"Baby Driver" and the Relationship Between Sound and Image

Baby Driver was one of the most anticipated film projects of 2017. Not only did it have an incredible cast, it was Edgar Wright returning to the silver screen after his debacle over Ant Man. By the time we heard about Baby Driver, it had been years since his last film -- The World's End, a solid comedy, though it didn't quite achieve the quality of Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead -- and we were excited to see what he had in store for us.

Baby Driver did not disappoint, either. Holding a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 86/100 on Metascore, and an 8.2/10 on IMDB, Baby Driver was one of the most lauded, and successful, films of the year, garnering about $100 million at the box office.

What made Baby Driver so interesting, for me, was how it melded music and image seamlessly. The music was not subservient to the image (which is what usually happens), nor was the image subservient to the music. Wright cuts methodically to his music choices, but said choices are an integral part of the tone, atmosphere, and pacing of the narrative. If you took away the music, the film would not be the same.

Just check out the first six minutes of the film, and you'll see what I mean. 

The song in this scene is not just a backing track -- that is to say, it's not just a director overlaying music to enhance the image. The music itself sets the tone. It starts off playful, as does our main character -- Baby -- and his attitude. He's dancing around, drumming on the door of his Subaru WRX, completely enveloped in the music. And then something changes -- the music quiets down, and we see the chaos that is taking place in the bank. Things get a little more serious. And then it's time for the chase. The music is calling for the audience to get ready for what is about to happen next. The song swells, the singer screaming "bellbottoms" louder and louder, until we see the crew return to the car, and Baby peels out completely in sync with the music. The ensuing chase, and its tone, is set entirely by the music, and the cutting that is done is often done in sync with the beats of the song.

This is very different than what someone like Tarantino does. Take a look at this scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1, and you'll see what I mean.

The music is definitely setting a mood -- swelling at the appropriate time to create this feeling of power on the part of the characters we see walking, but it's not the same as what Edgar Wright has done. Here, the music is clearly being used just to supplement the image. It is not a natural part of the film's environment, nor is it complementing the images on screen in the way "Bellbottoms" did in that opening scene of Baby Driver.

Plenty of directors are known for using music in their films, but not many of them can achieve the effect that Wright achieved in Baby Driver. Scorsese is perhaps one of the most well-known directors that does this, but even he uses music as a supplementary aspect, not a complementary aspect.

Here, the music is hidden in the background during Frank's monologue, surging forward at the appropriate time in a wonderful bit of editing as we enter the store, only to return to the background once we settle inside of said store. It sets the mood of the scene well, and even works with the monologue, but it's not an integral part of the scene. In other words, if we took out the music from this scene, and the scene from Kill Bill Vol. 1 the scene itself wouldn't be harmed, it would just lose a bit of its potency. In Baby Driver, divorcing the music from the scene ruins the scene.

In fact, the filmmaker I was reminded of most when I was watching Baby Driver was Stanley Kubrick -- in particular, the opening title sequence to 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I mention this moment specifically because it was the first film I saw that truly showed me the power image and sound can have when they are united. Nothing happens in this scene beyond the opening credits being shown, but the way they are shown, and the power the images are given because of this music (and vice versa) blows me away every time.

Baby Driver doesn't quite have the power of this opening scene anywhere in its run time, at least in my humble opinion, but it does strive to achieve the same affect (and often times it succeeds).

The most interesting thing about Wright's film, and his usage of music, is how it still feels like a film. It would be too easy to classify Baby Driver as a two-hour long music video featuring different artists. But it's not -- as I said before, the music is integral to the plot, and to Baby as a character.

If you want something that is a little more watchable than Kubrick (though I really implore you see 2001, even if you've never experienced a Kubrick film before), you can look to James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy. Starlord's Walkman is also an integral part to understanding his character, and the music is used throughout the film to set up various moods, and motifs. 

In the opening scene, without any character work or dialogue, we immediately get a sense of who Starlord is, his outlook on life, and his personality -- all through one song. The editing cuts easily with the beat of the music, as does Starlord's actions, and therefore the music feels real, and in the environment, in a way some of these other examples don't.

And while I wouldn't put Guardians at Baby Driver's level (mainly because the latter uses that as an integral aspect to its entire story, while the former uses it only in specific scenes), this is definitely something filmmakers should understand. Music is a powerful aspect to filmmaking, and film viewing. Even in silent films, where the compositions you hear were not written for the film at the time of its creation, music sets tone, mood, and pacing.

