Monday, October 6, 2014


[I also released an update today. You can find it here.]

An intentionally cheesy movie.
Considering the sheer, massive number of films that have been made, and the resultant difficulty in being noticed and appreciated for your hard work, my father is exactly the kind of audience an aspiring, small scale filmmaker wants because he will bravely wade step by step through the mire, looking for the gems.

Not only does he watch the kind of things you would only find on Netflix Watch Instantly or in a bargain bin, he watches them impartially, and even defends them against the kind of knee jerk criticism that, for instance, I tend to level at them.

This has caused a great struggle within me because, on the one hand, I feel very strongly the presence of what you might call “cheese” and what would be called “bad acting”. And yet, on the other hand, my father’s fair minded, honest questioning of my reactions has caused me to recognize that these reactions are mysterious to me. If he just rolled his eyes with me and laughed mockingly at the “wooden acting” and the “plot holes,” I would go blissfully on my cynical way, wrinkling my nose at the product of months or years of human effort. Instead, I have to pause, reflect, and come to know myself and the nature of art better. Man, what a pain.

So, what exactly is it that we call “bad acting,” and “bad CG?” What is “cringe worthy” (besides that phrase itself)? Can we pin down any quality present in a work rather than in us that these words and phrases describe?

As I’ve said before, there is a difference between plot and presentation, between the story and the telling. Now it seems that, if we’re going to find the origin and nature of cheese in art (specifically movies), we’ve got to look at the presentation. There are plenty of movies with plot holes and inconsistencies which would not be accused of being cheesy.[1] Many a popular movie goes down real smooth (contrivances, cliches, gaping holes and all) because of “high production value,” and “good acting”. Such a movie, it seems, will often receive a pass (at least from many) where another movie, less “well made”, would be torn to shreds.

So then, what do we have to say about presentation?

Imagine that I had an idea, the very germ of a story, and that I told you about it in the simplest terms possible. Now, say this idea strikes some chord within you. It possesses your mind and imagination. I’ve planted this thought, Inception-like, in your head and it grows and grows until you’ve got a whole beginning, middle, and end worked out. Say that, in the end, you play out a whole drama in your mind that blossomed from the seed I planted, although it was nurtured by you.

A HORRIBLY cheesy movie, apparently
unintentionally so.
We know this is possible because, well, people have ideas for stories and then write those stories down. The only difference in the example is that I gave you the idea. But, if I do that, am I telling you a story? No, I told you an idea for a story. This is the bare minimum of presentation and, in such a case, you tell the story, not me.

Now, attempt to imagine the exact opposite. Imagine a film that not only showed you what to see, but made you feel, deduce, and otherwise think everything in and about the story. If you think this is a crazy idea, I invite you to think about the nature of music in modern cinema: the swelling violins at moments of exultation or pathos, the screeching and discordant notes during creepy moments, etc. Once, while riding in a car, just looking out the window at the scenery, I remember being struck suddenly by the thought that, although it was a perfectly normal afternoon (an older woman was raking leaves in her front yard) it could have been a scene from a horror movie; all that was lacking was the creepy music.

Now, think about those scenes (or conversations or speeches) that exist mainly to make connections between things you've seen in the movie, or to explain things that happened. Think about the way shots are framed to emphasis different people, things, actions, etc.

If you think about it, I don't think you'll find it hard to imagine a sort of hypothetical perfection of all these techniques – a movie that simply takes hold of your mind completely and fills it as it sees fit.

Now, clearly, not all movies use (or even attempt to use) all the techniques available for directing the thoughts, emotions, and imaginations of the audience. Some movies are made to be thought about and unraveled. But, clearly the art of movie-making has focused considerable effort on this kind of mental direction. I mean, think of some of the words used to describe “good” movies: gripping, compelling, riveting, “a wild ride”. These are terms for grabbing, controlling, and holding in place.
A bad movie, that wasn't cheesy.

So what?

Well, we've got the whole spectrum of presentation. All the way from no presentation whatsoever to everything presented to you: sights, thoughts, feelings, etc. Most movies fall somewhere in between (of course). The question we're asking here is, what is and where in this spectrum does cheesiness rear its head?

Here's my suggestion.

Any kind of fiction is a collaborative effort between the author[2] and the audience because, ultimately, it is in the imagination of the audience that the characters and events of the story exist and take place. The audience members must provide their imaginations as the canvas on which the story is told. That is what all the techniques of story-telling (written, visual, and the rest) are for. It is why they are rightly called mediums. They are what goes between the imaginations that concoct the stories and the ones that play them out.

So, I say that a person calls a movie cheesy, or calls the acting or CG “bad” when the movie's presentation either hinders their attempt to imagine the events and characters in some way, or fails to provide the aids the audience is expecting.

This would explain why these criticisms are difficult to pin down, and why you will almost always find people (even if only a few) on the other side saying the movie is good (or at least decent). Because, while there may indeed be (and I feel confident there are) things that are essentially poor presentation[3], there are also things particular to the experience, habit, and state of mind of any given person that will make harmony between their imagination and a movie difficult or impossible. I think this is pretty evident: I'd bet (a little) money that many of y'all can think of a movie that you enjoyed specifically because you decided to relax and give its foibles a break, or that you've seen people attempting to find fault who find it in some pretty hair-fine cracks.

A good movie.
So, does this mean that criticizing the presentation (as I'm calling it) of a movie is useless, or all a matter of taste? No, certainly not. What I think it means is that these kinds of criticisms are actually a great opportunity to explore our own and each other’s assumptions, expectations, and experiences. Is that acting really bad, or have you just never met someone who acts like that? How would you act in the same situation? Are the shadows wrong on that CG wolf-monster? How do shadows fall on objects in that kind of light? Does it matter? Perhaps appearing to exist outside the scene like that highlights its otherworldly nature, or maybe it just looks like crap.

I mean, hey, this kind of thing is what art is for, dang it! And, who knows, you might bring a little warmth to even the most cynical of cash-grabbing c-list movie makers’ hearts if he were to learn that his Pirates of the Caribbean knock-off helped you understand yourself or art better.

[1] Although he has his faults, the guy over at the CinemaSins YouTube channel does a pretty good job of showing this.

[2] And, depending on the medium, editors, directors, actors, cinematographers, CG artists, costume designers, set designers, carpenters, electricians, best boys, gaffers, sound engineers, and so on, and on, and on.

[3] Perhaps an actor is not portraying a character that would – plausibly – exist, or a computer-generated creature appears to be floating on top of the film, rather than existing in the scene. Although even these examples could be disputed in any given case.

© 2014 John Hiner III

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