The phrase essentially speaks for itself, and all those who deride the term’s usage must be mostly, or entirely, speaking out of a reactionary mindset against its overuse and frequent inappropriate application: the term is a perfectly sensible and applicable one to the motion picture art.
When can a cinematic product be considered a style over substance fare? To offer some enlightenment on the subject, prior to the remainder of this article offering a pretty clear window into its overall definition, a film delving in style over substance would be one that heavily overlooks the quality or legibility of the content it presents to a viewer, in exchange and opposition for a strict devotion, or unknowing ignorance, toward the notable distinct means with which the film’s materials in question can be laid out and injected into the audience’s consciousness.
What might be some more practical examples, a series of visual traits and/or directorial trademarks that make it easier to conclude whether they endorse a balance of story and a unique means of story telling or a dedication in lieu of the latter?
A filmmaker might deem flashy sets, quick, fast-paced editing, and an innovative soundtrack to substitute for a narrative that, for instance, might contain flat characters, unrealistic relationships and an embrace of horrible cliché.
Alternatively, a title could be beset with a beauty coveted by Asian and European auteurs across many a century, and many a new wave, whilst also delving in artistic self-indulgence, an excess of narrative material to the extent of convolution, and perhaps a running time which can’t help but transform the grandest of historical epics into a soothing lullaby.
Or maybe a filmmaker is so utterly focused on ambiguity and what is perceived as the senselessness and unintelligible wherein he or she forgets that strange content does not a classic make, but rather, the rhyming and recognisability, the visual and audio poetry, that so makes the abstract into a tell-tale piece of unforgettable beauty.
Whether one is to laud, or deride, any of the following filmmakers, accusations of ‘style over substance’ labelled upon their filmography seem to make sense. Simply, what one cinephile deems going too far, another would see as a reasonable, if not excessive or extremely distinct means of cinematic storytelling.
1. Brian de Palma
By all means, Mr. de Palma is perhaps the most classic example of the ‘style over substance’ filmmaker, or at least the one who is so regularly derided for such. Brian has been noted as a controversial filmmaker in not only his morally questionable depictions of sex and violence on screen (the notorious treatment of women across his library being a specific point of anger).
But the ambiguity and lack of proper consensus toward his standing as a great filmmaker, to the extent wherein the argument itself, and its champions, can be prided for its consistency across time and new generations of film fanatics: is he another classic icon of the 1970s Hollywood film brats, or an exploitative sensationalist who carries the audacity to mimic and demand acknowledgment toward the likes of the legendary Alfred Hitchcock?
His early 1973 title Sisters acts as an example of what became known as stereotypical de Palma, particularly in regard to the man’s tendency to emulate Alfie H. Everyone’s favourite critical name-drop Roger Ebert was quick to acknowledgment, claiming it was “made more or less consciously” an act of Hitchcock homage. Also in foreshadowing of his critics’ later quarrels, Variety magazine wrote how “de Palma’s direction emphasizes exploitation values which do not fully mask script weakness.”
In the late 1970s, three films he released fuelled discussions and consistent commentary toward three differing aspects of his directorial identity. 1976’s Obsession brought more light toward Brian’s apparent crush on everyone’s favourite bloated British bladder-magnet (“Obsession is no Vertigo” with bluntness wrote Vincent Canby), with some applauding its Paul Schrader-penned screenplay as “a complex but comprehensible mix of treachery, torment and selfishness”, as Variety have stated.
Saving it from typical de Palma storytelling perversion, perhaps? Notably, his esteemed champion Pauline Kael was dismissive of the work, deducing it to be “no more than an exercise in style, with the camera whirling around nothingness”. The same year’s Carrie spurred Brian’s infrequent summon of critical fervour, garnering prestigious nods by the Academy Awards of its day, and by the AFI within the 21st century, in recognition of thriller classics.
Carrie can likely be named the de Palma title that spurns the most unanimous of praise from most cinephiles, whether they are fans of his or no. 1978’s The Fury remained in touch with commanding giddiness off of Pauline Kael, a feat typically reserved for the likes of Coppola and Altman, her adoration an element of de Palma’s career that has furthered the intensity of its surrounding rants. “One can imagine Welles, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Spielberg still stunned, bowing to the ground,” she claimed, in regard to The Fury.
Almost as though de Palma had fully ingrained himself within the stereotypical, auteur-blessed, otherwise-standard, thrillers that comprised his greatest successes, de Palma upped the ante on their existence inside a society that welcomed the glorification of self-indulgence: early 1980s America.
1980’s Dressed to Kill contains the stylish murders, Hitchcock tribute, unsophisticated portrayal of women, and flair-oriented cinematographic exuberance: both beloved and mocked de Palma trademarks.
