1. Visual storytelling
Film is primarily a visual medium. Those from the silent era (D.W. Griffith‘s movies from the 1910’s, Buster Keaton‘s movies from the 1920’s etc.) are still referred to as ‘films’, which shows that the camera, more than the microphone, is a filmmaker’s tool; that film is primarily a visual medium.
So I would argue for ‘show not tell’ whenever possible. For instance, a character could say on screen to another character ‘she’s my girlfriend’ as exposition, or could be seen kissing whoever ‘she’ is. Both scenarios would get across the same message, and yet the former seems more lazy.
Of course there are times when there simply isn’t time or a plausible reason for them to kiss, but if their actions can portray visually to the audience that they are dating then the movie is better using to its advantage the opportunity of film. If people wanted to listen to words, they could go and listen to a radio programme, where the microphone is the main tool.
That’s not to say that sound does not play a major role. I am referring to endless dialogue when I say that visual storytelling is the better option, but I have never been more impacted emotionally by anything in a movie than non-diegetic sound. What would Titanic (1997, dir. James Cameron) be without ‘My Heart Will Go On’?
Sometimes a swelling score in the big moments can have a huge impact on our aesthetic senses, on the tone of the film. Or, equally, a lack of sound. The ending of The Godfather Part II (1974, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) is suitably bleak, due to its protagonist, sitting completely alone, in silence. After a three hour film full of expressive, jam-packed and noisy scenes, this quiet moment is reflective and allows the audience time to see and feel how hopeless it all is.
Overall, I think the emergence of the talkies in the late 1920’s has benefited films as mood pieces. In terms of storytelling, though, sound has not helped. Using dialogue to explain away every plot point in the film is lazy, and defeats the point of a visual medium.
Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2006) is the best example I’ve seen of visual storytelling. As talking films must do, it sets up some scenarios with dialogue, but manages to deftly walk the line between action and dialogue. The scenes that take place on the mountain, for instance, are a masterclass on telling a story cinematically. The few lines are all matter-of-fact, and do not spur the story on. We can see the pair herding sheep and falling in love, which is the story.
The music, too, is very beautiful, and lends a lot of emotional weight to the characters’ relationship. ‘Brokeback Mountain’ uses both sound and mise-en-scène in the best possible ways. Everything that happens on-screen tells the story, and the score provides melancholy emotion.
2. A unique vision
There are some films I have watched which truly transport me to a place I’ve never seen and never will see, and yet make that place look and feel believable. Examples are Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron), Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas), Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan) etc.
I think one of the many great gifts of the medium is being able to take one person’s vision, have hundreds of people work to harness it and then have this thing which started out in somebody’s head reach thousands of people. Nowadays with the right budget anything is possible in filmmaking; and I wish, therefore, that big studios would move away from money-grabbing franchises and start to finance fresh ideas. Because without pioneers such as Christopher Nolan, we never would get to see any unique visions on the screen which have been financed to their full potential.
For me, Hollywood needs to start moving towards first time ideas that will show people things they have never seen before – because that is one of the main things I look for in films.
Blade Runner (1982, dir. Ridley Scott) is the most visually striking film I’ve seen purely for the reason that it is an utterly unique vision from Ridley Scott. It was at the time a futuristic version of Los Angeles. And what a future!
This film inspired countless others to use neon lighting, but very few have used it as well as this. The cityscape is bathed in saturated, unnatural lighting which adds a futuristic look. The religious elements of the story are supported by the beams of radiant light which stream through murky settings.
‘Blade Runner’ is like a blend between cyberpunk, film noir and a religious painting, both in terms of mise-en-scène and in the events which take place. Scott can literally feel what things should look like; up to the point that he asked for some pillars in a hall to be turned upside down. There are tons of Netflix rip-offs and so forth of the film nowadays, but fortunately for me this was the first cyberpunk I saw, and so I got a feel of its originality.
3. Authentic, human characters
I have read an Alfred Hitchcock quote where he states that people do not go to films to see the familiar. As I said in my previous category, I love to be transported to another place, but at the same time there is something comforting to me about seeing characters or character traits that remind me of myself. That helps me to empathise with said character, and makes them emotionally resonate.
As nobody is perfect, it is refreshing to see the flawed side of human nature represented. As a younger kid, watching films like ‘Star Wars’, I assumed that heroes and villains were all one-dimensional. When I had an idea for a film a few years back in which the antagonist’s actions are explained psychologically I thought I had had the best idea since editing!
Unfortunately for me, as I have since discovered, my idea was hardly original. In fact, I would go as far as to say that few films try to pretend anyone is perfect. Yet too much of the time it is carefully calculated. The protagonist might make a bad decision, but usually for the right cause. Or the antagonist may have had a difficult childhood, but the protagonist has had it worse.
All this is why it is refreshing when a film presents human nature in all its ugliness, all its compassion, its hypocrisy. That way, when you place ordinary people in extraordinary situations, they will actually be ordinary people, and their story will be all the more extraordinary.
The Godfather (1972, dir. Francis Ford Coppola) is about a mafia family struggling for power in America. The main characters are all, at a glance, bad men. Their professional lives are led by assassinations, bribing and other extreme criminal activity.
One of the most impressive things in the film is the way in which it initially presents Don Corleone as a psychopathic schemer, but gradually reveals him to be as reasonable as possible under the circumstances, and just a man who loves his family.
As opposed to him, his son Michael Corleone is set up to be the hero of the tale. In the opening scene he tells his girlfriend how he does not want anything to do with his bloodthirsty family. Michael’s descent into corruption is truly chilling, and the movie shows us his two extremely different ways of behaving.
It is Don Corleone’s apparent corruption and then reasonability, and Michael’s apparent reasonability and then corruption which go to show how we shouldn’t judge people by appearances and make the two of them three-dimensional characters.
Everyone else in the Corleone family too; they are very violent men, but love their families. They show both evil and tenderness; either extreme. It is this authentic portrayal of humanity that, as time goes by, reminds me that, while it may not be my favourite, ‘The Godfather’ is the best film I have ever seen.