We understand music in a way that's truly incredible. It's a universal language of sorts. Harnessing the power of that language, and intertwining it with film language, can yield unlimited possibilities, all of which are incredibly powerful.

There is nothing wrong with utilizing music as an underlying force -- like Tarantino and Scorsese do -- and doing so can be just as powerful when done correctly. Nevertheless, it is vital to understand this relationship between image and sound, especially for filmmakers, because when it is done correctly, and done well, like it is in Baby Driver and 2001: A Space Odyssey, it is an ethereal, and unforgettable experience.

We Need to Talk About CGI

There has been a recent surge of viewers, and filmmakers, who are tired of the CGI-fest that is currently on display in the vast majority of films. The return to practical effects -- as was seen in Mad Max: Fury Road, and in many parts of The Force Awakens -- on a blockbuster level has been met with widespread approval from a wide array of filmgoers.

We need to talk about CGI for this reason, and for many others. Audiences are still spending their money on these kinds of films (of which examples will be provided throughout this post), but their approval of them -- and the overall quality of these films -- have seen huge dips in recent years.

Before we go any further, it is important to mention the fact that CGI (computer-generated imagery) extends far beyond what most people think. This video helps explain the ways in which CGI is used in modern filmmaking.

This video also has an important point, which is the essential crux of this blog post: CGI is a tool, and just like any tool it can be used poorly. If you took your hammer and punched a bunch of holes in your wall with it, you wouldn't be able to blame it for the end result. The same is true of CGI -- we can't really blame CGI itself, we have to blame the filmmaker(s) for misusing it.

But we still need to talk about CGI, because it is much more common nowadays to see poor effects work in huge films. When a film has a low budget, or there is a new director, or new team, behind a rather ambitious project, we may be more willing to forgive poor CGI. However, when a film has a large budget, and a substantial studio backing, these kinds of things become less forgivable.

While this is a popular trilogy of films to rag on when it comes to this topic, it is important to mention Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy.

Just look at this scene from The Battle of the Five Armies -- the final film of the trilogy -- as an example.

Part of the issue here is that nothing looks natural in its environment. There is nothing wrong with using CGI on a massive scale when it comes to epic fantasy. It is no longer economically feasible, nor safe, to hire extras to do this work. CGI cuts costs, and ensures everyone on set will not be harmed. But look at this scene -- the characters (aside from the main ones who we know are played by real actors) don't look real in the scene. The entire frame has this glossy aesthetic to it (while that is a constant thing throughout this trilogy, it only makes these action scenes feel more fake), and the action feels like it belongs in the cut scene of a video game.

The effects work isn't unwatchable, but it is poor -- especially when you compare it with this scene that Jackson directed eleven years earlier.

In 2003, Peter Jackson managed to construct a similar scene (to be fair there are only three armies in this scene, while there are five in the one before it) which feels much more real, and (almost) seamlessly blends CGI with practical effects. Of course there is CGI in the Battle of Pelennor Fields -- the point is that there are really only a handful of spots where you definitively can tell (and even at those points, you aren't taken out of the scene). In The Battle of the Five Armies, there is no point where you feel what you are watching could be real.

It's also important to mention that The Battle of the Five Armies had roughly $156 million more in its budget than Return of the King (approx. $250 million dollar budget vs approx. $94 million dollar budget, respectively).

So what happened? Well, to put it bluntly (and precisely) the studio got lazy. I don't think Peter Jackson himself was responsible for the way these films ended up looking, but I do think the studios cut a lot of corners. Making Azog, the main antagonist, a completely CGI character did not help things.

And if the Hobbit films were just the few examples of big blockbuster CGI feeling inorganic to a scene then we would not be having this conversation, and audiences would not be increasingly bored with modern blockbusters. But we are, and they are, and there are culprits: studios and directors.

The other issue with bad CGI is that it doesn't hold up well after the years have passed. I'm not even talking about the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns. This scene from The Matrix Reloaded is the perfect example.

In this scene, sad to say, you can visibly see where practical effects stop and CGI begins (in terms of Neo, Agent Smith, and the fighting; as we've covered, CGI is everywhere in every film). The characters stop looking real, and become rubbery, smooth, and glossy.

There is even some of this in Bong Joon-Ho's 2017 film, Okja. 

Okja doesn't feel like a realistic part of the environment. Forget about the actual animal itself -- the image that the effects team has created doesn't feel like a part of the photo-realistic environment itself.

