The Overwhelming Charm of Maximalist Filmmaking
Film is a lot of things. It’s cool. It’s hip. It’s what all the dope kids are doing these days. But more than those things, film is an inherently visceral artform. When we watch movies, or engage with any piece of art, we seek to feel something. More than other forms, film is predisposed to eliciting an emotional reaction because of how it’s experienced. To sit in the darkened theater, the giant screen aglow, showing frame after frame of pictures in such quick succession that it convinces the eye what you’re seeing is actually moving, absolutely submerged in the sublime images unfolding in front of you, is to lose yourself not in a story, but an experience. The only thing that could possibly rival seeing a film in the theater is going to a death metal concert in a dive bar, the bone shattering blast beats and screamed vocals thrum through your body until you’ve forgotten your name and are reduced to desperately jumping around in a pool of sweat. But why, in movies, do we avoid the overwhelming feeling that a concert like that can provide? Why do we seek stories told in passive, easily consumable ways instead of wanting to be totally immersed in sensation and sound?
The answer is relatively simple: being overwhelmed is, well, overwhelming. Most people want to understand what is going on in a story; cluttering the frame and sound mix with more junk gets in the way of that. Even then, you can never be sure if your audience will get what your story is going for. The number of times one (one being moi) sees a bad review of a movie that is clear in its style and intentions complaining that “It was impossible to follow what was going on!” or “What was the deal with all the symbolism or whatever?” are too many to count. I argue that more filmmakers, especially those at a big budget level, should lean into making films that hurt your eyes.
Cinema is a relatively young artform whose full capabilities have yet to be explored. Once every twenty years or so, we’ll see a shift in how the medium is used that reflects changing cultural norms, but these do not occur often enough, nor are they extremely adventurous on the whole. For example: the advent of sound in 1928 was a massive technological breakthrough whose subsequent advances have enabled us to do more than ever with where sound is placed in relation to the audience. Yet, sound design is usually used either to mimic normal conversation or create an overly dense barrage of noise for an action scene. Over the decades, we’ve really only gotten individual filmmakers who choose to push boundaries in exciting directions. These include everyone from independent and foreign directors like Vera Chytilova and Spike Lee to big budget blockbuster directors like Tony Scott and the Wachowskis. On occasion, one of these maverick filmmakers will release something formally groundbreaking. Of course, these efforts will be roundly rejected by mass audiences. Chytilova’s Daisies, Lee’s Bamboozled, Scott’s Domino, and the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer were all despised at the time of release despite being cinematically revolutionary.
But what exactly do I mean when I say “films that hurt your eyes”? To define it briefly, it’s what happens when a filmmaker hones in on an extreme aesthetic idea and takes it to the furthest limit film tech will allow. These efforts are not fully experimental in nature; rather, they infuse a marginally traditional narrative with a style so consciously aggressive that the audience cannot help but actively be aware that they are watching a movie. A movie of this variety cannot be realistic or naturalistic in any sense, instead openly embracing the artificial. Though the story is still there, its purpose is to inform the style. More often than not, these films will be incredibly fast-paced and disorienting, leaving the audience with the pure sensation of how an event in the film “feels,” not how it actually happened.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the aforementioned films: Domino. In 2005, Richard Kelly’s screenplay about real life bounty hunter Domino Harvey was adapted by action filmmaker Tony Scott into a two-hour cinematic explosion of guns, sex, and drugs. Satirizing the hellish socio-economic circumstances of the Bush era, Kelly’s script doesn’t stay faithful to the events of Domino’s life; the story that unfolds is the coked-up version of her life that Domino wished she lived. One where everything blows up every five minutes, people are beyond caricature according to their race/ethnicity, and a demented Christopher Walken wants to make a reality show about you.
To accompany this, Scott powered up his high octane, LSD-inspired style to make the audience feel like they are living in Domino’s fantasy. Every scene is layered with yellow-green filters that make the image look like the most beautiful depiction of puke you’ve ever seen. It reflects the dichotomy of the ugliness of the bounty hunter lifestyle and her genuine talent and grace. The cutting is fast and intense; the camera frequently and frantically zooms in and out; few shots linger for more than a second or two. It’s about the impact of every individual image rather than any sort of spatial or compositional understanding. Other tricks used to heighten reality include speeding up and slowing down the framerate at random moments, reversing footage to show bullets flying back into guns, literally undoing deaths, and layering different scenes over each other so that their action is simultaneous and obfuscated. When you leave the theater after Domino, you’re not thinking about any discernible moments or characters or plot. You’re probably thinking, “What the fuck did I just witness?”
That’s a response that needs to happen more. As stated earlier, the purpose of art is to elicit emotion. With that in mind, does it not make sense to create art so wild that it provokes a strong, unique reaction? Maximalism can definitely seem overwrought or hollow at times, especially when not done correctly. But why do so many movies play it safe and try to get us to feel the same things we felt last time? Take chances, experiment, be bold. You don’t have to make Domino, but you can make something just a little off the beaten path that shows the world something it’s never seen before. Stimulate people’s heads and break their brains anew.
Click here for a list of maximalist/chaos films.