Things Ain’t How They Used to Be
A long time ago, I read an article on the internet that wondered about how great all the movies used to be. In the forties, it said, all the movies were so good and now, most are terrible. This, of course, is completely false. This was written before the term “blog” was even introduced and was probably the words of someone who was then very young. A much more likely hypothesis is that bad works tend to be forgotten and that time is an very effective (though sometimes unfair) quality filter.
But still, are there really films of the quality of Casablanca these days? Or, my personal Hollywood favorite, The Maltese Falcon? It not possible to objectively quantify quality, but most people would agree that something is missing to most contemporary films. They have better image quality, better special effects, in many ways they have much more polished acting, more sophisticated editing; they’re shown in bigger, better theaters and even home media is of better quality than most theatrical releases of their time. Surely, we can pull off another movie of the quality of Casablanca, right? But if so, why hasn’t it happened?
This question brings to mind other issues. The apparent low quality of the average movie is not an isolated occurrence. In the same vein, why are so many video games bad? Why are so many Broadway musicals so embarrassingly silly? Did culture peak just a few decades ago? Have we just gone by our equivalent of Ancient Greece’s turn of the 6th century B.C.E.?
Well, I for one don’t think so. Talent abounds. Similarly, our demands in term of what constitutes quality have also risen sharply. To get back to Casablanca as an example, from a purely logical point of view, its story makes absolutely no sense. If a similar story were released today, it would be mocked by any educated critic and blogger. But most likely, before that occurred, its script would be altered to make up for these mistakes. These alterations would most likely severely hinder the suspension of disbelief that the film allows. Some of its sense of idealism and romance is not restrained but is in fact exacerbated by the logical blurriness of its plot.
Bigger is Better, Except When It’s Not
This consideration about Casablanca‘s plot is not the only aspect that would probably not escape the judgement of a modern viewer. In fact, each aspect of a work of fiction or a work of art is condemned until exonerated by today’s standards. And here is the crux of the problem: the greater number of media types one uses in a single work, the more one exposes it to points of failure.
Let’s take the example of a musical comedy on stage based on high quality non-musical play. The musical has all the good elements of the original, plus some good music and choreography. In all logic, it should be better. But in reality, that’s rarely the case.
First, let’s look into the hypothetical original. Why was it successful? It had a good text, good acting, good direction, good sets, good sound, good costumes, good lighting and was staged in a good theatre. Now, one could break this down even further. What constitutes a good text? What makes a good theater? But bear with me for now.
Here comes the musical adaptation. It’s much more complicated to stage. In all likelihood, it will require more stage performers who sing and dance, it will require choreography and voice direction, lyrics and music. Let’s say one of these are bad. Let’s say it’s very bad. That would usually mean the whole show it bad. A musical with bad music is a bad musical, no matter how good the text, acting and costumes are. If the music is bad, the whole show is bad.
Now you can explain that really, if you stop and consider how good the text and the costume and the actors are, independently from the music, you’ll find spectacular quality. And that may be true. And you’ll probably be able to convince people. But the overall show will still be bad.
Each time a new type of media is added, the number of parts that can go wrong increases. And it does not increase linearly, it increases exponentially. Adding special effects to a film does not only add the need for special effects to be good, it also requires their aesthetic to be consistent with the overall aesthetic of the whole film, it requires the live performers to know how to work inside of a partially virtual environment and for their direction to be adequately guided in relation for that.
Each medium is not self-contained but affects every other. Any addition complicates every other aspect. If everything is done well, a new medium will add to the overall experience, but if any single aspect is done poorly, it can ruin everything. I remember when Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released, among its numerous criticisms was the fact that the font used for its subtitles was inconsistent with the one used in the previous films. I remember it bothered me, and I was not that much of a fan.
This is the weakest link principle: a multimedia work of art or fiction is only ever as good as its least well used medium. And the more media there are, and the more they are intertwined, the more harshly that rule applies.
A video game with a bad interface is a bad video game, no matter how good the rest of the game is. A play staged on a badly lit stage is a bad stage experience, no matter how good the rest of it is. A TV show with with bad camerawork is a bat TV show, no matter how good the acting or the lines.
The Space Captain and the Orphan Girl
Let me now quickly plug two TV shows I love: Babylon 5 and Candy Candy.
Babylon 5 was a TV series created by J. Michael Straczynski. It first aired between 1994 and 1998. It is not very popular among the general public, but was extremely influential on television writing overall. This is mostly because of the huge focus that Babylon 5 placed on continuity and character development at a time where most TV series tried to make every episode self-contained. On most TV shows, at the end of each episode, the series was reset to the situation where it was at the beginning. On Babylon 5, however, most episodes took place within a story arc and the overall series plot evolved within the episode and the differences made in the world were permanent.
For example, on Star Trek: The Next Generation, the first officer of the Enterprise, William Riker, meets several women along the course of the series with whom he forms romantic entanglements. They are usually never referred to again in subsequent episodes. In Babylon 5, when the the character Londo Mollari forms a romantic attachment with a woman, Adira, not only is it never forgotten but eventually used against him as leverage later on in the series.
