Thursday, July 12, 2012

Computer Degeneration

When Goethe was writing Faust he made an interesting discovery. At the moment in Part I when Faust agrees to Mephistopheles' pact, and can have every wish fulfilled, Goethe realized that, when anything becomes possible, there is no more drama.

Like Faust and Mephistopheles, film has made a similar pact with CGI, or "Computer Generated Imagery". Instead of shooting images of real people and things in real places, a filmmaker can create an entire film with a computer. With the "help" of CGI, a filmmaker like Ridley Scott can join shots of actors in costume with a computer-generated Roman Colosseum in Gladiator. Or Peter Jackson can juxtapose his breathing actors and New Zealand landscapes with computer-generated creatures and landscapes in his re-creation of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Animation has been revolutionized by CGI, and the results (Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, etc.) are often marvelous.

Unfortunately, CGI has succeeded in making filmmaking both easy and impossible. As film has grown more tediously illustrative and less expressive, making grossly obvious what ought to be inferable to an intelligent viewer, it has fallen further from its essence. At the beginning of the documentary, Le Fantome d'Henri Langlois, Langlois stands in front of a screen on which is being projected an old film:

"My goal was to show shadows of the living coexisting with shadows of the dead. For that's the essence of film. It supercedes time and space. It goes beyond the 4th dimension. Here we see Seville in a fragment of a re-framed Lumière film. It's a procession there in 1895. But that's not what counts. What matters is that these people are like us and as they walk, we walk along. So the audience is right there with them.

At the beginning of the Kevin Brownlow series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood, Kenneth Branagh narrates:

"A hundred years ago, moving pictures were a miracle. When audiences saw this train [ L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat - see photo above] coming at them, they were overwhelmed. A new art with a new power was released."

The essence of film is the recording of images of real people and places, arranged in a form that creates a narrative. Robert Bresson also saw this truth:

"For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument — the camera — things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real."

Unlike Bresson, I am prepared to accept the substantive truth even of sets and actors. Every great movement in film history, from French Poetic Realism in the 1930s to Italian Neo-Realism to the French New Wave all the way up to the Danish Dogme, has been a rediscovery of this truth and a rediscovery of the world. What is patently false is the creation of images, with the aid of computers, of people and places that are not real.

In the DVD commentary for his film The Tailor of Panama, director John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance) claimed that he wished that he could put a disclaimer in the closing credits similar to that of the American Humane Society's that would read: "No CGI was used in the making of this film." Would that more filmmakers made such a claim.

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