While it is easy to argue that these things do not exist in reality (or if they do, they are impossible to film realistically) we need only look to Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey to see that, even in 1968, you can create extremely photo-realistic imagery of something that is, currently, impossible to film.

Now, to be fair, something like this and Okja are very different, and the processes through which they are created are very different. But we need only look to the Apes films to see a drastic difference in animation and CGI.

It's night and day comparatively -- the most important difference, additionally, is when we zoom into Caesar's eyes. Those are real eyes. Regardless of whether or not they used actual eyes (AKA a practical effect) to blend into that image, or if those are completely created in the computer, those look like real eyes in every respect of the term. Caesar also looks like a realistic part of his environment. The dark light helps to blend him, but even when we go into those close ups, he feels like a natural part of the environment in a way that Okja does not.

Now I am not here to rag on CGI, and films with bad CGI (despite what everything above this sentence may indicate). I merely am of the mind that we need to talk about how we use CGI. Right now, a lot of filmmakers are leaning on it like a crutch. While I cannot provide an example of every film that does this, you know this by your own experiences in the theater. It is impossible to get away from these kinds of rubbery, glossy images that feel very separate from the world they are supposed to exist in. We need to stop using CGI as a solution to every problem, and instead work with it as we used to -- using it to complement existing imagery, or practical effects.

Some directors already do this -- Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Neil Blomkamp, and David Lynch all are rather good at blending CGI with practical effects for a more powerful, and realistic image. However, far too many directors (and far too many good directors) are using CGI to cut corners -- Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Gareth Edwards, and Guy Ritchie are just a few examples of people who have fallen into this trap.

We should not throw away CGI entirely. It does benefit films, and filmmakers, in a variety of ways. However, we need to take a harder look at how we use CGI, and when we should use it. These are important distinctions to make, because the more we rely on CGI to tell our stories, the less real our stories are going to feel.

The Appeal of Romantic Comedies

I, like many other people throughout the world, love a good romantic comedy. I can't quite describe why, to be honest -- I know that many of them are poor, in terms of quality, and they don't offer anything substantive (generally) when it comes to conversations about relationships, love, and the like. In fact, the films that really manage to delve deep into these topics -- pulling philosophical questions, and sometimes answers, from the deep well of their narrative -- are generally not funny. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect example, or even Richard Linklater's Before trilogy. Sometimes these films are heartbreaking, like the 2013 masterpiece, Blue is the Warmest Color

So, again, why do I like romantic comedies when they don't really offer me much in terms of substance?

I guess it is important to mention that I, like everyone else, can appreciate a film that is just dumb entertainment. I love watching cerebral films as much as the next person, and I thrive on being able to analyze difficult films. Sometimes, though, I want to turn my brain off (as much as is possible; I'm always analyzing the films I watch) and watch a fun film.

Romantic comedies are light. Unlike an action film, they are centered around people, conversation, and cups of coffee (or shots of whiskey, as the case may be). They are light, heartwarming, and -- for lack of better terms -- funny.

So automatically there are some key benefits that make them fun to watch. But it goes deeper than that, in my opinion.

I recently re-watched one of my favorite romantic comedies -- Forgetting Sarah Marshall. I have seen it numerous times, and I would consider it one of my favorite, if not my favorite, romantic comedies of all time. The film has everything -- comedy, heart, great direction, solid writing, an affable cast, and some great (albeit conventional) cinematography. It fires on all cylinders for the majority of its runtime, and for those reasons I consider it a great film, not just a great romantic comedy. However, it still has the same narrative that every other romantic comedy has (I'll put a spoiler warning here but I think you know where I'm going): man meets woman, man and woman fall for each other, man and woman break up, man and woman get back together).

There's nothing inherently wrong with this string of plot points. The issue is that this is such a conventional storyline, that it has become tired -- almost boring. And, more importantly, a lot of romantic comedies use these plot points poorly.

A perfect example of this is the 2016 film, How to Be Single. Put simply, I was not a fan of this film because of how poorly it handled characterization, its narrative, and its underlying message. If you would like to read more extended thoughts on the film, you can check out my review of it on Letterboxd.

