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One Australian man, giving his unrequested opinion on the movies and TV of today.

In 1982 there was a BBC sketch comedy series called Not The Nine O'Clock News that starred Rowan Atkinson, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. In their forth series the opening episode contained a song parody of what was, at the time, the current attitude towards music videos. It was called Nice Video, Shame About The Song.

The idea of the song is fairly basic, at the time more money was spent on amazing looking video clips than on making sure the song actually worked on its own. It also became a bit of a catch phrase, a shorthand way of describing a piece of media that relies too much on visuals and forgets the other elements of visual storytelling. Let's explore a few examples of films where it really was a nice video, shame about the song.

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

It's so weird star gazing when you're among the stars (Source: EuropaCorp)
It's so weird star gazing when you're among the stars (Source: EuropaCorp)

The recently released Valerian (Which I may have reviewed on my personal blog) is a film that's defined by its visuals. The bright CGI world shown is one of the most gorgeous of its kind. However, the problem is that the film relies heavily on exposition in order to get story points across, including some story points that we've already been told about visually thus making the exposition completely pointless.

The opening scene of the movie shows us an alien world under attack, and that's all we need to know about it. It shows people who survive, people who don't, why they ran away or why they couldn't. It then leads to the inciting act that leads to the major conflict that will carry the movie. That scene is later repeated during the climax of the movie, except this time we have a major character describing what we're seeing. This is breaking possibly the most basic rule of the visual medium... "Show, don't tell". This movie forget's that and, while the stuff it's showing is spectacular to behold, it also has to tell us everything which instnatly makes it very mundane and boring.

I'd really like to add an addendum to the idea of "Show, don't tell". That addendum? "Don't show absolutely goddamn everything all the time". One of the big reveals in the film is the actions of a certain character, what part they had in the events of the opening scene we talked with the destroyed planet. It's heavily implied that this character gave the order in one shot where we see them from behind and that's enough, or it should be. Minutes later we get that shot repeated followed by a whip pan to reveal who it is, which is also underscored by more pointless exposition telling us what he's doing.

If they had just showed the shot of the main character from behind and let us piece it together (Which is insanely easy to do when the scene is viewed in context) then it would work better. It's when a character is pointedly explaining every bit of their motivation, while we're also seeing the events that fueled that motivation, that the art of the visual medium isn't being used to its full potential. If a character needs to explicitly tell me what's going on, you've done something wrong. In fact, in general it's not a good idea to spell out what you're doing to the audience... if you spell out the tropes you're using, here's where that ends up.

Avatar

The Na'vi are judging you (Source: Lightstorm Entertainment)
The Na'vi are judging you (Source: Lightstorm Entertainment)

While Avatar is one of the most visually gorgeous films of the 2000's, can we all just admit that its story isn't good? Its story is basically Pocahantas, with the white heroic American going to a new world and running into the natives. Throw in a little bit of Ferngully (With the extreme environmental story line) and you have the plot for Avatar. The problem is that once you have this basic plot, that's it. There's nothing else, they don't even have time to hide the cliches which is essential to storytelling. You have to make sure you don't do something stupid like point out the cliche you are using.

"Unobtanium" is a highly valuable mineral that's found on the moon of Pandora in the Avatar series. It's also a device in writing, a shorthand term for a rare material. It's a placeholder name that is almost meant to be mocking of the trope, not what you actually call the item in the final product. Avatar ignored this very basic rule of not pointing out the trope you're using. To explain just how silly this is, it'd be like if Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone was called Harry Potter and the MacGuffin. There is nothing wrong, in theory, with using these tropes. Tropes exist for a reason, they're a cinematic shorthand that can help push stories forward effectively when used properly. The magic trick with them? Don't point out that you're using them. Avatar screams its trope by calling the magic mineral 'Unobtanium'.

On top of the bad lamp shading of the trope, can we just go back to the part about the story not being that good? It's an amalgamation of several movies, not just the ones I named earlier. Other obvious references are Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai or even Atlantis. All of them have had elements taken to create this movie. Now, there's nothing wrong, in theory, with references. However, when you are making a film with the visual originality that Avatar has then by god, everything else should match it. You can't just rely on the visuals to sell your picture, you have to back it up with a good story. After all, this is visual STORYTELLING. Think about it for a second, do you remember a single line of dialogue from Avatar? Do you remember a single decision that Joel Scaldy made? No, you don't because Joel Scaldy wasn't the main characters name, but I am certain that a large amount of you had to double check because you couldn't remember his name.

My key point is that the story needs to match the visuals, both in content and quality. Despite this problem with storytelling, Avatar has multiple sequels planned, meaning that James Cameron didn't learn the lesson that the next movie shows us.

Hannibal

Gorgeous home you have (Source: Dino De Laurentiis Company)
Gorgeous home you have (Source: Dino De Laurentiis Company)

Visual glory doesn't have to come from CGI, sometimes it just comes from good old fashioned talented film making. Hannibal, despite its many flaws, is a visually gorgeous movie with incredible set design and a lush style that's absolutely wonderful to look at... however, there is one final rule of story telling that everyone involved forgot and it's perhaps the most important one.

Stories end.

This is me slipping off into the crowd after typing that line (Source: Demme Production)
This is me slipping off into the crowd after typing that line (Source: Demme Production)

The last shot of Silence of the Lambs is a perfect ending for the story, with Hannibal walking off to have an old friend (Chilton) for dinner. It's simple, it's effective and it isn't an ending that requires follow up. Ending on this would've been great for the series, instead we got Hannibal. The problem, of course, is that the story of Hannibal requires the creation of a backstory that was never brought up before. It creates unwanted tension because, realistically, no one want's to see Lecter get caught because we've grown to love the character AND it requires the story to keep going when no one wanted it too. Hannibal commits the biggest sin of them all, it's a story that didn't need to be told. Oh, before it's brought up, yes I'm aware that it's based on another novel in the series. It still isn't needed in the cinematic version of the Hannibal Lecter story.

It also doesn't help that characters are fundamentally changed, Clarice was changed to such an extent that Jodie Foster ended up dropping out of the project. When one of the leads is saying "You don't understand this character, I'm not doing it" that's the warning for a rewrite or to just not bother. But nope, the film instead chose to lean hard on the gorgeous imagery that they knew they could create. They ignored the flawed story, changed characters and just the fact that, as a whole, this film isn't needed because the story ended one movie ago. There's a reason the two films that followed Hannibal were prequels, because there was story that was worth being told BEFORE Hannibal was seen in Silence of the Lambs, but once that movie ended, so did the story we cared about.

Conclusion

Making a film is not an easy task, especially making a film that leans so heavily on a visual aesthetic. If you're going to make a movie though, it's always important to make sure your story is strong enough to carry everything else. Visual Storytelling is a tricky thing and you need both visuals and storytelling in order to make it work. If you rely too much on the visuals, your work will not age well. Sure, you'll make money right away because people love a good pretty picture but it's not going to last. Works that lean more on visuals create a great spectacle, I'm sure they look amazing in Imax, but if you haven't got that foundation of a good story worth telling then you will just be thrown in the bin along the other films where we can now all say "Nice video... Shame about the song"

What films have you seen that could fit the phrase "Nice video... Shame about the song"?

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