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Nicolas Winding Refn and the supremacy of style over story


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#1 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 01 August 2013 - 03:23 AM

Hi all,

 

I added Nicolas Winding Refn to the title of this post because he is mostly the reason why I decided to create this thread today, although it deals with a topic that's been on my mind for years and years.

 

In short, I'm really tired of this "story is everything" argument when dealing with any art, but cinema in particular since it is the art I am mostly interested in.

 

Let me be clear here, I don't think narrative cinema is a bad thing. Quite the opposite, I get far more involved into a film if it has a story to tell. I've never been a Stan Brakhage fan for instance, although I can appreciate what he did and still enjoy watching his shorts and documentaries from time to time.

 

So you won't hear me say that "cinema should get rid of the idea of story and be about style only".

 

However, I DO have a problem in the fact that story is the number one reason that brings people to the theater. I do have a problem with the fact that people judge the quality of a film based on the question "Did I like this story or not?" instead of "did I enjoy the cinematography/editing/music/sound/etc. or not?")

 

Am I the only one who gets the feeling that cinema has become a way for people who are too lazy to read books to passively watch a story unravel in front of their tired eyes?

 

Although to me story is certainly the backbone of a movie project, I think that once it's a completed film, it's become about so much more than story. I never judge a film based on the story it tells, but only based on how it tells it (cinematography, sound, editing, acting, directing, set design, etc etc). I don't think it's even fair to judge a movie based on its story, because the story was already there long before it became a movie. I mean how can people judge book adaptations based on their story, when they tell the exact same story that was already told in the book? Did you really enjoy the Lord of the Rings trilogy (if you even did, I know I have mixed feelings about it) because of the story itself, or because of how this story was put on the screen? Isn't what's really important HOW the story from the book was turned into a film?

 

I was watching a film yesterday that a dear friend of mine was involved in, and I absolutely loved the story. The film however, was one of the worst films I have watched in recent memory. Because the cinematography was amateurish, with camera moves and placements that were so obvious you could almost see the guy operating it even better than what he was pointing the camera at, because the highlights were so blown I considered putting sunglasses on... The sound was crap and was muffled as soon as the characters were talking inside a confined space such as a car. The editing was sloppy. And yet, the story, characters and acting were all great. Well, if story really was what mattered the most, then how come I hated this film only because of its technical, stylistic shortcomings?

 

If story really was what made a film good or not, then how come the best script around can be turned into a terrible movie?

 

I'm the greatest fan of David Lynch, a man who conceives his films not as stories, but as images and sounds that end up telling one. But even if you don't understand the story he's telling you, you can still enjoy the experience. The dream-like quality of his films. The filmmaker I'm most excited about nowadays in Nicolas Winding Refn, who revels in style and shoots feature films on 20-page long screenplays (Eraserhead also was a 21-page screenplay by the way). I can't wait to watch Only God Forgives tomorrow, even though it was trashed by critics left and right for being a film that emphasized style over story. That's exactly what I'm in this business for!

 

My favourite movies are all films I enjoy because of their style (Blade Runner for instance) rather than their primary story (I don't care at all about Deckard having to hunt down replicants and I am not involved in his story as a character). Would Blade Runner be as deep a film if it hadn't this predominant human-versus-machine theme? Certainly not! Was this theme derived from the primary story of the film? Certainly! But would the film, its story and themes, be as enjoyable without its killer cinematography and production design? No, it would not. Because those are the elements (amongst others, such as the OST) that made it a good film instead of just a good story.

 

Are you not tired of hearing that "the best cinematography is the one you don't notice"? To me, the best cinematography is the one that floors you by how obvious and magnificent it is.

 

How I would enjoy watching early films at the time they were released, and be awed by the novelty of the technique rather than by their story. Do you think the first movie audiences really enjoyed the fact that this train was entering the La Ciotat train station? Or were they just awed by the sight of this train photographs moving towards them? Did people really about seeing Méliés go to the moon? Or did they just enjoy watching a new form of magic tricks performed in front of them, and scratching their heads over the way they had been accomplished?

 

Cinema has always been about style to me. Style is what matters the most. Story is ultimately important, but secondary. How the story is told, that's what cinema is all about for me.

 

I would really love to read your personal thoughts on this, seeing as most people here are much more experienced than me and have probably pondered over these issues since before I was even born. Is story destroying cinema as an art by imposing those silly structures we hear everyone babbling about all the time ("page XX should have a major plot point happening")? Are movies really meant to be conceived through a screenplay first and images and sounds later? Was cinema always about story?

