Is spectacle more important than narrative in contemporary american film-making?
The essay evaluates the importance of spectacle and narrative in contemporary American film-making. Taking into account various perspectives, I argue there isn’t a one-sided answer to the question and that there are cases when spectacle assumes greater importance than narrative and vice versa. Before I state my personal opinion on the issue, I question the power of spectacle and present evidence about the importance of narrative. I then go seek answers from the world of professional film criticism as well as that of Hollywood and its way of operating.
At the very beginning of my essay, I’d like to make a clear distinction between film narrative and film narration. Narrative relates to what happens in a movie. Whereas, narration refers to the way what happens in a movie is shown to the film spectator (Buckland, 2008). Buckland identifies two types of narration – restricted and omniscient. In restricted narration, as in Taxi Driver (Scorsese, 1976), the camera is linked to a character and the viewer knows as much as the character does. This type of narration is most easily explained through detective movies in which an investigator drives the narrative while he tries to solve a crime and the film spectator knows as much as the detective leading to mystery. Omniscient narration isn’t attached to any particular character. Instead, it moves from one character to another and thus the film spectator obtains more narrative information than any of the characters. Omniscient narration results in dramatic tension. There are times of course in which the camera, controlled by the director outside the narrative, disengages from all characters. No film has only one type of narration; one may prevail, but it can never eliminate the other.
As for spectacle, the term doesn’t have a straightforward definition. It varies from country to country and has to be explained with reference to certain periods of the development of cinema because spectacle has evolved generation after generation. For instance, Lumiere Brothers – the people who designed the first camera – fascinated and even startled spectators while projecting images in motion for the first time. A shot of a train arriving at a station or workers leaving the Lumiere factory seemed magical in the past. The introduction of sound and colour were milestones in the development of cinema, but no one would enjoy a movie nowadays only because the pictures have more than two colours and he can hear dialogue between characters. In regard to contemporary American films, spectacle consists of dynamic, aesthetically-pleasing, greatly entertaining and attention-nurturing images. The following paragraph is concerned with the most common things that constitute spectacle in contemporary cinema.
Spectacle in the genre of action movies like Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988) inevitably consist of fights, chases, shoot-outs, stunts and explosions. What’s common in horror films in terms of spectacle is bloodshed, meaning not only the killing of people but also the way they are murdered and the way the murder is presented to the viewer. Cars, especially vintage and modern sports models with more than 300 horse powers under the hood and stunning design like the ones in The Fast and The Furious (Cohen, 2001) and Redline (Cheng, 2007) are inanimate objects always invited to take part of the spectacular in cinema. In sci-fi movies it’s monsters, robots, alien creatures, forms of transportation, weapons and even the costumes of superheroes like Spider-man (Raimi, 2002) and Batman (Burton, 1989) that entertain and fascinate. A built male body (Cameron, 1991 & Cosmatos, 1985) and a fit attractive female one (Bay, 2011) are undoubtedly two more forms of spectacle. Not coincidentally, Hoberman (Arroyo, 2000, p.31) terms Arnold Schwarzenegger “… a blockbuster given human – or at least, humanoid – form.” Sexual intercourse is, to my eye, the highest form of non-CGI spectacle (Kasdan, 1981 & Verhoever, 1992). Sound is inextricably linked to all of the above forms of spectacle as well. Sound effects, be it the sound of a passing arrow or a punch in someone’s face, make movement appear more pronounced. Music adds to the mood and impact of a scene significantly, especially in musicals like Step Up (Chu, 2010). Voice can be said to belong to the spectacular too since the hero as well as the villain’s voice are quite often altered in post-production in order to make the characters fitter for their role.
A mutual strength of all the elements of spectacle discussed above is that they draw the viewers’ attention and preserve it by providing pleasure in return. That single big strength, however, is limited in two ways. Firstly, it doesn’t affect every spectator. Due to differences in psychic development, what one considers the most impressive scene ever made could be total boredom for another. There are viewers who look for and get swept away by other aspects of cinema unrelated to spectacle in its popular meaning like character complexity, aesthetics, dialogue or underlying themes. Secondly, an excess of spectacle comes at a high price as I reveal in the following paragraphs.
