Tuesday, September 15, 2009

WHAT'S THE BIG DIFF? MATT ZOLLER SEITZ AND "THE MUNDANE FANTASTIC"




Lycanthropy 101: The sons of Larry Talbot grow trough the motions in The Howling (1981; Joe Dante) and Van Helsing (2004; Stephen Sommers)-- what's the difference?

There's an obvious difference not only between modern computer-generated effects and their analog forebears, as brought to life by the likes of Ray Harryhausen, Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, L.B. Abbott, Albert Whitlock and others, but also in the effect that being weaned toward this fantastical imagery, where suddenly anything is possible, is having on us as viewers, our expectations, our ability to codify and process what we're seeing. That limitless possibility in the flexibility and mutability of imagery used to be the exclusive province of the animated cartoon. But now add to the list of achievements of those digitally composed Panavision images that have saturated our screens for several years now the simulation of photographed reality. This desperate selling of the reality of images we know in our mind's eye can't possibly be real has added a new dimension to the way we "see" movies. Matt Zoller Seitz's new essay "The Mundane Fantastic",published at IFC.com, asks about the difference between the tactile effects of yesteryear and the veneer of plasticized unreality that seems to encase most CGI effects-- even the most "realistic" ones-- and wonders if there's something more than just nostalgia at work in preferring the old to the new:


"Motion pictures come out of photography, and photography (as we’ve always defined it) requires film: a chemical process that results in a verifiable record of reality that one can literally see and touch. When you hold a section of a 35mm film print of Forbidden Planet up to the light, you’re not just seeing an abstraction. It’s a visual account of something that actually took place -- human hands designed, built and painted those splendid planetary sets and the spaceship that lands on it, and the filmmakers were so entranced by the sheer beauty of what they’d made that they locked the camera down and let us drink in what they’d created. The tactile nature of the analog-era special effect was the source of its magic. It was all that the movie needed. Everything else -- lens flares, whip-pans, animated sparkle effects -- was visual gravy."

In other words, it seems we didn't used to have such a hard time becoming involved with a good story, even though we were patently aware of the artifice used to create and tell it. Now the tables may have turned. Read Matt's fine new piece and let's talk again about what we can and cannot accept as real on the screen.

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4 comments:

Jett Loe said...

Nice article - thanks for pointing me to it.

I think a big part of the problem re: special effects being 'special' is what has happened in parallel with the rise of CGI - the collapse of film grammar and filmic storytelling.

So T2 is effective because the effects are used sparingly - CGI being so expensive at that time - and as such need to be placed at important points in the narrative for maximum effect. The problem with effects in pics like Transformers is that they are continuous and therefore have no effect; with CGI less really is more.

In District 9 though I would argue that there are not supposed to be any effects - the presentation of the aliens is not supposed to wow you - it is supposed to seem mundane - so in this case the CGI works superbly - much better than in any other recent film, (that the viewer is aware of having CGI in it - of course most films now have tons of digital work for colour correction, facial smoothing, (as in the Julia Roberts closeups in Duplicity, etc.), that the viewer is not supposed to notice).

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Rupert Pupkin said...

Great post! I will be checking out the Mr. Moto films(have meant to for a while) and Sagebrush Trail(which is currently on Netflix Instant). Thanks!

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