I am sitting here listening to the soundtrack from Tron Legacy, which was composed by Daft Punk. If you have watched the film, you know the music is understated, yet powerful. Also if you have watched the film, you know that it is brilliantly beautiful.
Tron Legacy has all the aesthetic qualities a film could hope for. Visually, it is spectacular. The music ties it all up. However, there is a third component, which I am struggling to name. That is the dramatic exposition of the characters. It is important for the characters to look deep and awe inspiring. This is apart from the depth of the story itself. Tron Legacy has been shot and edited this way, giving us frequent and lengthy shots of characters between dialog. Jeff Bridges and Olivia Wilde are both treated this way extensively in the film; Bridges because one of his characters is dramatic and the other is deep, and Wilde because she is the hottest thing on the planet. Films and characters like this become teen idols, especially if they can be played at home (i.e. goths a la The Matrix). All of these aesthetic qualities combine together to sell the film. Truly in this case they are the basis of the film and its success, since the story is not deep, moving, or even unique.
Films that rely on their visual style are not uncommon, and their success demonstrates the value of aesthetic relative to the value of writing and acting. Sin City, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are a couple that come to mind — not that either of those were devoid of good writing and acting, but neither of them would have made it off the ground without their unique visual styles. What makes a truly great film is one that combines both cutting-edge aesthetics with a progressive story. The Matrix and Blade Runner are examples of films that succeed at both, and they have both become iconic films with cult followings.
Film Noir is perhaps a category of film that follows this truism. They forged a unique visual style while at the same time exploring concepts of human nature that had hitherto been taboo in film.
Tetro is a recent film with a unique visual style, appealing more to the lover of black & white photography than to the masses. It is an okay story with some good acting, but it is another film that would go nowhere without its visual uniqueness.
What is the lesson to be learned? Do not neglect the aesthetic opportunities. It is just as important as the writing and the acting. It is often said that there are two types of filmmakers: those who come from a visual, photographic background, and those who have a story-telling, writing background. The most successful filmmakers will be the ones who can bridge both arenas.