False Dawn

After writing about The Fall of the Roman Empire, I went back to Scorsese’s documentary to make sure I’d remembered his quote correctly (not even close), and I was a little damn dismayed when his discussion of Roman Empire segued into the film’s weakest segment, the section covering the advent of computer graphics. Scorsese’s expert-of-choice on the subject, George Lucas, sits slouched down in his chair, looking bloodless and only half alive, as he impassively describes how, as the costs of moviemaking have become prohibitive enough to render epics like Mann’s film unfeasible, computers can fill the gap by rendering and re-rendering the figures of a relatively small number of human forms until a digitally-generated crowd that’s suitably impressive in its massiveness has been produced. Cut…and now we have Francis Coppola, adding that complaints about technology harming cinema are silly because cinema has always been driven by technology.

For starters, Mr. Coppola could use a nap. His rebuttal to a nonexistent argument is a marvelous way of missing, and of dismissing, the point of the many legitimate objections one can raise to Lucas’ claim; of course, Coppola might be unduly sensitive on this point thanks to the critical flak he took during the period that he performed his directing chores from within the confines of a high-tech trailer. (That practice was merely the apotheosis of an instinct that took hold of him during the Apocalypse Now shoot–a distancing from story and character that was especially painful whenever he’d call The Godfather films chapters in a giant “home movie”.) The fact remains: I’ve never heard a single living soul complain about the role, or the size of the role, that technology plays in movies. Film is not a medium that attracts Luddites.

My premise here might be summed up as, When CG is used as a substitute for reality–that is, when it’s not being used to create what’s supposed to be an outright fantasy such as Pan’s Labyrinth–then the more narrow and sparing its use, the better, for the reason that it’s used best when we’re least aware of it. This rarely happens, partly because CG is such a costly and exhausting process that filmmakers want us to know that the glorious sunrise we’re observing is the handiwork of a craftsman other than God. CG has provided the replacements for so many of film’s physical realities–sets, stunts, lighting, climate, crowd-scenes–that any shot we suspect is too good to be true nowadays is indeed likely to be ginned up. (And when exceptions, such as the car-chase in Ronin, come along, it’s hard not to feel thankful for the simple act of being viscerally entertained, which in this corner anyway has always been considered one of the whole points of commercial cinema.)

In fact the use of digital effects to enhance landscapes, etc., has a rollover effect on the genuine ones. It’s not much fun staring at that beautiful dawn if one suspects it isn’t real–that it’s arbitrary, a magician’s trick. Analog images have always been vulnerable to manipulation through color balancing and other means, but no matter how they were tweaked, there was still a core image, a core reality, that was captured whenever a camera was turned on at a certain time and in a certain place. Now the sun and the clouds around it can be moved about the frame to create a more artful effect; clouds can  be added, or subtracted, or the sun itself may be fabricated from wholecloth. In this sense the people who paint illustrations for Hallmark cards can be considered filmmakers; even worse, the average Hallmark’s illustrator is likely to have more artistic training and understanding than the average animator, whose baseline judgment of his own work is usually predicated on a technical, rather an artistic, foundation.

The overfed and logy Lucas must be kidding when he says that CG achieves “exactly the same effect” as non-digital effects–at least one hopes he is, for otherwise George is saying that he can’t detect any difference between those vivid, breathing human beings that deliver his muffins each morning and those wan cookie-cutter ghosts patrolling the decks on Jim Cameron’s mock-up of the Titanic. Think of that moment in Lawrence of Arabia when we see, in a single pan shot, the Arab army sweeping into Aqaba. You know as you’re watching it that you’re seeing, if not an actual armed army, what is still a real and impressive event: hundreds of real men galloping on hundreds of real horses across a plain and into a seaside fortress, all of it captured from a celestial vantage point as the army swarms through the streets, until it’s infested every corner of the garrison. Imagine that same army, but this time boasting a mere twenty men and a host of digital echoes. If we’re willing to let this second army stand in for the first one, then we’re putting no demands on the medium at all; the image becomes unworthy of our attention because the act of bearing witness, which is so central to the whole process of photography in any form, has been lost.

One of the biggest lures for a moviegoer is the sense of wonder we get from seeing things actually happening. They don’t even have to be big things: an absurd amount of pleasure can be had from the grace with which Henry Fonda snatches a thrown hat out of mid-air and, in the same smooth motion, reverses its course, sailing it back away from him, in My Darling Clementine. Over the course of time trains have provided more than one eye-popper: Buster Keaton and David Lean both saw fit to pitch entire trains over dynamited bridges, and John Frankenheimer’s The Train features a succession of high-speed locomotive collisions that seem to take place in the audience’s lap. Yet CG effects have become so mandatory and standardized in today’s movies that a director who was making The Train today might automatically farm out this sequence to a digital effects house, even though he could probably crash two real trains more cheaply, under the thinking that a created effect can be controlled, and made splashier, than a real one. But the holy-shit reality of the crashes in The Train is precisely what makes them such a powerful (and pleasurable) experience, so much so that we don’t even miss the fireballs Michael Bay would think the only fitting exclamation point.

One Response to “False Dawn”

  1. Brian Carver Says:

    For a great example of a pre-cgi war epic, check out Sergey Bondarchuk’s Waterloo. I have a keen interest in the period, but even if you don’t it’s a great film. They saved money by using Russian conscripts, the ones who weren’t pillaging Prague at that moment, and the conscripts had to be trained not to run away screaming at the first sight of French cavalry. Much like real soldiers of the time… Also, Rod Steiger as Napoleon!

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