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‘Excellence’, ‘popularity’, ‘typicality’ – discuss the relative merits of each of these as a basis for the inclusion of films in a film history

Any attempt to study film history requires the consideration of films, which occur within the categories of excellence, popularity and typicality. They are three very different approaches to film history; ‘excellence’ covering films recognised as having artistic merit, ‘popularity’ covering films which have been financially or sociologically successful and ‘typicality’, films which are classed as mainstream displaying qualities typical of classical Hollywood films. All three categories are used to study aspects of cinema rather than film history, rarely including documentary films and never including home movies, the most common use of the film medium worldwide.

The most common way of studying film history is ‘Excellency’, grouping together films, which are generally agreed to be of exceptional aesthetic quality. This study, based on artistic merit, relates film study to other art forms such as painting, theatre and music. It is encouraged by the vast amounts of materials regularly reviewing and rating films, including newspapers, magazines and television shows and specific awards for filmmaking, the most famous being Cannes film festival and the Oscars.

Any study of excellency in film history is subjective, relying on the personal opinions of people to determine which films are exceptional with no film regarded by all as undisputedly excellent. This is in part due to the vast range of criteria used to judge the excellency of films. Most good films are recognised as having formal excellence, with high quality direction vital in making an exceptional film. Throughout film history and criticism, certain directors have been regarded as consistently producing excellent films; Vigo, Renoir, Lean, Hitchcock, Kurosawa and Kubrick are among those whose individual influence on their films is particularly acclaimed. ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’(Stanley Kubrick, 1968) is recognised as a great film by virtue of its direction alone with acting and plot secondary to virtuoso direction and cinematography. The standard of acting in any film has to be high with films relying on convincing portrayal of its characters to involve the audience emotionally. Many actors are recognised to have starred in a large volume of high quality films for example James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Laurence Olivier, Greta Garbo, Robert De Niro and presently Kevin Spacey. Actors can elevate a film from mediocrity by their acting, or can just as easily spoil a film with a bad performance. A good script is also a vital element in the majority of excellent films, from Casablanca (M Kurtiz, 1942) to Shakespeare In Love(J Madden, 1999) and many potentially great films, such as The Birds (Hitchcock, 1963) are hindered by poor dialogue. Films, which have had a large influence on subsequent filmmaking, or have shown innovation in their production, are often recognised as excellent. ‘Psycho’(Hitchcock, 1960) invented a whole new genre of horror films; ‘The Asphalt Jungle’(Huston, 1950), was the first film to show a crime from the criminals viewpoint, an innovation which has since been used an immeasurable amount of times. While it is not necessary to have all these factors, most films regarded as excellent would have a mixture of high quality directing, acting and script with influence and/or innovation on subsequent films.

Excellency in film is most commonly measured by a poll conducted among film critics by ‘Sight And Sound’ magazine every decade since 1952, producing a canon of the best 10 films of all time. The films on the list are all excellent pieces of filmmaking with the regularly occurring films- ‘Citizen Kane’(Welles, 1941), ‘La Regle Du Jeu’(Renoir, 1939), ‘Battleship Potemkin’(Eisenstein,1925)- are all recognised as among the best ever made. Citizen Kane has been placed as the best film of all time since 1962, and is a brilliant piece of filmmaking. It is a technically superb film, well directed with innovative use of deep focus cinematography and unusual narrative structure. The direction, and acting from the cast is magnificent, as is the screenplay, though the characterisation is lacking in depth in places. It is impossible to judge it as the best film of all time as it is incomparable with almost any other film due to its unique subject matter and presentation, This subjectivity is the main flaw in ‘excellency’ as a basis for inclusion of films in a film history. By creating an elite canon of films to study it is rejecting many other films which many people may regard as infinitely superior. Citizen Kane has suffered adverse effects from being considered the best film of all time with many people disappointed upon viewing. The canon tends to ignore modern films, the most recent on the 1992 list being ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’(Kubrick, 1968). There are many modern films which can be regarded as of equivalent excellence to those on the canon: I feel that ‘Raging Bull’(Scorcese, 1980) and ‘La Haine’(M. Kassovitz, 1994) are as good as any film on the canon. Other films and filmmakers are not recognised until years after as being exceptional such as ‘L’Atalante’(Jean Vigo, 1934), and the films of the silent comedians Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. It is only when viewed in a historical context that the latter two were seen as having artistic value; they were perceived just as entertainment at the time.

