The Fantastic Mundane

21 Sep

New Pornographers Twin Cinema DetailI recently read, and thoroughly enjoyed, Matt Zoller Seitz’s article on IFC, titled “The Mundane Fantastic.”  In it, he discusses how even in this age where entire scenes and even films can be composed digitally (with no camera at all), filmmakers still strive to re-create the physical camera. As he points out, they go so far as to add lens flare, camera vibration, simulated hand-held camera jitters, and in one notable case, a speck of dirt on the lens of a camera floating in space.  A speck of dirt that never existed, on a camera that was never there.

The question Zoller Seitz has set out to explore is, “why?” As CGI moves further and further along the path towards being able to re-create reality wholesale without the need of any analog camera or audio equipment, why is it that filmmakers are moving away from the clean, fixed-camera work of earlier films and more towards artificially flawed, “real” seeming work?  As MZS states:

…with cinema in the final stages of its digital evolution — the production process evolving from one that used to be entirely analog, with component pieces (film, tape) that one could literally hold in one’s hand, to a digital process wherein almost every stage is created electronically, and the bits don’t physically exist in quite the same way — it’s worth asking where this craving for “believability” comes from and how it’s being expressed via the camera. I think it has to do with the subliminal knowledge (on the part of filmmakers more so than the viewers) that reality is imperfect, and that to make a moment seem real, one must present it somewhat imprecisely, to counteract the meticulous, slightly inhuman slickness of CGI.

I think he’s onto something, particularly in how he discusses earlier special-effects-driven films, and how by today’s documentary-style, post-Bourne compositional style, even rock ’em sock ’em movies like Back To The Future and Terminator 2 seem staid and evenly composed.

The difference between the “Forbidden Planet” approach and the herky-jerky style of so many current special effects-driven movies is the difference between spending a long, meditative afternoon in front of a foreign landmark and Chevy Chase hustling his family from one highlight to another in “National Lampoon’s European Vacation”: “Hey, look kids! There’s Big Ben! And there’s Parliament!” Even 1991’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” arguably the opening salvo in CGI’s dominance of the modern special effects epic, feels stately and classical compared to “District 9” and “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Director James Cameron breaks out the handheld camera for fight scenes, but elsewhere relies on smooth Steadicam and dolly shots (and a fair number of static images and locked-down pans).

N'Dugu ChancellorThe whole thing has me thinking a lot about music production, and about how the exact same questions and trends apply, though on a slightly different timeline. I’ve been listening to a lot of Michael Jackson lately (whether I want to or not), and I can’t help but notice the sparseness, the almost quaint style of his records, particularly Thriller.  The instrumentation on Billie Jean is incredibly sparse – just drums, bass, a single keyboard, and strings.  The tune works like it does because of the almost ridiculously strong groove from drummer N’dugu Chancellor, and the fact that it was recorded in a way that gives what the recording engineer, Bruce Swedien calls “Sonic Personality.” As he points out, there are very few songs that can be immediately identified by the first few drum beats – the amount of work they put into the mix (detailed in Swedien’s afore-linked-to post) really paid off.

Thriller was recorded in an entirely analog fashion, and as such, the composition of each song, and of the album in general, is much more measured, and feels perhaps more thought-out than some digitally-created newer works.  As great as FutureSexx/LoveSounds is, there is no denying that it has a wildly different sound and evokes an utterly different feeling in the listener than Thriller. The same could be said about, say, Pet Sounds versus Of Montreal’s The Sunlandic Twins.

And then we get into a bit of what MZS is talking about in his article – the digital simulation of analog imperfections.  There are so many albums out there that do this – leaving in guitar buzz, background noise in the studio, digitally simulating broken synths or malfunctioning amps, using a computer to craft the perfect amount of overdrive to a tube mic.  And truly – this IS something that, as MZS puts it, “the subliminal knowledge (on the part of filmmakers more so than the viewers) that reality is imperfect, and that to make a moment seem real, one must present it somewhat imprecisely.”  In this case, though, it’s on the part of the album creators more so than the listeners. I also think that this knowledge is part of why I’ve been so enjoying listening to older records lately.

(I should also note that calling albums “records” is a jazz musician affectation that dies hard – I’ll always do it, as will just about every other musician I know. It’s just what we do. I’m not sure if it informs this current discussion, but it is still interesting.  Perhaps the same will be true of movie-makers in the future, always referring to their work as “films” long after they have left their reel-to-reels and splicing equipment to rot in some studio back-lot.”)

Or, The WhaleThis desire for analog realness (and that’s not in quotation marks – I mean actual realness here) could be why, in the music world, it seems as though we’ve moved past digital simulation, and in many cases headed straight back to actual analog recording.  Many albums today still do their recording on tape, running entirely analog setups, perhaps only using pro-tools in the later stages of the album before eventually converting everything into digital for CD creation and distribution.  Lindsay’s band Or, The Whale created their new album entirely analog, from tracking through mastering, and while I can’t imagine it was the cheapest or least arduous way to make a disc, the payoff came in the form of a heaping helping of Swedien’s “Sonic Personality.” The album sounds flippin’ great.

MZS laments the change in films by the end of his article (which, have I mentioned, is really great?  And you should read it?), stating:

The end result is an inversion of the dynamic that used to rule the cinema of the imagination. The methodical, concentrated presentation of unreal situations — from Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton warriors in “Jason and the Argonauts” to the simply-presented time-jumping-by-DeLorean in the “Back to the Future” series — made old fantasy movies seem lighter, more playful, more enchanted. Even mundane moments seemed fantastic. Accidentally or on purpose, the new fantasy films do just the opposite, making the fantastic mundane.

CloverfieldI agree with what he’s saying here – and to take it a step further, I actually believe that we can look to the current work of the music industry to get some hint of where films might be going. The music industry has been able to digitally create albums for a couple of decades now, while filmmaking technology is about ten years behind that, at least in terms of wholly-digital creations like Cloverfield and District 9.  It’s safe to say, then, that record producers and engineers have had more time to adjust to the powers afforded by digital technology, and to decide which ones they want to use, and which ones they don’t.

Many albums made today by analog means aren’t made that way as a retro-cred prover (though for some bands, the badge of analog honor is worn a bit too proudly), but more because it honestly sounds better.

There are many who would make the argument that the same is true of films, be they documentaries or sci-fi fantasy flicks, and it seems to me that while we will surely see the sort of fake-analog simulation that Zoller Seitz discusses in his article for a long time to come, we will also possibly see a return to more traditional, tangible filmmaking, as well.

CoralineIn fact, we kind of already are – from the gonzo, stunterific car chase in Tarantino’s Death Proof to the beautiful, hand-crafted miniatures of Coraline, films that show us real things make the kind of impression that all of the smudged imaginary cameras in the world can’t get near. It’s a disparity that is certainly not lost on the creators of these works, nor, to a lesser extent, on audiences, and will have great effect on the maturation of digital artistry over the long term.

The grace and power of a real thing moving through space – be it a flying stuntwoman or the sound of a pedal-steel guitar – is not easily recreated by a computer. And really, why should it be?

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