Does Hollywood have a soul?: experimentation and education in film

Raiders still

Steven Soderbergh has re-cut Steven Spielberg’s film Raiders of the Lost Ark and put it on his website, extension765.com, as a lesson in staging. His new version has stripped out the soundtrack completely – so no dialogue, sound effects or incidental music, just an electronic score.

On his website, Soderbergh says “I want you to watch this movie and think only about staging, how the shots are built and laid out, what the rules of movement are, what the cutting patterns are.” He’s using the experiment as a way to look at and learn about staging – how you can build a film that looks amazing and works in a way that is practically impossible to articulate no matter how many times you see it. Some people seem to get it instinctually without even trying (those people are probably some sort of demonic being with powers we don’t understand) and can create something beautiful that makes sense. It’s an art form.

Film and TV seems to have become more and more a tool for titillation – a mass convulsion in front of cinema and flat screens across the land as the next car explodes. What works, as in what sells, is dissected from the point of view of selling more, exciting more, and it ends in the same film being made over and over again with another number added to the end (or subtracted in prequel land – seriously, when did they invent the prequel? If it was that bloody interesting why didn’t they start there in the first place?)

It almost feels like we’re creeping towards a mass culture where that’s all we ever get in mainstream cinema; explosions, obvious plots, jokes so obvious that laughing at them might cause actual brain damage, and a romance where the two leads start off hating each (not advisable in real life situations; if all you have in common is a mutual loathing for each other it’s probably not actually the first ingredient in the recipe for a mature and successful relationship).

The first cinema was experimental; the medium came into existence and people started fiddling about with it just, you know, because they could. People wanted to find out what it could do; what they could make it do, where it could go. From those initial experiments we’ve got to a point where pretty much anything you can dream up can be recreated on the screen. We’ve gone much further in our collective imagination than we have in reality; on screen man has made it to the furthest reaches of the universe, seen the sun die, fallen in love with an operating system and battled zombies. In real life we’re not even that sure what lives on the bottom of the ocean, or whether there are dwarves living in the earth’s core.

For every 248 Adam Sandler movies (maybe it just seems like there are that many, it could just be one really tedious film that feels like it’s taken up a disproportionate percentage of my life) we still get a few films that cut through the mainstream, asking different questions, or the same one but in a new way. As long as people like Soderbergh, who has made some of the biggest box office hits to fart onto our screens, are still engaged in experimenting, learning and teaching then the idea that we’re going to slide into uncultured culture is pretty cynical, really.

We’re at a point in our cinematic and technological evolution that means our experimentation knows no bounds – what else is possible that we haven’t even imagined yet? What will future generations comes up with that we would never have believed possible thirty, twenty, even ten years ago. Sadly, we’ll probably be way too confused by it when it happens and denounce it as sorcery, but then that’s ok because we can shuffle into our nursing homes and play wi bowling and leave it to the young people to reconstruct the world from their view point.

You can watch the entire re-cut version of Raiders of the Lost Ark here.

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