This is the complete screen recording of a paper I gave last month at a conference in Montreal, The Magic of Special Effects: Cinema, Technology, Reception, 10 November 2013. Aside from the final plenary talk by Tom Gunning, I was the last speaker at this intensive, 6-day conference, so I will plead a little bit of fatigue and befrazzlement; I mostly resisted the urge to rewrite my paper over the course of the week as I heard so many stimulating ideas from the other speakers, but I will no doubt feed some of that stimulation back into the next draft of my paper. What I presented was an early sketch of my chapter on Spielberg for a forthcoming book, and thanks to helpful comments and questions from other delegates, I have a better idea of what I need to do to develop it into a longer, stronger essay. I hope you enjoy this snapshot of a work-in-progress, but let me know in the comments section if you have suggestions for improvement. Although the finished chapter will explore in more historical depth the relationship between Spielberg and Industrial Light and Magic, what I presented here is an attempt to characterise what Spielberg does with visual effects set-pieces, and how the audience is embedded in a “spectacular venue” for the presentation of marvellous things.
[This post contains spoilers for Gravity, but since I seem to be the last person in the universe to see the film, that shouldn't be too much of a problem...]
By the time I got around to seeing Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity, so much had already been said. It received rapturous reviews, then a bunch of criticisms of its scientific plausibility, then prompted, or at least chimed with, talk about space debris, roused the obligatory Oscar “buzz” (i.e. somebody somewhere thought it might win a couple of awards), and generally came on like an end-of-year blockbuster that showed the summer how thrills and spectacle should have been handled. So, while I feel like I want to write a little something about the film, I’m not too keen to burden you with a retread of opinions you might already have found elsewhere.
I recently rewatched Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It’s a troubling piece of work, one that I’ll return to in later posts, I’m sure. Its growing reputation amongst critics, audiences and Spielberg scholars has muted a lot of the ambivalence that greeted it upon initial release. This time around, and because I’m looking for unusual angles on Spielberg’s work for these 100 blog posts, one of the things that has stayed with me are the times played on Gigolo Joe’s internal jukebox. To explain, in case you’re unfamiliar, Gigolo Joe is a love-model mecha (a robot prostitute) played by Jude Law. He provides a sexy service to his female customers (we’re never told whether or not he accepts male clients), though his techniques are left to our imagination, and we’re never told exactly what he’s “got down there”. I don’t think Spielberg is terribly secure talking about sex, and he’s certainly not keen on showing it.
Anyway, this is a family show. Instead of detailing the processes whereby a robot pleasures the ladies, we see Joe going through his suave seduction routines, which are curiously vintage, based as they are on soft-shoe-shuffling razzle-dazzling dance moves and its-all-about-you patter. With a flick of his head, he can start a song playing to get you in the mood. We hear him play three different tracks in the movie, and they’re all significant and ironic choices. It’s odd in the first instance that he should play vintage tracks, seeing as the film is set in the future, but the film is partly about a battle between humans and robots over cultural representation, and about representation standing in for and superseding reality (again, I think this will require a separate post…); Spielberg often explores the world through film references, which are placed there to reward attentive viewing, and to insinuate the director into the historical legacy of the cinema.
One track Joe plays in ‘Guys and Dolls’, from the 1955 movie adaptation of the show of the same name. It is sung by Johnny Silver and Stubby Kaye (who had a role as the town crier in the 1957 Pinocchio with Mickey Rooney, which is surely too oblique a reference to be anything other than a curious coincidence), and aside from what the lyrics do to normalise relationships where helpless ‘guys’ ruining themselves over their desire for ‘some doll’, the significance to A.I. is obvious in the title ‘Guys and Dolls‘: the old-fashioned use of ‘doll’ as a slang term for ‘woman’ becomes a reference to the miniature doubles we give to children to play with. So, a love-doll is ‘singing’ a song that describes his clients, the targets of his attentions, as dolls.
The next track is Fred Astaire’s ‘Cheek to Cheek’ from Top Hat (1935):
Like all of these tracks, it’s a song of singular, helpless devotion, of unique focus on a partner. As such, its a musical disavowal of the transactional, automated seduction that’s really going on in the film. It is from Astaire that Gigolo Joe has downloaded his dance moves, the twirling and toe-tapping that augment his walk with a smooth and confident glide. The historical remainder of Astaire’s star persona has become the “motion-capture” data for a robot prostitute a century later. But I’m also reminded of the ‘Astaire Bill‘, which was designed to protect the image rights of deceased stars: had this been successful, it would have restricted the use of the image of performers in advertisements and might have prevented the recent trend for digitally resurrecting stars to sell stuff. The Astaire Bill was under discussion from 1999, and throughout the production of the film. It was supported by the Screen Actors Guild, and opposed by most of the major studios. Maybe it’s too subtle a link for me to suggest it has much significance as part of Gigolo Joe’s repertoire, but the next song’s relevance is a lot more pronounced.
Finally, Dick Powell is heard singing ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’, from the movie Dames. First of all, this explains Joe’s act – while you are his customer, he will focus all of his attention on you and you alone. But there’s a pun in there for viewers of A.I. Joe has only been given eyes by his makers so that he can perform these kinds of acts with paying customers. David, the robot boy played by Hayley Joel Osment in the film, is programmed to love only his mother, exclusively and permanently, and it is partly his clinging devotion and unwavering gaze, yearning for a returned look of love, that alienates him from his adoptive mother (Frances O’Connor). Eyes and looking are a recurring motif in the film, as when David peers through the eye sockets of one his synthetic doubles, and finally sees himself as just one of many robotic likenesses, or when he gets locked into 2000 years of imploring eye contact with a statue of the Blue Fairy from Pinocchio, like an everlasting Plato’s Cave in which two synthetic beings are stuck in a cycle of response/non-response.
