A grammar of illusion: granular and geometric, time-based and liquid.
That’s the movies, right? Take your best guy out to dinner and a show?
Illusion flew through the mechanisms of projectors for soooo long, nitrate and celluloid of particular dimensions that had been embossed with a layer of silver or a layer of dye, fed before carbon arcs and later, furiously bright light, clack-clacketed by a brilliant small contrivance known as the Maltese cross or the Geneva drive: tick-tick-tick, light, dark, light dark, twenty-four frames of motion and light, twenty-four frames of black, black, black. Film: forty-eight frames per second. (Dreaming in darkness through half the running time of any film-based projection.)
Just over twenty years have passed since “Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace” was the first digital wide release, way back in 1999, Trojan horse for the world of digital projection envisioned for the movies of George Lucas and James Cameron. That year was also one of the last truly amazing years for American studio releases, not limited to “Being John Malkovich,” “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “Election,” “Eyes Wide Shut,” “Fight Club,” “The Insider,” “Magnolia,” “The Matrix,” “Office Space,” “The Sixth Sense,” “The Straight Story,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Three Kings” and “The Virgin Suicides.” All made with care and craft and sly sensibilities.
Back in that century of celluloid. Quality control has always been a problem in terms of exhibiting movies, but there’s no telling what the differences are now that we deal with some form of video projection that is often dimmed to murk by the low-ball projection at low-rent multiplexes: we’re watching pixels blink off and on by the millions. It’s the stuff of cataracts, at least perceptual ones. But at least in the reflected light off the screens of the worthwhile movie houses that remain, we are not staring into a blinding light source. A burning source like the sun, a campfire, a computer screen, that flat, black slab of discount Walmart electronics over in that corner, that corner, maybe there, over the fireplace, whatever is the altar of any particular home.
“Streaming” is not that long, quiet river of forty-eight frames-per-second over ninety-eight minutes, either. Setting aside compression protocols that are applied to ensure a current of imagery, not a dribble, its own Maltese cross is like that button designed for the snout of the most avid rat: pleasure center, pleasure center, would you like to continue?
Would I like to continue? I would like to continue with a grammar of illusion, granular and geometric, time-based and liquid. Dialogue as interior monologue, revealed; inchoate dreams as free-floating imagery that accompany the scaffolding of a cannily crafted story. There were movies in the sustained highway pileup of fall-to-winter 2021 that gratified, that made me relax in a way that took a moment to realize: why were the muscles less tense, why did my attention feel unforced?
Craft. Movies where it seems, at the very least, that the army assembled to complete this picture not only knew what they are doing, they do it well, and they care. Craft applied to a neglected form, the competent feature-length narrative feature of sufficient budget to suggest expanses of time and pace, building off the century of variations from around the planet of how a filmmaker toys with the illusion of time and memory. The song of professionalism. The ring of confidence. The long game of the illusion of narrative effortlessness. Make me feel like I belong nowhere else at this instant than here.
Skill: Does it matter if a movie is made competently, yet even with love and craft? Jean Renoir observed that the industrial means necessary to produce even the smallest commercial movie, it’s a miracle that any film gets finished, let alone is ever any good.
Passion: Spielberg making an old-new studio dance musical, “West Side Story”; Guillermo del Toro’s simmering world of viperous film noir; the photojournalistic offhandedness of Mike Mills’ “C’mon, C’mon”; Joel Coen’s bone-spare “The Tragedy of Macbeth”; the elegance of pace and composition in a psychological portrait like “A Hero,” the latest film by double Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi (for “A Separation,” 2011, and “The Salesman” 2016) telling a story specific to Iran yet supplying a seamless flow for a story of the emotions wrought by injustice after injustice. Farhadi’s been adopted by the Academy establishment, but there are, gratifyingly, fistfuls of other films that begin from recognizable elements, then fly free on their filmmakers’ fantastications, including, just to name a couple past these shores, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”; Julia Ducournau’s “Titane”; Céline Sciamma’s “Petite Maman.” Even “The Matrix Resurrections,” where the filmmaker strides with serene confidence through an all-encompassing assault on the perception and popularity of the three films that came before, and upon the foolishness of expecting an artist to step into the same river twice.
Movies that look like the dreams or nightmares of the filmmakers, with the contrivance of financiers who permitted them to run electricity through their motion-capture devices, who then knew what attention to pay toward a spill of shadow, a judder of frame that instantaneously jolts the attention or just a weird little smile on a human face. Craft, yes, but also how a welter of felicities, most invisible to the average moviegoer, can and must sell the tale, bits of dream that adhere to our own steamy or seamy or simmering subconscious.