I just started working the new spring semester as a graduate assistant for a cinema studies course. The professor has divided the semester up into two categories: image and story. This very simple division explains a lot about the movies and the way we think about them. Most people consider movies as stories, and that's it. They evaluate their experience on how well the movie told that story: was it plausible, enjoyable or unique? And it's true that most movies are nothing more than stories. But every so often a movie comes along that tries to do something with images, and I've always been attracted to them. I'm very definitely a "visual learner." I'm one of those people, when introduced to someone, their name goes right through my brain and disappears. But if I can visualize the name, or see it written down, then I'm aces.
This is most likely why The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (9 screens) appealed to me so strongly. Yes, the movie uses clever narration and dialogue but the main emphasis is visual, characters in relation to their surroundings and to each other. I'm also interested in movies that combine space and time; the shots last long enough that the visual schemes have a chance to sink in and mean something. (This is something that only movies can do.) That's probably why I generally despise shaky-cam and fast- cutting. But if you're telling a story, and the main goal is to get to the next turning point, then faster is probably better. I don't mean to say that image is better than story; the most important thing is the emotional result of whatever you're seeing. Some stories have affected me very strongly and provide some of the simplest entertainments: Speed, Run Lola Run, Memento, Spider-Man 2, etc.
Yet this past year has been very strong on the visual aspect of filmmaking. I'm thinking of those scenes in No Country for Old Men in which Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) switches from hunting a gazelle to examining the scene of a grisly multiple-murder. When he tracks down the bag of money that was no doubt the cause of it all, he pauses and watches for a long time (a man sits by a distant tree with the bag at his feet) before he makes his move. That pause, that waiting, is as important as the actual move. I was also quite taken by the first 10 minutes of There Will Be Blood, shot almost totally without dialogue. I'm a huge fan of silent-era films, and though most people view the lack of sound as a drawback, filmmakers at the time merely saw it as part of their canvas, an inspiration to find more visual ways to express themselves.
Even a film like Tamara Jenkins' The Savages (163 screens), which may seem like a very character-driven, literary-type movie, is actually a very interesting visual film. It's filled with fascinating crosses and juxtapositions. Most notably, the dry, hot Sun City versus the chilly, wet, snowy Buffalo sequences. In one scene, Jon (Philip Seymour Hoffman) talks to his sister Wendy on his cell phone while standing outside in the falling snow; she's dry inside, while he's wet outside. The movie also deals with interesting racial concepts, in the ways that the white people view and approach the mostly-black nurses at the rest home. Not that it matters: the sterile and greenish lighting in that building makes everyone look the same anyway.
I guess I don't even need to talk about the unique visuals in Julian Schnabel's The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (123 screens), a film I was dreading and wound up adoring. Great portions of the film take place from the point of view of the hero's single working eye. But Schnabel understood the complex rhythms it would take to make this idea work. He intersperses the hospital scenes with walking-around flashbacks, which serve as a series of breaks. While in the hospital, Jean-Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) spends his time looking at a series of beautiful French women, who in turn gaze back at him -- and us. Sigh.
But as I said, tricky visuals don't work unless they create an emotional payoff. One of the movies I despised most last year, Dan in Real Life (102 screens), received mostly passable reviews. Our own Patrick Walsh wrote: "As the end credits roll... I imagine most people will have roughly the same reaction -- a smile and a shrug. You won't be angry at yourself for watching it, but you'll be hard pressed to remember the thing in two weeks. It's a relentlessly average movie." On the contrary: It made me mad. Firstly, it had virtually no visual scheme; it was pictures of people talking. Secondly, it was so artificial and lazy that no genuine emotion was ever detectable. But since it's not vulgar and pretends to be about grown-ups, it didn't get the critical drubbing it deserved. I genuinely loved director Peter Hedges' previous film, Pieces of April, but this one was a waste of time and money. There was no picture or story. Very simply, it wasn't even a movie.