This is not the only film that fumbles its attempts -- in fact, most romantic comedies are like that. Romantic comedies that work -- like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, or, more recently, Michael Showalter's film The Big Sick, written by, and starring, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiana -- are rare, and often are only successful because of the talent behind them. The narrative of the romantic comedy that the vast majority of filmmakers swear by (which was mentioned above) doesn't make or break a film  -- it's the talent (or lack thereof) in front of, and behind, the camera that counts.

A still from The Big Sick (2017)

A still from The Big Sick (2017)

However, none of this is to say that these films can't be entertaining. That is their ultimate benefit and that is why I will always watch romantic comedies (beyond my desire to watch all films, bad or good).

It's also important to mention that romantic comedies are not trying to be anything more profound. The ones that do use the genre to their benefit -- like The Big Sick, which explores both a true story, and the subject of religious differences in relationships -- are often highly praised for their efforts, as long as said efforts produce a strong film. But even the films that are poor, like How to Be Single, still are important to analyze and understand. And, at the very least, they can still be very entertaining regardless of their overall quality.

What Makes a Good Film Adaptation?

I recently stumbled across this excellent video discussing Cary Fukunaga's all-too-brief involvement with the new It film that will be hitting theaters this Fall. 

I have been very vocal in my low expectations for this film, mainly due to how underwhelming Muschietti's other film, Mama, was, and because of Fukunaga's comments about the creative differences he had with producers which led to his rather unceremonious firing. 

I was trying to make an unconventional horror film. It didn’t fit into the algorithm of what they knew they could spend and make money back on based on not offending their standard genre audience. Our budget was perfectly fine. We were always hovering at the $32 million mark, which was their budget. It was the creative that we were really battling. It was two movies. They didn’t care about that. In the first movie, what I was trying to do was an elevated horror film with actual characters. They didn’t want any characters. They wanted archetypes and scares. I wrote the script. They wanted me to make a much more inoffensive, conventional script. But I don’t think you can do proper Stephen King and make it inoffensive.
— Cary Fukunaga

In this video there is some brief discussion about the elements of Fukunaga's script that would have elevated the horror, and attempted to create something fresh, and bold, from King's original novel. 

The comments were what really spurred this post, though. I invite you to check them out for yourself.

The essential thesis of the majority of these comments was that film adaptations should be as faithful to their source material as possible. The deviations that Fukunaga had proposed were met with vitriol, with some people saying he should have just made a different film if he had wanted to make the film that was described in this video.

So what makes a film adaptation good? Does an adaptation need to stick to its story word-for-word (or as close to that as possible), or is it okay for films to deviate from their source material while still using the essence of the narrative?

This is a difficult question, and it's one that I'm on the fence about. The easy answer seems to be "it depends on the film", but there should be some kind of rubric from which we can discern pros and cons of adapting existing works -- right?

Let's take a look at one of the most famous, and well-respected, film adaptations -- The Lord of the Rings

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

A still from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

What made The Lord of the Rings so powerful was how it managed to adapt this epic fantasy tale while retaining an aura of its own. By this I mean to say that the film trilogy we all watched, and fell in love with, managed to tow the line between faithfully bringing Tolkien's vision to screen (Jackson describes, in one of the many behind-the-scenes documentaries, that Ian McKellen had a paperback copy "Fellowship" while they were on set, and would often consult it for answers; similarly, the late, great Christopher Lee was a Tolkien expert, having consistently read the trilogy every year until his passing), and asserting its own aesthetic, and vision.

Granted, Peter Jackson describes every moment of pre-production, filming, and post being dedicated to bringing Tolkien's vision to life. Therefore, for this trilogy, faithfulness to the source material was the essential element.

Let's take another film adaptation (one that is notorious, especially among King fans): Stanley Kubrick's 1980 masterpiece, The Shining.

A still from The Shining (1980)

A still from The Shining (1980)

The 1980 film is nothing like its source material, except in the most superficial of ways. Kubrick used King's novel more as a conduit for his own philosophical ideas than anything else. While King's novel was much more personal to the author, discussing issues of alcoholism, fatherhood, and marriage -- all under the backdrop of a ghost story --, Kubrick's film was more concerned with surrealism, tension, and imagery.

They both work in their own way, though. King's novel is widely regarded as one of his best, in terms of his entire canon, and Kubrick's film is widely regarded as one of the best horror films ever made. They both took the basic idea of the story, and drove it in different directions, both of which were wildly successful.

Is it a good adaptation, though?

