Simplicity

I recently uploaded a video which was produced extremely simply. From a technical standpoint, it was well within the means of anyone with a video camera. A collaborator on the project notified his friends at Facebook, and he says it has gotten more “likes” than any other he has published. I’m not exactly surprised because the video is definitely eye-catching.

That positive response to individual, artisanal work raises an issue any prospective filmmaker should consider. One of the consequences of narrative feature dominance is an equation in expectation between technical difficulty and quality. There is also a scarcely less damaging equivalence between virtuosity and talent. It is easy to understand how and why those expectations have evolved. After all, Hollywood and its counterparts invest a good deal of money in their product and are at pains to let the public know just what a great show their efforts will yield.

Both the publicists and the public assume that if a lot of money was spent, the results will be worth consideration. Money has to be spent to overcome the laws of physics that can get in the way of the simplest action, to pay for the skill that goes into making actors look their best, to deal with the “difficulties” of wayward talent, to compensate for the wrong weather or to adjust for countless other considerations that go toward producing the better-than-life, “there’s always a parking space in the movies” illusion.

It is therefore assumed that if a certain degree of complexity was not experienced in the efforts, the results cannot, should not be taken seriously. As a result, films are judged on the material facts of production at the expense of the more conceptual pre- and post-production phases. Ironically, if the viewer’s attention is explicitly drawn to production (by, say, a microphone dipping momentarily into the frame, or perhaps by an actor flubbing a line, or by a billion other possible flaws) then the results are taken even less seriously. In other words, effort is assumed to be most successful when it is hidden. It is expected to deliver, but not be noticed except as display.

While equating a film’s qualities with how much effort went into achieving them might once have been understandable, if not justified, the mass dissemination of production tools and the resulting pervasive cinematic sophistication should have eliminated technical gloss as a mark of quality. It should certainly have eliminated any valuing of virtuosity when the most jaw-dropping effects are often produced by machines. Instead, more money and effort are poured into ever slicker, tighter, more technologically complex productions for which those very qualities are the primary attraction and which are guaranteed to date as more powerful tools supplant those used in their creation.

Of course, any tool is only as powerful as the person using it. Filmmakers and audiences must internalize that lesson and embrace the virtues of simplicity.

I’m not holding my breath.

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