There is a scourge attacking our cinema today. It is an ailment that has been festering little more than a decade by my count. I speak not of a drought of interesting characters, nor a dearth of original plotlines. In many ways we excel in those departments, though this is of course arguable. For this particular tirade, I will speak of something seemingly antithetical to the cinema of the written word: reality.
(a near verbatim essay could be written about documentary film if only one took my core thoughts and wrote the opposite, but another day, another blog)
The story of Go Motion is well known to those who have seen the special features on the Jurassic Park DVD or for those fortunate few who remember the behind the scenes featurette airing on NBC. For those unfamiliar, Steven Spielberg was hell bent on creating the most realistic dinosaurs ever portrayed on screen, and he knew, along with spaced out crony George Lucas, that invention was the only way to achieve this. So a former apprentice of Ray Harryhausen presented his new system for stop-motion animation, which improved on all of the shortcomings of the FX style. Impressed beyond words, Go Motion was signed to create most of the film dinosaurs.
But Lucas and his ILM friends had a secret, the reason why he hadn’t directed anything in awhile. A new concept, a new system, a new form if creation that would ultimately blow Go Motion out of the water. We all know how the story ends. It was digital animation in the film, and the rousng success of “Park” further fueled the digital revolution to the point where you cannot go to the theater today without seeing an image that has somehow been digitally affected.
I put this as the final nail in the coffin for whimsy, which has been replaced by reality. This is the narrative equivalent of the invention of the car. Certainly we could get places faster, but man had to adjust to putting faith in a machine, no longer an animal. Our tactile creation and invention ended with the death of Go Motion. And now there are no limits. We created this infinite digital playground and have been struggling ever since to cope with its vastness.
But we’ve done more than cope. We’ve used this gift to our advantage on countless occassions. Whether it’s a summer blockbuster filled with all digital characters (remember not so long ago when Jar-Jar was an unprecedented idea?) or your run of the mill romantic comedy requiring specific snowfall on a Hollywood backlot in July, the term “fix it in post” has become more and more legitimate thanks to the digital wonder. Back to the earlier analogy: we couldn’t function as a society anymore if we sold our cars and saddled up. Much the same thing has happened with film thanks to digital effects. But in both instances, we must ask ourselves if we can accept the consequences of the lifeless replacement.
To my original point in this matter.
Given our infinite creative powers, there has been this movement since “Jurassic Park” to portray reality on screen. Or rather to realistically portray imagery. I’m not saying this drive wasn’t there before, but simply that it was never really an option. We could strive for it but fall short, generally having to rely on our wits for a workaround. A classic example might be “Planet of the Apes”. For its time, the makeup was convincing and hadn’t been seen by audiences before. To a modern eye, the costumes still hold water, but if you compare it to the film’s more recent remake, you’ll notice that the post-digital retelling contains more accurate primates, in regard to their faces, the sounds they make, how they carry themselves. One can always shout back that the original ape makeup was all the more original for its “shortcomings” in that it created a new race as yet unknown to us. Not the apes we see, but closer to humans beyond just their speech.
Which might bring us to “Transformers” next. A recent viewing of the animated film showed a world with no intent on seeming real, but one that justifies itself. The film utilizes a color palette of nearly every color in the galaxy, using extremes in the spectrum to show emotions and narrative curves. These are common animated effects. But in the modern film, we see the same bleak reality that is so often pervasive in modern movies. The autobots may be dirty at points, and their colors, though far from muted, are still colors rather grounded in our concept of what we perceive on an average day, wandering around Everytown, USA. And of course, it was so important narratively to explain why the bots are there and how they work and how they speak. Almost no stone is left unturned (except of course how Megatron seems to have some form of Autobot power matrix in his chest) when it comes to explaining the real histories of the different bots.
Perhaps it is our fault. Maybe audiences just can’t take a film seriously without realistic relevance. The funny thing is that I would consider many of the blockbuster type films I refer to as plagued by this disease of reality to be escapist cinema. People go there to enter a world they cannot live in their normal daily lives. So why must we go to the theater and see our world with some “other” trapsing around alongside us? Why can’t we let ourselves go and enter another reality?
This needs to be wrapped up, and that last sentence seemed like a good enough spot, but I can’t finish this off without giving credit where credit is due. There is one small patch of people working tirelessly against reality on screen. I speak of course of our friends over at Pixar. Both the stories they produce and their methodology combine to create something wholly different. Ever since “Toy Story”, we have been taken to worlds unseen by humans in ways we had never conceived. Or, as in the Brad Bird films, we view substrata of our reality. A world that looks like ours but is full of superheroes with our same misgivings, or a world where rats’ hands were clean enough to cook up a peasant’s delight. And the rats did look alarming real, I’ll concede, until of course, you looked into their big white eyes. The rest of us have a lot to learn off that magical little mouse house studio.
Until next time, keep it real.