 

I want to end this very convoluted post by reaffirming that I love stories, and that I want to do this job because it allows me to tell stories. I am in no way saying that story is not important, I'm just saying that style is MORE important than story, and I'd really enjoy discussing this with you, whether you agree or not.

 

Nicolas


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#2 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 01 August 2013 - 03:51 AM

You know, you act like they're mutually exclusive. What GREAT MOVIE ever succeeded WITHOUT BOTH. EVERY truly great movie had a great story told with great style. I HONESTLY can't think of one film that I considered GREAT that didn't have both. I think you might have a non-issue here and what you're REALLY DOING is simply searching for your own style after being inspired by what you consider to be great style, HOWEVER, one must remember one's own opinion is just that. What you consider "style" someone else might think of as over blown distraction, irrelevant to the story.  The key, I think, is to be able to tell your story in your own unique way that inspires and awes your audience. Coppola's work doesn't look like Spielberg's and John Ford's doesn't look like John Huston's any more than Ridley Scott's looks like Martin Scorsese's. I admire a LOT of great directors and learn a GREAT DEAL from them, but I don't want to BE them. I want my OWN vision and my OWN style that is recognizable when people see MY films. Once you can do that, THEN you have great style without sacrificing story to do so. B)

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 01 August 2013 - 03:54 AM.

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#3 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 01 August 2013 - 05:43 AM

Thank you for your reply.

 

You certainly may have a point. I'm inspired by my favourite filmmakers' styles. However, like you, I do not aspire to be them. But just like when you learn how to paint, you have to start out by emulating the masters to find your own style. I do have much to learn yet, as we probably all do.

 

But I also think I have a point if you consider the genesis of a film. I've written several screenplays, and for every single one of them, they didn't start out as ideas for a story, but as images, sounds or even music that were evocative for me. It could be something as simple as a character erring down a lifeless city's ruins, or a song by whoever that triggered a stream of images and emotions inside my head. And then, using those images, I try to find the story that could be hidden underneath them.

 

But I always make it a priority to keep those images and sounds in the final script. They are my priority, because I trust the emotions I get from them more than any storyline or plot element I could come up with. So I make sure I get those images in the script and then try to articulate them into a story, instead of scribbling down a story and then try to transform it into images and sounds.

 

I hope you understand what I mean, cause I'm not particularly good with words. I've always really liked that sentence in your signature by the way : "If I could express what I meant in words, why would I make a film?". Spot on.

 

Also, while I don't think great style and great story are mutually exclusive (like I said in my first post, "I get far more involved into a film if it has a story to tell"), I do think it is necessary for a film to have a great style (whatever my idea of "great style" is) for me to like it regardless of its story.

 

For example, I really enjoyed Valhalla Rising (which I know a lot of people on this forum hated because of its video-ish cinematography) because I really enjoyed the style of this film. But its story, I didn't care about it at all. Hell, I even enjoyed Prometheus, even though its script was one of the worst to ever make it onto the silver screen in years!

 

So even if they are not mutually exclusive, I do think the only necessary thing for a movie to have to be enjoyable is style, not story.


Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 01 August 2013 - 05:47 AM.

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#4 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 01 August 2013 - 09:39 PM

"I've written several screenplays, and for every single one of them, they didn't start out as ideas for a story, but as images, sounds or even music that were evocative for me. It could be something as simple as a character erring down a lifeless city's ruins, or a song by whoever that triggered a stream of images and emotions inside my head."

 

It's film, they always do. IF they DON'T, to quote Kurt Russell as Jack Burton in "Big Trouble in Little China:" (1986) Come on, Dave, you must be doing something seriously wrong!" As for Style vs Story, there is no trick, no secret, no shortcut. Now listen and HEAR THIS: ALL great movies have BOTH, find YOURS!


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#5 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 01:12 AM

OK, sorry Steve but I think somewhere down the line I didn't make myself as clear as I wanted to be.

 

This thread has never been about anyone's style, mine included, or about finding "tricks and shortcuts" to make good films that didn't include a proper story.

 

This thread is about (or at least I want it to be about) debunking the claim that the main, most critical element that makes or breaks a film is its story.

 

So what I'm interested in is more: "Yes, it's true" or "no, it isn't" and why. Not really "go out there and find your own style" which, pretty much is something everybody who's ever been a teenager - and that's a lot of people - knows.

 

You say "all great films have both". Well, let's talk about that.

 

It's always hard to pick a film that everybody considers great, but I think I'm on the right track if I mention 2001: A Space Odyssey.

