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Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Style and Substance


My husband and I watched a film last night called "The Storm Warriors". It's a Chinese epic martial arts movie and it is beautifully made. The sets are stunning, the fight scenes amazing and the special effects are superb, however, it's not a very good film.

  • Firstly, it's a sequel and totally fails to reintroduce the characters.
  • Secondly the plot is so thin it's virtually non-existent.
  • Thirdly, what plot there is doesn't actually make any sense; not even a little bit.

The whole film is a triumph of style over substance and hence falls flat as far as I am concerned. We watched half of the final fight scenes in fast forward because, by then, we were that bored of them. They were beautiful, but we just wanted to know what the hell was going to happen.

A little more talking and less fighting and it might have been a film worth watching a second time.

I think you can sometimes have this problem in books as well. It tends to be more difficult to analyse in a book, but sometimes you find a novel where the characters just go through the motions. There is everything you expect, a beginning, a middle and an end, but no substance. Sometimes it can be lack of plot, or a plot that doesn't make sense, but in a book world sometimes you can still have that and not be engaged. I tend to find this is when the characters lack emotional depth.

I was reading a book the other day (no I'm not going to say which one) and it should have been great. The first chapter was; dragged me right in and made me want to read more, but then the humans arrived in the book and it lost me. Something about the writing meant I made no connection with the characters at all and, hence, I really couldn't be bothered to read the rest. I didn't finish the book.

The book had all of the style. The world building was there, the technical skill was there, but there was nothing to make me connect to it. It was beautifully put together, I'll give it that, but it lacked something.
Of course all of this is very subjective. Someone else might have thought it was a superb book. I think that's what makes writing so hard. It's also what makes reviews not the be all and end all. Some people will like a book or film, some people won't. If it's good some people will think it is the most wonderful thing ever, some people may not be moved by it in the slightest.

There is style and there is substance and I think, when it comes to style, it's easier to tell if something is good. A badly made film or a badly written book is quite obvious when it comes to cinematography or spelling. If you're making a sci-fi movie you don't want to film it in soft focus. If you're writing a romance novel you don't want huge swathes of space opera type prose. Style has much easier rules and as long as you have taken the time to find out what they are, you're pretty much set.

Substance on the other hand, that is much more subjective. I don't like most of the movies that win OSCARs. There are exceptions, but, mostly, I find them long winded and boring. That's me not gelling with the substance even if I can appreciate how beautiful the cinematography might be. I also don't enjoy literary fiction; mostly it bores me senseless. However, I am well aware, that is simply a matter of personal preference.

This does not mean I will enjoy every film or book that does fulfil my type of substance criteria, or that I will dislike every single one outside what I usually watch or read. The substance also has to be done well.
In a movie I can forgive a few plot holes, as long as most of it fits together. In a book I usually can't get over a huge gaping illogical step. This is a double standard, but I expect the writing in a book to be better. I suspect this is because in the book there are only words and the plot is in my head, in a block buster movie there is usually the pretty to distract me. Shallow, I know, but it happens to be the truth.

I think is all comes down to this in both films and books: things have to happen in something like a logical order and I have to care about why they are happening.

I was watching "Hereafter", the Clint Eastwood directed movie with Matt Damon. I watched the whole film and, after it was finished, I think I had enjoyed it, but I will never watch it again. It came over to me as the literary fiction of the film world. It is a beautifully put together plot, beautifully filmed, but it went nowhere and did nothing very much and didn't actually finish properly. We almost switched it off in the middle, which was not a good sign. However, at the end it all did make sense and it kind of left me with a nice feeling, so I didn't hugely dislike it, I'll just never bother to sit through it again. It had style and substance, just not my cup of tea.

A movie and a book both require substance in my opinion, but both are on a sliding scale. The best have both in huge amounts, but, depending on the level of one you can get away with reducing the other. However, if you have too little of one, even if you have epic amounts of the other, like "The Storm Warriors", it's still not going to be enough.

Of course, the reason we have so much diversity out there is that everyone's limits and sliding scales are different and, I believe, this is a very good thing.

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