In Dames, Dick Powell tells Ruby Keeler that he only has eyes for her. He begins to image that all passersby and advertising models have her face, and halfway through the song, we cut to an astonishing Busby Berkeley dance routine where all of the dancers look like Ruby Keeler, or hold giant masks of her face. It’s delightful, intricate, and more than a little creepy: what starts out as a sweet declaration of monogamous ogling becomes a whole world of singleminded obsession. The excess is overwhelming as a romantic gesture, and the replications of Keeler create an uncanny sense of her commoditisation, paradoxically extolling her uniqueness with an image of multiplicity. It makes sense, then, that this should provide the soundtrack for an android, especially one functionally designed to treat all-comers as the perfected image of his desire.
[Following his appearance as French scientist and UFO-researcher Claude Lacombe in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, François Truffaut, more famous for his work behind the camera on his own films (though Spielberg cast him because he loved the way Truffaut had acted alongside children in L'enfant sauvage ), received this letter from his friend, the great director Jean Renoir.]
7 March 1978
We have finally seen Close Encounters. It is a very good film, and I regret it was not made in France. This type of popular science would be most appropriate for the compatriots of Jules Verne and Méliès. Both men were Montgolfier‘s rightful heirs. You are excellent in it, because you’re not quite real. There is more than a grain of eccentricity in this adventure. The author is a poet. In the South of France one would say he is a bit fada. He brings to mind the exact meaning of this word in Provence: the village fada is the one possessed by the fairies.
These fairies who reside with you have agreed to let themselves be briefly borrowed by the author of the film in question.
Love from Dido and I.
[Source: Jean Renoir: Letters, edited by David Thompson & Lorraine LoBianco. London: Faber & Faber, 1994. Dido Freire was Renoir's second wife, from 1944 until his death in 1979.]
Postscript: While Renoir’s letter was on its way to France, Truffaut’s own letter, written the same day, must have been in the post to Renoir in Beverly Hills. Here’s an extract:
My dear friends,
I appeared on a television show about Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and the last thing I spoke about was Le Coeur à l’aise [Renoir's 1978 memoir], showing the book itself on camera. In my enthusiasm, however, I didn’t notice that I was holding the book upside down, so millions of viewers had to bend over and look at the TV screen upside-down to be able to read the title. I don’t have to tell you that my daughters were on the floor laughing about this.
I think of you constantly and send you all my love and affection.
I’ve been asked to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming anthology of extended essays on the work of Steven Spielberg, to be published in 2015. I’m going to be focusing on his use of special and visual effects, with particular interest in his longstanding relationship with the effects house Industrial Light and Magic. Aside from a couple of pieces on Georges Méliès, I’ve never done a study based on a single director, so this will be a fun exercise for me. I might even manage to produce a couple of articles out of it if it proves fruitful. Aside from his recent work, and a couple of films I re-watched during research for Performing Illusions, I haven’t seen the old Spielbergs since I was firmly in their target demographic. His films defined my childhood cinematic experience. It’s a toss-up whether Close Encounters was the first film I saw, or if it was Pete’s Dragon, at age 3 (memory eludes me), and I followed avidly anything he made, or had a hand in. Continue reading
In case you thought complaining about how special effects are just not as exciting or authentic as real stunts, spectacle and peril was a new thing, here is an article from a 1933 issue of the Hollywood Reporter, in which film director Jack Conway worries that the spread of camera trickery might be depleting the excitement of film. One problem he notes, is that audiences have just become too wise to the illusions, and just aren’t fooled any more. [I found this article using Lantern, the amazing new search tool for the Media History Digital Library. It's a great way to search for film and media articles from public domain journals. Read David Bordwell's appreciation here.]
Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers is an oddity wrapped up in a conventional teen-drama that warps into some kind of day-glo fever dream of bikinis, Britney, and assault rifles. Ostensibly the tale of four girls who commit a violent robbery to fund their spring-break trip to Florida so that they don’t miss out on the hedonistic, beer-bathing fun they imagine their peers are having. But it could just as easily be their heat-stroked collective hallucination. It is neither the lurid exploitation of Disney princesses it might seem to be on first glance (see accompanying image, above), nor the handwringing “won’t-somebody-think-of-the-children”, expose of “the Real Spring Break”, though it has the scent of both those things about it. It’s a little more haunting and confounding than that. It seems like a prime candidate for some randomisation, so I’ve subjected it to the process that will familiar to regular readers by now, and which can be recapped/introduced with a quick visit to some of the earlier entries in the series.
The randomiser has selected minute-marks 2, 24, 37, 54, and 83. That’s a good spread across the whole of the film, but there’s no telling what those images will yield. The first picture will be… Continue reading
One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging. Continue reading
The films of Yasujiro Ozu are probably the opposite of random in their structure and composition, so it seems rather perverse to make one his films the subject of this ongoing series of randomised film reviews. But that’s not a good enough reason to avoid giving it a try, this time working with Ozu’s gorgeous 1959 Floating Weeds, a remake of his own 1934 silent comedy-drama. It’s also a good opportunity to sing the praises of Eureka’s magnificent Blu-Ray edition of the film, from the Masters of Cinema series (though today’s frame grabs are taken from a DVD – for an idea of the BD quality, this link should help). If you need a primer on the formal style of Ozu’s films (though admittedly it just focuses on a few of the late works), I wrote one for my students a few years ago.
The rules are simple: I use a random number generator to give me five numbers, and these dictate the minute-marks of the frames I take from a DVD of the film. These three images then form the basis for a discussion of the film. The numbers are 7, 36, 41, 56, and 78, meaning that we begin with … Continue reading