question of the day: Can movies and television be too visually beautiful?

Tree of Life

The Tree of Life is a “beautiful” film, even its detractors — like me — appear to agree. That is to say, it is crammed for lovely visual imagery, impressively framed, tenderly framed, and gorgeously presented to us.

But so is every other TV commercial and throwaway police procedural, as Noel Murray at A.V. Club notes:

[T]here is something of a beauty-boom afoot. I used to be able to distinguish the kinds of movies I’d see at the Sundance Film Festival from the kind I’d see in Toronto largely by how they looked. Toronto tends to favor world-cinema auteurs more beholden to pictures than words, while Sundance traditionally champions American indie filmmakers who’ll spent three years workshopping a script and three minutes thinking about how to shoot it. I can’t say that dichotomy is so blatant anymore, though. The advent of digital technology hasn’t just made the basic tools of filmmaking easier to obtain, it’s also narrowed the gap between the master cinematographers and the novices with a decent sense of composition. On the whole, it’s easier in 2011 to light and shoot and make a scene look good than it was a decade ago.

I’ve even noticed this trend on television. Since the advent of HD, TV has become more “cinematic,” though early on, that mainly meant procedurals and adventure shows had the kinetic style and frenetic editing of a Tony Scott or Michael Bay film. This season, though, I can tell that the producers of network shows have spent a lot of time watching cable—specifically The Shield and Breaking Bad. Even gimmicky case-of-the-week-ers like Unforgettable and Person Of Interest are experimenting with off-kilter camera angles, editing tricks, and mood lighting to enhance the storytelling. The visuals are no longer merely functional, or merely slick and gleaming.

Murray goes on to say that he doesn’t think this is a bad thing… except that maybe it is:

I do find it harder now to hail an independent film solely for its visuals. If the dialogue is clunky, the performances amateurish, and the plotting overdone, then an amazing use of natural light and vivid color is no longer as redemptive as it used to be. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying I could hand a high-end digital camera to anyone on the street and they’d come back with footage to rival Christopher Doyle. It’s still necessary for cinematographers to have “an eye,” and it’s more than helpful if they’ve studied the craft. I’m just saying that realizing a vision doesn’t take as much arcane knowledge as it once did, back in the days when Vilmos Zsigmond was baking film stock.

The problem with the relative ease with which filmmakers can capture beauty onscreen these days is that it makes beauty seem less hard-won, and thus less special. But the true artists can still imbue beauty with real meaning.

Is this a problem? Can movies and television be too visually beautiful? Should it be harder to make a good-looking movie or TV show? Are beautiful things diminished when too many things are beautiful?

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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