 

Now, what's so interesting about this film that is considered a classic, a masterpiece, by many? Is it its story? Or its style (as in all the technical elements that make it a film: cinematography, sound, music, editing, etc...)? Is it both? And which if any is the most important of the two? The fact that the prehistoric ape grabs the bone? Or the match cut that follows? What do YOU like the most about this film? What is the main reason, according to you, it went down in film history?

 

Would it be the great film it is today had it been directed, from the exact same script, telling the exact same story, by Ed Wood or Uwe Boll?

 

When you watch it, do you find yourself gripping the edge of your seat because of your involvement with the characters, their development, the dialogues, the stakes? Or rather, do you find yourself humbled by the beauty of the pictures, the mood of the film, its hypnotic pace, its grandioso use of classical music?

 

Do you see my point more clearly now?

 

I'm not here to discuss any filmmaker's particular "style", find inspiration, be taught that I have to find my own style... I know these things.

 

I just want to know if all these people from inside and outside the industry who keep going on about how story is the greatest thing, how it's the central, pivotal element that a film relies on to be good or not, are seriously mistaken. Because I personally think they are. I think style is much more important than story, and there's no need to make excuses for it, because the Mona Lisa, had it been painted by a wannabe painter fancying himself as a master of arts, would have looked like crap.

 

I think, in art, the story/subject always takes a back seat in favour of the style/techniques used.


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#6 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 03:23 AM

No, YOU'RE missing the point, there IS NO "More important" and no way to "debunk" the importance of story. Style will not save a bad story and a great story told in a lackluster fashion won't speak to and audience. If Uwe Boll had directed 2001, it would have been a completely different movie both in style and in content that will bare little resemblance to Kubrick's interpretation and why would it? If Ed Wood had directed it, the script would have had the word "stupid" repeated 17 times in a row during a single monolog. The reason that people go on and on about story is because with ANY director worth his salt, style is a given and a good story is a rare phenomenon indeed, so IF you have a good story, someone with great style WILL direct it and hopefully the director's style will enhance the writer's story and vise-verse, but ALL that is irrelevant to YOU because only YOU can find a style for the stories YOU choose to make and for you, that is the only thing that is relevant. You can sit here and debate Kubrick vs Scott vs Howard til you're blue in the face and ultimately it will come to nothing as far as YOU are concerned. Watching, debating and emulating other directors and writers will only take you so far and at some point you're left to your own and will have to figure out what to do with that. You don't think story is important? Find a sh!tty script and make it with an enormous amount of style and let me know how that works out for you. The only guy who I can think of that can do that is John Waters but let's face it, you don't have his style, only he does.


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#7 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 05:25 AM

I don't know why you keep making this whole thing about me and other directors' specific styles, which are completely irrelevant to the subject. It seems whenever I say "style" you hear "a director's specific style", while I only mean the general, technical side of things.

 

But it also seems that you actually agree with me, right here:

 

Find a sh!tty script and make it with an enormous amount of style (...) The only guy who I can think of that can do that is John Waters.

 

that it's possible to make a good film even if its story is "shitty". And that's all I wanted to know.

 

If a shitty story can be made into a good film (whoever can or can't do it is irrelevant to the issue), then a good story is not the be-all end-all of a good film.

 

And again, I don't want to "debunk the importance" of story, I want to debunk its supremacy, see title of the thread.

 

And if you re-read my first post, you'll see that the issue I wanted to address was, verbatim: "I'm really tired of this "story is everything" argument"

 

All I wanted you to answer is : "Is story really everything to you?" I never meant to get entangled in this argument about emulating famous directors etc. that came out of nowhere.


Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 02 August 2013 - 05:29 AM.

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#8 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:00 AM

Because we're probably gonna go round in circles for another year or so, and that has probably far more to do with my inability to correctly express myself (plus I'm not even a native English speaker) than with your ability to understand what I'm saying, I've narrowed down my issue with the supremacy of story to this simple line :

 

A film does not have to tell a story for me to like it.

 

That's precisely the assertion that I want to debate in this thread and that I created this topic for. If I can like a film that tells no story, then how can story be so important?


Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 02 August 2013 - 06:01 AM.

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#9 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:26 AM

Let me be clear here, I don't think narrative cinema is a bad thing. Quite the opposite, I get far more involved into a film if it has a story to tell. I've never been a Stan Brakhage fan for instance, although I can appreciate what he did and still enjoy watching his shorts and documentaries from time to time.

 

Obviously I'm a huge Stan Brakhage fan.

 

I'm not sure what you mean by his documentaries tho? Do you mean films like Window Water Baby Moving?

