing that the players loved about Final Fantasy 6, it was when they got to use the Espers in battle.
Loss of the Art
Producers and Directors have come to rely on animation and special effects as a crutch, replacing good story telling or evocative characters. But sadly, this fails to convey emotion, which is the entire point. You get moments when your screen shakes as your Summon appears, but you lose the moment where you cried when Aeris died. You feel the entire theater shake as robots level the city, but you lose the moment where you personally shook when William Wallace screams "Freedom!" for the last time. The romance of Shia and Megan is basically garbage compared to Jessica Tandy whispering, "Hoke, you're my best friend" to Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy. Transformers washes over you but never touches you, because the storytelling simply isn't touching.
The Dying Art
But what drives me up the wall (and what inspired this rant) is that as time goes on, people become less aware of good storytelling.
I was talking with my girlfriends over coffee. We were talking about the Summer Plays in the Park (in my town, ever summer amateur playwrights perform community theatre every weekend in July in the park). Two of my girlfriends are planning on auditioning. I commented that one of the girls has the Vivian Leigh look.
And literally none of them knew who that was. I explained that she was the actress from Gone with the Wind. None of them had seen it. How in the world can you be an aspiring actress and NOT know about Vivian Leigh, or Katherine Hepburn, or Lauren Bacall? It's like a professional baseball player NOT knowing who Babe Ruth is.
Yet, all of them have seen Twilight.
People are simply losing that desire to 'master' an artform and know the past and history of the art form. They don't have the time to go and rent classic movies (or play old school video games) because there's so much new stuff coming out.
We have become so bombarded and saturated with crap, that people simply don't have time to analyze and filter the junk. The audience is becoming credulous and has lost the ability to tell good from bad, important from irrelevant.
To me Transformers 2 is a monument to bad taste: Hugely expensive and gaudy. Chock full of disingenuous imagery. Utterly lacking in evocation, authenticity, self awareness, or merit. Even people who are FANS of the movie KNOW the acting is bad and the plot incoherent. But rather than being disgusted by this, they're thrilled at the explosions and the jigglingness.
I find it stunning and frustrating that people can look at a movie and say "Well, the story wasn't that good. The acting kind of sucked. But what can you expect? I LIKED IT!"
Well, what you can expect is a cogent story and good acting (like the Dark Knight). And you don't have to like something just because you've been commercialized into accepting it. It's completely okay to demand quality for what you pay for.
Have we, as a group, lost the desire for excellence?
So, is it just me, or is storytelling becoming a lost art?