Filmism.net Dispatch June 13, 2021

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Here's a seemingly radical thought. A film isn't necessarily about, and nor does it necessarily contain, a story.

I know, that sounds ridiculous. By virtue of the term 'movie', where it's not just the picture but the narrative that moves, something has to happen, even if it's only a 60 second short.

But there's a whole movement of filmmaking you might not realise until it's pointed out to you (at least, that's how I became aware of it) where the director isn't much interested in telling you a story. No word on what writers think about it, although all the examples I've come across tend to come from the minds of directors who write their own scripts.

We all know what a collaborative art form moviemaking is, how the way Hollywood fetes the director would have us believe he or she decides on and is responsible for every conceivable detail behind the scenes and on the screen. We figure a writer writes a story, the actors act it out, the director stages it after other craftspeople have dressed it, then an editor cuts it into a shape that's not just coherent but gives the audience the maximum engagement or emotional impact.

That's all true, but it doesn't really account for directors who aren't very interested in some of those areas as much as we all assume they should be. You only have to look at Star Wars critically to see how much more interested George Lucas was in editing, design and effects than narrative or dialogue. His disinterest in actors and what they do is actually (in) famous.

Temuera Morrison told the media after Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones that Lucas hadn't given him any notes on Jango Fett's backstory, leaving the actor to make it all up on his own. During one of the spoken word tours and accompanying book, Carrie Fisher told audiences the only direction Lucas ever gave her, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford was 'faster, more intense.'

When he met British actor David Prowse during initial casting in the UK, the wunderkind director mentioned two roles – Vader and Chewbacca – and the late bodybuilder could take his pick. The menacing Sith Lord and the noble Wookiee are completely different characters that came to call for completely different ways of moving and being, yet the only similarity between them Lucas apparently cared about was imposing height.

Anyway, there are as many directors like Lucas who care little about characters and actors, and that's what I'm talking about here. They're far more interested in evoking a mood with the milieu and the aesthetic, elements of which are bought to bear because of anything from the design to the editing.

Telling a compelling story relies somewhat on those elements, but it is the most independent of them. If James Cameron had told the story of Avatar with finger puppets rather than state of the art 3D visual effects, the actual tale being told would have been the same (and just as crap, it has to be said).

Everything else merely determines the extent to which the audiences' imagination fills in the rest. It's the reason why you can sometimes revisit a movie that defined your childhood and finally see how shoddy it actually is. Your young mind, gripped with fascinated fervour, made real spaceships out of foot long models and real aliens out of stunt guys and extras in dodgy yak hair suits.

When I watch a movie I sit down and watch every frame from the studio idents onward, and I concentrate fully, ready to be told a story. But some movies are just as easy to appreciate as moving artworks, and even some directors will tell you that. The first one that did so to me was an Australian director named Rachel Lucas, who made a 2005 movie called Bondi Tsunami, about the spiritual quest of a group of Japanese surfing enthusiasts in Sydney's titular surfside suburb.

When I interviewed Lucas about it, she described it as the kind of movie you can have on in the background while you do housework. It was a kind of throwaway statement on her part but it bought me up short. I suddenly realised there was a whole subculture of films like that, video art installations that have no story to tell, just a feeling to impart.

Since then I've looked for it everywhere. The most recent example was the 1987 Australian drama Dogs in Space, starring the vacuous non-talent of rock star Michael Hutchence and which I caught up with after having it on my list for years.

It didn't appear to me to have a story to tell about a series of characters or events, it just wanted to populate a fly-on-the-wall look at the world depicted. In that case, it was young musos and art student types in an inner city Melbourne share house in the late 70s.

Other films that have been accused of the same thing include Lost in Translation, Dazed and Confused, most of the films of Robert Altman, the most recent films of Terrence Malick, Todd Haynes' I'm Not There, The Florida Project, plenty of classics like 8 1/2, and the list goes on. You'll no doubt have your own.

In each case, you can stop, go to the restroom, make a cup of tea or order a pizza and come back and you haven't really missed anything. They're a bit like those four hour long YouTube videos of fireplaces or aquariums. They exist to throw a mood out into a viewing space, and that's it.

Now, that kind of thing isn't at all my taste. When I sit down to concentrate on a movie I expect a cracking tale and that kind of thing tends to bore me pretty quickly. But they're another dialect in the language of cinema and no less vital to the art form because of it.

I've seen a few little gems recently. one was Aussie filmmaker Abe Forsythe's racism satire Down Under, which juggled very different tones with great skill. I also got a lot out of The Case for Christ, which I assumed was one of those dumb, cross-legged faith-based audience made for TV piles of sludge but was actually way smarter and a lot more cinematic.

What I was most interested in however was whether all the negative chatter around when Ang Lee's Gemini Man came out was justified...it was, although it wasn't just the cloying story. For all the press about the amazing animation, the digital thespian technology just isn't up to scratch yet.

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