I wrote this for Law & Culture in American Film, using Birth of a Nation and Avatar as my film-sources. I liked how it came out in the end, but my next paper (this class requires 2) will be less about what people say about movies and more about what movies say about us. Stay tuned.
Story and Spectacle: How New Technology Subordinates Narrative in Film, and Why We Let It
In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s full-length film The Birth of a Nation stunned audiences and critics with the magnitude of its visual experience. It was “the first, the most stunning and durably audacious of all American film masterpieces, and the most wonderful movie ever made.” Critics praised the “splendor and magnificence of its spectacles” and recorded the cheers, tears, and simple awe The Birth of a Nation inspired in those who saw it. Now that the techniques and conventions Griffith pioneered have been imitated a thousand times over, modern audiences are more inclined to look beyond the spectacle of the film to reveal a simple, flawed story: a melodrama of two families divided by war; a “based on a true story” perversion of history; a racist polemic that reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan. But film critics of Griffith’s day—even those sympathetic to the plight of African Americans in the racially tense early 20th century—set aside their reservations about the film’s subject matter and ideology to marvel at Griffith’s technology, techniques, and mastery of spectacle.
Almost 100 years later, with the release of Avatar, James Cameron can claim to have repeated Griffith’s great leap forward. Avatar is, “simply put, one of the most beautiful movies you’ll ever see.” Using new-and-improved 3-D and performance capture technology, Cameron has arguably reinvented cinema for a new century. Critics are in awe of the immersive experience that such clever and soft-handed use of technology can create for the audience, inserting us “so completely and seamlessly into it that we feel like we’ve actually been there, not watched it on a screen.” But Avatar, like The Birth of a Nation before it, rings a bit hollow beneath its spectacular shell: the clichéd “white man goes native” storyline, political commentary culled from the headlines, and clunky, derivative dialogue lead easily to the conclusion that we’ve heard this story before, even if we’ve never seen it quite like this. And, as they did in 1915, film critics are quite willing to forgive narrative flaws for the sake of a spectacular visual experience.
The Birth of a Nation and Avatar demonstrate a trend in filmmaking history: when technology takes a great leap forward, narrative takes a backseat—at least for a little while. This paper first aims to say why. I propose three considerations. Perhaps it’s unfair to ask directors who are talented at creating astounding new visual experiences to be equally skilled in telling new stories. Or maybe the problem is that moviemaking is expensive, especially when directors and producers develop technology and technique from scratch, and lowest-common-denominator narratives provide the best way to recoup a large investment. Last, it’s possible that filmmakers realize how overwhelming new visual experiences can be; maybe it’s simply too much to ask of an audience to grasp a new narrative about the human experience while simultaneously adjusting to depth of field or 3-D glasses.
A related trend is the complicity of reviewers in the subordination of the narrative experience to the visual spectacle in these pictures. Film critics—whether in 1915 or 2009—have been all too willing to forgive narrative flaws in films that push forward the visual experience of the audience. Some critics minimize such flaws almost unconsciously, dulling themselves to what they hear in deference to what they see.
Luckily for discerning audiences and the future of cinema, this dichotomy fades with time. Though in the beginning of a new technological era the narratives serve the visual experience, as the technology becomes more commonplace, narrative makes a comeback. New stories can be told with the not-as-new technology in a way that moves film forward—not just in the spectacle, but also in a new treatment of the human experience. After a period of adjustment, the relationship between spectacle and narrative restabilizes in its traditional form: instead of the story being a vehicle for a new technology, the technology of production takes its rightful place as a vehicle for a narrative experience. . . .