On the Systematic Barriers to Art in Movies
Time constraints Movies operate under a number of conflicting forces. The first of these is the time constraint. It is obvious how the operation of a 90 minute suggested limit, with a 180 minute absolute maximum, can impinge upon dialogue, plot, character development, music and setting exploration. However, what is less obvious is the way this requirement juxtaposes with the cultural expectation placed upon movies.
Culturally, movies are one of the grandest culminations of entertainment. They provide a visible and auditory highlight of acting (closer up and more intimate than even participating in a play; ability to hear whispers and see acting occur in more dynamic environments than possible on stage; static art [when placed onscreen]; environment-building [360 degree sets]), technology, music, and other sensory experiences. The grandeur of movies, though, places an expectation upon them: that they use these tools to deliver an epic show.
The nature of "epic" suggests length of experience (for characters), dynamism, and the extraordinary. This is the force that causes moviemakers to attempt to outdo one another (and even their previous selves) with bigger, louder explosions each time, in an attempt to create drama thereby. They are grasping for something epic, because that is what moviegoers want: they want to take advantage of the great technology and presentation of movies to experience something epic.
Yet, the time constraint works against this. "Epic" cannot be conveyed well in 90 minutes, and it is not so much easier to do it in 180, either. Epic requires sequences; pauses (in the movie and out); reflection. It requires camera time where the camera is not moving, and the characters to be able to reflect to themselves and others.
What most movies are as a result of the time constraint is actually short stories. In that, movies can do very well. Quirky little tales about someone in modern life; a children's adventure; a brief comedy. These things work well in 90 to 180 minutes. And many of them are produced, and manage to be reasonably inoffensive and quite creative. This is because the "short story" or "novella" medium offered by commercially-approved movies (with lengths of 90 to 180 minutes) can be well done, and cheaply done, in such a time constraint, without much affecting the art.
What does not work well, though, is when moviemakers attempt to cram epic granduer into 90 to 180 minutes. The nature of epic suggests world-changing, so naturally, an epic story has to present the climactic challenge (usually a battle of some kind) in a grand way. In order to make something appear grand, and feel grand to the viewer, the viewer has to have an attachment to the character(s) or situation(s) of the movie, so that they are personally invested in the outcome.
This is done well when the viewer has had time to develop that attachment through clever plot-building. Learning to like the characters (which takes time, because you have to know them, first) leads to investment in what happens to them in the grand conclusion.
Moreover, in an epic situation, viewers have to care about the outcome of the battle/climax in that they must have concern about what will happen to not only the character, but the fictional world as a whole. A sense of impending doom for the world (if the heroes fail) is what makes an epic battle so grand: it suggests that there is a lot riding on it, both personal and social. It tugs at the main concerns of the species, namely individuals known to the viewer, and the general state of the rest of the world which the viewer has some natural empathy with.
Given this, when movie producers attempt to cram "epic" into 90 to 180 minutes, they use a number of techniques to attempt to convey "epic" without going to the effort of actually investing in the careful thought (and time allowance!) that must go into an epic:
Epic attempt #1: the montage
A montage attempts to convey something that the epic requires: namely, a passage of time, to develop the severity of threat to the world/setting which will come to a head in the epic battle. It also attempts to convey character development at an accelerated rate.
This can be done well, and indeed, the musical tends to rely upon it. Montages are almost always sent to music, because music is WD-40 for the emotions: it makes them work much more smoothly, and makes the mind suggestable to believing things it might otherwise not.
The epic montage, though, accelerates character growth through unbelievable phases. Like the parenthetical I offered in the previous paragraph, the epic montage, when used poorly (as it is most often used in American cinema) is used to convey aspects of character development that are not realistic.
An example of a good montage in a musical: a young man sings about a girl who vexes him, and as he sings, he realizes he loves her. (Function: the montage conveys character development in his love life, without having to watch the young man sit on the couch for three hours, without talking, before coming to a simple conclusion about whom he desires.)
An example of a good epic montage in a movie: adventurous music plays as the heroes travel over rugged terrain. (Function: the montage shows us that the characters are traveling, without us having to watch them walk, camp, bathe and eat for two weeks straight.)
An example of a standard Hollywood epic montage: thumping music plays while the heroine, a pampered princess, takes harsh sword lessons from a suddenly-introduced side character. (Function: the montage justifies the incredible battle sequences at the end of the movie, where the pampered princess out-duels countless mercenaries who each have fifty pounds of muscle on her, and have years of combat experience.)
The epic montage, in most Hollywood films, is sugar with a bitter pill: it tries to force the audience into accepting the coherence of a supposed epic tale, with a world-ending battle, which the characters have had only an hour and a half to prepare for.
