What makes good cinema? What makes a movie good, bad, flawed, memorable, gimmicky, nostalgic, pertinent, pretty, or any other quality? A lot of people will tell you that it's all about story. While I can't really disagree with that, I'd state it a little differently. And while I can certainly enjoy a well photographed film without much in the way of substance, I appreciate that simple gorgeous imagery doesn't make a good motion picture. At the same time a movie may be technically and fundamentally horrible but speak to me across the years. If such a film inspires something in me despite its flaws can it really be considered a cinematic failure? Here I'd like to describe what I think are really the three ingredients of good cinema.
If the most important thing for a movie to have is story, then what makes a character piece so powerful? Certainly the bulk of people appreciate story more, but the most successful stories are those built upon compelling and interesting characters. Neither can a character study be very effective without some semblance of story against which a character is tested. Whether your preference is a thickly plotted story or a deeply intimate examination of character, what is most important is how you, the audience, are able to relate to that. We explore character and story through the lens of our own experiences and conviction; we contrast them against our knowledge and opinions of ourselves. In these terms a successful film is one by which we are able to take measure of our our own lives, goals, values and aspirations.
It is therefore the humanity of a movie that is the most important ingredient. It was this way long before even the invention of the camera. You could throw "Hamlet" up on a stage in front of a cardboard set and, if it was done well, people would love it and remember it because of its humanity and how we relate to it. Neither character nor plot take precedence in humanity. Indeed, sometimes they both conspire to produce a subtext of personal or social commentary that an audience can't help but connect with. Particularly successful examples capture that all too human phenomenon we call the zeitgeist and reflect it off the screen where it finds a special place in our minds and our hearts.
Film is a visual art form, and also an auditory one. While a movie must reach out and tickle our humanity, the sound and visuals of the production help it to do so. Music tugs at our heart strings and provides emotional context, giving us clues as to how we should feel. And if one might say such a tactic is a crutch for delivering elements of humanity, one could also argue that any weapon which helps us break down our jaded walls, temporarily forsake everyday life, and suspend disbelief is a good tool to use. Gorgeous cinematography likewise helps draw us into the world created by the movie. It's not so much the believability of an image, but its credibility that is important. Any good chef will tell you that a large part of their work is in the presentation; in not only making something good but making you want to eat it. The image on screen, cast with thoughtful beauty, makes us want to believe what we are seeing. That desire to believe will only enhance the impact of the film's humanity.
Beauty can take the guise of gimmick too. This is especially true of genre or effects-laden films; but also in something as simple as casting a beautiful starlet or an iconic leading man. It is only a crime when done poorly or thoughtlessly. Beauty is a key ingredient of cinema because it should make you want to believe and invest in its humanity. Where beauty fails in this a failure the film suffers. On the other hand where a film lacks humanity, beauty adds little value.
Cinema is fundamentally an art form made of memory. The frame you see on screen only has value when combined with the memory of the frames before it. But more than that, a film can thrive on its ability either to invoke or to create memory. This can be true of any medium. I recall the first time, as a kid, I listened to the "Seasons in the Abyss" album by Slayer. "Dead Skin Mask," "War Ensemble," and the title track struck me then as being evil. In the early 1990s this was some of the darkest music you could find around and as a teenager raised Catholic, listening to music marketed as satanic with such wicked subjects and dark tones, Slayer's music just seemed evil and spooky. It created a memory for me. Today, that album is a classic and I know that all the imagery is just part of the show. But when I listen to it, it still seems kind of evil; and I'm transported back to being 16 and wondering what people would think if they knew my mind was being invaded by such evil.
Yes, part of it is nostalgia. Perhaps a breakup scene in a movie brings a similar experience back to haunt you. Maybe a war movie reminds you of your days as a G.I. But this is part of the self-examination that hopefully makes us better people. Memory enhances our humanity. Maybe it brings us face to face with values we once held but have now abandoned for better or worse. Better, maybe the memory of a moment in a film will be recalled later in your life during a time of similar context. Even though cinema is a creation, it is one that we experience. If the experience is not memorable it loses value. But the real value of memory is its ability to preserve the humanity of a moment for a time when it may be more significant personally than at the time it was originally experience. Memory thus preserves the value of a film's humanity for posterity, making its influence part of the human experience.
From that posterity - we hope - future filmmakers will draw upon that humanity, combine it with beauty, create memory and the cycle continues.