Learning to live with computer-generated imagery | Bleader

Learning to live with computer-generated imagery

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Into the Storm
  • Into the Storm
One of the best things about my job is that it regularly forces me to confront my aesthetic prejudices and the limitations of my cultural literacy. Just a few weeks ago, for instance, someone commented on a blog post I wrote that I knew nothing about post-70s Bollywood cinema, and I had to admit this person was right. Thankfully another modern-Bollywood fan e-mailed me a few days later with a list of recommendations. I look forward to going through these films and broadening my knowledge (though one of the worst things about my job is that I now have less time to watch movies for pleasure than before I started reviewing them professionally).

Confronting my prejudices is less fun, since those prejudices usually concern movies I wouldn't bother watching if I wasn't getting paid (and who likes admitting to their narrow-mindedness?). Yet I recognize the benefits of this activity. For one thing, it keeps me from repeating myself when writing about similar movies I don't like. I typically have to repeat myself several times (and endure at least a few readers calling me out on it) before I become aware of doing so—but hey, better late than never.

I've realized in the last few weeks that I tend to write dismissively of movies when they feature lots of computer-generated imagery. But since more and more movies depend on CGI in the construction of their environments, I understand that I have to engage with the phenomenon sooner or later rather than continue to write it off as a failing. To be honest, I'm finding this difficult to do. As someone who owes his cinephilia in no small part to the films of Robert Bresson, I gravitate towards movies in which visual splendor is rooted in the capture and transformation of physical reality. I love Jurassic Park and Gravity as much as the next guy, but more often than not I find that CG effects take me out of a movie. With no basis in physical reality they feel like shortcuts to wonder, not an enhancement of it, and when I don't relate to the movie's characters or story, these effects strike me as little more than expensive wrapping paper on an empty box.

This would seem to be a minority opinion, as evidenced by the whopping success of the Transformers franchise and numerous other Hollywood blockbusters of recent years. Would I be more amenable to these movies if I used the time I normally spend on live theater and photography exhibits playing video games? Video game aficionados, I've noticed, will often evaluate a game's graphics independent of the work as a whole, though their opinion of the latter tends to rise if they feel positively enough about the former.

To a certain extent, I can relate to this mindset. Auteurist critics act on a similar inclination when they champion flawed films that nonetheless communicate a personal directorial vision. (For examples of this mode of thought, check out Dave Kehr's Reader capsule for Leo McCarey's My Son John, Jonathan Rosenbaum's for Otto Preminger's Skidoo, or my own for Iciar Bollain's Even the Rain.) But where a distinctive authorial voice provides me with a sense of interpersonal connection with the filmmaker (or, to put it another way, the spectacle of seeing the world through another person's eyes), I feel no such connection to special effects artists no matter how impressive their work. When films employ these effects without using them to expand upon viewers' sense of reality, all I see are pixels.

Hercules
  • Hercules

These thoughts were triggered by the coming attraction for Into the Storm, which I saw this past weekend when I caught up with Brett Ratner's Hercules for work. (I didn't much care for the overabundant CGI of Hercules, though I tried, to some success, to take pleasure in the film's performances and the unserious vibe.) The coming attraction climaxes with the image of a powerful tornado barreling through an airfield and pulling several commercial planes into its vortex. No filmmaker could achieve this shot without special effects—I think anyone past grade-school age can understand why—yet the preview for Into the Storm wants us to accept the image as "real." The opening shots inform us that the movie takes the form of a found-footage documentary, with video footage of a high school graduation ceremony that grounds the story in a recognizable reality. To my eyes, these images only make the shot of planes in the vortex seem less credible. It's not that the planes or the movement of the tornado are rendered poorly, quite the contrary: it's that I can't shake the knowledge that these are animated images while the filmmakers would seem to insist that they're not. (Perhaps the genius of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is that its makers acknowledged the difference between animation and live action and had good fun with it.) In cases like this, I don't feel like I'm getting even the facsimile of an experience, only the idea of one.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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