I recently saw the movie Arrival at the cinema. I was sitting about four rows from the front, dead centre, and was soon immersed in the story that was playing out.
From the opening scene, that long fade from dark to light, the framing of the shot out across the lake, to the first hint at the doorways the main character will need to navigate (figuratively and literally) I was hooked. I’ve always been drawn to beautiful cinematography, to the point where movies like Road to Perdition stick in my mind more for that long shot of the car driving through the rain with the fields beyond disappearing over a low clouded horizon, than it does for the story itself.
It probably started with 2001: A Space Odyssey. I loved the books as a child, and can remember the first time I saw it on TV (advert breaks and all). There is no doubt it is a slow movie, those now famous scenes of spacecrafts gently waltzing in space, all a prelude to the long build towards the climatic scenes with HAL (and that’s before you get to the wonderful weirdness of latter part of the movie). I watch it every few years, and recently saw it in a cinema for the first time. I was sat in the front row and realised I had completely zoned out at times, just letting myself be taken away by the imagery on screen. Immersed. It was wonderful.
The same day I saw Arrival I also saw Fantastic Beasts (the latest from the Harry Potter world) and whilst it was fun it didn’t grab me and hold my attention. As it veered off into CGI land (which was all very impressive) I did leave knowing it was a nice bit of fun but it didn’t sit with me long. I was aware of being in a cinema, with other people laughing and gasping (or exclaiming ‘Ohhh that’s Colin Farrell’), but I can barely remember anyone who was sitting near me when I watched Arrival.
Perhaps this comparison isn’t all that fair. Arrival is not only beautifully shot, the story is smart, well handled by the director and the performance by the lead actor, Amy Adams, was nuanced and controlled and utterly entrancing. Meanwhile the Fantastic Beasts storyline is pretty standard fare (which isn’t a bad thing) and the pacing is good, but for me Eddie Redmayne wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Perhaps because I only recently watched him play Stephen Hawking with a similar awkardness (which worked well for that character), or perhaps because I was able to focus more on the acting and direction because I wasn’t pulled into the world of the movie.
I’ve always been able to suspend my disbelief when watching movies. I am the guy who doesn’t see plot twists coming (think Usual Suspects, Sixth Sense, Primal Fear) but I need to be enticed into the world of a movie, so whilst I enjoy all the big silly blockbusters, and I’ve already booked my tickets for Rogue One, they are simply a distracting entertainment.
But it’s movies like Arrival that help me step into their world are the ones that ‘stick’ in my brain; The Lobster, Slow West, Shawshank Redemption, and Rear Window are all movies the pull me gently, that let my brain do the work and don’t force their worlds on me. I will happily step into them because of that, and more and more I am drawn to intelligent and beautiful movies. Think Cohen Brothers and Wes Anderson. Think Christopher Nolan. Think Kubrick. Think Hitchcock.
All of their movies involve imagery as a means of communicating. They don’t rely on dialogue, or voiceovers, to explain what’s happening. They trust that the viewer can fill (enough of) the blanks to enjoy the story that is being shown to them, and because they trust us, they know they can show us things without having them explained. They let us interpret the worlds they have created and allow us to layer our own experience and knowledge and filters atop them.
Those are the movies that I return to, each viewing revealing more and more nuances as I discover more about the world in which the movie is set, just as I learn more about mine. And more and more I find myself looking for movies that will deliver that kind of viewing experience, rather than a couple of hours of mindless entertainment.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for the distraction a well executed blockbuster can bring, but more and more I find myself seeking out movies that are a little smarter and that focus a lot more on beauty in all it’s weird and wonderful forms.
Bonus link – a big part of creating a movie like Arrival is in the sound, check out this podcast on Song Exploder http://songexploder.net/arrival
“In the film Arrival, Amy Adams plays a linguist trying to decode an alien language. The score was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, his third film collaborating with director Denis Villeneuve. In this episode, Johann breaks down a piece from the score called “Heptapod B,” and how, like the film, it revolves around the concept of language.”