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The Lost Art

A Question of Aesthetics?

Below, several images from Sergei Bondarchuk's noted adaptation of Tolstoy's "War and Peace", released in four feature-length instalments between 1965 and 1967, and included here as a reminder that "epic cinema" - even at its most conventional and mainstream - was once purely visual and spectacular in a way that the modern "event" cinema scarcely is.

Stumbling across an image from Bondarchuk's film on social media I was immediately struck by its iconography, its scale, its bold shot composition and its tremendous use of light and colour. Looking at this initial frame was like looking at a painting; it brought to mind the work of the great masters, Velázquez, Turner, Friedrich, etc. Following the link from the initial image brought me to the indispensable Blu-ray review site DVDBeaver where my mouth fell open at the sheer scale and spectacle of its captured images.

War and Peace [Sergei Bondarchuk, 1965 - 1967]:

Images taken from DVD Beaver:

Images like the ones presented above are thrilling because they point to a time when the cinema really mattered. A time when film was the dominant form of visual storytelling and when movies were statements, ambitious in their attempts to create not just stories but images that endured. Such images are a reminder that films were once recordings of events enacted for the benefit of a camera; that when an audience saw an image of a battle sequence involving literally thousands of extras, they believed the reality of it, because the image contained an element of truth. The viewer was able to appreciate how much planning and organisation went into creating such moments; orchestrating the actors and the movement within the frame, waiting until the wind was blowing the clouds in the right direction, or until the sun was at a specific point in the sky.

This is the lost art of the cinema, which has been diminished through the advancements of computer generated imagery. At a time when every aspect of an image or scene, from the location, to the lighting, to the positions of the actors and even the aspect ratio, can now be created and manipulated in post-production, shots no longer function as recordings of actual events. And while the effect of a film like Avatar (2009) - which was closer to animation than live action - was thrilling in its novel use of new technology to build and sustain a world and to present images that the eye had never before seen, it still can't compare to the sense of awe that is felt when we see the interaction between an actor and a landscape, or the scale of an image where every element of the frame is carefully designed, structured and controlled before the lens.

Compare the images from War and Peace to a recent blockbuster, such as Aquaman (2018), and the heart sinks. The imagery from Bondarchuk's film is immediately arresting. It's complex; loaded with ideas, emotions and connotations. There's an element of artifice, which is unavoidable - the imagery wouldn't be possible without conventional movie lighting, special effects and smoke machines, to say nothing of the photochemical processes used to develop the image itself - but the artifice is more tangible, almost invisible. By contrast, the imagery from Aquaman is like something from a video game. It's artifice is obvious and unconvincing. The imagery is garish, cartoon-like. The shots convey no emotion or ideas; they're simply presentational.

Despite the months and months of pre-planning and pre-visualisation that must have gone into making these shots a reality, they're designed and directed without any sense of prevailing artistry. The shots from War and Peace are framed with an artist's eye. They have an authenticity and an ambition behind them. The shots from Aquaman exist because they're necessary to the story. There's no spectacle or tension to any of these images; no sense of awe or wonder. There's nothing at stake.

Aquaman [James Wan, 2018]:

With a combined length of over seven-hours, War and Peace is a precursor to the kind of modern event serials that audiences now obsess over, and that the critics say have surpassed the cinema in terms of their available talent and storytelling capabilities. I'd always found this claim to be spurious for a variety of reasons and looking at the images from Bondarchuk's film certainly illustrates the absolute void of quality between this and the current entertainments du jour, such as Game of Thrones (2011-2019) or the Marvel™ 'cinematic universe.'

Most imagery we see today, either in films or serials (TV or otherwise), is illustrated text. Naturally there are still a number of films made by artistically minded filmmakers who think in terms of images and the context and sub-text that they might express, but the vast majority of consumer content consists of presentational coverage (mostly close-ups), bland colour schemes and cutting to provide pace. A large amount of imagery that we now consume is designed without intelligence or creativity.

While I don't mean any great disrespect by this, I find a programme like Game of Thrones to be devoid of any aesthetic value. Visually it strives to ape the style of Peter Jackson's Tolkien adaptations - specifically the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy - but ultimately has production values closer to Xena: Warrior Princes (1995-2001). Its storytelling isn't much better. For all the acclaim and column inches that have been devoted to its recent seasons, Game of Thrones is just a modern-day variation of a soap opera. It's Dallas (1978-1991) for audiences raised on "Harry Potter"; or Dynasty (1981-1989) with dragons and scenes of sexual assault.

Game of Thrones [Various, 2011-2019]:

Images taken from:

Game of Thrones might be spectacular, like a video game, or like a piece of fantasy wall-art, but it isn't aesthetically thrilling in the way that Bondarchuk's film is. Every shot from War and Peace is a marvel of colour and composition. Its special effects are complex and nearly invisible. Its lighting is stylised but naturalistic. Each frame is its own story, expressing various themes and ideas. By contrast the imagery from Game of Thrones is just there. It's essentially coverage, stylised slightly in a way that might be termed "blandly cinematic", but there because the narrative dictates. The special effects are obvious and artificial. The compositions are dull and lifeless. The lighting is either too bright and flat - donating that the shot was created by having an actor stand in front of a studio green screen - or too dark with a permanent blue tint.

Aesthetically, Game of Thrones, like Aquaman, is third-rate filmmaking. Their stories and characters might be compelling and entertaining, but their spectacle is generic. Rather than beguile or inspire an audience through genuinely creativity or originality, they simply numb the viewer into submission through a combination of noisy bombast and grim sensationalism.

That audiences and critics have elevated these works to an absolute pinnacle of modern culture on the basis that they provide escapism alone shows how far the standards have fallen. This isn't to say that such works are terrible or without merit; I'm not saying that these specific examples are among the very worst that modern entertainment has to offer; but it still seems as if mediocrity has now been accepted as the gold standard.

When I saw the images from War and Peace it was a reminder that the term "cinematic" used to mean something; that shots were once composed with such a level of artistry, sophistication and care that they immediately captured the imagination and were transformative in the way that great paintings can be; that the actual tangible spectacle of cinema - its combination of content and form, the power of its performances and the authentic recreation of a specific time and place - could be a special-effect in its own right. I'm not sure if that's the standard that exists today, or if it ever was to begin with? To be continued.


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