A commentary around and beyond Smokin' Aces
Maybe it is time for a newly developed genre to get a historical overhaul. Smokin’ Aces does not announce a major achievement in the overzealous action film, but it does announce that the genre is here to stay. A few years ago City of God was considered a breakthrough in tackling the action film. Then Tony Scott adapted that style to his filmmaking and his adrenaline filled movies have hit multiplexes everywhere. Now movies like Snatch and Go have became new classics for fans of those movies. Yes, this trend has turned into a genre. The movies are spunky, hip and over edited, but they are a consistent sight and more filmmakers are showing an openness to make them.
Not only are these movies very popular, but they are moving to change a basic identity in filmmaking. Smokin’ Aces (and others) is showing a disregard for general storytelling and relying more on the intricacies of editing. You could not describe the details by focusing on the structure of its screenplay. It is also likely that the screenplay is not even structured to show to the continuous change of tone, structure and camera point of view. The preparation to tell the story like came from elsewhere.
This all holds to dissatisfy critics who were brought up to respect the artistry of screenplays. A major focus in reviews deals with the story. Even though some people have always discredited the merits of an original screenplay because many screenplays were born during shooting, the screenplay has still been held up as the cradle to a successful film. The change is that more movies are beginning to take development in the editing room because of the nature of their dense shooting pattern. Cinematographers, editors and directors are becoming the true storytellers of film. It makes for the unlikely situation that many movies today are impossible to map out in a script.
The history of film was stacked against this evolution. Film was always regarded as an art, but it was also mainly regarded as an extension of literature and theater. When a “film critic” actually became a legitimitate job, many newspapers looked for people from a literary or theatrical background. James Agee first was a prominent writer and poet while Stanley Kauffmann was a theater actor, director and also a novelist. When the future novelist, Philip Roth, did film criticism in the 1950s, he mainly reviewed movies that were adaptations of famous novels. Though all of these writers expressed interest in the art that film could become, they were hired based on the assumption of what film was.
The transition came with what was identified as “cinematic”. They were many terms to the definition, but the slim version focused mainly on the effects that film could create that would distinguish it from other art forms. Many critics and theorists believed in this potential. They identified it as a way for film to develop into the visual art that it was meant to be. Film had little relationship to any art form, but if it did, it was mostly painting. Hitchcock embodied this philosophy by making movies that gauged themselves in developing effects and methods to storytelling. In a 1937 article for Sight and Sound, Hitchcock said that by filming a murder scene from the point of the view of the weapon instead of the character, you were able bring the audience into the scene. His point was to film a scene that went beyond recording the actions of actors from a distance.
This effect, and many others, came to define a cinematic language. When the 1960s came, so did the first major movement of art cinema. One of their major preoccupations was to play with the hallmarks of every other genre and mix them to break established rules. It was a revolution of filmmaking that most countries have since followed suit with Hollywood genres by making movies that copied theirs. But, by breaking the Hollywood infrastructure, they also created new norms of filmmaking techniques. It wasn’t long before any movie (inside and outside of Hollywood) was likely to inherent many themes and styles from different genres. It marked the end of the days when all commercial films adhered to a strict set of rules. The structure that Hollywood had created with genre vehicles being the norm gave way to movies going in all directions.
Hollywood broke the rules to a degree, but the major revolution in genre work came from outside the United States. Films like The Conformist and Weekend came to define the greater examples of genre breaking. During the late 60s and 70, the United States was focused on breaking the moral codes of sex and violence. Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch became the groundbreaking work of their time period. Whatever their merits, they were both ambitious films. When the idea became relevant that sex and violence sold, the turning point was that the graphic content could be exploited. Newly created genre films were being turned out in the 70s comfortably under the new R rating which prohibited children from seeing the films.
While these films were ever very good was not the question. The point is that a new generation was growing up on their influence. Movies began to develop a formula of intensifying the gratification moments all the time. Action movies began to have more explosions and much more sexual content. The similarity between this time period and the 1930s, when Hollywood was booming, is that the studios had an idea of how to repeat the same essential story to audiences in every movie and sell it. The difference is that movies began to utilize elements that had nothing to do with writing, such as violence and sex. The true model of storytelling that Hollywood began take came from the pornography business which began to draw in millions. The pressure Hollywood had to induce violence and sex into standard movies also destroyed the popularity of the Western genre. It, by definition, did not rely on a continuing evolution of story, but a distinctly old and mythical identity of America. It became too unbelievable to synchronize modern explosions with it.
