Tier Talk

I must admit that I found Noel Carroll’s notion of ‘tiers’ to be quite a practical conundrum. No doubt that the concept has its roots in logical film critique and theory, but trying to place a contemporary film in one category or the other based on content and audience interaction proved to be a difficult task. At first glance, it seems a simple task, but considering how much film-makers were evolving from the seventies onwards makes for complications. Even if I am only working with the first and second tier, I still have to take into account the fact that many film’s (and their creators) try to state their intricate connection with the upper tiers (three and four), subsequently changing the way we consider ‘high concept’ films and their self-declared Auteurs. Even with Carroll’s strict, traditional critique in action, film is becoming more and more difficult to pin down.

But, in a sense, that is why we’re here, studying it in the first place. Depending on how I analyse the film in front of me, what I take from it, I suppose that in itself is a form of tier classification. If not for the film, then at least for myself. I can confirm or deny whether I indeed am a ‘first tier idiot’ who only sees the production value and cast list in a film, or perhaps on the level of Carroll himself, chilling with the cinephiles on level two.

Before I (briefly) discuss my films, I would like to expand on the issue of classification by discussing a film from the golden era of Hollywood, the 1970’s remake of ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’. Now despite this film being an irrefutable member of the ‘tier three’ club, it highlights the (post-classical) complications we face with cinema. The generation responsible for films such as this were, as Bordwell describes:

“A new generation of filmmakers who, brought up on TV and trained in film schools, addressed each other and a newly hip audience by citing classic films.” (Bordwell, 2006:7)

Now in a sense, that has already helped to answer my own questions about the classification; the director, Philip Kaufman, is consciously catering to the masses and the ‘cinephiles’ by rejuvenating a terrifying B-list horror, complete with action, special effects and a Hollywood friendly narrative. It successfully spooks the audience, giving them the frights they (at the time) were so hungry for, even if they don’t know why. That 70’s fear that was channelled into cult horrors stems from a political context, an explicit set of relevant (at the time) current affairs that is almost overwhelmingly reflected. The ‘red-scare’, the fear of communist infiltration, that desperate paranoia. Once you catch the scent of commentary it is hard to miss, just like a George Romero film, you can’t un-see the truth, it will linger in the IMR, the dialogue, and more importantly in your head.

I smell communism, they’re going to replace our beloved democracy with an emotionless alien-clone!

So that’s a three-tier film, a rich amalgamation of entertainment and cinephilia (is that a word?). On to a few examples of my own. Obviously there isn’t always a perfect combination of looks and brains, take the 2012 remake of ‘Red Dawn’.

Originally an all-American film about kicking some communist ass on home soil. This obnoxious, ultra-budget propaganda piece has replaced the Russian and Chinese scare with a North Korean one. But there is nothing subtle about this, you wouldn’t have to analyse the sociopolitical context to understand it. The bottom line is this, Red Dawn is an insultingly brash, unintelligent action flick that paints hopelessly unrealistic scenarios red, white and blue. Yes it is somewhat ‘entertaining’ (if you enjoy gratuitous gun-fighting and mass murder), but I found that I could not see past what it was, an ironically cheap thrill. It’s safe to say that Carroll would call the remake a film for idiots, made by idiots. There is not a single hint of tier two academia. There are no subtle references to its creative influences, the IMR does not paint a picture of refined film theory, or the culmination of a century’s worth of cinematic development. It wholly justifies Bazin’s argument that we are, in fact, ‘moving backwards’ the further we strive for visual and technological perfection.

“Any account of the cinema that was drawn merely from the technical inventions that made it possible would be a poor one indeed” (Bazin, 1967:18)

And to tie this (unintentional) essay up, and end my lecturer’s suffering, I will provide a rightful tier two example. This, by all accounts is a masterpiece, especially in comparison to Red Dawn, Wong Ching Po’s ‘Revenge, A Love Story’.

What might appear to be a “grotesque horror” (according to the Guardian) is in fact, a delicately constructed tale of morals. The film references it’s cinematic forerunners through the use of long takes, wide shots, and an unglamorously reflexive aesthetic. By draining the image of its saturation, choosing colours composition to emphasise atmospherics and  constructing an elusive narrative through deliberately disruptive editing (the temporal space and linear narrative are called into question), Revenge blends elements of Neo-realism, French New Wave and German Expressionism together. The end result is a stylised piece of film art, to the tier one audience the film would seem confusing, eccentric and disturbing, the ‘narrative closure’ is not one they would have anticipated or hoped for. However, to those who interact with film at a deeper level, Revenge is what Carroll would call ‘Avante Garde’ in the sense that it references and provokes film theory upon closer inspection. Definitely for the ‘cinephiles’.

Bazin, A. (1967). What is cinema? Berkeley, University of California Press.

Bordwell, D. (2006). The way Hollywood tells it: story and style in modern movies. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Carroll, N. (1996) Theorizing the Moving Image. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p.164-166.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) [film] San Francisco: Philip Kaufman.

Revenge, A Love Story (2010) [film] Hong Kong: Wong Ching Po.

Red Dawn (2012) [film] Hollywood: Dan Bradley.

Shoard, C. (2011) Revenge: A Love Story – review. Guardian, [online] 24/11/11. Available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/nov/24/revenge-a-love-story-review [Accessed: 07/02/13].


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