This post is the unedited copy of the feature/analysis published in MAG the Weekly on 21st May, 2016
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
Filmmaking is a dangerously creative field. From it comes works of awe-inspiring, soul-lifting wonder, spanned across time, genres and audience tastes. From it also emerge personal convictions, arguments and career destroying egotistical wars, billions in trade, politics and the gnawing need to be in the spotlight. It’s a wonderful, disastrous high.
One of the biggest problems in movie industry is the narcissistic grudge-match between the audience, the filmmaker, and the critic. The maker, regardless of aptitude or skill-level, cares little of the audience (on certain passion-projects), and reviewers, who are (sometimes) rightly labeled as faultfinders with inadequate knowledge of making movies, point them out as the guardian of audiences tastes.
The concept of this feature sprang from such a conversation, a few weeks back, at a meeting with Mag – The Weekly’s editors. Presented below are some basic FAQ’s on the most basics of differing opinions.
Why do bad and mediocre movies outnumber the good ones?
Two factors: motion pictures are a consistently high-demand business and making ‘good movies’ (let alone great ones), takes a lot of time and creative energy. Not everyone has the wherewithal to craft a masterpiece – with hundreds of million individuals employed worldwide, in every department from writing to catering to set constructions, most ‘jobs’ have little to do with creativity and art per se. The ones who have that license find themselves in a Catch 22 situation – to spend time on creativity, common sense and logic, or to build a business on stable, tried-and-tested ways, that the audience, historically feel comfortable with.
So why do mediocre films like Batman V Superman, Jawani Phir Nahin Aani (JPNA) or Karachi Se Lahore, dominate the box office?
Three words: marketing, familiarity, and star power. Universally, the harder you push the audience, the bigger the promotional campaign, the more audience the film is likely to attract. Major Hollywood movies have a marketing budget north of $100 million. In Bollywood, the sum reaches $5 million – which is extravagant, given the exchange rate. In Pakistan, we rely on television partnerships, brand endorsements (the songs, Tera Mera Jor and Fair & Lovely Ka Jalwa in JPNA, Cornetto in Karachi Se Lahore, Pepsi in Shah, Coke Cola in Ho Mann Jahaan). The success also depends on the movie’s entertainment factor. The general audience, brought out by marketing, seek ‘entertainment’, and in-turn build a word-of-mouth. If a film, accomplishes that, then it served its purpose.
Why do so many movies look the same these days?
Since Steven Spielberg benchmarked the ‘summer blockbuster’ with Jaws in 1975, a system of ‘pop-corn entertainment’ gradually found a foothold in the film industry. While Spielberg didn’t actually make the formula, (he simply refined it for the times), he did start a worldwide trend for a way movies ‘should be’ structured to grab the audience’s short-attention span. The tricks, a mix of aesthetic and technical, have since become standard practices, however, a constant exposure and lack of finesse has diminished their impact.
Almost every ‘big’ movie now follows a trend – a character finds himself in a series of crisis and obstacles, (physical and emotional), resolves these conflicts in ten minute spans (called ‘story beats’), fails in the middle (called the anti-climax) and reach their goal by the picture’s end.
In the latest Fast and Furious, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), now happily back home to normalcy, faces off with the vengeful villain (Jason Statham) who is the brother of a former enemy. After a series of clashes (including a subplot of a ‘God’s Eye’), Dominic and co. bring him to justice. In a similar example in The Walk (2015), Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), has the insatiable need to bedazzle the world with his skill as a high-wire walker. He gathers a team of skilled and not so skilled professionals, sneaks into the still-in-construction World Trade Center towers, and walks the wire six times. He is arrested, but ultimately rewarded, for his talent.
The underlying logic of conflict and resolution of the people on-screen applies equally to every genre, whether romance, action or horror.
Why is there a divide between commercial and art cinema?
Depends on an individual’s opinion. Firstly, according to yours truly, there is no such thing as ‘art’ or ‘commercial’. Motion pictures are motion pictures – a set of moving images with one undisputed purpose: to clutch our attention. A photograph, a meme, an animated gif, or a short film – they all start off on the same principal. Visual immersion, and telling a story.
Motion pictures – a set of moving images in their most basic form – have always been commercial, because producing them has always been a labor and expense of time and money. As time went on, (based on Spielberg’s Jaw’s principal, above), we now have an understanding and breakdown of the genres and their targeted audiences – the slice of people, who will go to see a typical comedy, drama or action movie. Based on these business statistics, producers have an idea of a movie’s ‘potential’ market (potential, because a film has to be ‘good’ to attract that particular faction of audience to the cinemas). Movies are, as I keep reiterating, expensive endeavors. They cannot be made without clear hindsight (unless, the investor wants to lose the money on purpose).
The divide and rally behind ‘commercial’ and ‘art’ is merely a self-constricted ruse to sound superior. A supposedly ‘art’ movie, also deals with trials and tribulation of characters. The only real difference is the scale, realism and effectiveness of a story. Would Woh 7 Din (1983) or Eeshwar (1989) – both starring Anil Kapoor – qualify as art or commercial cinema? Would Drive (2011) or Nightcrawler (2014) – both applauded for their technical and aesthetic mastery – be labeled as art, art-house, independent or commercial? Where does Khuda Kay Liye (2007), Bol (2011) or Moor (2016) fit?
They are motion pictures. Personally, given the difference in the way they are produced, I would label the difference as independent and commercial. Being independent does not mean that the movies cannot be commercial or entertaining.
Where Does Creativity Fit Within this Framework?
Nowhere and everywhere. ‘Creativity’ (and its smaller sibling ‘art’) fluctuate in shape and sizes. From the ridiculously long-take in the Russian Ark (2002) (the film was basically a one 90-minute uncut steadicam shot) to the technical (and head-throbbing) excellence of Michael Bay’s ‘Bayhem’ in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, each directorial decision comes pre-bundled with the term.
However, because film is a visual medium (duh!), and decisions are made by people with a perspective, creativity is somewhat shackled within the set of ‘rules’ defined above. The writer, the producer and the actor and the director, simply has to wiggle it in within these constraints. Going overboard would most likely alienate audiences and limit the exposure a film deserves. (See: Mah-e-Mir’s review, published last week in Mag the Weekly). It’s all about communicating to the largest slice of the audience. No one makes a movie that a handful can enjoy. Unless, of course, deliberately.
Do critics really understand cinema?
A handful do. Most have no idea. Cinema studies, an often mandatory course taught in colleges, helps dissect the artistic and technical achievements of films. Some critics know and appreciate technicalities behind creative decisions. They can identify excellence in individual departments, or the way every element of a motion picture – the story and its presentation – come together. This analysis is an academic job for people who are learned of the field.
Then there are the reviewers – people, often prefigured as know-it-alls, who know nothing at all. They merely reflect the audience’s taste, and their assessments are limited to story, trivia, common sense or the immediate impression they left the cinema with. Reviewers, sometimes journalists, now mostly everyone with a blog, are seldom academic. They do write or v-log a lot, though.