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Style over substance

Just pondering the issue of style over substance in film making and media.

Is it like the inverse of function over form? In aircraft and boat design it's usually the best functioning designs that are also the best looking.

Substance can save the 'look' of an otherwise unremarkable film in terms of its visual construction, but can visual artistry alone save a film that is too shallow and banal to have substance?

  • My offerings to the discussion, although bleary this morning, are Amelie and Slumdog Millionaire. Both sensually fulfilling and great stories - love stories in fact, but with a twist. It can be done, but it certainly isn't universal!

    9 months ago
  • Not for me, John, not for me. I watch so many films that are superbly and even imaginatively crafted, whose stories, such as they are, leave me cold. Or worse, films that look like they've had gadzillions spent on anything other than a rewrite. I'm looking at you, Lucas.

    But it also happens at the budget end, and in shorts.

    The danger mostly arises when the writer, director and producer are the same person, so there's no-one to hold up a hand and say "Wait, this has to be better".

    For discussion: is it okay to admire a less-than perfect script if it achieves two of the following three: the dialogue is well written, the plot has no holes, and it has heart?

    9 months ago
    • Glyn, first, love the new photo.

      As to your discussion, no script is perfect, but there are so many unproduced scripts out there, we usually don't have to pick only two out of three. There's usually scripts that have all three.

      But, I'll have to disagree with you regarding the director and writer. Most of my favourite films (and similar arts) are by writer/directors or writer/actors, or by writers who had enough power to stop the director and producer from mucking it up. Chaplin, Stan Laurel, Shakespeare, Molière, Sophocles, Hergé...(sorry I don't have many living examples. You never know who the next scandal will be about.)

      Of course, there are talented people who can only do one. Goscinny and Uderzo. Gilbert and Sullivan who split lyrics and music. I struggle to find a great director who can't write, but I'm sure there is one.

      At the studio end, you might have multiple writers or directors in a film. But, unless you have Wizard of Oz or Lion King money, rewrites usually makes the script worse. In my opinion anyway.

      I think that at the low budget end, you need to have the same writer and director. The fewer people to deal with, the better. Just like if you don't have a mega-budget studio to create a band by audition and talent scouting, it's best to go with singer-songwriters.

      9 months ago
  • Style: if you're shooting school photos or a wedding video, then you have no control over the substance anyway. In an ad campaign, for a microshort of under a minute, the glamour alone is often what the client wants. Glamour can sell junk food, clothing, a fast car (I'm not sure about a bank, but they try.)

    If you have to sit through glamour for over seven minutes, you quickly get bored. So, even most adverts try to have something of a story in them. Maybe a cheesy joke, or a touchy feel-good story. (Remember that coffee advert asking everyone to sit down? My favourite were the Lucky Charms adverts, as a kid in North America.)

    I remember visiting the National Portrait Gallery as a teenager. Sure, these paintings were expertly crafted, but I was bored out of my mind.

    Ballet and opera never interested me, maybe because I can't get what they're saying.

    Music and Shakespeare to me show the importance of performance, of energy, over both style and substance. There are so many cover bands these days, but some of them, even though they get the notes right and look cool, are boring. The originals just had that energy, that charisma, even if you're "ugly" like the Stones (or most rap and metal artists) or "can't sing and dance" like Phil Collins.

    I hate the "Britain's Got Talent" or "Love Island" way of hiring by contest or celebrity status (I don't watch either of those shows, they sound dull to me). I prefer organic art.

    9 months ago
  • You ask... can visual artistry alone save a film that is too shallow and banal to have substance?

    Yes... but it's purely subjective and about expectations.

    The conversation above centre on the anglo-saxon narrative structure, but not all films are the three act structure with a protagonist at the centre of the story... Cinema is much more... I tend to be happier with the orthodoxy of the three acts, but I know through discussions with cinephile friends of mine there is more out there. I could never begin to write it that's for sure... e.g. Bruno Damont or Terence Malick operate very differently in terms of how they use visual images to engage the audience. Versus say Jerry Bruckheimer production.

    One persons vapid style, is another person's meditative submersion into the filmmakers way of seeing.

    I love Only God Forgives and recommended it highly to my dad and brother. They both thought it was boring. None of us are wrong.

    9 months ago
  • Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If it gives pleasure to an audience and it sells and pays for itself it must be valid in some sense. My own prejudices are subjective but I'm always astonished at how well, what seems to me to be so weak in substance, sells.

    Must be a generation thing.

    9 months ago
  • Well, my example of ballet stands there. Sometimes things mean more to some people than others.

    The portrait gallery might be more interesting to me now, that I know a little more history. But, I always preferred paintings that had a sense of movement.

    Still, even if it's something I don't normally like, sometimes, when people really put their heart into something, it's interesting. Amateurs can sometimes make more interesting productions than seasoned professionals.

    8 months ago