Violent like lightning, someone cries out for love… Do films need substance?

Having just finished the new season of Twin Peaks, I was caught again in a classic question about cinema: what is it about?  Being a narrative dork, my instinctive answer is that cinema is about storytelling.  Where once we sat around fires and sang each other heroic epics, or passed on ghost stories at the dinner table, now we watch movies or television.

I freely admit that I privilege narrative over other purposes of cinema, but the risk is that I miss other functions of cinema, like the artistry of composition.  Perhaps again revealing my biases and predilections, I am quite fine for a short film or digital media piece to contain absolutely no narrative, but just be beautiful, but that’s because short films and digital media isn’t real cinema.  Narrative is king.

Twin Peaks invites a challenge to that view.  The narrative takes a back seat to the aesthetic and ideas, challenging the audience to overcome its perceived need for closure, coherence, and completeness.  But, again, we are in the area of television (or, perhaps, episodic cinema).  Is the fascination with Twin Peaks more that it’s quirky in contrast with ‘real’ cinema/television?  It’s nice for a treat, but we really want the substantive stuff?

I tried to test this out by looking at two mainstream movies that prioritised aesthetic over substance… but I suspect I chose poorly.  What follows, gentle reader, is a blog post that wasn’t what I intended to write when I watched these two films.  What follows is the ravings of a man driven half insane by visions that no mortal man should ever see, visions strange and unnatural, visions of demons that haunt the minds of others deep in the void that exists behind their eyes whose incessant chants call to the Old Gods who, not dead, are long in sleep and whom we dare not wake lest they return to the world of men.

I watched The Neon Demon and Jem & the Holograms and I regret it so much.

The Neon Demon

At no point did I know what this movie wanted from me.  This film is beautiful — absolutely stunning.  Every single frame of it could be hung as a picture in your house.  But the artistry in the photography is in aid of absolutely nothing.  At times, it feels like there is a plot emerging — a story about a young woman who unleashes an evil version of herself to succeed in the fashion industry — but that story wafts in and out like as much water vapour before being dispersed entirely about three-quarters of the way through the film.

Some parts of the film are genius.  For the longest time, I wondered if any male characters would talk.  They were in the film, silently operating the cameras around the female characters who took centre stage.  But that aesthetic soon evaporated.  Then the men emerged from the film as a semi-silent group who maintained control over the female characters at the centre of the film.  But that idea went nowhere.  And soon it is just catfights and a weirdly, weirdly uncomfortable necrophilia scene.

Is this a bad film?  I don’t know what it was trying to achieve.  But does a film need to achieve anything?  Perhaps its purpose was simply and only to be aesthetically stunning.  So much of the film is inescapably captivating.  The film at one moment fills the viewer with genuine awe at the beauty of the image, then does the exact opposite with, say, the aforementioned necromancy scene which is expertly ugly.

If anything, this feels like a film for the film nerds… but why?  Because it doesn’t have a plot and focuses on the aesthetic?  Whichever way I try to think about this question, I think I’m going to end up imagining the average movie-goer as a person who wants conventional, conservative fare rather than something which provokes or inspires them.  Should film-makers make movies that reinforce this view?  Should film-makers make movies which ‘trick’ the average movie-goer into seeing films with provoke and inspire them?  If film-makers don’t make movies like The Neon Demon, do the expectations of movie-goers become a self-fulfilling prophecy?  We watch what we watch because there are simply no alternatives?

The fact that the visual aspect of the film is so carefully constructed — expertly, breathtakingly constructed — should make us wonder what’s going on with the other parts of the film.  The dynamics between the various characters don’t ever seem to develop depth, and the acting is fairly ordinary.  A lioness shows up at one point and is never mentioned again.