 

Freya


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#10 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:40 AM

I especially had in mind the "Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" actually. Of course you wouldn't call that a documentary in the strictest sense of the term, but it was made from material recorded with a documentarist's approach towards the subject as far as the actual techniques were concerned.

 

I'd be interested to know what you think about the necessity for a film to have a good story to be called a "good film" nowadays, since I've often read your posts and I'm pretty sure I remember you mentioning that you came from experimental cinema (please correct me if I'm wrong). What's your take on this subject?


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#11 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:52 AM

You know, you act like they're mutually exclusive. What GREAT MOVIE ever succeeded WITHOUT BOTH. EVERY truly great movie had a great story told with great style. I HONESTLY can't think of one film that I considered GREAT that didn't have both.

 

Well Stan Brakhage was already mentioned. Some of the films of Phil Solomon, Tony Conrad, Marcel Duchamp, Len Lye, Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter, Rudolf Pfenninger, Norman McClaren, Harry Smith, Jordan Belson, James Whitney, Hy Hirch, Mary Ellen Bute, Oskar Fischinger... etc etc etc

 

Freya


Edited by Freya Black, 02 August 2013 - 06:53 AM.

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#12 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:58 AM

I especially had in mind the "Act of Seeing With One's Own Eyes" actually. Of course you wouldn't call that a documentary in the strictest sense of the term, but it was made from material recorded with a documentarist's approach towards the subject as far as the actual techniques were concerned.

 

Ah! I have to say I've never seen that film. Must try and catch it one day, it sounds VERY interesting!

 

Freya


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#13 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 07:16 AM

I'd be interested to know what you think about the necessity for a film to have a good story to be called a "good film" nowadays, since I've often read your posts and I'm pretty sure I remember you mentioning that you came from experimental cinema (please correct me if I'm wrong). What's your take on this subject?

 

I've tried to explain to people till I'm blue in the face that there are other cinemas outside of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

 

One fellow had even come up with a highly structured definition of moving image work, that defined everything as being effectively narrative or documentary based, and that there was cinematography and just the making of actualities which were two distinct strands. Everything had to fit into those two strands, and when I would tell him that there were films that didn't fit in those boxes, he told me I was wrong.

 

I've also had this exact same argument as you are having here a number of times. I've found it impossible to discuss on the whole. The ideas are basically too alien. Speaking of ideas, some of these people seem to go as far as to suggest that even all ideas are stories.

 

A couple of times I've had people point to cinematographers or directors talking about the importance of story to their work and stating that this proved that story was the most important thing and that all films were about storys and how could you argue with what the great so and so was saying (even tho that wasn't what they were saying, they were talking about their own work).

 

and yes, I have a background in experimental film, in fact I was mostly known for non narrative stuff too, I've been taking a looong break from it tho while I resolve all the issues around it in my head.

 

Freya


Edited by Freya Black, 02 August 2013 - 07:16 AM.

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#14 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 07:42 AM

I want to end this very convoluted post by reaffirming that I love stories, and that I want to do this job because it allows me to tell stories. I am in no way saying that story is not important, I'm just saying that style is MORE important than story, and I'd really enjoy discussing this with you, whether you agree or not.
 

 

I agree with almost everything you wrote in your first posting, except for this bit.

 

I think whether style or story gets the weighting should be up to the filmmaker. These are choices that people get to make. There are too many rules being laid down by people is the core of the problem.

 

It's the same issue in the so called avant-garde scene these days too. At about the same time I was doing experimental film work, there was a guy called Ben Rivers also working and I loved what he was doing because he was really breaking the rules, making stuff that was about as narrative as you could get which is a no-no in that world even tho there is a long tradition of semi narrative work. I felt he was making great films too. In that world, what he was doing was really radical in a way.

 

I guess this is just the way of humans to try and impose strict rules on everything. I tend to lean the other way which makes me a bit of a troublemaker I guess.

 

I'm into freedom and creativity and imagination.

 

Freya


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#15 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 08:04 AM

 

I agree with almost everything you wrote in your first posting, except for this bit.

 

I think whether style or story gets the weighting should be up to the filmmaker. These are choices that people get to make. There are too many rules being laid down by people is the core of the problem.

 

 

I do agree with you on that part. When you're conceptualizing a film, it's up to you to decide every single thing about this film, and by all means if you are in love with a storyline and want to let itself guide you all the way through, no one has the right to tell you not to.

 

I do tend to get carried away easily when I write about something that annoys me (or that i love) and so I'm not sure what exactly prompted me to write this particular sentence or what exactly I had in mind at that moment, but I'm fairly certain that I was talking from a viewer's perspective, not a filmmaker's (or I was talking about my particular perspective when conceptualizing a project).

