Monday, December 19, 2011

A Groundbreaking Post on the Idea of Groundbreaking

I recently came across two upcoming movies, one big and one small, not that it matters, which claim to be groundbreaking.  Of course, neither explained how it was groundbreaking.  With the smaller one, I was even more skeptical.  Groundbreaking seems to be one of those overused adjectives that has no meaning anymore.  In my opinion, for a movie to be groundbreaking, or perhaps for anything to be groundbreaking, two criteria must be met.  It must do something original.  It has to cross some milestone that hasn't been done yet.  This will necessarily be an important milestone because the second criterion is that it must be copied a lot.  It must blaze a trail that others follow.  It would seem that a movie is usually groundbreaking for technical reasons and not for content.  There are numerous reasons that this is usually considered the case.  Groundbreaking is a classification that is and ought to be limited to very few movies.

A groundbreaking movie must set a new milestone.  Examples of this would include the first sound and the first color movie.  Those were real sea changes in cinema.  Compare the advent of sound with the last movie that called itself "groundbreaking."  It also must get copied a lot, if not have its characteristics become conventions.  Who cares for mere originality?  Of course, groundbreaking need not mean good.  Few people would give high praise for The Jazz Singer.  Nonetheless, it has gained its place in film history because it was the first sound movie and no one can take that away from it.

Some Groundbreaking Movies

The Birth of a Nation
Director: D.W. Griffith     Year: 1915

The Birth of a Nation brought together nearly all the important techniques that had been used in short films up to its time and brought them to the most popular feature yet made.  Some of these include scenes shot from multiple inter-cutting angles, using the camera iris effect to circle in on the opening or closing of a scene, parallel editing of separate yet simultaneous scenes, full screen close-ups on character faces, lap dissolves (cross fades), as well as it created the classical Hollywood story mode in a feature.  This movie is highly controversial due to its racist view of history.

The Jazz Singer
Director: Alan Crosland     Year: 1927

Technically, The Jazz Singer is the first feature to have synchronized dialogue and singing.  What was the "beginning" of sound in film is perhaps a more complex question than The Jazz Singer's reputation would have us believe, although I personally feel that crossing the talking barrier was more important than sound effects just from a psychological standpoint.  A film about a Jewish man who wants to go into show business against the wishes of his conservative father which is mostly not considered spectacular, but that is beside the point.

Becky Sharp
Director: Rouben Mamoulian     Year: 1935

This is the first feature film to use the three-color technicolor colorization process.  It used a separate film strip for each of the primary colors, providing a wider color spectrum than earlier processes.  The movie itself was based on the novel Vanity Fair.  Becky Sharp is a conniving social climber of a woman.  The acting is overdone, the story is dull, and the remaining copy I saw was in bad shape.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
Director: William Cottrell     Year: 1937

Snow White is the first feature-length animated film.  The story is sparse in this tale of a beautiful princess who has to flee from her jealous, murderous, stepmother queen, but the animation is beautiful and the characterizations are fun.  It was referred to as "Disney's folly" while in production, but the ambition in making it proved worth it.  This film opened the door for many superior animated movies.

The Robe
Director: Henry Koster     Year: 1953

The Robe  was the first movie shot in CinemaScope, thus setting off the modern era of the widescreen, although apparently some widescreen movies were made decades earlier.  It is the story of the soldier who wins Christ's robe while casting lots after the crucifixion.  In my opinion, it's possibly the worst biblical epic I've seen and the heavy doses of corniness make it no surprise that it was nominated for five Oscars.  It does, however, make strong use of the widescreen medium with its wide shots which are hard to appreciate on a television.

Director: Steven Lisberger     Year: 1982

Tron is the first movie to use computer generated imagery (CGI).  The special effects are now extremely dated, yet they create a certain otherworldly feel that might be less achieved by "superior" effects.  The story of a man going inside a computer world to stop an out of control program feels contrived, random and nonsensical throughout the entire movie, though.  It feels like a series of meaningless and tiresome set pieces only broken up by dialogue that is corny or unintelligible.

Movies are often considered groundbreaking for technical reasons rather than for content.  There are a number of reasons for this.  Technical accomplishments can be more objectively pointed to.  Moving from black and white to color is more obvious than new story content.  Another reason is that content is too nuanced.  How much does a minor change in content equal groundbreaking?  Should the first film or first important film of every popular genre be considered groundbreaking.  Certainly not on the same level as film history's greatest technical milestones.  The examples of "change" could become pointlessly abundant (first movie where a boy named Oliver Twist sings).  Technical changes have broader applications than content changes.  Virtually all movies are now "talkies," regardless of content.  No milestone in content could possibly be more far-reaching.  The history of art is the history of technique.  The Renaissance was an important new era not because in some cases it returned to classical content, but because of the advancements it brought to form.  The average viewer may focus on content and many art forms are geared toward that in their own ways, but scholars looking to the evolution of art look to form.  In the case of early Christianity up until the beginning of the Renaissance, nearly all important Western art dealt with Christian themes.  How can we possibly differentiate things or follow trends in that millennium without looking at form.  Otherwise, it becomes one giant monolith of Christianity.

As has been noted, for a movie to be truly groundbreaking, it must be the start of a new trend, most often a technical innovation.  Any movie that does not fit these terms does not deserve the description of groundbreaking.

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