As I write, I’m doing my usual ‘pause for reflection’ following the recent completion of a critical essay for my course. To the untrained eye, these reflective moments could be interpreted as my having breathed a huge sigh of relief, and subsequently doing very little with my time. I would say that this is half right. As a man careering towards 50 years old, I’ve found returning to study rather challenging. Prolonged concentration needed for study, difficulties with retaining what I’ve read etc, frustrate me. However, my passion for all things photography and the problem-solving part of my mind work together to overcome this by practical demonstration. The problem with this recent assignment was that it was pure research, analysis, and concise writing; that last one being something that readers of this blog might not recognise. I don’t often write essays, and the prospect always transports me back to being at school, where I freely admit to doing the minimum to get by. Having finished this essay about how visual elements affect the assignment of genre to photographs, I was now looking forward to starting my Self-Directed Project or SDP; a single large photographic work to take me up the end of the unit. The project brief is completely open-ended, with the only requirement being to demonstrate an understanding of the course material thus far. In my moment of reflection, I started to think about storytelling, specifically within the visual arts. I was reminded of a throwaway remark made by Martin Scorsese during a press junket for his film The Irishman in 2019. He was asked what he thought about the recent crop of Marvel Comics blockbusters that were proving incredibly successful at the box office.
“Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes” (Scorsese M, 2019)
This quotation was a clarification that he wrote after the predictable explosion that resulted in his criticism of those films and, in fact, most other films being made for modern consumption. I’m not going to discuss whether I think he was right in his comments, although I do greatly admire his work. He went on to make other points about the future of cinema in the interview, which isn’t the point of this post either. Instead, let’s consider the art of storytelling. By its definition, the telling of a story is to convey some form of narrative, generally about people, their environment and the events they are involved in. For generations, stories have been told verbally and in writing. However, visual representations of stories have also been present in paintings for centuries. These different media have something in common when they are done well; they all demand the viewer or reader to bring their own ideas and experiences to the interpretation of the story. Our imaginations help us picture the characters, appreciate their emotions, and feel the joy or horror of their situation. If we look at Hieronymus Bosch’s famous The Garden of Earthly Delights (c1510), we are presented with three representations; of destruction of innocence, the subsequent short-term pleasures of man, and their dire consequences in the afterlife. The story is presented all at once, but in triptych, with each panel introducing a sense of time passing. The painter invites us to recognise ourselves and our future, linked to the religious iconography relating to damnation, that was a crucial part of many people’s lives during that era. These visual elements that we read when we look at a picture, were explained by the structuralist philosophers of the 1960s with the application of semiotics, taken from the historical study of linguistics. That’s a whole other post, though.
When it comes to movies, there is a more significant challenge in presenting the visual elements. The action plays out before us in real time, which means that we don’t have the same opportunity to read the elements as we would in a painting or a photograph. A combination of a strong screenplay to define the story and clever direction, helps take the viewer through the story with just enough room to interpret what is going on, but without signposting the ‘meaning’. This is where I understand and agree with Scorsese’s comments. As I see it, the problem with the general superhero film genre, is that they are based on hugely complex comic books that weave a story from frame to frame, and let the reader take it all in. As the resulting film must be a constrained to a couple of hours in length, the screenplays have to compress the material to the extent that they become formulaic; there’s a lead-in backstory, character development, a desperate situation that needs a hero, a large fight scene and a conclusion where some closure is achieved. It’s not that the action isn’t exciting or the character development in anyway poor, it’s just that the frenetic pace and leading of the viewer through the story, leave little chance for the mystery, emotion and risk that Scorsese talks about. We are not given the space to ask questions about the characters, because everything is put in front of us. I believe this is one of the reasons that many comic book fans are not so keen on the cinematic representations, with some citing a lack of understanding of the characters. This is of course subjective and created from their personal interpretation of the visual context in the printed version. Everyone will see what they want to see. That imagination is bypassed when the film presents the same characters or storyline.
A great example of building emotional tension can be found in Scorsese’s own Goodfellas (1990), where a single long shot presents the viewer with a sense lead character Henry Hill.
The camera follows Hill, played by Ray Liotta, and his girlfriend walking through the back entrance and kitchen to the Copacabana club.
The route takes them through areas where people are busy working, with Hill choosing to interact with some and ‘tip money’ passing between them. Those who deal with him show respect, where those who don’t, defer and stay clear. Nobody really notices his companion. Once inside the club, where the powerful mob figures are, they jump the queue for a table, to the frustration of the other diners, and only when seated is the line delivered that concludes the scene. “What do you do?”, asks the girl. What makes the scene, apart from the single roving shot, is that all the details that hint at Hill’s power are there and we have time to notice them as the shot builds. In one relatively short piece of film, we see the progress he has made since the beginning, where he starts out in the mob. What it doesn’t do is dwell on that detail, nor does it signpost the way to the next scene. We have a sense of recognition of the gangland genre, questions about the characters and an anxiety about what all that power might lead. I think this is what is missing from the superhero films.
The same principles of careful construction of a scene are used by artists like Gregory Crewdson and Jeff Wall to tell their stories, only with the same time to linger as in classical painting. They include enough visual references and symbolism for the viewer to draw some conclusion as to the meaning of the image. It will not be the same as the next viewer, but the skill in granting both freedoms to interpret and constraint in keeping to the artist’s general intention, sets these mise-en-scéne images apart from the other genres. My first attempt at this approach resulted in the picture below, which garnered a variety of different interpretations around the common theme of quiet reflection.
Sanctum (2020), by Richard Fletcher
I found it the reaction of my viewers to be hugely rewarding as it was clear that the image resonated with elements of their own lives. When it comes to my SDP, I intend to incorporate these kinds of pictures to create a backdrop for the main subject; to let viewer read the story’s context rather than have it read to them. Wish me luck!
Scorsese, M. (2019) 'Opinion | Martin Scorsese: I Said Marvel Movies Aren’t Cinema. Let Me Explain.' In: The New York Times 05/11/2019 At: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/04/opinion/martin-scorsese-marvel.html(Accessed 19/10/2022).
The Long Take: Goodfellas (2009) At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OJEEVtqXdK8 (Accessed 26/10/2022).