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Debate – The Style Vs Substance Debate


Posted April 6, 2011 by

The Style Vs Substance Debate

During the development of film history, a previously limited debate has become more important in the cinematic field – is the audience now more concerned with the style of film, rather than its substance?

There is a tendency to view the film industry purely as an entertainment commodity, and at its core, that is what it is: there to entertain. We like to sit in our front rooms, or in the cinema and be blown away by the gripping story, powerful sound, impressive effects and stunning performances – film is an escape from our own lives, no matter what age, sex or cultural background we have, – films relate to us all at some level. This escapism enables us to live in a world of pure fantasy, action, horror, adventure, or romance, for a brief period, purely because it is the film that mirrors our greatest desires, hopes and dreams – and for that short time, we become the people that we admire.

Herein lies the problem – why are films becoming more focused on style rather than what they should be portraying? Are we forgetting the purpose of a solid, believable narrative? The narrative drives the film, – if this is flawed, then the film will be – a simple point that up until recent years, with a few exceptions, was followed religiously. Films are now swaying more towards having very impressive special effects, actions sequences, visual effects and sound than a firm narrative foundation – ‘Clash Of The Titans’, ‘Spider-Man 3’, ‘SkyLine’, ‘2012’, ‘Battle: Los Angeles’ and of course ‘Avatar’ are examples of this.

The style over substance debate started as technology rapidly advanced. Films can now realistically depict a battle scene, a car chase, or an explosion, in a way that previously couldn’t be achieved. This element of realism can, of course be good for film, it makes it more believable on a different level, and therefore aids us in our entertainment and escapism – but it should never become the primary purpose for the films creation.

Now we also see the rapid growth of 3D, a technological improvement that is not actually new, – first making its appearance roughly eighty years ago. Since then it has systematically tried to take a permanent stance in the film industry, but thus far has failed. It remains to be seen whether 3D will catch on this time around, but it appears to have a much larger appeal than it ever has done. The re-introduction of 3D only heightens my worries, 3D makes a film visually beautiful, but most of the 3D films released so far have been narratively weak.

I, myself, do not claim to be exempt from the influential powers of these new technologies, if we take ‘Avatar’ as an example, I left the cinema feeling incredibly entertained, awe struck even, but after some consideration of its content I felt cheated. I knew that the narrative was not particularly thought provoking or unusual, but the sheer power of the effects combined with the 3D technology used almost affected by better judgment. Some would argue that this is not a bad thing, – that film narrative need not be treated with such importance, and simply be made to entertain in a manner that will make the biggest box office. With this, I strongly disagree.

As mentioned earlier, people of all ages, different sex’s and cultural backgrounds all relate to films on some level. Those who do not consider themselves to be big ‘movie fans’ could, and would probably, discuss with peers at length about how a particular film moved, repulsed, or scared them. Films have influencing effects on our lives. Examples of this can be listed in their hundreds; ‘The Exorcist’ released in 1973, had such a prolific effect on people that suicide cases where linked with it. ‘Star Wars’ generated such a following that some people are campaigning for the acceptance of ‘The Jedi’ as a real religion, and ‘Birth Of A Nation’ became a propaganda film used in American racist movements. Even recently when ‘Paranormal Activity’ was released, people all over the world viewed this film and subsequently researched the truth behind it. As a species we can be easily persuaded – dangerously so at times, and as a race we are gullible – therefore film can have a powerful effects on us – both positive and negative. Ask yourself if at any one time you have ever watched a film and felt motivated to do something the minute the credits hit the screen. Consequently I feel the Film Industry would be doing its audience a grave disservice to abuse the importance of this power.

Thus the style over substance debate is ongoing. It is clear that films are becoming increasingly stylistic, and in my opinion, more ‘dumbed down’. Focusing on impressive effects rather than a strong message, narrative and performance leads to a chance that there could be greater negative effect upon the audience. If we become used to consuming films that just mind-numbingly entertain us, we loose one of the key sources for helping us define societies morals – for the better.

However, it is vital that the balance is found. I am arguing that films are becoming far too focused on visually amazing us, than impressing us with a strong story. I think that the improvement in technology is an excellent thing, there is no doubt it makes films more entertaining and powerful, but why can a film not have both? The answer is, it can, and it should. Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’ is an example of this, it used incredible visual effects and maintained a very strong, some would say complicated narrative, that is thought provoking but also incredibly entertaining, and not just a collection of beautiful visuals.

Some critics said that ‘Avatar’ was the future of film. I sincerely hope not. Never sacrifice substance for style!



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