That is a question that is left to subjective opinion. I personally am of the mind that a good film adaptation is one that uses the source material to its benefit, and in the process creates a good film. After all, literature and film are two different mediums with entirely different approaches (in terms of creation). It is impossible to perfectly adapt a novel, both because of runtime issues (if every adaptation was entirely faithful we would have excessively long films.

Additionally, what is the benefit of seeing a perfect representation of what we have already read? While certain moments take on a different meaning, or importance when we see them on screen (the battle of Helm's Deep, for instance, or the night-vision goggles scene in The Silence of the Lambs), films that use their source material as avenues for more provocative discussions, themes, or visual ideas are often just as powerful. 

In the video that started this blog post, many of the scenes that are brought up (which deviate from the source material) are still exploring ideas that King wrote about in his book. In Fukunaga's script, Pennywise wouldn't necessarily take on literal forms, like vampires and werewolves, but would instead use the children's inner fears -- like struggling with the concept of manhood -- against them. It is a deviation from the source material, as the scene described did not happen in the novel, but the underlying themes, and ideas, from the novel are still there.

My point here is that we shouldn't necessarily write off a film that deviates from its source material. Often times films that take their narrative in a different direction are still exploring similar themes, or ideas; more importantly, though, even when they're not, they can still be interesting, entertaining pieces of art on their own.

Take Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, for example -- these are two hugely popular TV shows that follow their source material about 70% of the time. However, some characters who die in the show are alive in the books, or the comics, and vice versa. Some events don't play out quite like they do in the source material, and some moments in the source material are expanded, with great benefit, in these shows. The episode "Hardhome", for example, is the perfect example of this. In the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, the events at Hardhome are alluded to. In the show, we see what happens in grisly detail, and it is one of the most thrilling moments in the show.

I'm jumping around a bit here, but let's return to my main points here. Firstly, film adaptations (and TV adaptations for that matter) that follow their source material can often be amazing pieces of art that are augmented by their imagery. Conversely, films and shows that deviate from their source material (whether as drastically as Kubrick did, or in the smaller ways that Fukunaga wanted to) can be equally as good because of their ability to explore new stories within the parameters of the existing narrative.

Ultimately there is no way to say whether an adaptation is good or bad based only on the amount in which it deviates from its source material. We can only judge a piece of art on its own merits. And don't get me wrong -- there have been plenty of horrendous film adaptations that have missed the mark entirely (both by trying to deviate, and by trying to be faithful). But if we stop focusing on a film's connection to its source material, we may be better off.

James M. Cain -- author of novels like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice -- was once asked about film adaptations. The story goes that a reporter visited his home to interview the author. At the time, one of Cain's novels had been adapted into a film, and said film was getting very poor reception. The reporter asked Cain if Hollywood had ruined his books. Cain's response is perfect.

They haven’t done anything to my books. They’re still right there on the shelf. They’re fine.
— James M. Cain

The point Cain is making, and I suppose the point I'm making as well, is that film adaptations do not erase their source material. Even if Kubrick's The Shining was one of the worst films every made, it would not erase King's novel, nor its social appeal. People would still read the book, and would tout it as "better than the movie" -- and that's perfectly okay.

As a filmmaker and a writer, I often find myself caught in the middle of this debate. Ultimately, my position on the matter is that filmmakers should go with their gut. If you're adapting a novel and you want it to remain as close to the source material as possible, nobody should stop you. The opposite is true as well.

At the end of the day, I still wish I could see what Fukunaga had in store for us. I may still be bracing myself for disappointment with Muschietti's vision, I do hope that it works, whether it's faithful or not.

The Importance of Film Dialogue, and the Necessity of Hemingway's Minimalism

About a year or so ago, in late June (perhaps creeping into early July) I wrote a short story titled "Weekend", which has yet to be published. This short story was an important crossroads for me. I wanted to impart feelings I had about a particular event (and, more importantly, about a particular person), but I did not want it to be obvious, both so I did not get too specific with the truth of the story, and so I could write a more interesting, minimalist narrative.

Since that story's creation, I have never written dialogue any other way, both in my films and in my literary projects.

"Why?" you might ask. "What benefit is there to writing minimalist dialogue?" 

The answer is complicated, and it is -- by no means -- an objective truth. That is to say, everything in this blog post is entirely my subjective viewpoint on the matter. Further, it's important to mention that I have pissed off a lot of viewers and readers for writing this way. But I am dedicated to writing like this, and for a few reasons.

