This week sees the release of Hardcore Henry, the action movie shot entirely in first person. We saw the movie at this year’s SXSW festival, and likened it to watching someone else play a video game for you for 90 minutes. The film mostly fails because its gimmick wears thin fairly quickly. This is a bad thing, mostly because regardless of artistic intent, it’s the filmmaker’s job to produce movies that will get the asses in the seats to make back their financiers’ investment. It’s a difficult environment to do so right now, with dozens of movies to compete with yours. It’s tough to stand out, so studios love to employs cinematic gimmicks to spark the interest of the bored cinematic masses to lure them into the theater.
That gimmick should pay off whether it’s the “Sensurround” sound that shook audiences in their seats in 1974’s Earthquake, or the seemingly single-take editing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, or even the first ever feature length mix of live action and animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit. While those, including Hardcore Henry, are some of the more blatant examples of narrative stunts, here are some more particularly memorable movie gimmicks.
The format wars are alive and well these days, with the cinephiles battling over the perceived superiority of film and digital. Defenders of the former want to preserve the nostalgic sanctity of the original format, while supporters of the latter decry that it’s an equally artistically and aesthetically viable form that’s simply easier (and much cheaper) to use. Case in point: director Sean Baker’s 2015 movie Tangerine, about a transgender hooker looking for her pimp on Christmas Eve, which got people talking after its premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in part because it was shot entirely on an iPhone.
Other filmmakers have taken to shooting features on their high resolution phones since then, but Baker made the first and perhaps strongest case that it’s a viable options for filmmakers with limited resources who want to make a movie but don’t have the unofficial gear to make it a reality.
4. Time Code
By 2000, the American independent film scene had all but dried up from post-Tarantino grittiness, so filmmaker Mike Figgis figured it was time to find a new approach to genre to kickstart it again. Timecode was essentially four movies-in-one, with the screen divided into four separate frames. The action in each played out in a single POV take seen and heard at the same time.
It took the kitschy split-screen techniques of directors like Brian de Palma and seen in movies ranging from The Boston Strangler to shlocky thrillers like 1973’s Wicked Wicked to a whole new level. Figgies likened it to a different medium altogether. “”It comes out of a music sensibility,” he told The Guardian, “It’s really a string quartet, if you think about it. The whole film was actually written on music paper, not only as a way of laying it all out but as an inspirational device.”
Shot with lightweight digital cameras, Figgis and the cast — including actors like Kyle MacLachlan, Saffron Burrows, and Salma Hayek — shot the film over the course of two weeks. The mostly improvised footage was eventually edited together from 15, 90-minute takes. In a way it perfectly represented the ADD-addled Y2K viewing audiences itching to do anything but watch a single movie. We’ll give $20 to anyone who can remember what the movie is actually about (it tracks the struggles of a group of annoying LA personalities trying to shoot a movie), which only drives home the fact that it was a memorable gimmick.
Where one memorable gimmick fails, others truly succeed. Austin-based filmmaker Richard Linklater is the master of the plotless, hangout movie with characters walking or driving around and talking while espousing musings about everyday life. Linklater explored this in movies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, the Before trilogy, and his newest film, Everybody Wants Some. But the director expanded that aesthetic to the extreme in 2014’s Boyhood, or should we say 2002’s Boyhood?
Linklater’s film about growing up tracked actor Ellar Coltrane as his onscreen counterpart named Mason over a 12-year span. Linklater and a set of actors, including Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father and Patricia Arquette as his mother, would reconvene every year from 2002 to 2014 to shoot portions of the story without a script, which was continued only after the previous year’s footage was completed. It was a movie that literally showed the progression of time, and it was a big deal that was poised to make a big awards splash for Linklater’s massive undertaking. Instead it was overshadowed at the 87th Academy Awards by another gimmicky movie, Birdman, a movie that was shot to look like a single take.
2. The Jazz Singer
We take the cinematic artform for granted so much that it’s easy for contemporary audiences to forget people talking in movies was a very big deal and a very big gimmick. While not the first movie with sound, 1927’s “talkie” pioneer The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson in a totally cringe-inducing example of using blackface, was the first feature with fully synchronized sound and dialogue.
It scores points for being a pioneering motion picture but it’s disqualified for being racist. It also isn’t very good.
A reviewer in a publication called the Exhibitor’s Herald at the time said it’s “scarcely a motion picture. It should be more properly labeled an enlarged Vitaphone record of Al Jolson in half a dozen songs.” Samson Raphaelson, the author whose play the film was based on, was definitely not a fan either. He said, “There was absolutely no talent in the production at all…Jolson [is] a lousy star. He’s a non-actor…It was embarrassing. A dreadful picture. I’ve seen very few worse.”
These ‘talkie” pictures definitely don’t have a future.
The most gimmicky movie ever is also the highest grossing movie of all time. Much like The Jazz Singer’s paradigm-shifting transition into sound, writer/director James Cameron’s Avatar helped usher in the modern blockbuster’s latest craze of being in 3D. While 3D movies are as old as schlocky horror movies from the 1950s, Avatar’s reliance on its immersive three-dimensional world made it an essential cinematic experience in the theater but a laughable cartoon when watched basically anywhere else.
But it was worth it for Cameron, who used his own money to develop the 3D technology to create his alien world for over a decade after coming up with the idea for the movie in the mid-1990s. While his Pocahontas with gigantic blue cat aliens story was a redundant take on an old story, its three-dimensional reverberations are still being felt today.