What is the So-Called Cinematic Experience?

The movie website FilmJuice have just published my first feature article entitled simply ‘The Cinematic Experience’.

As regular readers of this site will doubtless recall, I have a great fondness not only for the cinema as an institution but also its capacity to bludgeon us into a state of supine beatitude with no more than a thunderous explosion of transforming robot. In fact, I recently had a ‘best genre films of 2011’ piece published in the BSFA’s house journal Vector and my top ten included Takeshi Koike’s recently released Redline, an anime so beautifully animated and insanely visual that its finale rivals the pure cinematic spectacle of the opening sequence of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. However, despite enjoying both 3D and action movies projected on vast IMAX screens, my article expresses a good deal of concern over what I call the technological arms race that is currently raging between the cinema chains and the consumer electronics firms:

The race began when James Cameron resurrected 3D technology and made a fortune with his Smurf-based epic Avatar. Convinced that 3D was the future of film, cinema chains spent billions retrofitting their theatres with digital 3D projectors. For a while, this worked quite nicely and everyone made money. Then audiences began getting tired of having to pay extra for poorly made 3D films and technology companies soon found a way of providing 3D at home, thereby sending everyone back to square one. Next came the suggestion that the only way to experience Brad Bird’s Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol was on one of those giant IMAX screens that are usually used to entertain tourists with images of shipwrecks and dinosaurs. Unfortunately, while it is difficult to imagine Samsung and LG finding a way of making home IMAX systems, the failure to sell Andrew Stanton’s John Carter as an IMAX experience suggests that the popularity of IMAX may be even more fragile than 3D. Furthermore, if IMAX is to become the new benchmark for cinematic experiences, then cinema chains will be forced to spend even more money building thousands of new IMAX. With many industry insiders already talking up vibrating seats as the Next Big Thing, the toxic and self-destructive nature of this technological arms race is becoming all too apparent.

While I do not mention it in the article itself for reasons of space, I feel that a far better use of money would be to invest in updating the existing cinematic infrastructure so as to ensure that every screen in the country has comfy seats, good quality projection, properly functioning speakers, adequate sound-proofing and a concession stand that aspires to being more than a dementedly ruinous tuck shop.

For me, the cinematic experience is not some fairground ride but an act of almost religious devotion. I choose to see films in the cinema because I value the act of leaving my house and traveling to see a film. I choose to see films in the cinema because I like sitting in a space designed solely for the purpose of viewing films. I enjoy the distraction-free environment of a quiet cinema and I am more than happy to pay for the opportunity to use it because I believe that it is the best possible environment in which to surrender myself to a director’s vision.

And if you’re looking for a personal recommendation: My favourite London cinema is the big screen at the Curzon Mayfair.

REVIEW – Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

FilmJuice have my review of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor’s Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.

Question: Nic Cage plays a flaming skeleton on a motorbike in a film directed by the guys behind Gamer (2009) and Crank 2: High Voltage (2006), what is not to like? Answer: The script. Much like Justin Lin’s Fast Five (2011), Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is just a few jokes and few decent plot points away from being a really brilliant action film. Without a decent script, the film is simply an inordinately silly and entertaining action romp featuring some brilliant cinematography and some genuinely revolutionary use of 3D:

Most 3D techniques operate by either creating an illusion of depth, or creating the illusion that something on screen is jutting out into the cinema. 3D films create these illusions by forcing your eyes to focus on two different things at the same time, which is why watching 3D films can be a headache-inducing experience. While Neveldine/Taylor make good use of ‘traditional’ 3D effects, they also set out to push the limits of 3D by intentionally recreating those moments where the 3D techniques break down and your brain rebels, forcing you to look away from the screen in disgust. The result is a series of sequences that are both deeply unsettling and entirely appropriate given the context and subject matter. Think of the way in which Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible (2002) used brown notes and violent camera work to induce feelings of unease and you will get some idea of how visceral an experience Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance can be.

Lacking decent dialogue, compelling story-telling or engaging characters, Ghost Rider 2 is almost an art house flick in that its primary pleasures are visual and cinematic rather than narrative. Fans of ground-breaking cinematography and silliness will lap this up, those seeking a more traditional comic book movie may well find themselves shifting in their seats.

Hugo (2011) – Passionately Ambivalent

One of the most influential populist understandings of how humans think is derived from the model of the triune brain devised by the neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean. According to MacLean, the human brain is the product of three evolutionary steps, each step not only marks a transition from one type of animal to another, it also heralds the acquisition of a new set of cognitive skills. The first part of the brain to develop was the reptilian complex (or ‘Lizard Brain’), which governs such behaviours as aggression, dominance and all of the ritualistic posturing that usually accompanies the desire to take and hold territory. Next to develop was the paleomammalian complex (or ‘Limbic Brain’), which controls basic emotions, motivations and the desire to reproduce and protect one’s young. Last to develop was the neomammallian complex, usually associated with the human cerebral neocortex, this part of the brain controls reasoning, language, strategic thoughts and all of the other cognitive skills we normally consider to be quintessentially human.

