It huffs like the bellows of a gargantuan furnace, tossing its horns back as it prepares to charge. The body, a hulking crest of muscle lathered with oil, gleams in the sun. It’s powerful hoof stamps, once, twice, beating like a hide drum upon the naked earth, throwing dust into the air.
Suddenly it leaps forward, as meek as a 20-ton truck barreling down the highway.
The bull catches the man full-on, sending him 10 meters through the air.
Now you would think the guy is dead.
He stands up, perfectly fine.
This is a (stylized) excerpt from a movie I recently watched: Red Notice.
Needless to say, I thought it pretty poor.
But many of my friends enjoyed it, going as far as to call it a “pretty good movie”, citing the age-old (and frankly trite) argument: beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Fine. It might have been fun if I wasn’t so darn cynical. But good!?
I found myself swept up by a train of thought, fueled by sheer disbelief, culminating in this article:
I want to take a look at old movies. More specifically, why I think a lot of new movies (even go
(I am by no means saying that old movies cannot, and have not, made similar mistakes, only that this specific instance is what inspired the article)
Many people consider old movies to be better. Why?
Human bias, as usual, is a major perpetrator:
Is this belief perhaps caused by widespread nostalgia, generations yearning for the simpler times of their youth?
Nostalgia certainly plays a part.
But it is, at best, a minor actor.
There is also this: people only remember the iconic movies of the past, and these are the ones they compare to the run-of-the-mill modern movie. This comparison is obviously unfair.
And besides, the movies we consider ‘old’ draw from a much larger time period (1910s – 2000s) than the movies we consider modern (2010 – 2022), which is obviously unfair.
But perhaps most importantly: studios and streaming services are pumping out content at an unprecedented rate. Why? Because when deciding which streaming services to subscribe to, people look at the amount, and not the quality, of content.
In other words, the good movies are buried under a pile of fluff. They’re still there, just much harder to find.
While these biases do play a major role, I do not believe they provide a full explanation.
My answer is this: modern movies, by-and-large, lack character.
What is ‘character’, and why is it important?
How character comes about
Movies of themselves do not have character. Rather, character is the residue of effort and passion, the mark of humanity permanently embedded in the movie.
It is the artist leaving a trace of himself in his work, and this trace breathing life and personality into the art.
Character requires tireless hours of selfless, passionate commitment to be transferred intact.
The importance of character
Character reveals the creator
Yet all this description was, after all, the world of the book—not simply because it gave the book a “sense of place,” as the old literary chestnut puts it. It wasn’t a “sense of place” I cared about, but the meeting place of perception with story—the place where someone claimed the story, where I could glimpse the individual consciousness, the creator of the scene. The person pulling the wires and making Jane and Dorothea move. I was looking, I suppose, for a sign of intimacy with the invisible author. – Patricia Hampl, The Art of the Wasted Day
On a side note: The Art of the Wasted Day is a great book, which I highly recommend.
In this passage, Hampl recounts how description in a novel reveals the “individual consciousness” of a creator.
Because usually, the characters, who have gained a sort of life of their own (as anyone who has read a really great book may attest to), with their own individual perceptions and personalities, obscure the author.
But description is the point at which the author’s own direct perception of the world is revealed, and his soul bared to the reader; in the details he reveals, the words he uses, and the tone that colours his voice.
Description is a window through which we may peer, glimpse a human mind at work, and perhaps find something profound: intimacy.
Now in movies, actual description is replaced by all the elements that make up each shot.
These different sets, and costumes, and camera angles (and all the other little things that go into a movie), represent the direct perception of the director, in the way he chooses to describe and realize the world.
It is not, however, something mystical and foreign. It is the unique and distinct feeling great directors give a movie: Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas, Quinten Tarantino, Steven Spielberg. They all imbue movies with their own character.
And beyond this, in a good movie, each element is an artwork that reveals something profoundly human. For example, the costumes will possess the individual, human touch of the costume designer, revealing her perception of the story. And the sets will reveal the perception of the set-designer, marked by his unique humanity.
Great movies then, have character, imparted by passion, manifested in the thousands of small choices that they consist of.
And character reveals the creator, investing the movie with humanity and intimacy, giving it the visceral feel old movies often possess.
Character breathes life
For a movie to be complete, it must be independent, possess a life of its own. And where may this life originate from, other than its creators?
The only artists I have ever known who are personally delightful are bad artists. Good artists exist simply in what they make, and consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are. A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatures. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The worse their rhymes are, the more picturesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-rate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. The others write the poetry that they dare not realize. – Lord Henry (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
While this may not always ring true, it does reveal some truth: Only when an artist pours his character into a work, is it invested with personality and individuality.
And so it is by character, passing from the individual to the impersonal, that a movie may truly come alive.
For it is love that is the source of all creation:
And at the touch of him [love] every one becomes a poet, even though he had no music in him beforePlato
If an artist has not lavished his own emotion, propelled by love, into his work, what is there for us to find, but a barren, superficial surface?
A movie may seem alive in its movement, but without character, it is but a shallow imitation, a feeble creature without a soul.
Why modern movies lack character
It is a turbulent time for the movie-making industry. The ‘streaming wars’ necessitates heaps of shallow content to attract viewers, and studios must increasingly compete with social media and the internet.
Movies have turned into a science, and studios into factories, getting as much bang for their buck as possible.
And as result, the stuff behind the scenes, the passion and humanity, are nudged aside, in favour of flashy effects, and big-name celebrities.
