"The difference between traditional and technical images, then, would be this: the first are observations of objects, the second computations of concepts. The first arise through depiction, the second through a peculiar hallucinatory power that has lost its faith in rules." —Vilém Flusser, "Into the Universe of Technical Images"
Lately I often find myself, usually in squalid municipal airport bars in Douglas, Arizona or Butte, Montana, having the following exchange:
Q: “Is there anything you don’t hate about the movies?”
A: “Yeah. Bob Zemeckis.”
Which seems like, I guess, an indefensible position, now that he’s burned through the brave sordid purgatory of his infamous mo-cap period and not quite gnawed his way out. Ah, the thankless fate of the pioneer. History will absolve you, Robert. But, alas, here’s Beowulf.
The most interesting filmmaker of his time, Zemeckis’s 2007 fulminant data explosion & puppet show got some stupid mixed reviews when it came out. The usual stuff: uncanny valley, ‘video game aesthetic’, but we love the effects, particularly the hubba-hubba ones. The effects! In retrospect, Beowulf feels like a pretty solid Wellesian assault on the business-as-usual of cinema. He’s making two movies at once. The first one is the one that comes from welding classical bits of mise-en-scene to a rather funny, arch script by kinksters Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman, who whipped up a decent re-make of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance that neatly puts a shiny funhouse mirror to all that Hero’s Journey structuralist malarkey. The second film is the one Zemeckis the Booster & Showman makes to showcase the anarchic, disruptive potential of the technologies at hand—3D in the land of motion capture. Like Avatar, it’s an ad that reflects on itself. The lure of the biggest (now supersized) electric train set a boy could ever have strikes again. Orson Welles always complained that the ever-seductive problem with cinema was that it’s canned. That it comes in cans.
By trapping actors into The Volume, (the dystopian update of the soundstage where the sorcery of image data capture occurs) a director’s inner Erich von Stroheim (all of them have this vulgar homunculus somewhere within them) is unleashed. Actors, movie stars even, are stripped of their mystique and put into humiliating studded rubber monkey suits (usually reserved for writers in Hollywood) and forced nerve-wrackingly to play scenes “theatrically” but without the sensual pleasure of props, costume, tempo, self-consciousness, or dailies. Mo-Cap is Poor Cinema, leaving the actor stripped to instinct, voice and gesture. Another bonus: impossible to play to the camera—there are dozens of them, inexorable, getting it all. The 1982 TRON was a documentary of the future. Creators swallowed into the arid universe they have brought to life and therefore unhumanized, must fight their way through the shifting layers of construction back to reality. This is the capitalist ethos of raw materials, of human resourcing, of shimmering, mesmeric narcissizing data trails, of the tyranny of possibility, of the panopticon. In other words, The Volume is the way we live now.
The mileage of the embodiment process (really, the sampling of actors) may vary even within one movie. In Beowulf, Robin Wright seems particularly flat and uncanny. (But this is a bit of a thematic trick. Not everything needs to be equally real in a fictional space. In this Zemeckis echoes Dickens.) On the other hand, there is the incredible emotive power of Crispin Glover’s Grendel, who has one of the most memorable entrances ever, which can only be coyly described as a howling, incoherent Richard III in the body of a giant rotting fetus. The rhyming choice of embodying Anthony Hopkins’ Hrothgar, Grendel’s deadbeat dad, as a fleshy baby with a long prophet’s beard shows what impishly weird stuff Zemeckis can do in post-production when he cuts loose. Remember, this is the guy who did Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In a crucial way, he thinks like Frank Tashlin or Jerry Lewis.
