WORDS FROM A DEVIANT: The Aesthetic Look

The Conjuring  has been receiving numbers of accolades since its release (and deservedly so). From its well-executed narrative, high level of restraint, and ability to sustain insurmountable tension, the film has proven to be a success in almost every aspect. However, one quality shines the most and puts The Conjuring  on its own level of greatness, making it feel more genuine and causing it to stand out amongst the onslaught of paranormal movies being released nowadays. This quality is its 70’s aesthetic.
The Conjuring  looks like it came straight out of the 70’s, from its retro opening rolling credits and occasional zooms to its kinetic camera movement and large Victorian house backdrop. James Wan clearly understands the decade this film is mimicking, and that is shown in its distinct visual style. Similarly, other films have done this, and to an even greater effect. Ti West’s House of the Devil  not only matches and captures an 80’s style in cinematography and production design, but actually plays with the quality of the picture to give it an aged look. The slasher film President’s Day  mimics straight-to-video slasher films with its washed out lighting and lack of color correction, adding a level of charm to the movie. It is one thing to pay tribute to a certain type of film or time period, but to actually match its visual aesthetic brings it to a whole other level. These movies stick out not only because they look like films from a certain time period, but because they are some of the only movies to experiment and alter the medium of film itself.

Recently, there seems to be a desire to have a slick, crisp and pure look to modern movies, a look that washes away grain and the imperfections that occasionally accompany movies shot on film. The “teal and blue” color scheme is the most popular, appearing in most mainstream wide released films (see this great blog for more about this atrocity). While there is certainly no problem to wanting this aesthetic look occasionally (it can look pretty), it also proves problematic when EVERYONE is attempting to achieve this. Films begin to look the same, all appearing homogenized and boring. Rather than creating their own aesthetic look and voice, many filmmakers seem to want to look as professional and clean as possible. These filmmakers seem to forget that film (or digital) is a medium of art, and therefore can, and should, be experimented with. There are certainly film movements that combat this homogenization, but in general you only see this in smaller genres like horror where this type of experimentation is more accepted (although it certainly is not limited to horror).

And this is unfortunate, because movies that play around with the medium of film (or digital) are completely unique and manage to create their own distinct look and atmosphere. There should be less of a concern with the actual image quality, and rather, what this quality will say for the movie. If The Texas Chain Saw Massacre  had been crisp, it would have certainly lost a lot of its power. If The Blair Witch Project  used higher quality cameras, it would be that much less terrifying. Dancer in the Dark  uses cheap hand-held digital cameras to create a dirty feeling that never leaves the viewer. Inside  looks grainy and muddy, thus adding claustrophobia and anxiety to the narrative. All of these filmmakers understand that creating a different visual look for their film in the actual quality of the medium itself helps not only make their films stand out, but compliments their narratives. This “teal and blue” color scheme would have certainly made them look more “professional” by industry standards, but it would have robbed them of their voice. These films may not be traditionally aesthetically beautiful, but they are still nonetheless beautiful in their own way. They may not always abide by the accepted rules of lighting, but as a result they manage to develop their own powerful voice, a voice that speaks much more loudly than in a film that solely aims to be traditionally pretty.

This is also problematic for lower budget films, because our eyes are so trained to look for a certain aesthetic look that we fail to give lower budget movies chances simply because they are such a different quality. Of course this also results from the fact that so many amateur films are not the best in overall narrative value, but it is also a turn off for a lot of people when a film is noticeably lower in picture quality than most mainstream releases. A movie like the incredibly underrated Red Cockroaches  was shot on a cheap digital camera, and as a result looks much lower in quality than any film with a decently sized budget. Yet, it is one of the best made indie films I have ever seen, combatting with bigger budget movies just by the sheer talent behind the camera. On multiple occasions, I have seen people who refuse to watch a movie because its lower budget shows in its picture quality, and this is unfortunate for movies that are made by talented filmmakers.

The release of The Conjuring  to mainstream audiences proves to be satisfying not only because of its ability to just be a good film, but also because it manages to go where most filmmakers do not, and that is to embody a time period of filmmaking that is long gone and thus stand out amongst most modern films. While it does not necessarily experiment with its picture quality (which could have enhanced the 70’s style even more), its aesthetic look is unlike most wide release films nowadays. Other films have done this altering of quality to a greater extent, thus illustrating that the medium of film is something that should be experimented with more, especially in mainstream filmmaking. The homogenization and desire to all look a certain way is quite honestly boring, and trains the eye to be familiar with a certain type of look that does not have a strong voice. It all comes down to the fact that a film should look the way it feels, not simply to achieve an aesthetic that is the most widely used and accepted.