Firstly, I have noticed an upsetting trend where readers/viewers don't want to do the work to discover the importance of the art they are ingesting. Viewers don't want to be challenged at the theater; they want to be entertained. Readers don't want to be challenged by their novel; they want to be sucked into some sort of escapist fantasy.

This is not true of all people, mind you. However, it is the trend I have noticed.

I was first made aware of this with my own work. While workshopping a chapter of a novel I am working on, I had a lot of online readers questioning my "vagueness" as they would call it. People wanted me to clarify, to delve deep into backstory, to explain every character nuance and every movement so they could be absolutely certain about what was going on (even, frustratingly for me, when the answers they wanted were contained a few pages later). This kept coming up -- in "Weekend", while I received some strong constructive criticism occasionally, the majority of the comments could be boiled down to "I don't get it" or "Why do we care what happened in the story?"

It was around this time that I was getting back into reading work by the master of minimalism -- Ernest Hemingway. I started re-reading his novels and short stories (particularly his story "Hills Like White Elephants"), and I found myself falling in love with this method of imparting narratives more and more.

I came to the conclusion that a lot of people don't want to do the work, or, at the very least, don't have time to do the work when it comes to more challenging stories and films. Lots of people go to movies, and read novels, because they don't want to have to do work -- they don't want these mediums to challenge them. Hemingway bucked that trend rather forcefully. His prose are easy to understand, and very accessible, but his stories always have some sort of profound depth to them that only intense analysis can unearth.

When I was writing my short film "Mirror" (which you can watch here on my website), I approached the narrative with the same kind of mindset. I was surprised that, for the most part, people were more accepting of the approach this time around. While I still received the "I don't get it comment" from people I've shown it to, more people seem interested in deciphering the messages than immediately disregarding it as some sort of pretentious self-pleasure.

So what does all of this have to do with film dialogue? Well, more than you might think actually.

Dialogue is the one area that takes writers decades to master. Very few people get a grasp on good film dialogue like Tarantino or Sorkin do -- they (myself included) have to continually work at it. But the true annoyance I have when it comes to film dialogue is the tendency to over-explain.

Think about the last film you saw, or the last blockbuster you went to the theater to see. Chances are there was a section, or there were multiple sections, that were crammed full of obvious exposition. This is extremely obvious in Marvel and DC movies (or any comic book/superhero movie, for that matter) where we get scenes of someone explaining the intricacies of a plan, or the specific workings of a weapon, before we see the effects of what is to follow.

This frustrates me, as a filmmaker and as an avid filmgoer, because it's lazy. Whenever you hear all of that exposition crammed into a string of dialogue, you know that the writer(s) was being lazy, and didn't know how else to impart the information. 

Often times, though, I find that filmmakers -- especially on bigger projects -- don't trust their audience. They feel as though they have to explain every detail in hopes that you know exactly what is going on during the scene/film.

This is easily visible in a scene like this one from The Avengers, where Tony Stark verbally spars with Loki about the latter's plans to take over Earth.

It's not the worst dialogue, and it helps that both Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Hiddleston have superb delivery, but take another look at the actual writing of their conversation. There is no nuance. There is no subtlety. Every intention, every feeling, is spelled out for the audience in this scene, and when it ends we have no misunderstandings as to who feels what, and why they feel that way.

This is present even in less blockbuster/Hollywood type films. Check out this short conversation in Nicolas Winding Refn's 2016 film, The Neon Demon.

This scene is interesting because we start in a good place: Refn uses words sparingly, and precisely, to exude a certain mood of discomfort (which is augmented by the cinematography and editing). However, about halfway through this scene, it descends into a similar type of overly-descriptive philosophizing about the nature of beauty. This wouldn't be an issue if it weren't so on the nose. It's almost as though Refn felt that we needed this element of the film spelled out for us because he was worried we would miss it. Instead of using his visuals to sell the idea the dialogue imparts, he resorts to hackneyed dialogue that feels forced and unnatural. 

It is even present in films that are considered excellent. Check out this scene from Christopher Nolan's lauded 2014 film, Interstellar.

The point I'm trying to make is not that these films are inherently bad because they have moments of poor, or overly detailed, dialogue; nor am I saying that filmmakers should avoid exposition in their dialogue. What I am saying, though, is that modern films seem to have this tendency to describe everything, to the point where there isn't any nuance. Why would we ponder the characters' meaning, or understanding, of beauty, or the importance they place on beauty, in The Neon Demon when the dialogue spells out for us how these characters feel? 