Once constructed, or computed as Flusser says, the data reconstituted as image inside the computers yields an infinity of possible movies, and the director now becomes metaphorically but also literally the player of a video game, wandering with purpose around a now painstakingly clothed (rendered) conceptual space, choosing camera moves and angles, discovering, questing after semi-solid facts, the final object of which is a publishable movie. This is the new ideal of post-optical cinema: the synthetic zoom. The lens no longer exists except as a ghost, a dead metaphor. And if the lens is dead, where does that leave the forlorn eye, the original eclipsed model? The ultimate ironic result of the regime of technical images, as Flusser suggests in his book, is the secret overthrow of the eye itself.
3D, or pure post-optical cinema, is less about seeing than about dwelling. You can no longer process the image at arms’ length, as a picture, as a unity. You can’t laze about like a supermodel between gigs. Your work is cut out for you. It comes (blooms? layers?) at you in parts that you must deal with separately as intervals in music (yes, a 3D image functions as a tone cluster, ideally one of Cecil Taylor’s). You must labor to compute or resolve the essentially irresolvable image. You are using the given abstractions to yield a richer one in your mind. That’s what Jean-Luc “Back to the Future” Godard spends a lot of (as usual, unfailingly pedantic and Swiss) time trying to teach the kids in his latest community college Western Civ class, Goodbye to Language.
3D tactile space is a mutating spheroid; you have the Backlot which provides the sense of thickness, of worlding; the front bulge, which the stereographers call “theatre-space,” the site of the infamous cheesy “knife” effects that we associate with the fantastical idiocy of the childhood of 3D, and there is also a screen plane, which is more like a shifting membrane whose role is to mediate and regulate the shifting volumes, between the two “halves.” Zemeckis, unlike most terrified directors, fluidly uses all three zones for his 3D. This is partly because he is a free man, free to laugh at the false stipulations of the real. For instance, there is a moment of suspense after Grendel has crashed the door of the banquet hall where the virtual camera sweeps across and towards the doorframe to the wintry exterior, where you get the subtle weirdness of 3D. We are looking through a doorframe, clearly in POV, but at the same time we are also, in some way, outside. And then mesmerized by the panoramic quality of the distance effect, we can be doubly spooked when Grendel drops into the shot. The monster was already impossibly inside. Back there in the Real World, where stereographers must make on-set decisions (computations, again) regarding apparent volume and pass them onto the director who must actually and under pressure unlearn all of The Man’s film school renaissance tricks to fuse and fashion a unitary image, creating pictorial depth, leading the eye, chiaroscuro, etc. In a conventional 3D film, the director is the powerless dwarf, the person in The Volume. The stereographer is the devious king.
But not here: the lovely climax of the opening scene where Grendel confronts but does not destroy Hrothgar shows exactly how eerily responsive and breathable 3D virtual camera moves can be. Because there are no set-ups (which are useless pre-conceptions, storyboards lived out in the physical realm), one feels the director’s touch transmitted seemingly without mediation in some mystical, intangible way. When you have impossible space, you can live and do impossible things. This is really expensive improvisational cinema that is also paradoxically torn from elements that are completely, as Orson Welles would say, canned. In other words, this is art.
Another doubling back: the revisionist Beowulf is about one theme—the grotesque and dangerous vanity of storytellers and mythmakers. It is about nothing, and nothingness, being too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance. This is a movie where moral failing is equated with the details of aging. And that is why everyone ages, except for Robin Wright, once the princess bride, and the future star of the Futurological Congress. So in a way, it is a coded reflexive work about the self-loathing quality of that leper colony, Hollywood, which hands out endless cynical variations of the Hero Myth, and about Narrative, endorsing the worldview with one breath, while denying it with the next. Stories, the film wants to say, are what little people like you believe. So in a rather pointed way, Zemeckis is just fine being this open with his own fear and loathing of his own power over the audience, which I think is considerable, matching that of any of the 800-pound gorillas of the Golden Age. I can’t ever imagine Zemeckis’ old Jedi mentor, Spielberg making this particular movie. Or Flight for that matter. He is too much the pleaser. They have an interesting alchemical relationship. Zemeckis is the filmmaker that Spielberg would like to be, but doesn’t dare.