By Kyle Turner
Every time someone says, “They don’t make movies like they used to”, I either cringe or die inside or both.
Of course they don’t.
If they did, director Gareth Edwards, who was present at the TCM Classic Film Festival earlier this month to introduce Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, would not have been able to make his debut feature Monsters— never mind his upcoming rebirth of Godzilla. It does not necessarily surprise me, but it nonetheless jarred me that he should basically pander to his Turner Classic Movies watching audience, maybe accidentally creating a dichotomy between “classic films” and “films made with CGI”. As if the two are de facto good or bad.
During the introductory discussion to the Japanese original, Edwards spoke about how computer generated effects could be indeed Pandora’s Box, a tool for storytelling. Though he tried to create some sort of nuance to the conversation, he seemed to backtrack, saying, “I look at the timeline from when computers were invented to when we started using computer visual effects, and I notice… all the classic movies came before then.”
A burst of applause came from the theater.
I fidgeted in my seat.
Despite trying to discuss computer generated effects as a tool to further story, his comments nonetheless seemed pandering, inviting a mildly “classic film vs. movies with CGI” mentality, as if the two were inherently good or bad. Yes, I know I was at a classic film festival, but I saw a terrible film here, and one that does not technically fall into the classical period. As you can see, Edwards’ comments– probably slight or even unintentional in provoking a reaction from me– bring up some interesting issues.
“They don’t make movies like they used to” is the kind of thing I would step on someone’s toe for. Of course they don’t. Nor did ‘they’, the glorious gods of classical filmmaking, make films the way we make them now. The way they make them now (slower, basically) is merely an evolution of the technology, of what and how the public wants their films, what is publicly acceptable in film, how film reflects the times it was made in, and even what film means anymore.
Recently, I had a small debate on my Facebook profile about the use of the term “film” to denote cinema. My friend argued that as physical celluloid comes closer and closer to being obsolete, “film” might no longer apply. I argued that physical film will always exist in some form, whether as a method for shooting or even as a method of preservation. Files may be forever, but the ability to interpret them is not. Physical media rules.
What is bothersome about Edwards illustrating a dichotomy between classic films and films with CGI is that is assumes, as aforementioned, that one is better than the other by its very nature. This raises the question as to why the classical period is valued so highly (the answer to which I am not informed enough to give). I can assure you, though, there are plenty of films from the classical period that are lousy, terrible– yes, awful. There are just as many films that employ CGI as a tool or as a gimmick that are pretty great. But rather than have the two compete over one another, why accept and be aware of the nuances that come with watching films and understanding their history.
Film has always been, to some extent, a spectacle. Either of human nature, explosions, drama, comedy– any anything else you could imagine. So, I try to be egalitarian as much as possible. Even if something isn’t my cup of tea, I try not to get on someone’s case if it is their thing. Appreciate the art form, and all that jazz. The competition between types of films, and between those who like them for that matter, ends up creating a toxic environment which invites–and incites–both snobbery and self-righteousness.
In essence, Godzilla is a good representation of the monster everyone can become, even inadvertently. I’m not in any way implying Edwards is a monster, only that the mindset that can get perpetuated… and that can be monstrous.
While I understand your unease at the stale argument that “they don’t make films like they used to,” perhaps when comparing filmmaking “before” and “after” CG, (specifically action/adventure/sci fi and horror) the argument that folks like Edwards are attempting (and maybe not succeeding at) is a discussion of a time when the director and special effects team had to work with real, tangible objects; whether it be miniatures or real stunts and stunt people, and now it can be all done on a computer. There is, arguably, something to this idea the us oldsters love to grab hold of and not let go — that “in the old days” even when the budget could handle any and all elements (a very rare occasion) the filmmakers still had to figure out a real, three dimensional way to “make it work.” The current idea of the “Pandora’s Box” that the computer has opened, means that the audience and filmmakers no longer have to deliver something that we are all complicit in understanding; is really, in some mode, actually “happening” before us. We can now watch entire civilizations destroyed, or see 100 feet tall monsters and no longer worry or care about how “they” did that.