The first disadvantage of spectacle I begin with is the slowdown of narrative (Arroyo, 2000). In many action films there are scenes containing elements of the spectacular that halt the development of the story as they give way to sheer entertainment. For example, the plot of Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Marshall, 2011) is so over-stuffed with scenes involving spectacular action and computer-generated imagery that I would fast forward at the onset of a fight or chase in order to get to a point where the story actually made progress. Sucker Punch (Snyder, 2011) is another movie that includes too much spectacle occurring at the expense of narrative development. The movie is about a group of girls who resort to an alternative reality as means of breaking free from a hostile mental hospital. Each time the prisoners have to obtain a certain item as part of their escape plan they venture in an imaginative reality of their own characterized by excessive CGI and other unnecessary material enough to get you out of the theatre no later than the middle of the second act.
In contemporary American spectacle cinema there is a reduction in narrative complexity (Arroyo, 2000). Narrative complexity (also called depth) relates to the amount of narrative information a spectator is supplied with as the film goes. Narrative depth is important because it turns the spectator from an observer into a participant who identifies with characters. The narrative of a Hollywood movie focused on spectacle consists of no or too little revelatory events and turning points to provide further knowledge about the life and personalities of characters. Clash of the Titans (Leterrier, 2010) is one of the many action-adventure movies that favour spectacle over depth and fail to depict any changes the characters undergo as the story progresses. It tells the simplistic story about demi-god Perseus who embarks on a mission to stop evil Hades from destroying mankind. Perseus and his band of warriors have to battle against demons, beasts and other unholy creatures, including a giant scorpion and the gorgon Medusa before they confront and eventually defeat their most fierce enemy – the Kraken. Furthermore, many horror films like Final Destination (Wong, 2000), in which group of teenagers die one by one hunted by Death, are composed of murder scenes occurring shortly one after another for the sake of bloodshed and entertainment. If truth be known, a shallow narrative, despite sophisticated visual effects, fails to satisfy many spectators longing to get deeply involved in the story.
Although bodybuilder personages like Schwarzenegger and Stallone appeal to most spectators, they disgust and even amuse others (Tasker, 1993). Some people do not find a half naked bodybuilder flexing muscles admirable, because his body is so to say artificial, steroid-based and defying nature. Others are amused to find the camera lingering on a hero’s muscles as it happens to Stallone in Rambo: First Blood Part II (Cosmatos, 1985). Further, I have come across characters (not necessarily bodybuilders) who as if intentionally pose by flexing their muscles and that has always disrupted the seamless dream the movie drew me in. In The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (Slade, 2010), for example, when Bella accompanied by Edward goes to speak with werewolf Jacob, Jacob stands by a car with his upper body naked and abdominal muscles tightened. The problem with Jacob’s posing is that it crosses the borders of the narrative world of the movie and tries to communicate visual pleasure to me, the viewer, in a direct way. It could have worked for a 16-year-old girl, but not for me. I considered the behaviour of Jacob’s body unnatural and silly and hence detached myself from what was happening in the scene.
Attractive female stars frequently generate large audiences mainly because of their physical appearance rather than talent for acting. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is an example. She has been modelling since 2003 and does not hold any qualifications in acting. Rosie’s first film role as Carly Spencer in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Bay, 2011) jump-starts her career in the movie industry. In regard to Rosie’s début performance, however, I must agree with Josh Tyler (2011) saying Rosie offers more sex appeal than acting savvy.
How come beauty surpasses talent? To put it simply, the masses are much more concerned about the visuals of a movie than its content when they go to the cinema. And Hollywood is concerned with what the masses want to see.
Female stars, to my eye, also play a big role in the marketing of the movie they take part in because as I mention above, the average film viewer is much more likely to get drawn by something that pleases his eye than something that challenges his mind. That’s why in order to raise public awareness and desire to see the movie the poster and trailer of most Hollywood blockbusters depict the participating attractive female figure in her full glory. I am not saying I’m against attractive women taking part in films. I’m saying that when a woman gets casted in a movie because of her visual appearance instead of her ability to act, the movie loses part of its artistic property and could possibly degenerate into a low-class commodity.
