VOIR OU NE PAS VOIR,
What is one to make of Voir, the new Netflix series on what was called “film appreciation” and subsequently “film studies” but should now perhaps be re-branded “media aesthetics.” ?
Serious discourse on film and television has taken a battering of late. Not in its quality, since the level has never been higher, not even in the golden days of Cahiers du Cinéma. The deficiency is in the audience. Those choristers to whom film aestheticians customarily preach are all tucked up warm in front of the TV. That just leaves the vicar, and he’s probably asleep.
With film journals largely moribund and publishing on film having retreated almost entirely to the academic press, the best discussion is on line, where Tony Zhou and Taylor Ramos, with their late lamented site Every Frame a Painting, cut a benchmark . Closely argued and illustrated with creatively chosen film extracts, their essays, generally in less than ten minutes, addressed with imagination, insight and wit such topics as Akira Kurosawa’s use of weather, the visual and, particularly, musical bankruptcy of the Marvel franchise, and Steven Spielberg’s mastery of those omnium gatherum shots known as “oners”.
David Fincher was a favourite of the duo – check, for example, the admirably concise analysis of his style in And the Other Way is Wrong- so it’s perhaps no wonder that Fincher has godfathered the entry of the series into the mainstream.
Netflix enjoyed mixed success with previous exercises in the form. The Movies That Made Us offered facetious behind-the-scenes accounts of making such hits as Home Alone, Ghostbusters and Dirty Dancing, whileAttack of the Hollywood Clichés, fronted by an insultingly off-hand Rob Lowe, managed to qualify for inclusion among the shopworn tropes it purported to scorn. More adventurously, Life After Porn invited former stars of adult films to reflect on their careers and the industrial and social changes that ended them. None of these shows displayed a love of movies. Rather, any amusement or revelation was at their expense.
Zhou and Ramos have widened the focus of Every Frame a Painting and lowered their sights. Of the six essays in the first series, two cater to a largely cine-illiterate audience by addressing general questions of perception, one on how animators create a character, the other on the fundamental differences in how we view film and television.
The remaining four concentrate on individual films - Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs., Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Park Chan-wook’s Lady Vengeance and David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia – but all from the standpoint of sociology. 48 Hrs. is presented as a pioneer attack on racism, Lady Vengeance as a meditation on the morality of retribution, and the character of T.E. Lawrence as a paradigm of the “anti-hero”. Only Sasha Stone’s Summer of the Shark, the series’ curtain-raiser and – perhaps significantly, at 17 minutes, the shortest of the six – relaxes sufficiently to celebrate the innocence of 1975 and Jaws.
Voir benefits from a new industry policy on the use of clips. Largely due to the persistent activism of Kevin Brownlow and other film scholars, copyright authorities now accept that publishing’s so-called “fair dealing” provisions also cover cinema. Clips may be used without permission or payment, providing they illustrate a specific point and the film gives immediate screen credit to title and copyright holder. This rule, more honoured in the breach by YouTube users, who relegate such information to a final crawl, is enforced by Netflix, often with deleterious effects. A montage of scenes from different films, for example, demands a screen credit for each, unleashing a blizzard of text as unreadable as it is distracting.
While there’s little in Voir to surprise any graduate of Cinema 101, stimulation and even revelation sometimes reside in restating the obvious.
The Duality of Appeal invites animator Glen Keane (Beauty and the Beast) to eschew the curve-based shapes that render a character “appealing” and design one based on straight lines.
The anonymous female he creates mimics the shape of a wine bottle, long and straight from hip to feet; also straight but narrower and shorter from hips to hairdo. Interesting, even attractive, but appealing? No.
Yet there was something about her that looked familiar. It took a moment to realise that her leggy body and long, sceptical face replicated characters from scores of films. She was the imperious countess, the no-nonsense friend, business-like manager or omni-competent administrator played by Brigitte Helm, Eve Arden, Valerie Hobson, Charlotte Greenwood and a hundred other sisters of the straight line. Was their casting – perhaps all casting - less a matter of acting and more of anatomy, even... architecture? With its capacity to offer such insights, Voir may yet aspire to Savoir.