Saturday Evening Movie Post: What Makes a ‘Best Picture’?

Did you know that the 91st Academy Awards is tomorrow night? Several interesting films are nominated for Best Picture, but did any of them inspire a sense of awe in you?

 

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When I talk about emotion in movies, I usually highlight sadness as the one emotion that I most often look for in a film. If a film can make me genuinely sad, I feel that it has done something difficult and deserves some level of praise. There is one other emotion that I look for more, though, that of awe.

Awe

I’ve experienced what I would call true awe in film a handful of times. The most prominent examples come from the films 2001: A Space OdysseyClose Encounters of the Third Kind, and The Tree of Life. The experience that I feel when I see these films is a complete breakdown of my intellectual capabilities in the face of visuals and sounds that overwhelm my emotions. In other words, my brain shuts down, and I can only take in the images while something (an idea or a question) tries to engage me at the same time.

It’s not an emotion that many filmmakers strive for. It’s much easier to film the mundane or the typical than to show the audience something truly new while at the same time getting them to try and reach beyond their personal experiences and leap into new questions, searching for answers. So, I’d like to take this week to talk about two of the movies listed above and a third one that was described frequently as awe inspiring upon its release (and continues to be to this day), but which I’ve always found underwhelming.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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This is my favorite Spielberg movie by a good bit, and I think it ties in directly to the movie’s origins and the earliest versions of the script. Spielberg hired Paul Schrader, the screenwriter of Taxi Driver and writer and director of Hardcore, to write the first few drafts. What Schrader had in mind was to transplant the story of St. Paul seeing the light of God on the road to Damascus into the realm of science fiction and alien encounters. Spielberg hated Schrader’s work (from what I’ve read, the hatred centered on Schrader’s insistence on not using an everyman as the main character), fired him, and ended up taking sole screenwriting credit (one of only two movies he’s done that on). The end result, though, to me, still bears Schrader’s fingerprints all over it. I see the story as, perhaps generally, the search for truth, but it reminds me fully of a search for God.

That’s a big subtext to place on a movie about an electrician who sees some bright lights in the sky one night and goes to Wyoming to get whisked away by aliens, but I think the interpretation holds up. It’s one that I always have in the back of my mind as I watch the film, in particular, the final section that details man’s first contact with alien life, especially this part:

 

 

That scene is probably the smallest sense of awe I receive from my three examples, but I still feel it. Music is something that I don’t grok. I enjoy the sounds from time to time, but as a form of communication (emotional or intellectual), it’s something that my brain doesn’t quite grasp fully. So, to see music paired with light and have that be the vehicle in which humanity first speaks to a larger force like an alien mothership (or a thin metaphor for God) fills me with that sense that I keep talking about.

The Tree of Life

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My love of Terrence Malick should be well known at this point, so I’ll skip some of the platitudes. 

The Tree of Life is Malick’s semi-autobiographical tale of life as a boy in 1950s Waco, Texas done in his own style. It’s all kinds of artsy-fartsy, and I love it. Anyway, there’s more to the film than just floating camera work, voice overs in whispers, and something resembling Malick’s childhood. At it’s core, it’s really a retelling of the lesson at the heart of the Book of Job, especially the sequence that shows the creation of the cosmos.

The movie begins with this quote:

 

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Job 38:4,7

 

We then get the movie’s opening which jumps back and forth from present day Jack, the main character, wondering why he was alive at all while he tries to call his father and talk about Jack’s brother who had died years before to scenes from immediately after the brother’s death, particularly around Jack’s mother. Below is the clip of the sequence, and in that clip you can hear the mother’s voice. Her son has just died, and now she’s questioning God’s will.

 

Watching that clip (especially in context of the entire movie) stops my brain cold. I stop thinking completely. I’m in total awe at what I’m seeing and hearing, and I think, in an attempt to formalize a reason for this reaction, it’s tied to three things.

 

The first is scale of the visuals and sound. It’s obvious that what we’re seeing is enormous. Not just the idea that galaxies are unfathomably large, but that the use of editing provides a concrete sense of scale that makes me feel small. On top of that is the music, the Lacrimosa from “Requiem for my Friend” by Zbigniew Preisner, which is an expansive choral piece that seems to reach out as far as the visuals.

 

The second is the disconnect to my own experiences. I referenced this under Close Encounters and its music, but the visual of the universe aren’t an everyday thing for me. The visuals represent something that feels very remote from my everyday life, something that I can’t really relate to in any way. I’ve seen pictures of galaxies and nebulae, but to see them well rendered, composed, and in motion in a way that sells not only scale, but believability to a layman is impressive.

 

Those two things together, though, don’t make up the entirety of what it takes to create a sense of awe. There’s a third element that’s as important as the other two: A sense of something even larger.

 

In The Tree of Life, as this sequence is beginning, we have a character questioning God’s will, and these sights and sounds are the movie’s version of God’s response. As these giant and beautiful images are rolling over us, we also have a question at the back of our minds: Who are we to God? Even if we know that He loves us, who are we against the true enormity of His works? How small are we compared to the expanse of His creation? To me, it’s extremely humbling.

Combining all three of the above elements, and I’m in a real state of awe.

 

Avatar

 

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I remember watching this movie’s trailer half a dozen times when it first came out, not because I was super excited, but because I was confused. Here was a new James Cameron movie (screw you Titanic haters), and I felt absolutely nothing while watching him create an expansive new world. After about the sixth viewing, I shrugged my shoulders and decided, “Sure, I guess I’m excited.”