The complex and subtle nature of the series’ plotlines, the number of intertwining stories, the way they were kept in balance with one another is unprecedented tour de force for television, one that led the way for other television series from that point on to eschew the reset format of self-contained episodes in favor of a continuity systems. For example, this influences dramatic series that might otherwise have placed much less emphasis on continuity like Buffy the Vampires Slayer (1997-2003) or ER (1994-20014). It also influenced sitcoms like Friends (1994-2004) or Sex and the City (1998-2004), which show a degree of focus on continuity very rarely seen in previous instances of the format, frequently referring to events of previous episodes, rewarding faithful viewers at the possible expense of casual ones. This was much more prevalent in later seasons of both Friends and Buffy.
And yet, Babylon 5 was, in many respects, a bad series. Some of its dialog was poor. The phrase “Most amusing,” for example, was often used by many characters even though it often fell flat. Some of the acting was, by any measure, poor, while some was excellent. Some sets, costumes and special effects were below-par. Many of that can be explained by the relatively low budget of the series. On average, each episode of Babylon 5 cost half as much as an episode of a Star Trek series produced around that time. But explanations, as explained earlier in this post don’t matter. The fact of the matter is many aspects of Babylon 5 are simply sub-par.
A similar assessment can be made of the 1970s anime series Candy Candy, which originally ran from 1976 to 1979 in Japan. The series was a gigantic success in almost all of the countries where it was aired. The only two exceptions were the United Kingdom and the United States, the two countries where the whole of the story takes place.
That success came even though the series was produced extremely quickly. The animation is choppy and there are many factual inaccuracies. Books in English are bound on the right, like Japanese books and not on the left, American servants bow to their employers like Japanese servants, family structures are very hierarchical in way that very foreign to the Western world in which the series is supposed to take place. And yet from South America to East Asia the series was extremely popular with extremely devoted fans throughout Europe.
The flaws in Candy Candy were not limited to the series itself but continued with its distribution. The series was often very badly dubbed. In many cases, the dub was translated not from the original Japanese but from the Italian dub: Silvio Berlusconi’s media group, MediaSet used to buy the rights for Japanese animation, cheaply dub them and resell the Italian language versions to be re-dubbed. This included Candy Candy.
And so it seems that my weakest link theory has been proven wrong. Despite their array of flaws and imperfections, Babylon 5 and Candy Candy seem to be two perfect examples of works of fiction whose qualities made up for their flaws. But is this really the case? Maybe not.
Finding Hal Wallis
Getting back to Casablanca, where is our modern-day equivalent of it, if it can and therefore must exist?
Again, there is a lot of subjectivity involved in ranking works in terms of overall quality. That said, I have an opinion on the matter. It would be silly to name names here, as any specific example would be besides the point, but whatever more or less lines up with some of the Hal Wallis classics nowadays would probably be a high-polish independent work. (Actually, the game Don’t Starve as well as the film Primer by Shane Carruth comes to mind.) However, being independent, they are, by their very nature, distinct from classical works in their overall status.
We are much more likely to accept imperfections in something that is not touted as being the state of the art: artisan bread is supposed to unevenly textured, handmade pottery is not supposed to be decorated in a perfectly symmetrical way. Their roughness becomes an asset rather than a flaw.
But then, what about the inaccuracies in Casablanca? Well, in all fairness, they were never inaccuracies for their intended audience. The vast majority of moviegoers in the forties did not care about such details. And now, the movie has become a classic and this, rather than exacerbate its flaws, transforms them into artifacts of their time: something to be loved and treasured.
What then of Babylon 5 and Candy Candy? They were not classics when they were first aired. And they were certainly flawed.
Well, yes, but their imperfections contributed to their suspension of disbelief. The were coherently imperfect. It sounds unfair and maybe it is unfair, but it works. Had they been polished in all aspects but one, than one rough aspect would have ruined the whole series. But they were rough all over. Their incredible qualities existed not in spite of that roughness but within it. The bad dialog never got in the way of Straczynski’s subtle politics. The silly and incoherent translations did not in fact create obstacles for Candy’s journey through a completely impossible and inaccurate America but made the world she explored more acceptable on the surface of the canvas it was set up on. It’s a work where everything is a little off to begin with, so nitpicking is by definition pointless.
Fiction, art and entertainment are not literal. Through their many layers of allegory and figurative meanings, it’s easy to lose track of what’s what. I maintain that my weakest link principle holds. But the weakest link in that figurative chain has to really be a weakest link. It has to stand out from the rest in terms of its quality as well as its nature. A link made of paper is not the weakest link on a paper chain.
The next question is: will some technical aspects of the current big budget film industry fade away or are they here all to stay? The question is not as absurd as it seems. There are still black-and-white films being made today. Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff was made entirely without computer graphics. It is not inconceivable that there might exist at some point in the future a trend to make big works of screen entertainment that boast little or no digital trickery and adopt a style closer to the more naive one of classic Hollywood, may it be for cultural reasons or, more likely, for financial ones: there are new kinds of media competing with feature films in the limited realm of paid entertainment.
I don’t actually think this is going to happen, though, or, to be more precise, if it is going to happen, it’s not going to happen that way. The aesthetic motivation is most likely simply too weak. As for the proliferation of different media, I do think it will continue to increase, making the more popular ones diminish their reliance on expensive and superficially spectacular feats. But even that is a long shot.