Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Mission Impossible vs The Artist: Sound and fury vs silence

Two recent films – Mission Impossible and The Artist – provide contradictory cinematic experiences and ask the audience to engage with the medium of film in different ways. Both films are interesting because they are box office draws and have received favourable critical reviews. The Artist (though, in my view, hugely overrrated) is hotly tipped to win Oscars this year. But The Invisible Province is interested in the question of our engagement with a film –not so much the fact that we do engage with a film, but what that engagement looks like.

Is there a place for a cinema that requires our attention and concentration? Or will the dominant tendency in film be to cater for the diminishing attention span of audiences who simply want the relentless activity (with a car chase thrown in) and white noise (but turned up to full volume) that mirrors so much of contemporary urban life? Is some kind of synthesis possible that bridges these differing expressions of engagement? Mission Impossible and The Artist provide some clues to possible answers.

The latest episode of the Tom Cruise Mission Impossible franchise is filmmaking for the Play station generation. Ghost Protocol jettisons narrative in favour of action set pieces that comprise different levels of difficulty for Ethan Hunt and his crack team. The film is littered with props and gadgets: adhesive gloves, a scanning contact lens, masks and guns. This is paraphernalia lifted from the virtual worlds of the computer game, the equipment that a contestant wins as he hits scores and climbs levels. But the computer game influence is also evident in the film’s pace, editing and aesthetic of Heraclitean flux. There is no opportunity to look at anything, to savour or reflect on an image, because everything passes as a Formula 1 blur.

Faced with such lobotomised filmmaking, all an audience is required to do is to be directed from one frenetic set piece to the next while shutting down any critical mental faculties en route. With one’s synapses besieged by the film’s sound and fury, the characters on screen are no longer required to resemble anything remotely human. There are buff bod's, hot chicks and IT geeks in this caricature paradise. All they have to do is kick ass and perform gymnastic tricks in exotic locations. The only method acting in this movie is performed by Tom Cruise’s hair. The violence comes from the Road Runner/Coyote stable (the director, Brad Bird, previously directed the Pixar animation hit, The Incredibles) and it exists outside any recognisable moral universe, except the most infantile one of goodies and baddies.

The argument in favour of movies like Mission Impossible is that it is popular entertainment with pretensions to nothing higher than a big box office return. It gives the popcorn audience what it wants is the usual defense. That may be true and the huge numbers going to see this film suggest that it is delivering the goods. Although giving people what they think they want is not the same as giving them something of value – something that allows them to reflect on themselves and others in a less predictable, clichéd manner.

But the failure of a film like Mission Impossible is not that it provides mere entertainment (being entertained is an important thing) but that it debases the language of tension, suspense, and ambiguity by impersonating a foreign medium, the computer game. It is the unique cinematic syntax associated with the thriller/action movie that makes an Alfred Hitchcock film so compelling or the Waterloo chase sequence that opens The Bourne Ultimatum so edge-of-seat exciting. Without this common, fully developed language, an audience is turned into passive, disengaged viewers. They are fed thin cinematic gruel that leaves them cinematically malnourished. Up until this point in time, cinema’s main interests existed independently of the attitudes and aesthetic of the Wii or the Play station. This is changing and with this change the engagement with a film becomes less focussed and more distracted.

The Artist takes us back to the early days of cinema – the silent movie. It reminds us of how audiences engaged with a film, less as a piece of entertainment and more as an event. Some of the most poignant moments in this novelty film are images of a cinema full of people watching a silent movie and having an emotional experience – visibly expressing emotions of happiness, sadness or fear. In that age of cinema, the viewer had to engage with the story. They had the job of interpreting the visual mood of a piece or the emotions the actors on screen were attempting to communicate.

The silent movie demanded directorial storytelling skill and expressiveness. Viable narrative arcs existed which allowed the viewer not only to follow the story with ease but to contribute to the plot development in an active manner. What was left unspoken on screen, found a voice in the imagination of the viewer. In this way, the viewer began to form their own cinematic lexicon with which to engage with the images on the screen.

Two very different films. Two very different ways for an audience to engage with a film. The popularity of The Artist suggests that there may still be an appetite for films that make an audience work. Yet, it is Ghost Protocol that will father a litter of poor imitations who will, in turn, fill our multiplex screens and leave audiences, if not speechless, then, probably dumb.

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