I recall once telling a friend of mine that I didn’t like Avatar, and being somewhat stunned at his immediate retort that I ‘didn’t like cinema’. It kind of caught me off guard, largely because to this day I still think Avatar is a hollow wreck of a narrative peppered with blue humanoids who were as vacuous as they were forgettable. It’s also because I seemed to be the only one who even cared about this. I was the odd one out and I couldn’t understand why.
The answer, it transpired, was that I had foolishly elected to witness Cameron’s magnum opus in primitive 2D, and in doing so, I had missed essentially the entire point of Cameron’s film. I had missed what cinema is steadily becoming all about: spectacle.
The OED defines ‘spectacle’ as ‘a specially prepared or arranged display of a more or less public nature (especially one on a large scale), forming an impressive or interesting show or entertainment for those viewing it.’ Our fascination with spectacle speaks for the success of TV talent shows, touring dance troupes, and the enduring demand for Cirque du Soleil. It’s a trend that has burrowed its way into the heart of the modern blockbuster. It’s the secret ingredient that has ensured the success of the Star Wars franchise, The Lord of the Rings, and the current onslaught of Marvel movies we find ourselves wading through.
Yet all of these visual treats are broadcast within the safe confines of a firm narrative frame. Even if the plot wasn’t always ground-breaking, it was always followable and fairly diverse. There was always a sense of those traditional parameters, from the exposition to the complication, the climax to the dénoument.
But now something has changed. We have movies that offer singular set pieces elongated into a feature-length film, one ongoing spectacular event. Gravity, for example, portrays little beyond the vertiginous aftermath of an explosion in orbit, and Dredd and The Raid are both sieges of impenetrable vertical fortresses. Somewhere down the line, it became okay for directors to strip away the chewy fat of plot and replace it with lean muscular action. These cinematic spectacles no longer see the kind of criticism we’ve come to expect from movies void of plot; in fact, many are opening to great critical acclaim. I mean, Gravity won seven Oscars.
The latest entry into this new ‘spectacle’ genre is Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth instalment of Miller’s gritty post-apocaustralian saga. Played by Tom Hardy, our protagonist Max is basically a sun-baked soup of instinct and malady, sculpted into the shape of a dishevelled man who speaks in grunts and gunshots. The film opens with Hardy uttering a gravelly ‘My name is Max,’ stomping on a two-headed gecko, and eating it. And we pretty much know what kind of guy he is from then on. Miller’s refreshingly short introduction is a love letter to his audience that reads, ‘This guy is basically just a catalyst for the action’.
For the next two hours, Miller’s picture grabs you by the scruff of your neck and sends you hurtling through its explosive wasteland. And amidst the bustle of engines and the chrome-plated murder, there’s not a huge amount of room left for ‘plot’. The story goes something like: crazy man in desert has all the water; crazy man in the desert is allowed to take all the most beautiful women for himself because he has all the water; women don’t want to be objects; women escape; insanity ensues. Other than prompting an onslaught of feminist responses (and one laughable response from a ‘men’s rights’ website), Miller’s emaciated storyline isn’t exactly one that lends itself to deep critical analysis. Like Max and the desolate world he inhabits, the only real motivation of any of the characters is to survive, and it’s kind of brilliant. Even the critics are snuggling up to Miller like obsequious lap dogs.
So, how is it that a film so unabashedly stripped of narrative justification has enjoyed so much critical success? Isn’t focusing on the spectacle at the expense of the narrative a kind of cardinal sin of modern cinema?
Funny you should ask that, because in 1986, a guy called Tom Gunning published a short essay entitled ‘The Cinema of Attraction’, in which he discusses the gulf dividing the early film scene with that of the 1980s. Gunning’s observations were that early film — we’re talking pre-1906 here — was primarily a means by which a filmmaker might bring an exhibition to his audience. According to Gunning, ‘actuality films’ — those that exhibited some otherwise inaccessible reality — ‘outnumbered fictional films until 1906.’ People went to experience creatures, machines, and landscapes without having to make the arduous journey themselves. In the years to come, fictional narrative arcs would eventually usurp the exhibitionist form.
Why is it, then, that we are now seeing a resurgence of pure spectacle in cinema? Well, I believe there are a couple of reasons. The first reason is that we are entering what some might call the golden age of television. Thanks to our good friend Mr Internet, television is far more effective now at rendering before our very eyes believable character development and mature, complex storylines. Budgets for TV are bigger now, and A-listers from Kevin Spacey to Woody Harrelson are turning to the small screen for the richer roles.
In the age of TV, the timespan of film is starting to seem kind of oppressive. We often judge whether or not we can make the ‘effort’ to see a film by checking out its timespan. Amateur web criticism (cough) often draws attention to a film’s pacing, and the idea of a film being drawn out longer than it needs to can seriously deteriorate its critical value. Long, complex stories are reserved for the box set. Films just can’t cut it anymore; no one wants to commit to something that can’t be watched in segments. The only thing film can offer that TV can’t is prolonged spectacle. Huge budgets compressed into a matter of hours yields incredible visuals and thrilling choreography that realistically just isn’t achievable in a project with a broader lifespan.
But the post-millennial gulf between television and film is only part of a larger battle that the film industry has been fighting for over a decade now. The film industry, as we are so often told, is in serious trouble. Internet piracy has left film producers out on very thin ice; it’s no secret that in general the film industry is far less profitable than it used to be. I believe that Hollywood has found itself a rope towards at least a temporary refuge, a rope called ‘spectacle’ (okay, so I’m not great at analogies). Advances into HD, 4K, dynamic surround sound, digital 3D, even Odeon’s new motion effects seats (MFX), they all contribute towards the cultivation of a demand for something beyond a film, something closer to a theme-park attraction. It is now the cinema’s job to make big movies an experience, one that locks into every sense possible by shaking the room with bass and throwing holographic shrapnel right in our bespectacled faces.
So is it working? Well, while we might not be going to the cinema quite as often as we used to, we splash out a little more when we do. Certain films are advertised to us by our friends (traitors) as ‘the kind you need to watch in 3D’, a trend kickstarted by James Cameron’s obscenely successful Avatar back in 2009. In fact, such peer prompting was exactly the reason I found myself clambering towards the nearest picture house to bear witness to George Miller’s latest contribution to the disestablishment of cinematic norms.
And as much as I would like to complain that I have been cheated out of my hard-earned cash, I can’t. Because here I am, telling you how spectacular it all was, how thrilling it was to climb aboard Hollywood’s latest attraction, to realise that maybe, just maybe, the cinema was finally a worthwhile expedition again. Maybe the world has gone mad.