Tuesday, July 3, 2012

making a statement vs. saying something

thanks to the free (ish) movies available from Netflix, I was able to watch Ghost in the Shell a 2nd, 3rd, and now 4th time. The 4th time was the result of my interest being high enough to purchase an actual copy (a very rare occurrence), on Blu Ray no less. It's a cyberpunk movie that, if you've never seen, you can just substite any future mention of it with "Blade Runner". The movies are so similar that they're kind of interchangable like that. The difference for me is that I liked Ghost in the Shell and disliked Blade Runner. They share a very crucial element, and that thing is today's topic: Statements.

The primary topic of the Ghost in the Shell is humanity. Specifically, it is about the questions technology makes us ask with regard to what humanity is. Like, if humans can eventually build a machine that is as complex as the human body and mind, then does that thing have a soul? If yes, at what point of sophistication? If no, why not? Aren't our bodies really just insanely sophisticated machines? And what about prosthetics? If you give a prosthetic limb to an amputee, they're still human. But what if you transfer a brain into a full-body prosthesis? Where's the line? Surely at some point we'll get there technologically, and this movie uses this topic to make a statement: As humans, the natural course is to evolve or die.

Then this happens.
You can take a lot of lessons from it, really; you don't have to take my interpretation, and frankly you don't need to dwell on it. What got my attention about this movie was not the statement itself. Instead, what got my attention was how obvious it was that the movie was making a statement. Cyberpunk kind of has this habit of showing you dusty, run down, and dimly lit cities. The settings usually symbolize how technology kills humanity; the characters are always disaffected and the story arcs rarely conclude with the typical happy ending. I'd actually call the ending to this movie more haunting than anything.

The point is that the plot and characters often wind up taking a back seat to exhibitionism. What you "get" out of the movie is not the same as what you would get from most other types of movies like, say, Die Hard or Aliens, where the story arc is the entire point. The joy of most movies comes from character arcs and development, the rise and fall of plot, and sometimes action. When it comes to movies like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, often times what you are supposed to enjoy about the film is the statement. Sure there is a plot, but it's relatively incidental.

And so we've arrived at the point. While I can definitely say this is a great movie and making a case study of it was kind of fun, as a theatrical experience, I had slight issues with it. Personal issues that aren't legitimate faults. Namely, that the "service" that a moviegoer is supposed to experience suffers tremendously for the screenwriters to make their point. I'm all for having movies challenge the viewer intellectually. In fact I really hate movies that don't make any attempt to do that on at least some level. My feeling is that there's no point otherwise. But when I can tell a director and screenwriter are just trying to "make a point", to the extent that a dumbass like me actually notices it, I can't help feeling like it's a bit vain.

Whoever wrote that is probably talking about themself

That is, making a statement is vain when compared to the other (in my opinion better) way of intellectually challenging your viewer: Saying something. There's a big difference between making a statement and saying something. Ghost in the Shell makes a statement. Movies like Dogma, Everything is Illuminated, and Serenity say something. Those 3 movies have what you'd call messages, which are very different from statements. A statement boils down to the filmmakers making an exhibition of themselves; you study and learn from the movie like it is a textbook or sensei. Saying something, in comparison, means communicating with the viewer as more of an equal, attempting to engage them. An invitation is given to the viewer to consider the idea, mull it around in your own head and usually draw your own conclusion. Statements by comparison operate under the assumption that the writer's idea is already right, and whatever is already in your head needs to get with the program.

I'm not saying I don't need to keep challenging my mind. Nay. What I'm saying is that when it comes to movies like Ghost in the Shell and Blade Runner, the plot and characters are such a back-seat situation that they don't really get time to shine or develop. You can tell a lot of development went in to the "backstage" statement of the film, but the filmmaker's efforts are concentrated there, and there is a lot of potential for that information to be miscommunicated or outright missed. It just makes for poor viewer service. Visuals are used extensively, because throwing the statement in to the dialogue would turn the movie in to a philosophy lecture. You can see it in scenes like this:

Honestly, I think it's gorgeous. There's a lot "going on" in this scene, subtle points about humanity that are being made that people more perceptive or intellectual than myself will pick up on. But in terms of structure of plot, it doesn't really "do" anything. It's just the director being artsy fartsy. And the weird thing is I still "get it" and can appreciate what it does on that level; artsy is not necessarily bad. After multiple viewings, Ghost in the Shell may actually be on its way to becoming one of my favorite movies. But that's the thing; you have to watch it multiple times, and you have observe it like someone taking a film studies course. The only reason I even could recognize that that's what the scene "did" was because I recognized the style from a film studies course I took. I lucked out in that regard, and was able to then start breaking it down using the methods I'd learned. And that's kind of what I didn't like about it. I'd needed prior training; the statement was that dense. It just doesn't make for much in terms of telling the "A" plot.

If the "real" story of your movie is that compressed, then (not to be rude, but) maybe you need to write a book. Blade Runner, similarly, is acclaimed, and significantly more boring. Boring, sir. Like I've said, the real story is the disaffected people in the background. And I have no qualms about that, however pessimistic it might be. I guess the real issue I have is how much attention that type of storytelling gets for being the "thinking man's" style. Like only people with the best tastes and intelligence understand it. When it's really just Ridley Scott with his own dick in his mouth.

I can't sufficiently put in to words why Ghost in the Shell is a favorite of mine and Blade Runner has earned so much anger from me. But the point to take away right now is that complex movie does not equal good movie. Complexity is a tool, or a method, not an absolute good that makes your movie profound. 

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