1981’s Blow Out became a hot title in regard to terming his masterpiece, the AV Club writing retrospectively in 2011: “The quintessential De Palma film, this study of a movie craftsman investigating a political cover-up marries suspense, sick humour, sexuality, and leftist cynicism into an endlessly reflective study of art imitating life imitating art”. Now, that there, is about as perfect a description of typical artistic entities swelling inside the de Palma as they go.
1984’s Body Double went further in delving into the aesthetic of early 1980s culture, even featuring an appearance from Frankie Goes to Hollywood during a surreal sequence involving the shooting of a pornographic film. Eric Henderson deems the self-indulgence and “war against his critics” present in Body Double plausible to title it his “signature film”, whereas Canby compares him to “someone at an otherwise friendly dinner party who can’t keep himself from saying the one thing that will infuriate everybody…as if he were daring the host to ask him back.”
Also notable is Body Double’s identity as Hitchcock meets 1980’s L.A., particularly as Time Out considered the film’s plot pulled from “both Vertigo and Rear Window in one big voyeur-fest”.
Whether Brian de Palma goes too far into the tunnel of cinematic shock and effectiveness wherein the accusations of self-indulgence and artistic perversity reach justification, or revels in the great, creative technical potential his preferred means of creative expression summarily allows him, is a matter of opinion, and among the most common and consistent of all debates and disagreements surrounding a single filmmaker’s craft.
2. Dario Argento
The man who helped pioneer the exploitative, unapologetic giallo subgenre of Italian horror/thriller features, Dario Argento will always find himself in opposition to those whom crusade for moral righteousness. The giallo subgenre, in case one isn’t aware, is an English-speaking term for a certain breed of Italian mystery thrillers.
Whereas an Italian might class all thrillers, Italian or no, as a product of giallo, English fanatics refer specifically to those titles which revolve around, predominantly, murder mysteries, with a special attention devoted to the excessive inclusion of graphic violence, erotic content, and what is perceived by some as a derogatory attitude toward women.
The glorious gratuitous grisliness of 1977’s Suspiria is hauntingly told through a technicolour lens, a process specifically undertaken to focus upon the vividness of the colour red (as well as other primary colours), constructing a nightmarish, surreal, constrained reality wherein typical laws needn’t apply.
In Suspiria they certainly need not apply. A picture that J. Hoberman deems “only makes sense to the eye”, in lieu of its dedication to the extreme simulation of sound and vision pulsing throughout Suspiria’s running time, and which Dave Kehr also deduces as reasoning toward lauding the film: “Argento works so hard for his effects—throwing around shock cuts, coloured lights and peculiar camera angles—that it would be impolite not to be a little frightened”.
Others have posited that the technical talent commanded by Dario is not enough to make up for a confusing plot and general lack of sense, as though failed to awe by Dario’s moulding of nightmare moods. Janet Maslin notes the picture contains “slender charms” but charms that are, in her words, “lost on viewers who are squeamish”.
Following a period devoted to horror purely delving in the supernatural, Argento returned to straight, slick giallo, knives and knickers fun with the 1982 release of Tenebrae. Along with accusations of sleaziness, exploitation and laziness, Tenebrae is a film that, unlike Suspiria, still retains a significant number whom dismiss the notion of Tenebrae as quality Argento material. While Maitland McDonagh would go to name it “the finest film Argento has ever made”, Gary Johnson would insist, “The plot becomes little more than an excuse for Argento to stage the murder sequences.”
Tim Lucas was also, gradually, unenthusiastic, citing “many bewildering lapses in logic…and the overdone performances of many of its female actors”. But then, to others, like Ed Gonzalez, “Tenebrae is a riveting defence of auteur theory, ripe with self-reflexive discourse and various moral conflicts”, or “an effective murder mystery with a number of visual and audio flourishes”, as Justin Felix posits.
Certainly, Argento is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers who can still identify their distinctive greatness to be primarily in appreciation from a niche/cult perspective. To one cinephile, his technical fervour ceases to make up for thin, one-note narratives, and to another, his ability to capture violence and unpleasant moods with such technical style and flair serves as authentic nightmare depictions.
3. Baz Luhrmann
What does one often hear in general dismissals of Luhrmann’s films? It generally comes down to intolerance for movies that are all razzle-dazzle, flashy sets, but without any kind of worthy narrative or players: like some kind of self-indulgent stage musical (in their paraphrased words). A reasonable complaint of course, and then some people you meet just hate the very idea of film musicals (particularly in this day and age, and especially in a post-2012 Les Miserables cinematic audience environment).
Thing is, Baz typically tends to craft bright, vivid, state-of-the-art production carried experiences, which have, in spite of what one might have expected, been well received by critics. That is, his first three films (Strictly Ballroom, Romero + Juliet and Moulin Rouge) have.
To be frank, no one can deny that, whilst it is fair, perhaps entirely correct, to claim his vainglorious outings would see more appropriate fulfilment on stage than on celluloid, on the stage (which is where these three films either originated or are continually re-performed at), this, if anything, enforces the merit of his work, at least when it is coated under some fancy Melbourne theatre’s raised curtain’s.
