Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Story of Film: An Odyssey, part 14: The First Days of Digital: Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia? (Hopscotch Films, 2012)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The show was part fourteen (the next-to-last installment) of The Story of Film: An Odyssey, with a horrible subtitle (“The First Days of Digital: Reality Losing Its Realness in America and Australia?”) indicating that digital cinematography — both as computer-generated imagery (CGI) interspersed with photographic images in post-production and as an entirely new medium in itself (both computer animation à la Toy Story and the later films that followed it from Pixar and its competitors, and the use of digital video recording to replace celluloid film as the actual medium on which films are created) — has made the movies “more real than reality.” I’ve been faithfully recording all the episodes of this series thus far but had only watched one previously, episode 10 (about the 1970’s and focusing on politically themed films from both the U.S. and other countries), and this one, like episode 10, seemed interesting but flawed, more an extended reel of preview clips than a serious documentary on filmmaking. Both the strengths and the weaknesses of this series (at least judging from the two episodes I’ve seen so far) are largely projections of its director, writer and on-screen host, an Australian named Mark Cousins, whose thick accent, homely appearance and utter lack of charisma burden down the show and make it seem like you’re trapped in your living room with a really obnoxiously opinionated movie buff who’s zipping you through his DVD collection but only showing you a few bits and pieces of each disc.

Cousins’ great strength is that he sees the history of film as international — this, somewhat surprisingly from TCM, is a history of film and not a history of Hollywood — and his great weakness is he’s a sucker for self-consciously “intellectual” filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Matthew Barney. In case you haven’t heard of Matthew Barney (which I hadn’t, though I knew quite well who the other three were!), he’s best known for making five films in a series called Cremaster, which I had heard of. I had thought the unusual title was short for “cremation master” and the movies were essentially horror films about people being cremated before they had quite died. In fact “cremaster” is apparently the name of the male human crotch muscle that controls erections, and the films — judging from the brief excerpts shown from Cremaster 3, in which a male hero (of sorts) ends up climbing up the inner ring of the Guggenheim Museum in New York and meets a whole bunch of scantily clad women — are wordless conceits that probably would work just fine as music videos but I suspect they’d drag at feature length. One point Cousins makes in this documentary is that in the 1990’s movies started being self-referential, based less on life than on previous movies — though quite frankly this is a trend that way precedes the 1990’s; movies have been reflecting other movies ever since there was enough of a catalog of them for other filmmakers to be inspired by their predecessors. The parallels Cousins makes between new and old (or slightly older) movies sometimes make sense — as when he shows clips of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in parallel with the Hong Kong action movie from which Tarantino ripped off his basic plot and many of the actual setups — and sometimes doesn’t; comparing Cremaster 3 to Harold Lloyd’s 1925 thrill comedy Safety Last (the one in which he climbs up the side of a tall building) really seems forced. Lloyd actually wanted his audience to feel for his character and root for him even as we were laughing; Cremaster 3 is so abstract one wonders what there is to evoke any emotion at all.

Cousins was particularly nice towards Gus Van Sant and Baz Luhrmann, mainly I suspect because they agreed to be interviewed by him (and Luhrmann, despite the German-sounding name, is a fellow Aussie and Cousins probably liked him on those grounds); I regard them as incredibly pretentious directors who have made one great film each (Van Sant’s is Drugstore Cowboy and Luhrmann’s is the virtually unseen Australia, which Cousins didn’t mention, probably because though it’s rooted in previous movies, especially Red River and Gone with the Wind, it’s directed in classic Hollywood style instead of the frame-breaking methodology of all too many films made today, with their quick cuts and virtual incomprehensibility) but have otherwise acquired cult followings for precisely the things I don’t like about them: in Van Sant’s case his obsession with making his central characters unlikable and keeping us from emotionally identifying with them; in Luhrmann’s his penchant for taking classic stories (Romeo and Juliet, Camille, The Great Gatsby) and burdening them with modern-day music and a showboating everything-including-the-kitchen-sink visual style. (I’d hope the United Nations General Assembly would pass a resolution demanding that Luhrmann never again make a movie featuring a fireworks display.)

When I reviewed Van Sant’s Gerry (which got glowing praise from Cousins and which I would easily put on a list of the 10 worst films of all time) I quoted Van Sant’s comments from the press kit — “Holding audiences in their seats: Why is that a filmmaker’s job? I think there are a lot of ways of enchanting audiences, but I’ve noticed that today, no matter what the subject is, the filmmaking is exactly the same, whether it’s a really depressing story or one about a guy who saves the world. It tries to get a rise out of the audience, and it’s got to be exciting. Everything a filmmaker does is an effort to make it exciting for you as an audience member” — and then noted that in Gerry “Van Sant put his principles into practice. Using all his considerable skills as a director in a relentless attempt to avoid getting a rise out of his audience, Van Sant has made a film that’s so excruciatingly boring it seems to last twice as long as its actual 103-minute running time.” Cousins focuses on three Van Sant films in particular — My Own Private Idaho (another pretentious bore but not quite as bad as Gerry), Gerry and his virtually scene-for-scene remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (which I haven’t seen) — and he seems to love everything I hated about Gerry: the emotional detachment and arbitrary plotting. “Giving us any reason to identify with his characters seems to hold as little interest for him as getting a rise out of his audience,” I wrote about Gerry when it first came out. “Perhaps the reason Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho was a flop is their diametrically opposed conceptions of their job; if ever there was a filmmaker who understood that holding audiences in their seats and getting a rise out of them is the essence of being a director, Hitchcock was he.”

The show does offer some film clips of movies like Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy and The Big Lebowski that make those films, none of which I have seen, look like they might not be altogether oppressive experiences and might even be entertaining (though I was thoroughly turned off to the Coen brothers by Barton Fink, which remains the only film of theirs I have seen and which appalled me by its arbitrary plotting, its totally anachronistic depiction of an alleged 1940’s and the fact that the people who wrote the blurb on the box for the VHS tape called it a “comedy” when it really wasn’t, thereby giving me entirely the wrong set of expectations — though I can’t blame the Coens for that) — and as part of the full package of these movies they also showed Reservoir Dogs and The Hudsucker Proxy as well as Gladiator, an important milestone in the conversion of cinema from analog to digital. Cousins made the same point I did when I reviewed Gladiator, which was that the availability of CGI had drastically changed the nature of spectacle films from the time of Cleopatra, when a “cast of thousands” meant literally that and you couldn’t do scenes like the aerial view of ancient Rome with which Gladiator opens. Not surprisingly, though, Cousins approved and I didn’t; in my Gladiator review I wrote, “The fight between Maximus [Russell Crowe] on one side and the retired gladiator and three, four or five tigers — I lost count — was all too obviously computer-generated and looked digitally fake: oh, for the days when the only way you could do ‘a cast of thousands’ on screen was actually to recruit, pay and photograph that many people!”