Movies often feature a sex scene as part of their arsenal of spectacle. I don’t object to people expressing their love through sex in real life and on screen but a problem arises when movies depict simulated sexual intercourse that is unmotivated in narrative terms. For example, the sex scene in My Bloody Valentine (Luissier, 2009) (and many other horror movies) is unmotivated because it does not provide any narrative information to drive the story forward; it’s only purpose is to entertain young audiences by stirring libidos and holding gazes on screen. Also, to be more spectacular, sex scenes like the one in My Bloody Valentine seem to be enacted by characters behaving more like porn stars than passionate lovers which I think is silly as well.
Spectacle undoubtedly has the capacity to entertain viewers and draw their attention but it works only to a degree. Once we realize the excessive use of visual effects actually results in narrative stagnation and other problems as discussed above, we gradually disengage from the story. Identification, however, is an aspect of narrative which, when established well, sustains the viewer’s interest and involvement throughout (Egri, 1993). Lajos Egri, the author of The Art of Creative Writing, writes that whilst characters struggle to deal with various issues emotions arise as a result and a viewer is bound to identify with a character through emotion because emotions are universally known. Once a viewer begins to identify with a character he’ll maintain the emotional bond up to the end of the movie when the character’s problems get resolved. Rocky (Avildsen, 1976) is an example of a film that’s very successful in getting the audience to form a deep connection with the title character. Rocky tells the story of a small-time boxer who’s given a once in a lifetime opportunity to fight with a heavyweight champion. Rocky is portrayed as a 30-year-old fighter who barely scratches a living by participating in low-paid boxing matches. The character lives in a dingy one-room brick apartment located in a bleak neighbourhood along with two pet turtles and a goldfish. Rocky has the physical make-up to be a great boxer, but unaware of his own potential, he trains poorly and nurtures no ambition to develop it. During the first act of the film we establish our relationship with the character feeling pity for him; but when Rocky accepts entry to a heavyweight boxing match and decides to put his mind into maximum preparation, our connection with the character deepens and we begin to share his recently formed dream. The scenes of Rocky and his love interest further strengthen our bond with the title character as we learn more about his personality and life. At the end of the second act of the film Rocky realizes he won’t be able to beat the heavyweight champ but instead of giving up he assumes a different goal – to prove himself a worthy opponent. Although the main character undergoes a change of heart that doesn’t sever our emotional connection with him; we actually begin to nurture even greater sympathy for the hero.
To further strengthen my point that proper character creation (as part of narrative) is more important than spectacle, I refer to Lagos Egri again who writes that movies which go down in history do it not because of the spectacle they feature but for the powerful characters they portray (p. 193). Rocky is one such character. He is powerful because the narrative establishes him as such. Other instances of powerful characters are Frodo and Sam (Jackson 2001, 2002 and 2003) – two hobbits whose friendship endures despite the ordeals they go through to save mankind and William Wallace (Gibson, 1995) – a Scottish rebel fighting to see his country free from English rule who chooses death over giving up his sense of freedom.
I am now going to refer to the job of the professional film critic to find out whether spectacle or narrative should have greater expression in movies.
Film reviewing relates to analysing films and finding their faults. Components of film reviewing (Buckland, 2008) include brief plot summary, background information, arguments about faults and evaluation of the movie in question. It is the movie’s value that is of particular interest to us. A film can have entertaining value if it places great emphasis on special effects with stereo and surround sound like almost every American blockbuster; narrative and narration are considered unimportant. If a film has social value, it depicts an important social issue. Examples are Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner (Kramer, 1967) – racism, and Hunger (McQueen, 2008) – the Iris Hunger Strikes of 1981.
So, is it spectacle or narrative that makes a good movie according to critics? Unfortunately, the question cannot be answered since critics are not unanimous in what constitutes a good movie (Buckland, 2008). Conservative critics, for example, think that a good film must be greatly entertaining and appealing to a wide audience. In contrast, radical critics, praise films that show a world from a new perspective and challenge our everyday views. Liberal critics fall in between.
