The Highs and Lows of Filmmaking.
High and low concept filmmaking, like most forms of filmmaking, essentially correspond with the immediate social, industrial and economic circumstances and determinants during the time of production. Filmmaking is an industry in itself and as such, is directly influenced, and adheres to the demands or desires of a market audience. Society’s focus on television as a dominant vehicle for entertainment also largely manipulates the production qualities of high concept filmmaking and while low concept films comply more with the production qualities of classical Hollywood, they too benefit from New Hollywood marketing techniques such as television advertising. Whereas films from the classical Hollywood era (roughly 1920s-1950s) acknowledged and reflected fundamental aspects of industry; essentially mass production and consumption in architecture, fashion, design and advertising, a high concept musical drama like Purple Rain (Magnoli, A 1984) showcases Hollywood’s focus on the contemporary values of a 1980s market audience. Contrary to Hollywood’s adaption of high concept filmmaking, a film such as Paris, Texas (Wenders, W 1984) exhibits a measured approach to vicissitude and melancholic spectacle. This essay is concerned with identifying both postmodern and classical aspects of filmmaking associated with high and low concept filmmaking and uses the aforesaid films in an attempt to form a discussion as to the cinematic experience these divisions have on an audience.
As a star vehicle, Purple Rain demonstrates many fundamental aspects of high concept filmmaking. For example, the film’s lead actor, Prince, performs the prominent soundtrack. This highlights one of the concerns with high concept cinemas primary objectives, in that it designs aspects of the film to promote both the film and the music. This approach not only offers the audience a variegated experience in a cumulative narrative of drama and music video, but it also promotes a synergy of Studio products. Though these production values assemble a collective product to sell, the question of whether or not a refashioned narrative structure lessens the audiences cinematic experience is debatable, though the spectacle created from this merger of cinematic and marketing functions in the case of Purple Rain, was assuredly successful in its appeal to audiences (hence the 7.7 million dollar earning in its first weekend) (Denisoff, Romanwski 1991: 425). Purple Rain’s popularity indicates a definite market for film’s that contain a narrative and aesthetics that embraces ‘the mass-produced and mass-consumed phenomena of fashion, design, advertising, architecture and urban environment’ (Hansen, M), characteristics of a contemporary American culture in the mid 1980s. However, where Purple Rain varies from the pre-existing mode of commercial high concept films of this era, is in its concentration on a singular star product, Prince. It is this focused concept that ‘through its form, fails to convey the music and visual style of the film’ (Turner 2002: 385) because rather than casting a star to sell the film, Purple Rain’s aim is to use the film to create a star.
Considering Hollywood films as ‘products’ for distribution, exposes the intensions and outcomes of high concept films as being predominantly progressive by-products of an already realized method of formulating marketable entertainment products. Purple Rain’s narrative for example, ‘illustrates a will to allow audiences the prerogative to interpret Prince’s racial identity in many ways’ (Willis, A 2004) and in creating Prince’s character as a pseudonym (The Kid) and giving his character a multicultural background (the characters of his father and mother being of African American and Greek ethnicity respectively) Purple Rain brandishes a protagonist that offers an ‘everyman’ appeal and caters to an audience with an assumed preference for whiter skin. The film’s relatively limited narrative, coupled with its marketing methods is testament to the growing influence of an MTV audience. More generally, it is symbolically pandering to a market-based society conditioned to respond to concentrated advertising, an audience familiar with Hollywood’s more recent blockbuster strategies; rudimentary advocates of ‘The look, the hook and the book’ (Wyatt 1994: 22) approach to mainstream cinema.