With his next titles, Luhrmann attempted the Australian Gone with the Wind and an adaptation of a classic novel he doused in anachronistic style from a contemporary society that celebrates and indulges in just about everything F. Scott Fitzgerald woefully scribed against, respectively. Naturally, neither received the critical fondness of his first outings.
His 2013 adaptation of Gatsby shall be focused on in particular, because within lies a clear-cut case of lacking the aesthetic intelligence and care to pull off a risky stylistic decision and serve it in the novel’s favour. Presumably, Baz wanted audiences to walk away from his film pondering how a 1920’s cautionary tale of greed and self-indulgence might be wholly, if not moreso, relevant in what can be determined a contemporary society beset with selfishness, shallowness and mainstream popular culture in praise of mindless self-indulgence and arrogance.
Otherwise, all he was accomplishing was coating a 1920’s tale, famously lauded and iconic for its timelessness in themes and narrative alike (keep in mind, this novel wasn’t bereft of much critical respect until after World War II, clearly it had value outside a critique of its roaring social context), in contemporary pop recognisability for the sake of the uninitiated.
“(A) spectacle in search of a soul”, cried Joe Morgenstern, “a ghastly roaring 20s blowout at a sorority house”, clamed the Chicago Reader. But then again, A. O. Scott deemed it “a splashy, trashy opera, a wayward, lavishly theatrical celebration of the emotional and material extravagance that Fitzgerald surveyed”, so perhaps one can only expect the typical response expected from critics when dealing with something under our article’s namesake aesthetic bracket.
For what its worth, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s granddaughter not only approved of the film, but made the audacious claim that her grandfather would have also.
4. Sofia Coppola
One need not travel to Tokyo in order to find disillusionment and isolation, merely uncover an Internet cinema discussion on Sofia Coppola; observe the agony and confusion her more recent, seemingly pointless and obnoxiously faux-provocative, filmography has toward a significant portion of keyboard-bashing cinema-goers. Is this the fabled, hotly discussed, tsunami of Internet misogyny that apparently, according to the more annoying of your left-thinking Facebook friends, dominates the web, or are these complaints mirrored in the realm of professional criticism?
Certainly, not many would cite much critical division surrounding Coppola’s feature debut, 1999’s The Virgin Suicides, and especially not her beloved 2003 title Lost in Translation, but from the onset of 2006’s historical, anachronistically glamorous Marie Antoinette, Coppola has neglected the assurance of critical fervour and holism in exchange for titles requiring a certain degree of open mindedness, or maybe, to some, a case of Emperor’s New Clothes.
Richard Roeper delivered as typical a negative statement bound for any film deemed ‘style over substance’ when he deduced Marie Antoinette be “very pretty and occasionally amusing but also dreadfully dull for long, long stretches.” In opposition, Luke Goodsell justifies the existence of ‘style over substance’; particularly this film’s usage of it, saying that the picture’s notable flair eschews “a frivolous New Romantic confection in which history is less important than emotional veracity.”
As though tailor-made for being quoted in this here listing, Jake Coyle wrote of Sofia’s 2010 outing Somewhere: “Coppola is brilliant at capturing mood…her languid camera depicts California melancholy. But substance isn’t her game.” Indeed, Somewhere raised more questions about the absolute sincerity behind Coppola’s artistry, whether meaning and urgency truly pervaded her work, or merely overindulgence in visual flavour and self-importance.
Fiona Williams sought to manipulate the objects of Somewhere’s unconventionality into posits for its worth, stating “Long takes, sparse dialogue and natural performances from the two excellent leads, accumulate to give Somewhere’s best moments an entirely observational quality”, Jim Schembri meanwhile seeks to preserve the standing of Coppola’s talent, but not of Somewhere’s value: “a limp, cynical attempt to replicate the nuance-rich tapestry of…Lost in Translation.”
Most recently, 2013’s The Bling Ring, which showcased a set of characters and narrative as unimportant, shallow and ugly, and yet chose to focus its running time on them, angered some. “Coppola neither makes a case for her characters nor places them inside of some kind of moral or critical framework; they simply pass through the frame, listing off name brands and staring at their phones”, cries Ignatiy Vishnevetsky.
Plenty of others, however, were impressed by Sofia’s bold decision to helm a film where the viewer inevitably deems its content pointless and inconsequential, which, when one’s film is about shallow people passionate toward shallow things, is an understandable, artistically justified, decision.
With her insistence on difficulty, aesthetic indifference, and seemingly unwarranted content for feature films, Sofia isn’t going to completely win over critical masses quite yet. No doubt, when her work is examined in the decades to come, many will invoke many a comparison to Akerman or Varda (or who have you), but for now, debates shall rage over the phrase chosen to label her: ‘vital visionary’ or ‘pretentious product of a nepotistic surname’.