Before I express my opinion on the topic, I’m going to look through the eyes of the Hollywood system in search for answers.
Firstly, what is Hollywood exactly? Hollywood is not just a place in California where around 200 movies are made annually. Lewis (1998) writes that Hollywood is a large-scale enterprise with a well-developed financial, marketing and advertising system that deals with the production of films and takes great care of their publicity, national and international distribution and exhibition and that Hollywood also branches into broadcast, cable, video cassette and DVD (sales and rental) markets.
Contemporary Hollywood has a specific way of operating called high-concept film-making (Lewis, 1998, pp.314-317). A high-concept movie is one whose narrative can be summarized in a sentence and, if possible, marketed in one image, like Batman and Spider-man. High-concept movies are based on pop culture (comics, TV shows, etc.) and feature impressive audiovisual content, including well-known stars in the main roles.
High-concept film-making is the dominant mode of film-making in Hollywood today, because it is tremendously lucrative. Although a high-concept movie constitutes an overly simple narrative, it manages to attract a lot of spectators because of the jaw-dropping spectacle it offers. In addition, well publicized before its release date, a high-concept movie inevitably becomes a blockbuster as mass audiences flood the local multiplex to see it.
It can now be inferred that a good movie for Hollywood is the one attracting an audience as big as possible. The goal is currently been achieved via high-concept movies because they feature a lot of spectacle which the targeted audience – young people aged 16 to 30 – finds irresistible. Hollywood has no intention, to my eye, of satisfying the needs of cinephiles – the people who consider films as a form of art – because cinephiles make an audience too small to generate a substantial profit; whereas, young people constitute the largest audience of active cinemagoers and hence provide for the greatest exchange of cash.
After all, Hollywood isn’t run by artists, but by aspiring businessmen driven by the capitalistic idea that “money is made on hits” (Lewis, 1998, p. 314). Industry executives prefer to invest in a prospective mega hit which would return enormous profits instead of investing in a few beautifully written small productions carrying powerful messages for a handful of adults to see.
I am not a proponent of high-concept film-making, but I cannot blame Hollywood for its current mode of production because I’m aware that in reality, film-making is as much art as it is business. Payment for the services of the many people participating in a production is only a small part of the money spend on a film project. In order a film to successfully open nationwide, a great deal of expensive prints must be made and distributed to theatres. Advertising, another costly undertaking, is essential for building mass anticipation and is not limited to hyping a movie intended to be a blog-buster.
In addition, film-making is a risky business and major studios know that very well. Studios, like Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros, are in essence large production companies that make money in the entertainment industry. If a studio happens to lose millions by investing in a feature film production that turns out unsuccessful, it could mean the end of the studio. There have been many cases in the history of Hollywood when a company has bought or joined another one in financial crisis (Lewis, 1988). For example, Turner Broadcasting System, Warner Bros and Time Inc are few of the subsidiaries of Time Warner. Hollywood majors are currently producing high-concept movies because this mode results in financial security. Major CEOs know that as long as money goes in, their companies will live and no one will lose his job. Hence, studios search for bigger and bigger hits that would ultimately return (first at theatres and then on DVD and television) more than enough money to cover all of the corporation taxes as well as the yearly distribution and advertising expenses as Lewis (1998, p.83) writes. Such a practice inevitably gives rise to the production of popular movies rampant in spectacle and tie-ins because they can generate the largest possible audience for Hollywood to exploit.
I will now discuss two cases when spectacle has beaten narrative in importance and at the same time provide evidence of Hollywood’s capitalistic nature.