What all this means is movies aren’t lavished with the time and passion (and money) they need, and subsequently lack character and personality.
In film, nothing is off limits. CGI (computer-generated imagery) can create anything, and society tolerates everything.
This is a problem:
Because constraints demand effort and creativity, a unique solution, which manifests itself as character.
My all-time favourite example of this comes from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi:
George Lucas wanted to film a high-speed speeder chase. But the CGI of the time wasn’t up to it.
The solution? Film a speeder going at 1mph at 1 frame per second, then speed it up to 60 frames per second. Viola! Your speeder is going 60mph on screen.
Without the constraint presented by CGI, this ingenious solution would not have been required. Instead, we would have got a boring CGI shot.
And while it is difficult to consciously distinguish between the two, it is my belief that these little things, the tiny flaws and marks of humanity, are unconsciously observed (since the unconscious mind processes roughly 220 000 times more information than your conscious mind), and give movies such as Star Wars their absurd amounts of character.
Over-reliance on technology
Modern movies use a lot more visual effects (VFX) than older counterparts.
I believe this is the greatest enemy of character that exists.
Because technology, in its perfection, obscures the human touch. Even the supposed flaws are rendered flawlessly.
VFX is like a bleach which whitewashes the rough patina of a raw, human product. It casts the shroud of commercialization over the creator’s efforts. It creates an impenetrable barrier between audience and director, robbing a movie of all its charm and intimacy.
While visual effects might be objectively more accurate, they can never create something real. Always they will lack humanity, the visceral element old movies possess.
A (very brief) look at two movies
Let us proceed to examine Star Wars through the lens of what we have learnt: why it has character, and why I believe this is what separates the original trilogy from the prequels and (to a much greater degree) the sequels.
The Disney movies certainly have this epic, interstellar feel that the first three movies do not quite capture.
But the original Star Wars trilogy was above all a passion project, which reflects all the care and effort put into it:
Miniatures were painstakingly painted (trust me, they take forever) to use as spaceships, and then placed onto a dark background to simulate motion. This is something the newer movies decided to scrap, much to their own detriment.
Additionally, many of the locations are real, with various places in Tunisia being used to create Tatooine, and an old mosque in Ajim serving as the exterior of Obi-Wan’s desert home. No matter how hard we try, the green screen and artificial set designs cannot match the majesty of nature.
And we must mention the Yoda-puppet. Admittedly, it has its flaws. But it also has umpteen amounts more personality than the VFX rendering, which is sterile.
All these little things add up (and there are so many more I could mention), giving the movies their unique character.
From the cantina in Mos Eisley, to the swamps of Dagobah, the tundra of Hoth and the Ewoks of Endor, this whole trilogy simply exudes life and charm. Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi are all pillars of pop culture, and for good reason. Each character and location possesses this profound vitality and humanity, that few movies come close to.
This trilogy is a vibrant, visceral and varied experience, and I profoundly believe it is sheer character which separates it from anything else.
1917 is a wonderful example of how new movies may also exert character.
It is marked by less reliance on VFX, and more on real effects, as well as a very interesting artistic choice: the entire film appears as one shot, which lends the it a very visceral, personal and unique feeling.
The movie has real soldiers, real trenches and real explosions. This adds realism, both on our part, and the reactions of the actors.
After all, it is hard to act properly when you’re fighting imaginary monsters, strapped to a ridiculous suit, and surrounded by green screen.
One of my favourite little tidbits is this scene at the end of the movie:
The preparation and effort that went into it is absolutely phenomenal (the dynamite for the explosions took over five hours to reset between shots!), but above all, George Mckay stumbling and bumping into extras was completely unplanned. The surprise, panic and desperation in the scene is all the more real for it.
What I’m getting at here is that technology, not modern movies persay, is the real problem.
It might have struck you that there is one giant, gaping hole in this argument: animation movies. Can we really say that all of them lack character? Probably not.
So, I have come up with a few tentative answers:
First, I would argue that it is incredibly difficult for an animation movie to rival the character of say, a Star Wars movie.
And character isn’t solely a product of visuals. Evocative writing, relatable characters and a good score all contribute. And neither is it the only thing that makes a movie good (far from it).
But most importantly, the VFX used in animation movies is fundamentally different from the VFX in live-action movies. In the former, it is a medium of artistic expression, with its own unique style, while in the latter it is a fallow imitation of reality. Replication is not art.
To demonstrate this, we must turn to Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, a truly beautiful animation movie. Let us consider this excerpt from Business Insider.
Each year, animated films seem to look more and more like real life. For “Spider-Verse,” instead of making the animation photo-realistic, the creators wanted the movie to stand out on its own as something new for viewers just as they were being introduced to a new Spider-Man in Miles Morales, while at the same time sticking as much as they could to traditional print comic book style.
As Head of Character Animation Josh Beveridge put it, “Don’t emulate reality, and don’t make it a cartoon.”
What separates this movies’ VFX is not how accurately it portrays reality, but how skillfully it diverges from it. Only then does it become an art, an individual medium of expression.
So, while old movies may look corny, they possess a profoundly human quality that modern movies struggle to attain. It is this character, and the intimacy it brings, that is responsible for the distinction many observe.
Every day technology comes closer and closer to portraying reality with superficial accuracy, but in the process it distances itself from what makes reality so real, and what separates art and imitation; inner life and character, deeper flaws and imperfections.
In the movie industry at least, there is still a place for humanity.