Movies are lies.
Narrative feature films are all lies. The actors lie to you about who they are. The director lies to you about what’s going on. The screenwriter wrote pages and pages of fake stuff. The sets are fake. The props are fake. The lighting is fake. It’s all fake and lies. So, why care?
My first professor at Virginia Tech was in a literature and film class (he also ended up teaching several creative writing courses that I took while there), and he paraphrased Albert Camus, who said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” So, yes, the effects, the actors, the words are all fake, but there’s an endeavor on the part of everyone involved to tell some truth. What truth, though? That depends on the efforts of the specific creative team making the film.
Movies are Made for Everyone, and No One.
When I was growing up, my mother had a book of 500 reviews written by Pulitzer Prize winning film critic (as it said on the book’s cover) Roger Ebert. That Pulitzer Prize notification did a lot to convince me that Ebert knew what he was talking about when it came to films. I focused on movies that I already loved (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc.), but as I watched new movies that my mother showed me (Stalag 17, for example), I’d go back to Ebert to see what he said. I didn’t read them before I watched the movies, but afterwards. If a film review is meant to either persuade you to see a movie or dissuade you of the same thing, then what possible point was I making in reading them after the fact? I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was learning HOW to watch movies.
One theme in Ebert’s writing that you can dig out after reading hundreds of his reviews is that he’s very deferential to the makers of the films. He always seemed to start from the place of asking the question, “What was the director/screenwriter trying to accomplish with this film?” And only after having addressed that internally did he ever begin to ask, “How successful was this film?” Because, to him, you can’t answer the question of how successful a film is without understanding what it’s supposed to be.
Imagine a conversation with someone who has just seen The Godfather for the first time:
A: “That movie was terrible!”
B: “What do you mean? It’s a classic.”
A: “I didn’t laugh once! It was the worst comedy ever!”
B: “But, it’s not a comedy. It’s a drama.”
A: “That doesn’t matter! I wanted to watch a comedy!”
Person A may have a point that he was in the mood for a comedy, but is his criticism of The Godfather valid? No. It’s not. The Godfather isn’t meant to be a comedy, so it should not be judged as a comedy. Whether the movie is successful or not depends on the kind of movie that Francis Ford Coppola was trying to make, not what the audience wants to see. The audience may not like what the artist intended, but if the audience can’t address the intention of the artist, then the audience’s reaction, no matter how visceral or genuine, isn’t a valid criticism of the work. That does not mean that the artist is always successful at attempting their goal, just that valid criticism has to start from the assumption that the artist is trying to do something and go from there.
Movies Fail. Movies Succeed. It’s all a matter of Taste.
Continuing with the example of The Godfather, we can reimagine the conversation from earlier:
A: “That movie was terrible!”
B: “What do you mean? It’s a classic.”
A: “I didn’t believe that Michael would suddenly be able to take charge of the family. He didn’t seem to have the skillset required to pull that off.”
B: “I disagree. I think that Michael’s time in the Army, as well as the growth that we observe through the film, demonstrates that Michael is very capable of becoming Don to the family.”
So, what to think of Person A’s reaction now? You may agree or not (I certainly hope not. I just made that up on the spot.), but at least it’s based on the idea that The Godfather was a drama that was trying to tell the story of a character and family. It’s valid as a criticism, no matter what Person B thinks of it. It’s an argument that can be had about the nature of truth within the film. About the truth of Michael as a man.
Which brings me back to where I started: Movies are all lies, but they tell a truth.
Michael Corleone is not a real person. He may have some inspiration in the real world, but he’s ultimately fake. He’s a creation of Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola, and Al Pacino. And yet, we’re asked by these same people to care for Michael as a person, as well as his journey. Whether that cadre is successful or not is entirely up to the audience, so long as the audience understands what the creators are trying to do.
Because Movies are Fake, Certain “Sins” Don’t Matter
Have you tried to show the original King Kong to a millennial? I have. I have a sixteen year old half-brother who I showed it to, and he couldn’t get past the fakery of the effects. The effects were cutting edge in the 30s but woefully out of date now. Does that mean that my half-brother was wrong in not liking the movie because of those effects?
Yes and no.
If your tastes demand only the most up to date special effects when used, then fine. You are limiting your ability to enjoy quite a bit of cinema’s history. But, the question isn’t really whether a special effect looks real or not, but whether it is effective. Looking real is only part of being effective.
Look back at Kong in his cinematic debut. He’s obviously a puppet being manipulated frame by frame by hand. But you know what also looks fake? Anything animated. The Little Mermaid doesn’t look real. Roger Rabbit doesn’t look real. Nemo doesn’t look real. But, despite the unreality of Ariel, or Roger, or Nemo, we can find a way to identify with all of them because they each are real characters with understandable desires. Ariel wants love and to move away from home. Roger doesn’t want to be framed for a murder he did not commit while trying to save his way of life. Nemo wants to be his own person (fish) and not live completely shielded from the world by his father. These are understandable desires.
What does this have to do with King Kong? Kong is a character in the movie as much as Ann Darrow. In fact, Kong’s desire for some kind of interpersonal connection is very easily understood by many people. The fact that he can’t get the time of day from the pretty blonde is the tragedy that leads him to his ultimate ruin. The fact that Kong looks fake, changes size depending on what set he’s on, and never says a word, doesn’t change the fact that we can understand him and feel for him. In the end, it’s a fake looking monkey dead on the streets of New York, but it’s a fake looking monkey that we’ve grown to love in some small way.
The effects in Kong are no longer believable, but they are effective. In the specific instance of King Kong, the “sin” of unrealistic effects don’t matter because of the work that went into the character of Kong himself. Was the movie’s intent to convince you that a giant gorilla was real or that we should sympathize with him? It was definitely both, but the fact that they succeeded in getting the audience at large to feel something for Kong is why the sin of unrealistic effect becomes a non-sin.