Talking Movies

December 13, 2015

Speed-reading towards illiteracy

Mad Max: Fury Road director George Miller gave an interview recently to BBC Radio 4’s The Film Programme, which poses some intriguing questions about how new cinemagoers experience the medium.

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Miller cited Kevin Brownlow’s The Parade’s Gone By as a seminal text; the entire language of cinema was defined pre-sound. Miller was intrigued by the notion that there was a pure film language not reliant on the spoken word, and he decided to tell stories through that language; going so far as to describe Mad Max: Fury Road as a silent movie with sound – what matters is that one shot leads into the next shot to a purpose. As Miller notes this kind of cine-literacy is an acquired language, and a recent one; but it is one that can be mastered, in all cultures, before we’ve got a handle on actual literacy. But it’s his remark that we’re now all speed-reading stories (backed up by some statistics), that is a lit match tossed into a powder keg… Mad Max 2 had 1,200 shots, Mad Max: Fury Road had 2,900 shots, while Miller was told Jurassic Park had 950 shots, and Jurassic World by his estimation had more than triple that.

If we’re speed-reading stories, are we speed-reading into illiteracy? Back in 1997 Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese bemoaned the cine-illiteracy of young audiences:

ALLEN: I was talking to some college kids the other day, and they were bright kids who were going to a good college, and they had no idea about great directors. These bright college kids have no knowledge whatsoever of Truffaut’s films or Fellini’s films. And yet the universities do encourage them to read Mark Twain and Flaubert and Melville. … So many film students are film illiterate. They’re not unsophisticated. They probably know more about steadicams and special effects than the average audience. The guy who drives your cab will use those terms when talking about a film, but they’re illiterate in terms of —

SCORSESE: The lineage.

ALLEN: They’ve never seen any of these films. I think they have a different attention span. [My italics]

I admit my culpability in having that different attention span Woody Allen fretted over. I saw Scream as a teenager and was blown away by it. When I subsequently saw Hallowe’en I was inevitably bored by its slow pacing compared to its younger rival. I knew that without Hallowe’en there would be no Scream, I understood the lineage, I respected the execution, but I couldn’t stop myself wishing Carpenter would hustle things along a bit. As a result I’ve never re-watched Hallowe’en, while Scream remains one of my favourite and oft re-watched films. In 1997 Scorsese bemoaned his inability to be influenced by younger film-makers: “The young people today are the 21st century. I’m 20th century, I can’t help it. It’s hard to let new stuff in.” And there’s an equal generational problem in film criticism. The New Hollywood has been so valorised by audience that Bret Easton Ellis and Quentin Tarantino bemoan the 1980s to each other as the nadir of American movies. Whereas Back to the Future Day demonstrated the impact that decade’s movies had on their audience.

Miller extols the virtues of Buster Keaton and the montage technique of Sergei Eisenstein’s Strike, but will the youngsters who lapped up Mad Max: Fury Road delve back into cinema history to watch the movies that inspired Miller’s visual storytelling? No. If you are used to 2,900 shots a movie something that’s less than a third of that will bore you senseless. What was already a problem in 1997 is only going to get worse. ‘Jurassic World is a mere inept retread of Jurassic Park’ howl we who saw the original in the cinema. But, like a dead owl, the kids going to Jurassic World don’t give a hoot. They probably haven’t watched Jurassic Park all the way through because they find it unbearably slow-moving. This might explain the Russos’ baffling belief that the execrable Captain America 2 deserved an Oscar for casting Robert Redford and throwing 1970s paranoia shapes.

1970s paranoia was an organic cinematic response to the mood engendered by Watergate and Vietnam, and, like all movements that begin organically, when it became a commercial affectation it died a horrible death. The idea that Captain America 2 in rehashing a trope that was valid and original 40 years ago somehow itself becomes pertinent and (coughs in disbelief) original is as absurd as Gareth Edwards believing that his 2014 Godzilla is a good parallel for the trauma of Fukushima. If Sion Sono’s 2011 Himizu can react almost instantaneously to Fukushima in a valid and original cinematic fashion what makes Edwards think that Hollywood rehashing its interpretation of a 60 year old Japanese response to an entirely different national trauma is anything but a crass attempt to attach spurious relevance (via some extremely patronising cultural voiceover work) to the commercial imperative of rebooting a dormant franchise. But here’s the kicker – it doesn’t matter. None of the fulminations of film-makers or critics or punters of a certain age matter. My complaint that Jurassic World is not as good as Back to the Future doesn’t matter. Logic doesn’t even matter. The 12 year olds who go to Captain America 2 and Godzilla will likely never watch All The President’s Men or The Parallax View or Gojira because they’re too slow-moving and boring. 2045 will see Jurassic World as fondly remembered as Back to the Future is now, and all us haters will be so many Bret Eastons moaning that the 2010s were the nadir of American movies.

Perhaps we’re not speed-reading into illiteracy so much as into an eternal kinetic present. The past is a foreign country, they edit films boringly there.

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