This is why I brought up Hemingway. His prose are like icebergs: the majority of it is below the surface, or in between the lines, but we can still understand what we see at face value. He had an uncanny ability to tell a story with varying degrees of profundity.

Take a look at his dialogue in "Hill Like White Elephants" again, too. You probably already know the subject of this couple's conversation (as this short story is a staple of high school English classes), but really analyze the precise language Hemingway uses. It's sharp, it's occasionally witty, it's heartfelt -- it's substantive. 

Sure, this style of dialogue may not be the most accessible at times. It may not give you all of your answers all at once, and it may require you to watch the film over and over again to truly understand its meaning. And there is the valid argument that film dialogue, and film writing, are very different from literature and cannot be approached in the same manner. However, I would argue that we try to do other things than what many filmmakers are currently doing. Or, at the very least, ask why when we hear these strings of exposition crammed into a scene.

Maybe you won't be as drastic as I was, and change the way you write entirely. Maybe you'll start by just writing out a scene a few times, trimming the fat on each edit until you reach a point where you're happy. Maybe you won't change your writing style at all, but will instead look for more ways to understand, and push, your own prose style. Any of these is fine in any regard. As I said before, these moments of weakness in these films do not make these inherently weak films, and the weaknesses I have pointed out are weaknesses from my personal, subjective perspective.

At the end of the day, the important thing is that we have unique films. Original films. The Marvel films will always succumb to these moments of poor writing, as will directors like Refn who have worked with a singular style their entire career. However, I hope that indie directors, and the younger generation -- of which I belong to -- really start to analyze film writing, dialogue, and Hemingway. It may not seem like there is a connection at first, but -- as Hemingway proved with every story, and every novel, he wrote -- there is always something underneath the surface to uncover. You just have to keep digging.

The Beauty of Misdirection in Mulholland Drive

No hay banda! There is no band! Il n’est pas de orquestra! This is all... a tape-recording. No hay banda! And yet we hear a band. If we want to hear a clarinette... listen. Un trombon “à coulisse”. Un trombon “con sordina”. Sient le son du trombon in sourdine. Hear le son... and mute it... drop it. It’s all recorded. No hay banda! It’s all a tape. Il n’est pas de orquestra. It is... an illusion!” — Bondar
— Mulholland Drive

This is the opening dialogue to one of the most memorable scenes in David Lynch's 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive. Among the ethereal, dream-driven visuals, and the brooding, ominous score that envelopes the narrative, there are moments of pure Lynchian misdirection.

We see examples of Lynch's mastery in this regard elsewhere in the film, especially during the audition scene. Lynch sets up a certain mood, and then takes a hard left turn into a different territory. The YouTuber, Nerdwriter, did an excellent video on this very scene, and topic.

When I first saw Mulholland Drive, a lot of substance went over my head. It is not the kind of film made to be watched half-buzzed in a dorm room; yet that is how I saw it the first time. The narrative is almost incomprehensible the first time around, occasionally allowing for momentary glimpses at its larger truth while never revealing a card in its hand. Lynch forces you to figure out for yourself the true meaning behind his film, and even his handful of clues can seem more frustrating than helpful.

I will always remember the scene in Club Silencio, though. After my first time watching the film, it was all I could think about. After my second, third, fourth, and even fifth time (throughout which I have discovered hidden meanings, important symbols, and distinct Lynchian aesthetics), that scene is still the most memorable. I hesitate to say it is the most important, in the context of the film, but it is the most important for me -- the filmmaker, the film student, and the cinephile.

It's different from other examples of Lynchian misdirection. In the audition scene, for instance, Lynch toys with the tone of the scene -- starting with a more uncomfortable, predatory atmosphere, and suddenly changing the entire feeling of the scene by showing us that Betty is inviting said atmosphere for the betterment of the audition. It is an interesting changing of the guard, but it doesn't necessarily toy with our emotions in the way the scene in Club Silencio does.

Perhaps the most genius part of the Club Silencio scene, too, is that we are told immediately that nothing is real. "There is no band", we are told. And yet, when the alluring singer steps on stage, and we hear an incredibly powerful, emotional performance of Roy Orbison's song "Sorry" in Spanish. Because of the powerful editing, cutting between the singer and Betty/Irene's reactions, and the emotional acting of Rebekah del Rio, we are lulled into the idea that her performance is real -- that her singing is actually happening. Then, when she faints and that thin veil is ripped away from our eyes, we are shocked. The power of the performance is thrown into question, and the emotions we have felt during the scene feel wrongly placed.