Epics are journeys, and the characters start them out naive, repressed, troubled, un-worldly or in some other state vulnerable to development, growth and learning. Then, by the end, their quest provides the development they are looking for, and the theme of the tale is often expressed. It takes time to break through these barriers realistically--not a 3 minute montage. If a pampered princess were to become a great swordswoman, it would not just involve taking lessons, but would pose a set of fantastic new challenges to her entire lifestyle and self-image. This cannot be conveyed with ten seconds of watching her do pushups in the rain while poppy music plays, and another twenty seconds of her chopping at a log, and so on. Yet, it is what Hollywood forces through, over and over.
(There is often little protest to this. When people have little insight into their workings, they may not notice or care when someone has unrealistic character development. They may be interested only in seeing the big scene at the end, and marveling at how "cool" it is that the pampered princess can suddenly wield a sword. Genuine change doesn't matter any more than genuine character, and they lust for descriptions of people who achieve epic growth without realistic steps: because it suggests that they, too, might experience such a thing.
This is a sad fantasy, dreamed by those who have no realistic hopes for themselves, which is why this state of art works so well [at generative revenue and placating the masses] in a system that works best by destroying most peoples' realistic hopes. But this is not the focus here.)
Much like accelerating clone growth will one day lead to great psychological problems in the clones, accelerating character development in fictional characters lends itself to disbelief. It teaches impressionable humans (a required disclaimer: children and adults alike) that positive change:
1) Is unrealistically fast;
2) Bears no relation to the type of person someone was before (the "conversion" myth central to evangelical delusions in ragnarist minds)
I.e., positive change is unrealistic. A pampered princess might well, in reality, become a master swordswoman--but if we show her doing it in only the most ridiculous, unbelievable of ways, we never teach princesses (or just little girls) that they might actually achieve it some day. Any more than they can realistically expect to fly like Superman.
A caveat on imagination: imagining the fantastic is a good, wonderful thing, but Hollywood's montages are a type of inconsistent imagination, and that is what is bad about them. They lie, in the sense that they portray the world as normal, then violate the rules of normality. They take people portrayed as typical humans (even typical humans in fantastic situations) and then treat them unrealistically. If they had taken citizens of Krypton and then had those characters do fantastical things, it would be believable within the context of the imagined world (i.e., not actually unrealistic for the character). The defining difference between good epic and bad (and good story of any kind and bad) is that a good epic is fantastic in its structure, whereas a bad epic is fantastic in its character--a good epic establishes physical laws and rules about the world and the things in it, which the characters then conform to (whether in amazing ways or regular ones); a bad epic establishes the standard physical laws and rules of the world (the Earth we live on) and then allows its characters to violate them without explanation.
Good example: Z-men
Setting: Z-men establishes a world where men and women have superhuman abilities.
Situation: A character floats up an elevator shaft on a conjured wind.
Result: The setting is not destroyed.
Good example: Lord of the Bracelets
Setting: Lord of the Bracelets establishes a world where (non-Dunedorf, non-elven) men and women have normal human abilities.
Situation: A female princess, trained in sword-fighting from her youth in a country of warriors, disobeys her father and rides to war in disguise. She successfully stabs several enemies and shows great valor.
Result: The setting is not destroyed.
Bad example: Pirates of the Craparean
Setting: Pirates of the Craparean establishes a world where (non-ghost, non-overgrown by barnacles) men and women have normal human abilities.
Situation: A pampered governor's daughter, who has spent her life in restrictive corsets and layered skirts, picks up a saber in a heated moment and suddenly finds (without surprise) that she can wield it as skillfully as any man or woman, fight for dozens of minutes straight without needing a breather, and also dual-wield two sabers at once, using her off-hand, with no diminishment in fighting capability.
Result: The setting is destroyed.
(The Pirates of the Caribbean references will continue; the second and third sequels are a suitable, modern example of most things discussed herein. And they didn't even bother with the "princess doing pushups in the mud" montage, or any other hint, however slight, to explain...! --but I shall not be distracted further.)
When the structure of an imaginary world is violated, the story loses the wonder; it loses the "this might have happened to these people if they had only been in a place where _______."
The "inconsistent desire" is the result of committee writing, or a conflicted mind, which does not produce a coherent story. The writers want to have their cake, and eat it, too. I.e., they want to have a movie where their character is both a dainty lady and a powerful warrioress, and they want to do that without bothering to explain in any realistic detail how that could happen.
Epic attempt #2: the gargantuan horde
Bigger is better is the mantra here. Because visible grandeur is now so easy to produce using computers, moviemakers ruin the coherence of their stories by making epic battles ridiculously large. In Troy, it was so many ships in the battle shot that they couldn't have held the entire population of Greece at the time, in Pirates of the Caribbean it was even more, etc. Why can they not just use a realistic number of warriors, and have the battle still be exciting? Because they are in pursuit of an epic in only 90-180 minutes. They do not have time or skill enough to build up a sense of grandeur through character and world understanding. Instead, they want bigger, better, and more, and they want it right now, without having to go to the trouble of earning it. So they violate the rules of the world, go for the "shock and awe" effect, and grasp for magnificent on the wings of sheer numbers.
Epic attempt 3 in the next part.