are film themes and messages overrated?

Discussion in 'Movies, Entertainment & Various Music Genres' started by Brahman, Jan 11, 2007.

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  1. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    when people defend a film, they often want to jump to discussing what theme it covers or message it delivers. "oh no! it's a great film! see, it deals with ______". this is starting to get to me, because it's exactly why undeserving films are always being nominated and winning with the academy. the past two years have been the best example. crash? million dollar baby? [funny]!

    better-shot, better-directed, better-acted, and better-written films about "lesser" themes and narrower scopes are often overlooked and don't get their due credit, because films dealing with big and lofty social or philosophical issues are given top priority.

    i'm not saying that life lessons aren't a good thing to have in movies, and i try not to be too biased against them. however, it's so secondary to the art of filmmaking, imo. it's good to have a message that can move an audience. societally healthy, even. the thing is it's not the only ingredient and definitely not the first that should be addressed in a film's defense.

    i was comforted the other day when i read a quote by my geminian air sign brother roger ebert that shared this view of mine. [funny], yeah, i get accused of "using critics too much to support my opinions", but most of the time i'm coming to my opinions before i even see what they say. i would appreciate anyone who voices this, but it helps to have someone of his standing go on record with it.

    he once said, "it's not what a film is about but how it is about it"

    truer words have never been spoken.

    hard to blame people for doing it, though, because we're all guilty. it's the quickest thing to point to but ultimately the weakest in my book. how else do you defend a film really? explaining the power of the "how" is more difficult and has less immediacy than the "what". even so, that is what needs most focus when studying the motion picture art.

    i guess the answer is simple and has been visible right in front of me all along. it's been evasive as i've tried to embrace and accept it fully. people feel what they feel, and it's undesirable and virtually impossible to argue someone into feeling something. and, it's why i'm not as eager to debate the quality of individual movies as i used to be. best to let them discover it for themselves if they're ever to like it.

    i wish that people would get over this obsession though, because they're missing out on truly appreciating some great aspects of the art when they don't give films that they see as being "unimportant", "about nothing", "immoral", or "socially irresponsible" a fair shake and decide that they dislike them before watching all the way through with an open mind.



    list your top 5 film ingredients... the things you look for in determining a "great film".

    my list:

    1. cinematography/art direction
    2. direction
    3. acting
    4. score
    5. screenwriting

    it all depends... films of course can be high on the bottom and low on the upper and still end up great.
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  2. teq the decider

    teq the decider sexual predator

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    It not that they are overvalued but that they arent infact valued at all, theyre insincerely valued. A substantial measure of critical acclaim can be garnered just by flattering the pretentions of the critics. Heaping praise on a movie which propogates a message largely deemed to be sophisticated/compassionate/courageous is a way to broadcast your sophistication/compassion/courage.
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  3. teq the decider

    teq the decider sexual predator

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    my list:

    1.screenwriting
    2.score
    3.acting
    4.direction
    5.cinematography/art direction
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  4. Riz

    Riz Well-Known Member

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    For me, I could never like a film just for the theme/message... but my favourite films are probably those that have a mixture of both, with the message hidden underneath for those that want to see it.

    Raiders of the Lost Ark I love because it's 2 hours of fun with the coolest character in cinema history, IMO. But there is a message underneath. The theme of Braveheart isn't all that interesting to me, but I love it all the same. Magnolia blew me away with it's writing, directing and score. It's only only on later viewings that I saw a very important message. And then you have Buffy. If you want it to be, it's nothing more than a camp horror show about a blonde girl who fights monsters. But really? It's one of the most epic, personal stories you could hope to find.

    The message doesn't have to be based on some obscure philosopher to be important to me. I love The Matrix films for their philosophy, but only because it works within in those films. You can argue that they're overrated but the Lord of the Rings films have some pretty big themes running throughout. And yet my absolute favoruite moment from the whole 9 hours? At the end of FOTR, with Sam and Frodo atop a mountain, with their daunting future in the foreground. Frodo turns to Sam and says, "Sam. I'm glad you're with me." They share a look and then the credits role. They're the kinds of "messages" that I love.

