The Bigger Picture: Substantive Style

Written by The Bigger Picture

fourth-wallIt’s nearly impossible to watch a summer movie these days without sitting through camera movements that make you wish you’d brought Dramamine.  There is a reason that use of these camera movements has become so prevalent in Hollywood, and it’s not what you think.

There was a time when studio films were made via an almost factory method.  Studios employed writers, keeping them all together in one building.  The advantage was that writers would ask each other for advice, and all the collective brainpower in the building would sort out any potential problems.

Production was so streamlined that everyone on the set knew his or her job inside and out.  This is why, if you watch old movies, you will eventually be able to see that each studio had its own style.  Cinematographers and directors specifically designed the camera movements to be unobtrusive.  The thought was that showy camera work would remove the audience from the story.

Now fast forward to today’s Hollywood.  The studios do not work this way anymore, and one could make a good argument that this is for the better: individual artists have more rights today than they once did, there are a greater variety of films in today’s environment, and more risks are taken (though often still very calculated).

However, since the central brain of the studios has lost some of the influence it used to hold, many of the good rules have been dissolved.  Many of the old directors would have bristled at the camera movements of Wanted or even The Matrix.

I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to have a less streamlined product.  Oftentimes, the best films are rough around the edges and flawed.  The problem is that some of these ideas of the old studio method were wise.  In many of today’s big-budget productions, the camera and the effects get in the way of the story.  When a camera spins or goes to slow motion, it should have a reason to do so.  This reason should be to highlight something for the audience or to convey a mood.  Instead, it often becomes a “look at me” effect.  Somehow the filmmakers think they can remove us for one moment from the story, and then expect us to be dropped back into the plot without being distracted.

Hitchcock was the master of substantive style.  His camera work was specifically designed to highlight something important in the story.  A push or a pull should be used to reveal — otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?  One of the best examples of Hitchcock’s mastery is in the film Rope.  In the film, two well-to-do young gentlemen kill one of their friends before having guests over for dinner.  The young man is strangled and stuffed in a trunk.  The very brazen (and sadistic) decision is made to serve dinner not at the table, but off the very trunk in which their deceased comrade rests.  In a very memorable bit of cinematography, the camera frames the trunk and then moves to reveal a piece of rope that is hanging out the side.  It is brilliant stylization, yet subtle enough to make you understand why it was used.

I’m not advocating a return to the days of studio-controlled cinema; today’s Hollywood is a much more habitable environment for the independent artist.  Many of the worst offenders are actually what I call “movie by committee,” which are the ones that feel pieced together by a board of studio executives.  Still, I can’t help but hope that modern filmmakers will look more to the past to understand the reasoning behind this classic style of shooting a movie.

There is one advantage to all this: the filmmaker who understands these concepts is better suited to make the great films of our time.  The independent filmmaker who has less money and fewer resources must, by necessity, rely on his or her story rather than the polluting influence of the high-concept, high cost gloss.  In effect, the lack of money should be thought of as an advantage, rather than a detriment.