 

The movie came out, I saw it, and I was deeply underwhelmed by the story and characters, thrilled by the action sequences, but left largely unmoved by this far away moon called Pandora. I watched it 3 times total in the first year after its release, including after I purchased the Blu-Ray (it looks fantastic), and then I didn’t really think about the film for about eight years. I don’t know what came over me, but a couple of weeks ago I just threw it in and started watching it. It’s James Cameron! It can’t be terrible.

 

This isn’t a review of Avatar, so I’ll jump to the point of bringing it up in this post. After re-watching the movie, I combined my thoughts on the visuals to this post, which I had been collecting in my brain for a few weeks. I went back and looked through reviews of the film contemporaneous to its release and they’re filled with the word awe.

 

Wired:

 

EVEN IF IT had a crappy story, shallow characters and lame dialogue [It kind of has all three. –ed], James Cameron’s 3-D spectacle Avatar would earn a big “wow!” solely on the strength of its awe-inducing visuals.

 

The LA Times:

 

Whatever way you choose to look at it, “Avatar’s” shock and awe demand to be seen. You’ve never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else.

 

The New York Times:

 

Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.

 

Let’s just say that I vehemently disagree with the idea that Avatar inspires any awe whatsoever. Using my three elements of awe that I just came up with this week (but which I think does work as a guide), let’s break down the visuals of Avatar.

 

So, my three elements were scale, distance from personal experience, and being backed by a larger idea. How does Avatar stack up?

 

In terms of scale, it succeeds wildly. Pandora looks huge and impressively large in its scale to humanity. A+ to Cameron on this.

 

 

On the second element, distance from personal experience, I think the movie falls flat on its face. Pandora is a world filled with floating mountains, giant trees, strange animals, and giant blue cat people. Except that the floating mountains are, well, mountains that float. That’s something I’m familiar with (mountains) with a twist (they float). It’s not that removed from my own experiences. What about the giant trees? Well, they look exactly like trees, except really big. The strange creatures? Dogs with six legs. Horses with six legs. Rhinos with hammerhead shark heads. And the blue cat people? Native Americans, but big, blue, and with weird ears and tails. Every piece of design is well executed, but shockingly mundane. I don’t really feel like I’m seeing anything new or extraordinary when I watch it. I see dogs with six legs. D+.

And what about the idea behind it? In Close Encounters it was talking to God. In The Tree of Life it was the grandeur of creation and our place in it.

In Avatar it’s… imperialism? Environmentalism? I actually don’t know, other than this is how James Cameron wanted to spend $400 million. It may not help that we’re drowning in the visual grandeur by about minute 10 of the film, before we even get introduced to the N’avi, the blue cat people, the plot, or even anything resembling a theme. They’re empty from the outset because Cameron starts with them. The visuals themselves are the point, not any sort of greater idea. F.

 

 

So, no, I don’t think that Avatar (which I don’t hate at all, actually) engenders any sense of awe, and it shouldn’t.

 

Its visuals are incredibly well rendered and designed mundanities in the service of nothing but themselves. They are also one of the chief reasons people slathered themselves in glory praising the movie to the heavens despite them being completely empty of any meaning. Maybe this is also why the film has largely been forgotten by the culture. It was an incredible ride while we were on it, sitting in the theater with our 3D glasses on, but once it was over, we forgot it like any other rollercoaster.

 

A Quick Note about the Personal Experiences Bit

 

When Kubrick was making 2001: A Space Odyssey, he really wanted to put aliens on screen. He had artists churning out designs, but nothing ever felt alien to him. He could see the references to crabs, insects, or other animals in every design that reached him. Nothing that his design team could come up with was completely detached from the human experience, so he largely dropped the idea.

 

He did pursue one idea, very late into production, that seemed interesting. He dressed the man who played Moonwalker, the chief ape from the Dawn of Man sequence, in a white bodysuit covered in black dots and put him in front of a white background covered in black dots as well. The idea was that the alien would disappear and reappear from view with every movement. It actually ended up looking like a guy in a polka dot suit dancing around in front of a polka dot wall, so the idea got scrapped with all of the other designs.

 

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When I read this in Michael Benson’s book Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece, something clicked. A human mind probably can’t create something that’s completely divorced from our own experiences. The best we can do is create an implication of something far different and let the audience’s imagination attempt to fill in the gaps. But, what fills that gap? Well, the artist must present something in its place, something like an idea or a question. Something big, like, what will the next stage of evolution be? Or, what is our place in God’s will compared to the enormity of his creation?

 

Come to the Point

 

My point being that while emotional connection to a film is one of the chief reasons we watch movies to begin with, awe is one of the hardest emotions to create in an audience. Not every film can even attempt for the emotion, but when a movie comes along that does go for it, I want it to work. I’m not going to write much about it, but The Fountain tried it a decade ago as well, and largely didn’t succeed either, but I still enjoy it for the attempt. Interstellar tried it as well, but Nolan kept the movie too small thematically for it to really connect at that level.

 

I’m always looking for that next movie that’s going to hit me in the same way.

 

David Vining

David Vining

I am a fiction writer living in Charleston, SC. I've had a variety of jobs, but nothing compared to what Heinlein had. I don't think that time I got hired to slay the wild and terrifying jack rabbit of Surrey counts since I actually only took out the mild mannered hedgehog of Suffolk. Let's just say that it doesn't go on the resume. Lover (but not, you know...lover) of movies. Married to the single most beautiful woman on Earth with a single son who shall rule after my death. If that didn't deter you, check out my blog or browse some of the books I've written.