    Basically, I'm saying I can't make a list because it depends. Sometimes a film will work for me because of the directing, sometimes the writing and sometimes the message/theme... and then sometimes you get all of those things at once.
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  5. Riz

    Riz Well-Known Member

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    And by the same token, heaping criticism on a movie which propogates a message largely deemed to be sophisticated/compassionate/courageous is a way to broadcast your rejection of accepted sophistication/compassion/courage themes because you're so above them.
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  6. menaz

    menaz Avant Garde

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    In Clerks two, randal put LOTR best.

    3 hours of walking, and a ring toss in the volcano.

    The rest of LOTR was nothing more than two hobits giving each other homo sexual looks, with an ending that was continuously endless.

    Simplistic break down? Maybe. Did I agree beforehand? without a doubt.

    I never laughed so hard when randal said...
    For fuck sake, Even the trees were walking. LOL!




    1.) screenwriting
    2.) acting
    3.) cinematography/art design
    4.) music/flim score
    5.) direction (e.g. miami vice, worst vision ever.)
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  7. Lee Van McQueen

    Lee Van McQueen ♣aka. Steve Cleef

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    i'd say this is truer of the academy than the critical community

    many films that get praised by the body of critics the academy wouldn't dare touch out of safety for their image


    [funny] @ your list
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  8. Superman70

    Superman70 edited

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    How was Million Dollar Baby undeserving?
    It was a great movie.
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  9. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    [dunno], i liked it, but i saw a handful of 2004 films that i felt were better
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  10. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    yeah, i can never see a message/theme being a saving grace for a film though

    it can add a little more power to the punch leaving you with a lasting feeling of "damn, that was deep", but it ultimately carries little weight for the art

    like i said, i used to be very argumentative about this, but i've accepted we're all different. i don't think i'll ever understand why underlying messages/themes get as much credit as they do when they're not really contributing to the quality of the film itself. well, i take that back... i can understand why they would help films get beloved by certain people because to the ability to touch and tug at heartstrings, but it shouldn't factor heavily into the equation of critical analysis. at least not as heavily as it appears to be in the academy's.
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  11. Ignorant

    Ignorant Village Idiot

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    Brahman, I agree with everything you said... punk ass Oz is guilty of this when judging rap music... he's so concerned with the "what" instead of the "how."

    My top 5 in order:

    1) acting - point blank, I can't watch any film with bad acting
    2) direction- controls how the film is presented, from the score to the acting
    3) writing- has to make sense or be compelling
    4) cinematography/art design - important superficially, but important nonetheless
    5) score - fuck a grand score, sometimes too much music can interfere with the nuances of the acting and direction.
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  12. The Jeus

    The Jeus _________

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    Do you find it interesting that you quoted Ebert's famous maxim in support of your argument, yet Ebert himself put Crash as his #1 in 2005, and MDB as his #1 in 04.

    Your argument sounds like the classic Samuel Goldwyn line "If you want to send a message, use Western Union"

    I think what you'll find as you peruse what passes for film criticism today, that many of the writers are either a) writing for the general audience and they can connect more readily with theme/plot than cinematic grammar or b) the writer is simply not learned enough in regards to the craft of filmmaking that they can't cogently write about it.

    I think you've mistaken Ebert a little bit though; he is saying if you are delivering a message, there is a difference between doing it honestly within the context of the story, with respect for the audience's intelligence and tacking it on preachily with obvious grandstanding and what not, in addition to the technical aspects. Because the "art" of filmmaking is an empty exercise if nothing is being communicated. Art is about expression and if a message/idea/emotion/thought isn't being expressed, it is an excercise in futility.