The first case deals with computer-generated imagery as spectacle in blockbuster movies like Transformers (Bay, 2007), which attracted a great deal of viewers because of the entertainment it offered through visual effects. When Transformers was released in 2007 it became a summer hit despite a script heavily criticized to consist of infantile dialogue and overall style (Tyler, 2007). A second flaw of the movie is that it is a lengthy piece (2 hours and 20 minutes) according to many critics due to the show of unnecessary material, like too much fighting and slow-motion shots that impede the development of the story. It appears to me that if a spectator does not go to see Transformers specifically to enjoy nothing but the spectacular he’ll remain unsatisfied or betrayed. After all, the single “strong” point which made the 150-million-dollar movie a summer blockbuster with a worldwide gross of approximately $ 709m (according to IMDB) is exactly the ever-engaging spectacle of intergalactic heavy machinery fighting for a magic cube that can create new worlds. Director Michael Bay has excessively focused on gripping visual effects with the obvious intent to attract young audiences craving entertainment.
My second case deals with the issue of sex as spectacle. There was a period when adult films were being shown in theatres. In 1968, however, the Motion Picture Association of America introduced a rating system which brought an end to the practice. Movies including strong or pornographic content were rated X and as a result almost half of the theatres in America ceased to show X-rated as well as non-rated movies; television, newspaper and radio companies became reluctant to promoting X-rated movies. The change led to substantial losses for the major studios, but it did not stop them from using the element of sex to attract viewers. To overcome the obstacles created by the rating system, Hollywood began to censor its babies, including foreign imports.
I am Curious (Yellow) (Sjoman, 1967) is a Swedish film very strong in sexual content built on a rather weak narrative. The film was banned in some countries and censored in others. Its release in the US was hotly debated (Lewis, 1998, pp.71-81) and when the film was approved for exhibition in 1968, Lewis writes it grossed roughly $ 90 000 at two small New York theatres in the opening week and almost $ 4m within 6 months of release at less than twenty-five theatres. I am Curious (Yellow) is an example of a boring and ill-written movie which performs phenomenally at the box office only due to the fact that it depicts simulated sexual intercourse which viewers obviously find irresistible (Lewis, 1998 & Kanfer, 1968).
I am of the opinion that neither spectacle nor narrative is more important than the other for I consider film viewing a personal experience. I mean that everyone has his unique expectations from the process of watching a film because we are different – we come from different societies, lead completely different lifestyles and possess uniquely different values, goals and beliefs of the way life works. When our expectations are met we like the film. There are viewers, for instance, who love films that challenge thinking; others – comprising the greatest number of people on Earth – enjoy watching high-concept movies that offer overwhelming spectacle based on a simplistic narrative.
Further, I consider it true that contemporary Hollywood blockbusters are inferior to the movies involving complex narratives because the former are much easier to write. In regard to the importance of one type of movie over the other, however, I cannot provide an objective answer. I don’t think there should be a dominant or one and only mode of production. I prefer to see balance in the production of high-concept movies and the ones with complex narratives simply because I want to see everyone happy watching their preferred type of cinema.
If one mode of production were to be established throughout the world, I’d like to see films that feature the best of both worlds – a powerful message or idea contained in a strong narrative characterized by depth and three-dimensional characters and seasoned with bits of overwhelming spectacle. I care about spectacle as much as narrative because it’s spectacle that makes us stand in owe of what’s on the screen as Susan Sontag (1996) puts it in her article. Two of the movies that exemplify my desired mode of production are The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachovski, 1999) and Inception (Nolan, 2010). It’s worth mentioning that it’s absolutely possible to tell a story that impacts without the use of much or any CGI simply because the story can perfectly work without it – The Adjustment Bureau (Nolfi, 2011), Rocky (Avildsen,1976).
In conclusion, I restate my thesis that an objective one-sided answer to the question whether spectacle is more important than narrative or vice versa in contemporary American cinema cannot be provided because film viewing is a personal experience which differs from spectator to spectator, critic to critic and business person to business person.
Independent Film-maker & Web Video Creator
Northern Film School | Class 2014
BA Film & Moving Image Production
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Kanfer, S. (1969) Dubious Yellow. Time, 14 March, p. 98.
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Sontag, S. (1996) The Decay of Cinema. The New York Times [Internet], 25 February. Available from: <http://www.nytimes.com/1996/02/25/magazine/the-decay-of-cinema.html?scp=3&sq=Susan+Sontag&st=nyt> [Accessed March 18, 2011]
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