Whereas a film like Purple Rain discourses from a classical narrative in order to promote contemporary notions of celebrity and excess, Paris, Texas embraces a more conventional narrative structure to convey a minimalistic approach to the discussion of human nature. An important aspect of Paris, Texas to consider is its use of space as a concept to focus the audience’s attention on the protagonist. Whereas Purple Rain confines an audience to an urban environment, conspicuous aesthetics and illustrious engulfment, Paris, Texas nourishes an audience’s consideration with spatial imagery and the diachronic dimensions of memory and desire. These are two very different sensory and aesthetic experiences for an audience to comprehend from two films that essentially share a theme of ‘journey’ either from insignificance to fame or a pursuance of identity. The way women are represented in each film not only reveals opposing notions of feminine equitability but also conveys separate attempts to contemporize attitudes toward gender for marketing purposes, and diversely disregard constituency for the sake of the story. Purple Rain’s protagonist adopts a self-recognition of his female identity, which ultimately disables a patria logical law of the father that, in The Kid’s case, represents the male orientated music industry and misogynistic father figure. This approach to gender depiction ‘illuminates the nature of female subjectivity in the mid 1980s’ (Hawkins, S, Niblock 2011: 121) and was a prominent theme in many high concept films of the 1980s such as Flashdance (Lyne, A 1983), Nine to Five (Higgins, C 1980) and Aliens (Cameron, J 1986), films that during their times of release coincided with an intensifying feminist movement. Therein lies Purple Rain’s intent to solicit itself to not only a vehement female audience, but also a non- specific gender audience. Though Paris, Texas does not objectify the female image as a sexualized spectacle, the film associates its lead female character (Jane) with a sexual profession and consequently demonstrates the filmmaker’s attachment to narrative, not political affirmation to ensure a larger market. Wender’s film treats Jane’s character, like it does its male protagonist, to multiple transitions of identity. This kind of re-subjectivization of a female character could only exist as a humanistic discussion within the realms of a low concepts movie such as Paris, Texas. Considering a similar concept in Purple Rain would be like infusing a Spice Girls music video with Mozart.
Paris, Texas relies heavily on mise en scene and non-diegetic sound to communicate the films themes and direction. The cinema photography creates an atmosphere that evokes a historic America with wide images of western landscape that form a likeness’ to John Ford’s The Searchers (Ford, J 1956) and classically frame the protagonist is his search for meaning whilst escape from his past. Likewise the soundtrack compliments the rhythm of the film, deepening the sense of the films realism and providing further emotional texture. The music contributes to selling the story not the film, unlike Purple Rain’s composition of video clip style, musically driven narrative and physically stimulating aesthetic, arrangement to attract all manor of cultural and social backgrounds as Purple Rain’s ‘music-packed sound-track plays an important function in pulling the major segment of the audience […] into the cinema in the first place’ (Graddol 1994: 131). Paris, Texas reverses an economic persuasion, projecting an artistic intention rather than an intended artist and uses classical film language to construct a film with a narrative that sustains both individual and cultural identity.
Purple Rain revalues the audiences experience by reshaping the narrative into a rudimentary scaffold to support an ostentatious aesthetic and pronounced soundtrack, whilst Paris, Texas exhibits a more conventional narrative structure that stimulates both dramatic events and the filmic image. Through both films were released in the same year and share themes of journey and identity, the production values and techniques used to make each film couldn’t be further apart. Purple Rain, marketed to an MTV audience of fashion hungry, music video treated, teenagers offers a commercially influenced audience the kinetic energy, fast paced experience they desire, reflective of Prince’s music and motif. An audience viewing Paris, Texas however, may take their time to chew the scenery, relate to, or questions the protagonist’s journey and intention and enjoy the introspective experience that often comes from low concept cinema.
Magnoli, A 1984, Purple Rain, Warner Bros.
Wenders, W 1984, Paris, Texas, Road Movies filmproduktion.
Denisoff, R S, Romanwski, W D 1991, Risky Business: Rock in Film,
- 425, Transaction Publishers, New Jersey.
Hansen, Miriam. (1999) “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism. Modernism/modernity 6(2): 59-77
Turner, G 2002, The Film Cultures Reader, p. 385, Routledge. UK: London.
Willis, A 2004, Film Stars: Hollywood And Beyond: Inside Popular Film, p. 166, Manchester University Press.
Wyatt, J 1994, High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, p. 22, University of Texas Press.
Hawkins, S, Niblock, S 2011, Prince; the making of a Pop Phenomenon, p. 121, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, UK: Surrey.
Lyne, A 1983, Flashdance, Paramount.
Higgins, C 1980, Nine to Five, Twentieth Century Fox.
Cameron, J 1986, Aliens, Twentieth Century Fox.
Graddol, D 1994, Media Texts, Authors and Readers: A Reader, p. 131, Multilingual Matters, UK: Bristol.