‘Excellence’ is a more effective means of studying films and film history if used in conjunction with genres to produce outstanding films within that genre: ‘Mary Poppins’ (Stevenson, 1964) would never be voted as a classic film, but may be included on a list of the best family films ever. The film canon also tends to eschew science fiction, comedy, horror and children’s/family films in favour of more realistic, adult films. Any study based exclusively on the canon would immediately omit most films of these genres. With the exception of British, French, and some Japanese and Italian films, it also tends to exclude any world cinema, notably Bollywood films.

There are many advantages to studying films according to their ‘excellence’. Despite the problems of defining which films to study, any films studied are likely to be excellent examples of the art of filmmaking. As part of a film history it is a vital area of study, but it covers such a small amount of films as to be ineffectual without studying films thought to be of less aesthetic value and genres of film not usually included in lists of excellence.

Whereas film excellence values films according to their artistic worth, film popularity rates films according how successful they are financially. It is the gross of a film, its box office minus the total expenditure on the film, which is usually used to ascertain its popularity. The most popular films have many similar characteristics, in complete contrast to the typical traits of the film canon. The top ten films at the box office are all blockbusters- high-tech, effects driven films such as ‘Jurassic Park’(Spielberg, 1993) and ‘Independence Day’(Devlin & Emmerich, 1996). They are films of great spectacle, usually very expensive; the number one film for box office takings, ‘Titanic’(Cameron 1998), cost an estimated $280million to make. The common genres for blockbuster films are science fiction and action films, which provide the scenarios necessary for the use of new technology and effects. This is in total contrast to films judged on artistic excellence in the canon- only ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ conform to either of these genres. The director and stars of the films are secondary to the effects though in the case of ‘Titanic’ much of its box office was due to the lead male, Leonardo DiCaprio’s, popularity among the teenage female audience. The scripts are rarely highly involving or well written, tending to be based around notions of conflict between good and evil (heroes and villains), with good always emerging victorious.

All the most financially successful films are modern, having been filmed since ‘Star Wars’(Lucas, 1977), the original modern blockbuster. Publicity also plays a major role in creating popular films, with films like ‘Godzilla’(Devlin & Emmerich, 1998) and ‘Star Wars Episode 1:The Phantom Menace’(Lucas, 1999) having unprecedented pre-release hype for over a year before their release. To maximise their potential returns, these films need a family audience, so are usually marketed as family entertainment; as a result the family films of Disney and of Steven Spielberg dominate the top box office films. For a film to be successful with a 15+ certificate, it relies even more on hype and controversy over its content; the most successful have controversial violence and gore like ‘The Exorcist’(Friedkin, 1973) or sexual content for example ‘Basic Instinct’(Verhoeven, 1992).

Based only on the most profitable films, popularity is a very limited area of film to study as part of film history. In part this is due to the problems with the calculation of box office receipts, which is hugely biased towards modern films. It does not take into account inflation or the rise in ticket prices, so older films would have to have been seen by many times the number of people of modern films in order to have the same box office receipts. Newer films are shown on far more screens, with a bigger target audience as cinemas become more prevalent worldwide and the world population increases. When it was attempted to calculate box office according to number of screens shown, taking into account the change in ticket prices, ‘Gone With The Wind’(Fleming, 1939) is calculated to be easily the most successful film, taking equivalent to double its nearest rival, ‘Star Wars’. As it is, popularity is hugely biased towards modern films.

As it is commonly calculated, popularity does not take into account the huge market for film on video and television. Modern films make huge amounts of money from video sales and from television channels buying the rights to broadcast them; they also reach a whole new audience, giving the top blockbusters an initial period of release of 3-4 years from cinema release to terrestrial television screenings. It is also increasingly common for popular films to influence popular culture through merchandising tie-ins, such as toys, computer games, comics and television series. By far the most successful of these is Star Wars, which sold over $1000million worth of collectible toys between 1978-86.

Many of the common characteristics of popular films are the opposite to those of the films recognised for their artistic excellence. They are modern films that do not display formal excellence, with little insight or emotional depth. They do not rely on their script or on powerful performances from the actors and the direction does not have to be exceptional for the film to be a success. None of the most popular films are European or art house films whereas many of the films in the canon would have been limited release, art house films with little real box office success. Even the more mainstream films in the canon- ‘Citizen Kane’ and ”The Searchers’(Ford, 1956)- were only minor box office hits when they were first released.

