A Case for Cinematic Style

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No one reads “Fifty Shades of Grey” for its superior writing style. The same can be said for most of the books on The New York Times’ Best Seller List. People read these books simply for story. When one wants to truly sink her teeth into literature, she turns to pieces with not only a good plot, but with the additional element of style. She turns to Twain’s twang and satire, Hemingway’s terse descriptions or Kafka’s surrealism.

The same can be said for films, both classic and modern. Although the studios continue to put their money into big-budget, plot-driven narratives such as “Moneyball,” “The Help” or “Inception,” smaller studios, with their stylistically creative ventures, continue to win the Oscars. The Weinstein Company’s “The Artist” (2011) won not for its narrative, which featured the humdrum boy-meets-girl structure and the classic eternally loyal canine. Instead, what won the day was its ability to tell its story and elicit emotion through black-and-white, silent structure, proof that we don’t need the flashy extras of the modern movie age to properly enjoy a film. Summit’s “The Hurt Locker” (2008) could have been just another war movie, but its harsh cinematography and editing pushed its audience out of the theatre and into the battlefields of Baghdad.

My favorite films have always been those that rely more heavily on style than the twists and turns of narrative. While I enjoy and understand the appeal of “The Godfather,” I prefer the added voiceovers and editing quirks of “Goodfellas.” Although many of my friends walked out of Sophia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” complaining that its languid plotline lacked structure or intrigue, I could watch the costumes and listen to the music, which combine and compare the excesses of Marie Antoinette’s France and America of the 1980s, over and over again.

Although “The Dark Knight Rises” and “The Avengers” took summer box offices by storm, two other films caught my eye. Not surprisingly, both struck me for stylistic reasons.

The first of the two films was “Moonrise Kingdom.” Sitting in the back of a packed theater, I was enthralled by the idealistic story of young love, with children’s earnest whims overcoming the real-life woes and demands of the older generation. Like many film lovers, I would gladly rank Wes Anderson as one my favorite young directors of the 21st century. His canon is small but cohesive, maintaining, except for his first film, “Bottle Rocket” (1996), a general stylistic unity. Anderson masks adult plotlines within storybook worlds. His colors are often muted and his costumes often conservative, reminiscent of illustrated schoolbooks like “Fun with Dick and Jane.” The films sometimes feature narrators or chapter titles, blatant, metatextual reminders of their literary quality. Anderson’s stylistic choices compliment his self-written plots, which often feature basic realism interrupted by moments that seem more incredible. In Anderson’s first film, “Bottle Rocket,” he neglected to compensate his fantastical plot with the style typical of his later films. In these later films, unrealistic moments don’t seem like plot flaws, for Wes Anderson’s style creates a fairy tale — a world in which realism is a luxury rather than a necessity.

In “Moonrise Kingdom,” Anderson seems to have finally reached the apex toward which his past films have been aspiring. By inserting children as the protagonists within his storybook, Anderson has found the ideal romanticism. The adults, each struggling and mildly pathetic, must give in to the whims of their children. In doing so, the adults do not quite reclaim the film, but they certainly begin to come to terms with Anderson’s fantasy.

My other summer favorite, “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” came not as an episode in a filmmaker’s series, but rather as a starburst of new energy and flavor. The film was created by new filmmakers, drew from actors with no former training or experience, and explored a part of America few had seen before. Beasts dives into the nits and grits of The Bathtub, a New Orleans slum a far cry away from the green pastures and neat Boy Scout camps of “Moonrise Kingdom.”

Though “Beasts” has received much critical acclaim, reviewers barely mention the film’s plotline. Instead, they focus on the delight and despair of The Bathtub’s world. It boasts the mixed qualities of an idyllic independent community and a poverty-stricken hellhole. The film uses magical realism, incorporating the beasts of The Bathtub’s communal folklore as actual figures that arrive just as the town reaches disaster. Although some criticized “Beasts” for lacking a straight-forward plot, the film’s style matches the world of The Bathtub, a place that can only be understood as beautiful if one believes in its magic.

The success of “Moonrise Kingdom” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” with summer art house audiences had little to do with dramatic plot twists or surprise endings. It was their style that captivated, bringing audiences into new worlds of romance and magic. Although the success of these two films at awards season remains to be seen, I firmly predict, and even more aggressively hope, that films with such definitive styles will win the day.

Comments

  • newsreader2

    I appreciate how accessible you made this article to non-movie followers. I’m particularly interested in the economics of such style films. For example, how much of a discount do Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Bill Murray, etc. offer the small studios when they participate in these more artistic ventures?
    I’d also like to take umbrage with the author’s painting “Moneyball” as a simple plot-driven narrative. That film, though snubbed at the Oscars, represents artistic creativity of the highest order. Perhaps the author must simply learn to inculcate an appreciation of the finer aspects of our national pastime.