 

When I watch a film, I give far more importance to the visual, sound and editorial elements than I do to the story. And that is because I am watching a film. Stories and storylines are in every work of art (or even not art) around us : books, paintings, newspapers, even music. When judging a film, it seems to me it's far more important to judge it based on the things that make it a film instead of a book, magazine, painting (...), the things that differentiate this film from say, a book it was adapted from and that tells the exact same story.

 

That's why it's unfair to me to judge a film based on its story rather than how it was made. The story is not what makes a particular film engaging as a film (although the story can make it engaging as a form of entertainment, escapism, social commentary, documentary, etc.), only the stylistic choices of its director (+ cast and crew) are important when appraising its quality. And those things are what I've constantly referred to as the "style" in my posts.


Edited by Nicolas Courdouan, 02 August 2013 - 08:06 AM.

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#16 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 08:11 AM


And again, I don't want to "debunk the importance" of story, I want to debunk its supremacy, see title of the thread.

 

 

I think this is the key thing and you put it really well here.

 

Freya


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#17 Freya Black

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 10:14 AM

As to Nicolas Winding Refn, I recently saw Valhalla Rising too which I had to force myself to watch because firstly the narrative was barely there and probably mostly because of the nasty video look. I did get into it and enjoy watching it tho because I liked the visuals (but not the overall grade). I was especially taken by the scene in the pond or puddle or whatever it was where they were having a bath. It kind of reminded me of bits of 2001 a lot. It actually was one of those movies where I felt inspired by it because I felt I would have done it very differently but I liked bits of it.

 

I understand where you are coming from with it tho.

 

If you liked that and Eraserhead I can recommend the following:

 

The Holy Mountain, El Topo, Sayat Nova / The Colour of Pomegranates by Segei Parajanov (in fact anything by Segei but that's his greatest work) Probably a lot of stuff by Fellini too.

 

There was a time we used to make films a bit like this in the UK too such as a lot of work by Derek Jarman (Jubilee, Caravaggio, The last of England and the angelic conversation), Peter Greenaway (A Zed and two noughts, Drowining by numbers and Prosperos Books) Sally Potter (Orlando), all of whom were experimental filmmakers who left the UK's cinema of exclusion to make more narrative work. Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman are now noted as almost canon in the experimental film world, Derek Jarman being only recently accepted on account of him being a bit er, one of those, you know... Sally Potter is still on the outside cause she's a girl. The "Avant-Garde" you see, totally ahead of their time.

 

I reckon the work of Ken Russell is worth checking out too but might be hard to find.

 

At the more extreme end of things, anything by Kenneth Anger and Maya Deren but then you are into the experimental film world proper but you know, "it's a bit narrative isn't it"...

 

Freya


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#18 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 10:37 AM

Freya,
 
Thank you very much for your list.
 
I've already seen The Holy Mountain and Sayat Nova, but I not El Topo, so I'll check it out. We also have an upcoming showing of Santa Sangre this month in Dublin and I've been meaning to see it for years so it's going to be a treat to discover it on the big screen.
 
I will definitely check out the other filmmakers from your list, which I know very little of to be honest, with the exception of Peter Greenaway.
 
Thanks again.

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#19 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 11:14 AM

There are all kinds of cinema out there, some are not as tied to traditional Hollywood narrative norms as others - for example, a movie like "Samsara" or "Baraka".  No "plot", just themes supporting the flow of images.  

 

But if we're talking about traditional movies that are more style than substance, there's nothing wrong with that if you enjoy style for style's sake.  The fact that we enjoy beauty for its own sake shouldn't be ignored.  Yes, it's nice when style choices are motivated by the story and support it, but there is a lot of wiggle room in there to be expressive.

 

The book "Hollywood Lighting" by Patrick Keating talks about some of this contradiction in the classic studio system, the professed importance of story over style by cinematographers, some of whom then imposed a heavy personal style over material.


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#20 Nicolas Courdouan

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Posted 02 August 2013 - 06:12 PM

Thank you, David. I will order this book.

So I just came back from Only God Forgives, and it was one of these films where the director was more interested in style than plot. However, I think he went a bit overboard with this one, using the same repetitive choices throughout the film. I appreciated the look of the film, but would have enjoyed more diversity. I did expect a lot worse from this film after all the negative reviews, which I think painted it in a bad light. It was... average I guess. Enjoyable, but no replay value.
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rebotnix Technologies

Wooden Camera

Ritter Battery

CineLab