    "top 5"
    1. Is this sound synched with the picture and is it lit properly for the film stock used so I can see what's going on? aka general technical competence
    2. directing
    3. screenplay
    4. staging/editing/acting - largely inseparable
    5. production design

    I'll come back to this later on, but that's where I'm at right now.
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  13. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    no, it doesn't surprise me really... for my $$$, ebert's taste can be questionable at times, but his thought process in coming to conclusions is sound. i know he ended up liking those movies more because he felt other things within them that i didn't rather than placing too much value on their messages.

    good point

    oh okay, thanks for clearing that up

    i thought i may have been missing some necessary context

    however, do you agree with my own theory that i derived from the quote?

    have you detected a trend of films with "more responsible", "positive", "uplifting", etc. messages sometimes being given special treatment and placement over films that are superior but have "less responsible", "immoral", "amoral", etc. messages?

    a lot of the time, it's almost as if the rule is "if a film is about _________, it's better than a film about _________" with many other aspects being overlooked or not getting enough consideration

    i have to disagree with this

    art is expansive enough to where there really isn't such a thing as an "empty exercise"

    why? because as long as you fill time and space with colors, shapes, sounds, etc., you are expressing something. on the extreme side, it could be jackson pollockly random and over-the-top abstract with its creator not knowing what it is exactly, but it's still filled with an idea that will be interpreted in some form or fashion... and, it's bound to get adoration from some who find movement and inspiration from it. it may not qualify with everyone or most as being "good", "sensible", or "worthwhile", but it's still a message and evocative nonetheless... even if it's purely a stylistic exhibition. aesop rock comes to mind... i don't get a lot of what he's trying to communicate with his songs, but i dig them because he has a way of connecting words to make the verses "sound cool". would you call a lot of what he does "empty exercises"? what if he says to himself, "fuck it... there's no concept here. i just want to wordplay". would you say that's an "empty exercise"?

    i came to learn this from watching and being overwhelmed by mulholland dr., my 1st david lynch film. while it is infused with an overall message, it's given unconventionally and many parts of the film seem to not being saying anything at all. dreamscape visuals splashed on the canvas for the sake of putting something "weird" out there, and it intrigued me.

    i'm not anti-tradition and saying all messages should be delivered like this or anything. i have no problem seeing a movie that follows the familiar structure (some of my all-time favorites are traditional), but i'd like to see a movement back to more respect for and attention paid to the craft. the sergio leone's, david lynch's, akira kurosawa's, luchino visconti's, etc. they all had messages in the film, but most of the time it seemed like they didn't think of the message beforehand and then find a way to deliver it through a story. they just whipped up a good story, allowed whatever messages that were embedded to arise naturally, and applied intense focus to the creation of the film itself. whereas i get the sense from a lot of other films that the maker comes with a message already in mind and constructed a story around it, and this often ends up feeling unnatural.
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  14. Ignorant

    Ignorant Village Idiot

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    ^I love watching you two guys talk about film... makes me want to break out the popcorn... I was in full agreement with The Jeus until Brahman came along and made me think in another way... you're a fuckin' genius, man!
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  15. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    [funny], konscious

    eh, i try... if i weren't myself, i'd be listening more to the jeus right now, because i've been borderline psychotic with my mind aswirl for the past month or so. he comes with deeper film knowledge, and i like his grounded and more classical viewpoint.

    snap, i reread my reply, realized that i misread something he said and didn't address it properly.

    gotta go back and correct it
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  16. Brahman

    Brahman Mel Van Peebles

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    off-topic: the jeus, what is your zodiac sign, and do you believe in astrology at all?

    speaking of david lynch, he's a capricorn/aquarius along with his idol federico fellini... born on the same day in fact (january 20th). both of their dreamlike and surrealist filmographies are very emblematic of the traits in this star hybrid. i wonder if david lynch knows this, believes in astrology, and uses it as motivation to somewhat emulate fellini's work.

    god, i gotta stop feeding into this obsession of mine!
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  17. SadistiK1

    SadistiK1 Washingtonian

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    I think this is a support against your initial argument. David Lynch has the uncanny ability to clearly portray a strong message in film without other conventional tools (and was nominated for best director from the film you mentioned).

