Watching a film that doesn’t quite work is like going for a walk with a pebble in your shoe. It’s like eating a delicious meal with an aching molar in the back of your mouth. Or trying to read a book with a teeny-tiny font.
You can blame the writing or the acting or that odd little comedic interlude that didn’t quite make sense, but for my money, it’s probably because it failed to succeed in any one or all of the following three criteria.
The three keys of a solid flick.
We talk about film as a visual medium but it’s much more than that. Try watching Gladiator with the sound muted and you’ll lose a vital ingredient of what makes that film so compelling — the score, the breaking bones, splitting skin, the vocal delivery of Maximus telling Commodus who he is and how he will have his vengeance in this life or the next.
Chills, every time.
Watch the film on pause and you’ll lose another vital ingredient. The passage of time. The beginning, the middle, and the end. The way one shot cuts to another. The transitions of scenery and emotion. You might pause it on a particularly lovely still (I’d recommend Russell Crowe’s dirty fingers bristling through fields of wheat) and it might look great, but by pressing pause you’ve gone and surgically removed a vital part of the whole.
Or let’s try taking out the story. Let’s watch two hours of brutal gladiatorial combat and forgo the vengeance angle and the story of Maximus’s betrayal. Let’s just have the fighting (see Spartacus: Blood & Sand).
Film isn’t just a visual medium. It’s an alchemy of artistry and when performed right, creates something that can only be described as CINEMA. Take away any one of these three core ingredients and you’ll taint the cocktail, ruin the brew, piss in the pool.
“But story is king!”
Give a fantastic script to a mediocre director and you’ll come away with a mediocre film. But give a mediocre script to a great director and they might add the right score and imagery to create the tone, they might find a way to measure out the cuts and the blocking of the actors, they might pace everything just right to deliver each beat of the story to create the rhythm, and then even with that mediocre script, they’ll deliver a great film.
I’d argue that Drive is a pretty bare-bones script. Not necessarily a bad script in any way. Just bare bones. Under The Skin for that example, too. But the filmmakers behind those projects knew just what to add to these stories to make them sing.
Recently, I saw a writer complaining that a box-office darling was getting a lot of praise and how it would have been ripped to shreds if someone were to translate it beat-for-beat back to script.
"It never would have made it into production," they say. "Noted to hell!"
That may be true, but that only goes to prove that the script isn’t everything. The film is obviously hitting other notes that has nothing to do with the quality of the script.
It’s only one part of the sandwich and you can’t just eat the bread and say that wasn’t a very good sandwich. There’s a reason a sandwich is arranged how it is.
“You want to get a little bit of everything with each and every mouthful,” as my mum would say.
That’s the magic of a sandwich…
Or you could specialise in one area. You might see a Pixar film and understand just how heavily they leaned into their Story. Edgar Wright movies have a Rhythm like no other. Guillermo Del Toro is a master of the classic fantasy/horror Tone.
Or… perhaps you just want to hit all three? Marvel movies, for example, are extremely watchable. They’re not changing the game in any one way, but they’re playing a good all-rounder.
Think of it as a song. You don’t string random notes together and have at it. You decide on the key of the song and from there you see what notes will work in that key. You also set your tempo to know how fast you should play and in the rhythms you want to play to. If you’re singing in a barbershop quartet, you whip out your little pitch pipe and blow.
If you want to make great cinema, you better get out your three pitch pipes and make damn sure you stay in key.
Take it away boys!