It is perhaps surprising that there is such a coherence in the aesthetic of the film.  The opening shot is the iconic image of the film:

This one shot has pretty much everything that you will see in the rest of the movie.  The unnatural shine of fantasy bodies next to the brutal, visceral aspects of real bodies.  The glittery makeup and glossy clothes conceals bodies which are frail and bleed.  As the film progresses, blood keeps standing in for a kind of authenticity that other characters crave — even to the point of drinking it and bathing in it.  The image also introduces the visual tropes of the film: the images that range from harsh lights right through to voids.  Scenes often seem like they are trying to push the limits of what can be shown on screen — not in terms of content but in terms of physical limitations of light.  It also isolates the subject of the scene, an idea that is repeated frequently.  Given an entire frame with which to work, we are often treated to shots which use only a portion of the screen to situate a character in white or black voids.

Jem & the Holograms, on the other hand…

Jem & the Holograms

This film took 10 years to make, or something.  I’m not sure what they were doing in those 10 years but I really, really wish they had done something else instead.  This is a mess of a film.

There are ten billion plots in this movie and it is impossible to know which is the plot that we’re supposed to be following.  Is it the story of a single mother who is going to lose her house if they don’t find the money to pay the bank?  Is it the story of a young woman whose sister wants her to become a world famous pop star?  Is it the story of that some young woman whose father dies in her childhood and she must try to understand that man through the medium of a puzzle hunt to repair a robot which was build by her now deceased father?  Is it the story of a band whose manager is just randomly evil?  Is it the story of a band whose manager has a son that has fallen in love with the lead singer of the band and sometimes sings along to songs that have been extemporaneously composed?  Who knows?  Who cares?  It’s a shit film.

Actually, there’s one plot that I was genuinely interested in and it occurs in the last thirty seconds of the film: when the band manager goes and finds an evil band to destroy Jem and the Holograms.

I would 100% watch a film about a rivalry between the Misfits and Jem & the Holograms.  That film would be nuts.

But the rest of the film is a trash fire.  It is very obvious that the film is trying to go for an aesthetic, but between first-person narration, handycam footage, YouTube clips, and just straight filming, it is never clear what that aesthetic is supposed to be.  Half the time, it’s not even clear when the film is set.  Until the YouTube videos popped up, I thought it was set in the ’90s.  It bounces across the visual spectrum in such a random way that it feels like it was directed by a bunch of work experience kids.

Something differentiates Neon Demon from Jem & the Holograms but it is hard to explicate precisely what that difference is.  Neither tells any kind of narrative.  Both are devoid of plot.  The acting in both films is woeful.  But something seems more deliberate about Neon Demon than in Jem.  It almost feels like Neon Demon was supposed to be bad.  Or, rather, perhaps it was a deliberate choice to think more about aesthetic than about the rest of the film.  There is nothing beautiful, clever, or inspired about the way Jem looks.  Even her makeup suggests that she’s got a terrifying and unnatural skin disease.

Jem was never the same after she lost half her face in that explosion at the ancient temple for human sacrifice

It’s a film about a fantasy band and the music sucks.  Everything about the composition sucks.  There’s nothing creative or interesting about the styling of the film.  It just sucks.

Perhaps the difference between the two films is that I would have forgiven the suckiness of Jem if the story were solid.  Even if this were just a paint-by-numbers, Save the Cat affair about a young girl who’s living an ordinary life until she’s thrust into fame and celebrity and dizzying lights, before crashing, betraying her friends, and then seeking their forgiveness, I would forgive the ugliness of the film.  A shitty film for a night when you feel like watching a shitty film.  But if the story were solid in Neon Demon, that would have been a film that everybody would rave about.

And then I’m back to privileging narrative again.  It’s such an easy trap.  I will forgive an ugly film if it’s got a good story; but a beautiful film becomes a masterpiece if the story is competent.  I wonder why a solid story is sufficient.  I can make an ugly ass film on an iPhone with shadow puppets but the quality of the story will determine whether the film is loved or not.

In conclusion, watch Neon Demon if you’re interested in cinema.  Under no circumstances should any living soul watch Jem & the Holograms (but I really hope they make a sequel with the Misfits).

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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