Do You Believe In (Movie) Magic?

August 9th, 2012 Comments Off on Do You Believe In (Movie) Magic?

Though I’ve made my career in theatre, I love film just as much, albeit for different reasons. And while the death of theatre has been predicted seemingly since it began (“He sleeps with his mother and tears out his eyes? Who would pay to see that?!”), I am actually more worried about the future direction of movies.

Commercial movie exhibition dates back about 120 years. Film was, in many ways, a technologically-driven adaptation of theatre, since previously performances could not be recorded and shared. It took time for film to develop its own language and take advantage of its technical opportunities; many early movies look not unlike stage plays, and suffer for it today. But certainly over the past century, film has become its own vehicle of expression, distinct from theatre, its rise roughly concurrent with that of radio and recorded music, with television entering the picture near the mid-point of the last century and video games expanding new forms of immersive narrative in the 1980s. As Seth Godin noted in an address at the 2012 Theatre Communications Group conference, people used to go to the theatre because they didn’t have other choices; that all changed, rapidly, in the 1900s.

While outsiders predict the demise of theatre, the movie industry has at times warned of its own incipient doom: the advent of TV and the invention of home video recording are but two significant examples that the film industry feared and survived. It has twice battled such incursions with 3D, briefly in the 50s and more pervasively now, and has tried to build ever bigger blockbusters to keep luring in the rubes since Jaws and Star Wars rewrote the exhibition rules in the 1970s.

Perhaps the most significant technological innovation is one that is already more than 20 years old: computer-generated imagery (CGI). Though it looks prehistoric as displayed in the forgettable The Last Starfighter (one of the very first films to make use of CGI), dinosaurs marked its breakthrough, with Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. Though the technology has evolved and improved year after year, Jurassic (and some key effects in Terminator 2) marked the point at which, through CGI, massive hit movies started on a dangerous path (with films about the dangers of technology gone awry, no less).

Once, a film of a railroad train was enough to enthrall moviegoers, but very quickly the magical films of an artist like George Melies expanded the possibilities of the form. Yes, stories were at the core of films, but effects were often vivid and vital, whether it was Gish on an ice floe or Kong climbing the Empire State. Those effects were state of the art in their times, but I suspect that audiences understood that these were false images, man-made rather than natural. I also think that people grew to enjoy to improvements in effects, as we flash-forward from the time lapse photography of The Wolf Man’s transformation to the skin-splitting intricacy of David Naughton becoming an American Werewolf (in London). But now, everything is possible.

We read accounts of actors playing scenes to dangling tennis balls, so their eye line will be correct when a beast is later CGI’d in, acting against empty green backgrounds that will be filled later by digitally rendered settings, or acting in form-fitting motion capture suits so that they themselves can be altered. They are united only onscreen, with perpetual but incremental advances. In point of fact, many of our biggest films are computer animated (though filmmakers would decry that specific nomenclature). How much time did we spend with actual humans in Avatar?  To me (and I risk my life by saying so) some of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings landscapes look to me like Thomas Kinkade paintings. If it’s not real, let it be elegantly fake; I’ll take Peter Ellenshaw’s matte paintings of the London skyline in Mary Poppins over any element of The 300 any day, while Alien and Aliens feature creatures vastly more frightening than there digitally rendered brethren in later chapters.

The irony is that once everything is possible, the novelty and the attraction departs. Because many studio execs and filmmakers believe that improved technology is an end unto itself, 3D has come roaring back to distract us (and pick our pockets) and god help us there’s talk of 4D, a foolish “improvement” found in  museum exhibits and theme parks, which primarily consists of wind machines and moving chairs. That this is happening even as forecasting gurus predict that we will become ever more reliant on mobile media, and that more films will be seen on portable, tiny screens, is even more ironic.

Mainstream film, enslaved to the imagined audience desire for bigger and louder, moves ever farther from meaningful and even coherent stories as it exhibits ever flashier wares. Smaller films and independent cinema remain, but I daresay that hit Broadway shows surpass them for in-theatre audiences.  But they may rise again, and the studios may come to recognize the fundamental importance of story again, since now that magic is commonplace, the magicians can’t thrill us.

As for effects, I believe theatre, always rooted in story, will recognized for its human-scaled, man-made efforts there as well. For an almost absurd example, look at the stage and screen Spider-Man versions: the reboot struck some as rehash, while audiences continue to flock to the stage version, even with wires and pulleys in full view. More to the point, the handmade quality of Joey in War Horse or the prehistoric man in Complicite’s Mnemonic, the physical skills of Cirque du Soleil and Les 7 Doigts de la Main, the “horrific” Elephant Man as seen in Bernard Pomerance’s play, the physical and uninterrupted presence of actors in the same room with their audience – they remain magic. And if the people who make movies come to their senses, they’ll worry less about effects and focus on the basics: a good story, well-told.

P.S. I have said it before, but it bears repeating: until science perfects the holodeck, as seen in several of the Star Trek series, theatre will be just fine.

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