Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Real and the True

Realistic modes of representation are being subsumed by the age of digital. By this I don't mean that digital is "less realistic" (although I feel it is); I mean that Hollywood films are no longer interested is showing us what actually exists in the world.

The magic and the lure of cinema from the early days, and through its history, has been to show audiences something they can't otherwise see, whether it's a train pulling into a station in Paris, a flight to the moon, or a dinosaur attacking its own creators (whether he's a scientist or an animator). And the very artifice of film is constructed by photographic units captured in order and manipulated into pieces of story, that's told sequentially piecemeal, to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Many intangible elements go into film's power to persuade us, to move us to laugh, cry, fall in love or to stomp out. To fall into a dream state, either through dreamy rapture or droning boredom.

Businessmen have always attempted to offer more spectacle when audiences were swayed to other forms of entertainment. The Roman emperors offered bread and circuses to the plebeians who might otherwise riot if not for those distractions. 3-D and Cinemascope were born of desperation in the '50s when audiences moved away from the downtown centers and discovered television did pretty much what the movies could do.

The new technology of digital image making is creating worlds, people, and devices that can't possibly exist in the real world. We revel at such sophisticated constructions as the aging Brad Pitt, the shuffling Jar-Jar Binks, or the orcs fighting Harry Potter. We regard the sheer craft and consider the computing power, and walk out confounded, thinking "How did they ever do that?"

(Coppola had the same problem in the '70s. How did he get that blood to shoot out that way?)

Yet we know it is not real. It is the spectacle of arrogance. It defies us to believe it all, and no matter how seamlessly integrated, there is an uncanny feeling that your pocket is being picked.

The dichotomy between the quest for hyperrealist special effects and the aesthetics of old-school techniques of classic Hollywood is unchallenged. To do so seems downright retrograde and luddite. Isn't a hyperreality better? Why settle for that clear sky when a clouded one works so much better for the mise-en-scene?

The obvious artifice of films, with extreme musical cues and impossible camera shifts, from extreme lighting to randomly occurring rainstorms, is the texture of the stories being told. They're fake, told with and by artifices. Even the mistakes are meaningful. From mis-matched inserts to cover unseen action (Benazeraf) to guileless stop-motion animation (Karel Zeman), there's a hand-made and mediated construction that's closer to a story-teller stumbling over his words and regaining his thought than a film running off the gears. It's human and humane. And it's more endearing.

Audiences have an innate ability to get what the film is trying to get at. Eisenstein used to situate his close-ups in a defiantly non-continuous space. He wanted you to know what the film was doing - no "invisible editing" for him. Hitchcock insisted on those faded rear-projection scenes well into the '60s, when techniques were advanced far beyond that 40-year-old method.

Now scholars have finally decided there's method to his madness. Was Hitchcock being lazy or did he know something we don't?

Realism isn't all that audiences are demanding. Perfection is overrated (and unobtainable). We do like watching people (actors or not), in real sets, or carefully constructed ones. But it's the way those building blocks are used that give us pleasure. The handmade aspect of film is its own performance art. The extravagant spectacle of the old Hollywood Roman epics are beloved exactly because they are from Hollywood. The senators talk with British accents, and the streets aren't covered with dog shit. There's pleasure and comfort in the way Hollywood creates these alternate worlds, that we pay 50c a matinee for.

The puppets in "Nightmare Before Christmas" are fake. The giant ants in "Them" are clearly constructs (manipulated from just off-screen by 2x4s). Yet they exist, like the egg-yolk monsters in Ridley Scott's "Alien." The fact that the creature is a live human, on the set (in a costume), creates a photo-chemical reality (on film) CGI can never convincingly portray. Jar-Jar Binks was ever only 60 or 70% realistic, in spite of any photo-realistic surface. Because it's outside of reality, only a visual trick; a piece of math, not a piece of meat, not actual analog material.

On material (that is, film).

No one's going to be talking about Jackson's $300+million remake of "King Kong" in 70 years beyond the footnote that it ultimately is. It is a magic trick, a prestidigitation. With all the shaky push-ins, painted plates, and swimming fur from the fingers of the animators, the original ape (only this tall in real life) still moves us to tears.

It's not very real. But it feels true.

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