First Characteristic of a Better Film: Ambition

I came across an article written by a guy named Ted Hope at the Hammer to Nail website a while ago that was most provocative. Hammer to Nail is a great place for film reviews of not so easy to find gems. The site is curated; it’s not just a purveyor of what comes in over the wire. In other words they actually watch films and think about them rather than just pass on whatever a film’s PR machine sends out.

So a week ago I came across Mr. Hope’s article that was first published ten years ago and entitled 32 Characteristics of Better Film. 32! My first thought: Holy Overkill, Batman, that’s a lot. I never got past the first one: ambition. This section was so thought-provoking, I couldn’t move on.

First of all, considering the cost and complications of producing a film, isn’t every film inherently ambitious? Maybe, but a truly ambitious film would be one that takes more than average risks.

Mr. Hope differentiates between the typical film that might be perfectly “engineered” where the audience watches “something unfold according to a recognizable formula,” and a truly ambitious film that “exposes the wonder in the every day, forbids us to take our situation for granted.” We all know what he’s talking about when he says “engineered.” I don’t want to mention any names, but something that starts with “H” comes to mind.

The important takeaway is that an ambitious film will be challenged to “create work that is both surprising and inevitable.” It’s the old Leonard Bernstein’s “fresh, but inevitable” definition of great work. It stands as the gold standard of true art. And it’s dang hard to achieve. Especially when money loves inevitable, but fresh, not so much. Why would you even want to achieve fresh but inevitable when you’re probably going to suffer for it economically.

So I tried to think of films that might be “fresh, but inevitable.” Believe it or not, I came up with the first (and only) Star Wars film. I remember when it first came out. It surpassed other science opera films with its level of production. So it felt fresh because there was nothing else like it. Inevitable because wasn’t it a Western set in space? Or maybe more like an Errol Flynn vehicle. Whatever. You knew our side was going to win in the end. Inevitable.

Of course the remaining Star Wars films were no longer fresh.

Spinal Tap certainly fits the bill as the first really big mockumentary. Fresh. And new also because it took aim at the narcissism of our rock gods. How dare Rob Reiner? At the same time because we are so familiar with the antics of our gods, the film rang true. I mean, I’m quite sure Ted Nugent’s amp goes to 11. Inevitable.

I often wonder if Pi would be considered fresh, but inevitable. There was nothing like it before or since, so surely fresh, but how inevitable could a film about numbers theory be? Inscrutable yes. Inevitable, eh. But one of the best things about Pi is that it’s not easily digested. The payoff is great: the more you watch it, the more you get it.

How do you measure inevitability at all? Or fresh, but inevitable for that matter. I imagine across this land, hundreds of tastemakers and pedantic art critics are devising methods to quantify fresh but inevitable. Talk about superfluous. It’s not a competition. I just want to be merely astounded, that’s all.

Which I am by Pi, one of my all-time faves. It was certainly ambitious with its $135,000 budget.

I’d be interested to hear what other films out there could be considered ambitious and/or “fresh, but inevitable.” Tell me what you think. And why.

— Sue Lange, writer/producer Dust Nuggets film

4 thoughts on “First Characteristic of a Better Film: Ambition

  1. I love the idea that art is “fresh but inevitable”. I had never heard that before I thought I know art when I see it but I don’t know why.
    Here are my nominees in the film category. The first one I thought of because a couple days ago I watched the Phil Spector movie that David Mamet wrote. Then, since I’ve been thinking about fresh but inevitable, and if I understand what inevitable means, it dawned on me that Mamet’s Glengarry film moved to an inevitable conclusion. When the culprit is finally confronted & revealed, I am both surprised & satisfied at the same time. The whole movie comes back into focus & makes sense.
    That made me think of another movie that gave me the same feeling: The Usual Suspects.
    What do you think?

  2. “Fresh but inevitable” to me means, something I hadn’t seen before, but somehow feels like it fits perfectly. Both Glengarry Glen Ross and the Usual Suspects are great films.

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