    A movie that comes to mind that would show the value of personal themes and messages portrayed in film would be Hitchcock's "Vertigo." To me, this is a very techinically competant movie, but the personal message and overall theme is much more overwhelming. I could also look at another favorite director of mine, David Cronenberg, and while the cinematography, plot, acting, etc might be good, his overall themes and motifs are what separate his work in my opinion. Ill get back to this soon hopefully when I have less alcohol in me, but I like this topic Brahman.
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  18. Riz

    Riz Well-Known Member

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    I think the point I was making before without realising is that messages in films work best as metaphors. You brought up Leone, but OUATINTW had a message/theme and the building of the railway was the metaphor for this. I think that was very much planned beforehand.

    Something like the final half hour of Million Dollar Baby was too literal to work as a metaphor for anything, and the same can be said for Crash. They scream at the audience, "look everybody! Here's our message!" But a story that works in metaphor almost hides its message, and only those that are interested in looking deeper can see it. I think that's part of what makes it fun; it's not obvious so you've gotta do some of the work. And then I think if it's a message that you relate to somehow it makes you connect with the story on a whole other level.
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  19. Leila Night

    Leila Night efrain,you're my one&only

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    ... I was going to make the same point. Definitely part of the reason Crash was terrible to watch and the exact reason Million Dollar Baby did not deserve its accolades. Well said.
    I still think a film needs a strong theme, just not strongly stated.

    Iggy, I disagree with your number one. If the movie is well directed, written, shot, scored and edited, the acting is not so important. In fact, the acting would not be bad. Iggy, are you Konscious?
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  20. The Jeus

    The Jeus _________

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    yes. but people will always advance the cause of the perceived positive or the perceived negative. It's interesting though that Citizen Kane, oft-hailed as 'best movie of all-time' is sort of ambiguous in this arena. It certainly isn't an uplifting tale, but at the same time I'd hesitate to call it immoral or irresponsible.

    Kane aside, the phenomenon you notice may or may not stem from attitudes toward cinema developed during the Hays production code era (1934-1967) where such material was simply not allowed. This is how Frank Capra, Spencer Tracy, and Sidney Poitier became popular and important. They packed on this messages and delivered them without an ounce of subtlety, employing Brecht's idea that 'art is not a mirror held up to society to reflect it back to itself, it is a hammer with which to shape it'. Many of the critics and writers about film came up during this era and these were the films that shaped their cinematic worldview.

    As regards the Oscars, it is largely about money. The Academy Awards are voted on by the Hollywood community themselves, so they have a tendency to prop up the positive message pictures because it makes their work seem important. So consciously or not, it's sort of a self-justification. Of course, that's a jaded perspective, and we'd like to believe they are truly behind the pictures/actors/directors that win, but when you look back over the years, a case can be made either way. Also, there is the phenomenon of the "career" award for someone who is very talented but never manages to win, the most frequently cited example being Pacino winning for Scent of a Woman. It'll be interesting to see what happens this year, both with Scorsese and his film The Departed. He hasn't won his best director nor best picture oscar, and the early buzz is eastwood will get him again this year with Letters from Iwo Jima.
    Also, they need to get ratings on TV for it to matter to the public, so they have to have stars win something and nominate movies that people have heard of, which means at least near-wide release, which negates the chances of a lot of worthy films.
    How does any of that disagree with what i said? All of your examples are those of self-expression, oblique though they may sometimes be. Picasso is considered by many the greatest painter ever, and he painted completely non-representationally. James Joyce is almost unreadable for anyone but the most patient students of literature, but to them Finnegan's Wake is a revelation.
    I don't want to get into a discussion on the nature/existence/defintion of art because even people with mental capacity far exceeding my own struggle with that one.

    I doubt those filmmakers considered messaging an afterthought. It certainly couldn't have been for Kurosawa. His first big movie, Rashomon, is based on two short stories, Rashomon and In a Grove, and certainly the thematic push wouldn't have been lost on him. Their films, however, embody the Ebert quote, about being about how they deliver their messages - in such a way where you don't feel preached at, and you can feel it was an afterthought. Billy Wilder is quoted as saying "let the audience add up 2 plus 2 and they'll love you forever". In a sense, set up the pieces, but let you, the viewer, come to conclusions, rather than putting it all together for us.
    Do you get the same feeling about "unnatural" messaging in reading Shakespeare, Camus, or Voltaire?
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