When I first saw that scene, I felt the aforementioned things. I also felt stupid. After all I was told at the beginning of the scene that everything was an illusion. And yet, I believed the illusion just minutes later. 

Mulholland Drive at night.

Mulholland Drive at night.

Lynch is a master of this kind of deception and misdirection. He doesn't try to hide it. The scene at Club Silencio stands, in my mind, as one of the most important moments in cinematic history. For a director to show the audience his hand, only to still amaze them with the trick, is a power few filmmakers have; even fewer could pull it off with the cinematic grace that Lynch did in Mulholland Drive.

Lynch, and his masterpieces, are beautiful misdirections. Even in his interviews Lynch controls the direction of the conversation, and jerks it down odd roads whenever he desires. That kind of filmmaking prowess must be learned from. Club Silencio may never be replicated, but the ability to create an illusion like the one we saw there is vital for future filmmakers to understand.

And, at the very least, it gives everyone an excuse to watch Mulholland Drive.

The Golden Age of TV: How Is It Affecting Films?

The Castle of Zafra in Guadalajara, Spain; a filming location for season 6 of Game of Thrones

The Castle of Zafra in Guadalajara, Spain; a filming location for season 6 of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones is back on TV, and with it legions of fans (myself included) have posted up on the couch each Sunday night to take in the glorious spectacle, and engaging, sinister storytelling of this incredible show.

We are currently in what many have called "the golden age of television" --  with shows like The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Mr. Robot, The Americans, (and many, many others) being released to the masses throughout the past 25 years, more people have flocked to their television screens, supposedly leaving the silver screen behind.

So how has this affected films? Has it affected films? Is there still a divide between television and film in terms of quality and experience?

The answer is yes, though that gap is being bridged more and more with each show that springs up. The Sopranos was the first show to truly rival the cinematic quality of films, both in terms of narrative scope and visuals. Since that show ended, way back in 2007, we have had a plethora of newer shows that have continued the legacy Tony Soprano started. Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones are perhaps the most popular (especially this newest season of the latter show, which has boasted some of the most impressive fantasy visuals ever), there are other shows -- like FX's The Americans, or Neflix's House of Cards, which have pushed the envelope in terms of narrative scope, characterization, and precise plotting that we generally expect in the theater.

Kevin Spacey entertains a Governor on the set of House of Cards.

Kevin Spacey entertains a Governor on the set of House of Cards.

Films still have an edge -- they are able to boast bigger budgets, and utilize more cutting edge special effects. However, this financial benefit is hurting them just as much as it's helping. Audiences are growing tired of the large, CGI based spectacle that is so prevalent in modern blockbusters. Many viewers are pining for practical effects, yearning for a sense of realism in their escapism. In this way, television is becoming smarter. Small, bottle episodes, like Breaking Bad's "Fly", are showcasing how simple storytelling will always win over pure spectacle.

This is not to say that shows aren't bridging the gap in terms of their budget, though. HBO's Game of Thrones reportedly had a $10 million budget for each episode in season six (making the season's budget roughly $100 million). To put that in perspective, that's just $49 million less than the budget of 2017's Wonder Woman. With the show's success, it would not be ludicrous to infer that we will see more fantasy shows in the future (Game of Thrones related or otherwise), and that their budgets will increase as long as their popularity continues to grow.

In terms of quality, television has the added benefit of time. While some films generally can push two-and-a-half hours before audiences start to become annoyed, shows can run on for as long as they need to. South Park is on its 21st season; The Walking Dead is on its eighth. Both shows are still just as popular (if not more so) as they were when they started, and there is no sign that they are going to slow down anytime soon. While films are rather disposable (with exception to the classics that truly transcend time), shows stick around. By doing so, we spend more time with characters, become more attached to the story, and feel more connected to the universe.

A still from South Park.

A still from South Park.

Ultimately, though, I don't think any filmmaker should be worried about film going anywhere anytime soon. With the popularity of the independent scene on the rise again, and with blockbusters still making billions of dollars worldwide, it's extremely unlikely we're going to see production companies being forced to rethink their strategy anytime in the next century,  regardless of how many incredible shows come out. What will be interesting to see, though, is if the rise of serious television will offer filmmakers a different perspective on constructing narratives, building characters, and utilizing pacing.