If you had to pick one thing, what would you say is the problem with Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man 3?
What about the 2017 Ghostbusters remake?
Or Pacific Rim Uprising?
Now if you had to pick one thing that made Black Panther a good movie, what would it be?
What about Baby Driver?
Or A Quiet Place?
If you answered Wakanda’s creative world-building or music-video-esque action scenes or frightening monsters as why those movies were good—or if you answered that those other movies were bad because of the “emo” Peter Parker scene or the fact that studios tarnished an 80s classic by remaking it or that giant robots fighting giant monsters is ridiculous—then we need to talk about the tangible details of a movie.
Sure, none of the things I just mentioned helped their movies, but those aren’t the real reason those movies performed poorly. Those elements of the movies are tangible details that we can all identify, but those likely weren’t the actual reason you or someone else didn’t like the movie.
Like we talked about last week, most of us know that we like a movie but we can’t say why we like it. And that’s totally understandable—if someone asked me why I like pizza, I’d say, “I don’t know, it’s just delicious.” But if you asked a similar question to a professional food critic (a great gig if you can get it), they’d be able to articulate exactly why some food tastes good—they’d talk about its layered flavors, the balance, the texture, and possibly the temperature. It’s the same way with movies; when asked why we like something, we give some half-thought-out answer about believable characters or cool scenes. (The only difference is we don’t realize how silly our answers are.)
So we latch on to something we remember having especially strong feelings about and say that’s the answer—we say Spider-Man 3 was bad because, among other things, Tobey Maguire acted all weird for five minutes out of the movie. But the truth is that wasn’t the problem—in fact, that scene could have worked if it wasn’t for the meandering plot and mixed character motivations. When those basic elements of a story are handled properly, we, the audience, will buy into most anything.
Now, we’ve talked about this idea a lot before, so I don’t want to belabor the point. If you want to go deeper into the topic, check out Film Crit Hulk; I’ve cited him before and he writes extensively on the topic.
But just briefly, I want to tease out a more subtle repercussion of this issue, namely the “more” fallacy. Hopefully, if you’ve been reading this blog then you can actually talk cinematography, narrative, and characterization—you’re not stuck discussing tangible details. However, even when we can do this, we sometimes get preoccupied with identifying which movies have more of these elements—more cinematography, narrative, and characterization. And then these elements simply become our tangible details for assessing the value of movies. We say movies that have more of these things are better. It ends up, when we argue movies or give out awards, we’re not saying which movie has the best acting or the best cinematography, we’re saying which movies have more acting and more cinematography.
Again, Hulk discusses this point in a comparison of Blade Runner 2049 and Lady Bird. When people are talking movies—especially men—they have a tendency to swoon for films like Blade Runner because they have more cinematography. But really all this means is that Blade Runner is more in your face, more stylized, more obvious. It doesn’t take any more skill to do what was done in Blade Runner, just more money and time.
But in a movie like Lady Bird, the goal is realism with thematic intent. And that is no easy feat. Take, for instance, this American wide shot below. It looks pretty plain, but the blocking and framing are masterful. It conveys the achievement of her dreams that the protagonist is feeling at that moment, while not taking the viewer out of the movie. If this shot had not been framed as so, it could easily have devolved into something more eerie or noticeable, something out of a Wes Anderson movie. But as it is, it works; it conveys what it means to convey and remains in the style of the film.
There are a hundred more examples like this. Some have lauded the plotting of Dunkirk—but really Dunkirk just has more plotting. Consider instead the elegant narrative of The Post. Rather than focusing on the over-the-top characterization in Game of Thrones, examine instead the subtly crafted humans of The Big Sick.
Of course, none of this is to say that more isn’t good. I often think back to Quentin Tarantino’s answer when asked what movie he would preserve for the last of humanity to see: Police Story 3: Super Cop. Sometimes we just need a lot of movie—action, effects, stunts, editing—all of it. But let’s not equate the two. Just because a movie puts its framing right in your face or tries to show you how deep it can be, that doesn’t equate to better moviemaking—or even good moviemaking.