When the 90s hit, so too did the second major revolution of American independent filmmaking. Filmmakers finally began to utilize the style popularized around the world in the 60s and revolt back with their own stamp of how it should be shown. The problem is that those films were models of a generation brought up on violent films. They were young, hip and filled with energy and Hollywood gave them the keys but only if they were going to make movies that sold – mainly violent films. Smokin’ Aces got its major link from Quentin Tarantino who bred his Pulp Fiction out of a super realistic version of genre gangster movie and stylized it by cloning the filmic references to be a light version of Godard’s filmmaking ideas. In the end both filmmakers had little in common and they even publicly trashed each other.
But, by the 1990s, Godard also had very little in common with most of popular filmmaking world. Film schools became popular by the 1970s and the art of film also became an academic. Scholarly work successfully made artistic translation of film to become almost an impossible science. Thus the divider between aspiring filmmaker and theoretician was complete. You had to pick one or the other. When art cinema was king in the 60s, many filmmakers were their own theorists. They wrote essays and articles that became books. The writings were meant to complement the larger thought and ideas of their films. It was an ambition that was truly forwarding the art of cinema.
The new generation of American filmmakers did not advance those ideas, but they did gloss them to fit the mold of the genre works they grew up to love. The beginning came with Quentin Tarantino and his heisting of the gangster genres and others. The play with style was naturally going to evolve to the action film and then evolve to a greater action film that encompasses every other feasible style and emotion outside of a musical. If this was done fifty years ago by a different filmmaker, it could have been an attempt at art. In Smokin’ Aces, the results are much different. The film has no ambition, but it is successful with adequately referencing numerous styles and forms of drama. The music and soundtrack change in each scene and the film is altered to the mood that is appropriate. The film is not based on a great conceptual framework. It is quite chaotic with the placing of each scene and how it displays emotions, but the purpose of the film is for action and to entertain. The consensus by everyone is that this type of movie not only has little relationship to Fellini and the sixties, but it also has little relationship to the American movement that began quite earnestly in the nineties. Many still hold up that movement with some esteem.
The truth is that there is more hot air surrounding many new filmmakers than actual good content. Some became great filmmakers to do work, including Fernando Meirelles of City of God fame who made a more sincere film in The Constant Gardener. Other filmmakers rested on the laurels of their independent credentials and stuck to making films that were simple reminders of days long past. Directors like The Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson have forged a distinct style, but actual films have showed little of any substance. They are mainly being applauded because their films are abundant with style. Critics and scholars, many of whom believe that visuals and style are supreme, welcome these filmmakers because they focus their films on the nuances that differentiate it from other arts.
The style only goes so far. Years ago, the Italian novelist Umberto Eco tackled the popular art films of the 60s by writing a piece that explained how to make your own Michelangelo Antonioni or Jean-Luc Godard film. He listed the details and components of each of their films and said that anyone could make their “Antonioni” or “Godard” film just by picking and choosing different styles and details they used in past films. The point of the piece was that these filmmakers were not interested in story, but critical realignment of different social and filmic norms. Eco was, in jest, trying to make light of their critical approach. His jest didn’t describe their films because as formulaic as Eco went to describe their films, his idea wasn’t able to grasp the deeper level of human interest and societal criticism that also was in place.
It seems though Umberto Eco’s idea would work well with the Coen Brothers or Wes Anderson. They are both filmmakers who utilize absurd filmic symbols but never for any greater point. Even when films like Dr. Strangelove and How I Won the War took insane routes to describe modern horrors, both the Coens and Anderson pride themselves in the lack of identity that their films have. That shouldn’t be a benchmark to set. While Smokin’ Aces does feel like a caricature to the work of these filmmakers, the film isn’t that far off from being an equivalent. Slight changes in storytelling to slow the action and a script that was ambiguous would have done the trick.
The truth at the end, while film was successful in creating a language separate to other arts, many theorists forgot that the problem with theory is always that it has nothing to do with reality. The problem is that many films are lost to the bug of stylization. Films need a context that makes reality a consideration. The best pieces of art in other forms do not lose sight of this necessary inclusion.