What is a Real Movie Anyway? Part 1

In 2010, while visiting the Cannes Film Festival, the late, great film critic Roger Ebert wrote a column for the Chicago Sun-Times. He was quite taken by the idea of the Campaign for Real Ale – an initiative to improve the quality of beer in England – and wondered if the concept could be applied to cinema.

by Sergeant Hauville

“We should start a Campaign for Real Movies. These also would not be carbonated by CGI or 3D. They would be carefully created by artists, from original recipes, i.e., screenplays. Each movie would be different. There would be no effort to force them into conformity with commercial formulas.”

The term “Real movie” crops up now and then, usually on the lips of actors or directors who are tired of the type of films they currently make and hope to move on to more award-friendly fare. But how do you define “real movies”? The best definition I can think of is “movies the way movies are supposed to be.” But what is this way?

I found myself rather ambivalent about Ebert’s definition above. Sure, I’m all for variety and not conforming to formula, but who’s to say that a proper movie can’t have CGI or 3D? Ebert’s definition smacked too much of his own personal preferences: for instance, he openly disdained 3D movies, so naturally he would claim that 3D disqualifies a movie from being a “real” one. It made me wonder if there was a more objective way to determine what a real movie is and what isn’t.

There would be no effort to force them into conformity with commercial formulas.

A good place to start is the script. A real movie NX_camera_movie_vintage_lowwould surely have a good script, and a good script requires strong narrative and strong characterization. So, logically, a real movie must have a good plot and good character development.

With that in mind, does Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation count as a real movie? This is a film with a premise – a platonic relationship between two Americans visiting Tokyo – but no actual plot. It is almost pure character, revolving around the relationship between Scarlett Johansson’s Charlotte and Bill Murray’s Bob, deliberately lacking in dramatic twits and shocking revelations.

Even Bob cheating on his absent wife is virtually a non-event. The movie’s dramatic highlight is Charlotte stubbing her toe – and that happens off-screen. Yet the absence of plot didn’t stop the film from becoming critically acclaimed.

On the other hand what about Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? This classic film is the polar opposite of Lost In Translation, being almost completely plot. Its protagonists are merely along for the ride, not really relating to one another, instead reacting to events as shaped by the alien monoliths.

“I started out with very little to say,” said actor KeirDullea of his performance as astronaut David Bowman, “and ended up with even less.” For all its 2.5 hour running time, 2001 contains roughly five minutes of character development – and that’s shared between an ape and a computer. Yet again, a seemingly “deficient” movie went on to become an all-time masterpiece.

And what about montage films like Baraka and Koyaaniqatsi? These films have neither plot nor characterization, just documentary footage arranged into a stream of consciousness rather than any kind of narrative. Does their non-story status disqualify them from “real film” status? The critics who gave them positive reviews don’t seem to agree.

A good place to start is the script.

If the nature of the story cannot help us determine which films are real films, then maybe we can try subject matter. A real film would surely strive to be art, and never lapse into bad taste, never resort to vulgar depictions of sex, violence and bodily functions.

By that logic, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles isn’t a real film, with its proud use of innuendo, horse-punching and mighty bean-farts, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian would also struggle to qualify, and anything by John Waters can just forget about it.

Turning to more serious fare, the gratuitous deviance of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Sal? (or the 120 Days of Sodom) or the aggression of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Raging Bull would also be grounds for disqualification, yet many viewers insist that these films rank among the highest of cinematic art.

Maybe we should think semantically and assume that “real movie” implies realism – realistic characters, realistic environments, and realistic situations. Right off the bat, this would mean that any film set in Middle-Earth, the Land of Oz, or a galaxy far, far away doesn’t qualify, no matter how good they are.

But it also overlooks the fact that the concept of the fantasy story is much broader than people think, that it means far more than the usual ideas of other worlds, magic powers or fire-breathing dragons.

For instance, It’s a Wonderful Life, with its angelic visitor and altered timeline, is a fantasy film. Being John Malkovich, with its head-invading mystery portal, is a fantasy film. Many of Woody Allen’s films have fantastical elements: the Greek chorus in Mighty Aphrodite, time travel in Midnight in Paris, even the metaphysics in Annie Hall. And woe betide anyone who claims that Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (playing chess with Death?!) isn’t a real movie.

The concept of the fantasy story is much broader than people think.

Of course, it can be noted that the films just mentioned don’t rely on visual effects, and visual effects have long been used to deny “real” status to certain types of movie (an attitude that has increased significantly since the advent of CGI). Curiously, this is not applied to movies that are 100% visual effect, i.e. computer animated, so I guess that Pixar’s lilost_in_translationving toys, talking fish and blue-collar monsters are real enough for most people.

However, elaborate visual effects as a justification to deny real moviehood means avoiding awkward questions like “does that meant Ang Lee should give back his Best Director Oscar?” After all, he won it for Life of Pi, in which he surrounded his protagonist with a digital ocean and paired him with a digital tiger.

Same goes for James Cameron recreating the Titanic or Robert Zemeckis turning actor Gary Sinise into a double amputee in Forrest Gump. And don’t forget about Natalie Portman growing feathers in Black Swan or Armie Hammer playing both the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. Somehow visual effects stop being an issue when they’re used for something other than an action movie.

Action movies! Surely they’re not real movies? After all, action films are often help up as the ultimate examples of style over substance, favoring visceral viewing experience over content. Unfortunately for the haters, this argument overlooks one of the fundamental truths about cinema: that most people go to the movies for the experience, not the content.

They go for the thrills and spills, the rollercoaster ride, or occasionally for a good laugh. What’s more, it’s always been this way, ever since the Lumiere brothers frightened audiences with their footage of a train rushingtowards the camera. This is also a major reason why studio blockbusters consistently out-gross independent dramas and Oscar bait.

Besides, it feels strange to deny real filmhood to Die Hard. Or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or The Dark Knight. Or Goldfinger. Or The French Connection. Or The Bourne Identity. Or Iron Man. Or The Terminator. Or Skyfall. Or Predator. Or Spider-Man 2. Or Lethal Weapon. Or the first Pirates of the Caribbean. Or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Or The Avengers. Or…

Part 2 Continues on Friday.

-Sergeant Hauville


02Sergeant Hauville is a writer and aspiring filmmaker from Wollongong.

He is not affiliated with the military or police, but he occasionally does volunteer work for Christian charities despite not believing in God.

Photo Credits: Graphic Stock

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