Four Screenshots

I can think of few things that tell me less about a film than four screenshots. Maybe its runtime. Or what the crew ate at craft services during filming. Four frames out of well over 100,000 might give you a taste of a movie’s cinematography or its set design, but apart from that, they are decontextualized images, stripped from the artwork that gives them meaning — and yet they’re often presented to us on social media these days as though they communicate something essential and urgent.

The four screenshots you’re looking at are proof that a movie is an “underrated masterpiece.” How could you have possibly “slept on it”? It deserves a “second look.”

I’ve been thinking more about “four screenshots” posts ever since watching Wonder Woman 1984 and realizing that there was no strong narrative reason for the movie to be set in 1984. The movie tried to thematize greed in a way that theoretically could have been accentuated by the time period. But ultimately many viewers — myself included — were left feeling like the choice of time period was pointless. Even the superficial reasons for a film set something in the 1980s — like great licensed music or a memorable Ronald Reagan impersonation — were missing from the final product.

Then I remembered the rhapsodic social media response to those early production stills: There was Steve Trevor wearing a fanny pack! Diana in a shopping mall! The movie looked bright, cool, and delightfully arch. How different those images feel now that we know the film turned out to be a fairly joyless affair. I had more fun looking at that photo of Wonder Woman watching fireworks in her invisible jet than I did watching the movie itself. In the days after Christmas, I started to wonder if that was the point of setting Wonder Woman 1984 in 1984 all along: To give the movie an excuse to look cool in the absence of something significant to say.

Wonder Woman 1984 is not a great movie, but it is a great “four screenshots” movie. I’m already bracing myself for someone to call it a “forgotten gem” as early as next year based on a handful of colorful, oversaturated frames.

Of course, people don’t only “four screenshots” superhero movies, though they are a common target. But even when the tactic is used to draw attention to good movies, I worry. Great films aren’t Instagram feeds, and if we sell them as such to convince people to revisit them, or to give them a shot in the first place, then we’re helping to reduce film to its aesthetic value alone. To be clear, great photography is worth discussing, celebrating, and highlighting. But by making isolated frames one of the primary lenses through which we surface films and persuade people to view them, I think we do a disservice to an entire medium, and send the message that we want pretty films, not beautiful ones.

“Four screenshots” is how we end up with lots of “bisexual lighting” but hardly any landmark films with well-drawn bisexual protagonists. “Four screenshots” is how people end up confusing CGI-laden Marvel movie screen grabs for bona fide cinematography when — as many have observed — they look more like the sort of desktop wallpapers you’d find at a LAN party in 2007. “Four screenshots” is how we turn film from a fusion of sound and word and moving image into a series of facile “wish you were here” postcards, designed to get people to watch movies that maybe we should use our words — at least 280 characters of them — to describe instead.

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