During Pride & Prejudice (2005), there is a dance scene when all of the dancers except Darcy and Elizabeth magically disappear and the star-crossed couple is left alone on the dance floor. I thought the scene was effective, but not especially significant. I was more interested in the characters’ wonderful dialogue.
But then I watched another movie, Anna Karenina (2012), by the same director, Joe Wright, and the same leading lady, Keira Knightley. This critically acclaimed movie was stuffed with a surfeit of similar magical, unrealistic scenes that I thought detracted from the story. The Wikipedia article on the movie noted that critics approved the production design while “criticizing the script and Wright’s apparent preference for style over substance.”
That was my first exposure to the concepts of production design and movie style. Doing some additional research on a Film Reference website, I learned production design falls on a spectrum between realism and stylization:
- As in every cinematic subdiscipline, designers begin with the script and make their contributions within the limits and opportunities the story provides. The options available to them move along a spectrum from realism to stylization. (In this context, “realism” should be understood as a particular style that seeks to convince viewers they are watching events unfold in the real world.) The approach a designer takes (strict realism, heavy stylization, or something in between) is often predetermined by the genre of film on which he or she is working.
- At the “realistic” end of the spectrum are stories such as war films, police dramas, and westerns. These genres derive much of their power from the illusion of occurring in the here and now. The violence and horror of the war film is most effective when viewers believe a soldier can be maimed or killed by the grenade dropped in the trench next to him, while the police drama convinces audiences that real criminals are being chased when both pursued and pursuer pound the pavement of real cities.
- Another, at the opposite extreme, creates thoroughly unrealistic, heavily stylized environments that make no attempt to convince viewers they are watching any real, lived-in or live world. These designs try instead to create an alternative environment with an internally consistent logic that lasts as long as the film’s duration. Films from genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and the musical are often heavily stylized.
Birdman (2014) is a heavily stylized movie, with Michael Keaton starring as a former Hollywood superhero who, while attempting a comeback with a Broadway play, seems to continually converse with his erstwhile character, Birdman.
Count me as someone who leans strongly toward the realistic movies instead of a movie that ingeniously creates an alternate environment. The Rotten Tomato critics loved Birdman at 97%, while the audience was less enthralled at 80%. The movie won this year’s Best Picture Oscar, as did its director, Alejandro González Iñárritu. I previously wrote about Iñárritu’s first movie (2001), Amores Perror (Love is a Bitch), and complained about its dark story. Upon further reflection, I should have also noted that the movie was heavily stylized.
The same can be said for Birdman – dark characters and heavily stylized. Not my cup of tea, but apparently what the Oscar people like. I give it only two stars out of four.
I think this subject is analogous to modern-art paintings. The critics believe it is more artistic to paint something that doesn’t look real. Reality is deep enough for me.