This model of human neurological development has proved so immensely influential that its three stages have now mostly entered common parlance. Indeed, when someone has a reaction they know to be irrational, they frequently chalk it up to the primitive harpings of their lizard brain, the part of their brain and personality that wants to fight or run away from any potential source of trouble. One explanation for this model’s continued success is that it taps into a popular understanding of how humans evolved and links it to what it feels like to be human. We have all seen the animations that depict human evolution as one long march out of the slime and into the light and so it is easy to picture our ancestors struggling with inferior neural circuitry until evolution kicked in and all of their experience points went into buying the ‘Limbic System’ trait. Lodged at the heart of the model of the triune brain is the decidedly Whiggish notion that the story of evolution is ultimately the story of progress and that the hardware we now have is a damn sight better than what our ancestors once used to apprehend the world. This Whiggish view of human evolutionary history is also buttressed by our collective experience of technological change. For example, most middle-class Westerners are now familiar with the experience of using a computer until it becomes so slow and clunky that they are forced to either invest in upgrades or buy something sleeker, faster and better adapted to the demands of today’s over-designed web pages. One might even go so far as to argue that the success of the model of the triune brain is due to the fact that it offers us a Just So Story that tells of How the Human Got its Brain.

One of the advantages of thinking about oneself in terms of different brains is that it allows us to distance ourselves from thoughts we deem unacceptable. When people act rashly and chalk it up to the intervention of their ‘Lizard Brain’, they are suggesting that the person who acted rashly was not the person they generally consider themselves to be. However, while the Lizard Brain is generally seen as being alien, it is not necessarily held in contempt or singled out as a source of toxic irrationality. Instead, people who talk about themselves in terms of the triune brain generally talk about the Lizard Brain in terms that are decidedly ambivalent. On the one hand, the Lizard Brain is the thing that makes us over-react when someone challenges our position in the group but, on the other hand, it is also the thing that allows us to react in an instant when a loved one is about to be run over by a car. Thus, the Lizard Brain is both an unpleasant anachronism that is surplus to requirements and a life saving set of cognitive skills that allows us to cut through the crap and act decisively when it really matters. These ambivalent attitudes to ‘old tech’ are also manifest in the arts.

The Whiggish approach to both human and technological evolution has its equivalent in the history of cinema. Just as the human brain moved through different stages before reaching full humanity, film is seen as the product of different artistic forms:

First, there was illustration and painting that allowed humans to develop compositional skills that enabled them to not only reproduce images of reality but also to convey moods and themes.

Second, there was photography that absorbed illustration’s compositional techniques and added new skills based upon both the immediacy of the photographic medium and the technological sophistication of the photographer’s tools when compared to those of painters and illustrators.

Third, early film absorbed the skills of photography and introduced a new set of technological hurdles involving the movement from capturing still images to capturing moving ones. This progression from depictions of single moments to depictions of expanses of time allowed early filmmakers to begin telling stories and so to begin drawing on the expertise of writers as well as visual artists.

Fourth, the medium of film continued to evolve over time adding first sound and then colour to its moving images. These basic technological advancements were joined by increasingly involved forms of cinematography as well as more and more refined form of storytelling and narrative control.

Fifth, the arrival of the digital era allowed filmmakers to escape the requirement that something be present in front of the camera in order to appear on film. Indeed, while practical effects and the cinematic techniques used to film these effects became more and more sophisticated as time went by, the director always found himself having to create things in the real world in order for them to appear in the world of his film. The development of computer graphics allowed the creation of remarkable images with no basis in reality, images that began as explosions but then became entire worlds and characters. Suddenly, the line between traditional live-action film and animation began to dissolve.

While there have been numerous attempts to find a sixth step in the evolution of the cinematic form, the current cutting edge is the introduction of techniques and technologies that allow films to acquire a third dimension whereby the screen appears to move back and forth to create both the illusion of depth and the illusion that figures on screen are somehow jutting out into the cinema auditorium.

Much like the primitive parts of the human brain, the cutting edge of cinematic technology enjoys something of an ambivalent reputation. Some see 3D as little more than a gimmick that distracts from the traditional cinematic techniques that have been honed and improved by generations of gifted filmmakers. Others, on the other hand, see 3D not only as a financial lifeline for an industry in terminal decline but also as enough of a reason to make and release a film. Who cares whether Transformers tells a story… the important thing is that it looks good and that the punters get their money’s worth when it comes to 3D. Unfortunately, while the question of 3D’s role in the future of cinema has produced a good deal of intelligent commentary, the commentators tend to split quite evenly into neophile and luddite camps. In other words, the debate is often framed as a zero-sum game in which 3D’s success can only come at the cost of traditional filmmaking while the failure of 3D can only spell doom for an existing business model based upon a set of creative industries that struggle to command the public’s attention in the way they once did.

Based on Brian Selznick’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007). Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is an attempt to build a bridge between these two opposing cinematic camps. Filmed in 3D and packed full of cutting-edge CGI, Hugo is not only a film that looks towards the 21st Century, it is also a film that looks back to the dawn of the 20th Century by celebrating the life and works of the pioneering French filmmaker Georges Melies.

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