The majority of films made are neither huge financial successes nor critical successes, so are not included under either popularity or excellence. These films, the common experience of classical or mainstream Hollywood film, are classed under typicality. Typicality is the most difficult of the three genres to define, as it covers a much broader range of film types. They tend to be dominated by narrative, compared to technical merit for films defined by excellence and spectacle for those characterised by popularity. This narrative follows a strict structure, beginning with equilibrium, being disrupted unexpectedly and overcoming this disturbance to find equilibrium again. The main variation between typical films is the cause of the disruption, which can be any number of events, from a murder in ‘The Scarlet Claw’(R. W.Neill, 1944), to a winning racehorse in ‘Broadway Bill’(Capra, 1934). They can result from any number of changes of surroundings, unexpected or supernatural events or arrival of a new love interest (all of these are used in ‘Wuthering Heights’(Wyler, 1939)) . The plot is very straight forward, following a linear chain of events where the lead character(s) have to overcome a number of obstacles and achieve a number of goals to achieve equilibrium with the finale of the film being the dramatic highpoint. In ‘Wuthering Heights’, the film ends with Heathcliff and Cathy, having faced obstacles to their love all their life, finding peace as ghosts wandering the moors together. It is these obstacles, or enigmas, which create the dramatic tension in the story and keep the audience interested until the resolution. They work on a linear time scale with no flashbacks, and have no narrator or voiceover. The direction is straight forward with the shot centring on the main characters, simple composition and mise-en-sc ne, and traditional editing techniques such as point of view shots and close-ups. All types of mainstream films are classed as typical films, from ‘Now Voyager’(Rapper, 1942) to ‘Lady and the Tramp’(Luske, 1955).

Studying typical films as part of film history includes far more films than either excellence or popularity. This can be seen as a positive or negative value; though it embodies a broader spectrum of film, it is inaccurate to distinguish between films to such a small extent. While films such as ‘Now Voyager’ are very much the typical Hollywood film, ‘Wuthering Heights’ has exceptional, Oscar winning cinematography and it seems limiting to class it as a typical film. ‘The Sixth Sense’(M. Night Shamaylan, 1999), is a narrative driven film with a plot and directorial style of a typical film, yet has an extraordinary twist at the end which elevates it above the typical. The film is not recognised for its differences, only how it conforms as an example of typical Hollywood cinema. The films that are now seen as examples of typical Hollywood cinema are the only ones that are still have available in print . They are a minute percentage of all films made, already selected to continue to be on release, so can already be perceived as popular cinema. Indeed, popular cinema can be seen as a division of typical filmmaking. Both conform to the same set of rules of narrative and filming technique; the popular are simply the more financially successful of the typical films.

All three categories are a misrepresentative way of studying film history when used only in the context of Hollywood and European cinema. Many documentaries are formally excellent, with a high level of emotional involvement and as such could be classed as excellent films. Yet with the exception of some sporting documentaries, such as ‘Hoop Dreams’(James, 1994) and ‘When We Were Kings’(Gast, 1996), they get no widespread cinema or video release and are not included within the category of excellent filmmaking.

The biggest omission from the popularity and typicality categories is that of Bollywood cinema. It is by far the most popular and prolific cinema in the world, producing over 1000 films every year compared to Hollywood, which produces 2-300 films. Bollywood cinema has its own, unique characteristics that require different classification to those used for Hollywood films. The films are based on tales from the Indian texts the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and centre on the role of the mother as the focal point for family life. They are founded around the masala principle, under which all films have the same themes, for example song & dance, violence, love and death. The stories are already familiar to the audience and there are frequent remakes of films. The most popular Bollywood film, ‘Mother India’( ,1950) is also the most spectacular film with the biggest song and dance routines. Despite being on a larger industry than Hollywood, Bollywood in ignored completely when studying typicality, popularity and excellence as ways of defining film history.

For a study of film history to be comprehensive it must include films of excellence, popularity and typicality, but it must be aware of the limitations that placing films in these categories. Studying films of excellence is useful as a guide to the most accomplished films, outstanding in many parts including acting, directing, emotional involvement, influence and innovation. However, it is impossible to agree on any film or selection of films as unequivocally the best ever and any such lists are always subjective. The popularity of a film as determined by its box office is an approximate way of analysing the most financially successful films, but it would need to take into account historical changes in the cinema and the huge commercial changes in the film industry to be a more accurate method. Studying typical films is a valuable way to analyse the common film experience and the language of narrative film. It can also be seen as very restrictive way of grouping together highly individual films, which have already shown their popularity by being kept in print. All three categories are only relevant to Hollywood and European cinema: to be more valuable in film history they would need to apply to all other elements of filmmaking.

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