Friday, January 20, 2006

... is Worth a Pound of CGI

In Tod Browning's Dracula, there's a great scene where Jonathan Harker arrives at Dracula's castle and The Count bids Harker follow him up the stairs to his rooms. Bela Lugosi, in his inimitable role, walks up the stone stairway, across which is spun a huge spiderweb. He passes through the cobweb without even disturbing so much as a thread. Harker looks on dumbfounded and is forced to push away the thick webs so that he can follow. A spider scuttles away into the darkness.

It's an amazingly creepy moment, and few cinema special effects have ever surpassed it for me. How is the Count's unnerving act achieved? Simply with an edit: Dracula approaches the web, cut to Harker's reaction, cut to Dracula on the other side of the web. Just like that.

You can pick up the Browning Dracula on DVD for a few dollars. It's worth it. Sure, the script is lumbering and melodramatic by today's standards, but I guarantee, if you sit in a darkened room with no distractions and immerse yourself in the black and white world of Browning's interpretation, you can't fail to be enveloped by the dark, dank atmosphere and the claustrophobic story.

If that scene was being made today, it would go very differently. Dracula would beckon Harker, and turn with a swirl of his cape into a tight close-up. Harker would not see The Count's face morph for an instant into the visage of some hideous fanged-demon. Dracula would approach the cobweb, which would unwind strand by strand around his dark form. He would pass through the untwining web which a digital spider would then re-spin behind him. The sequence would have fifteen different CGI shots, thirty or forty cuts and a whole swag of obvious over-the-top sound effects. It would be impressive, possibly, but it would not be in the least bit creepy.

The modern cinema of the fantastic has lost its imagination. It has also lost its respect for the ability of the audience to have an imagination. In the Browning Dracula the spookiest moment of Dracula passing through the spiderweb happens way off screen, deep in the imagination of the viewer. No amount of clever CGI can ever hope to compete with that.

It's time for ideas again. We're all tired of seeing intricately detailed dinosaurs, gravity-defying superheroes and toothy aliens that look like they have bad head colds. We've seen it. It's boring.

How about this for an idea Hollywood? Take away a third of the budget you spend on special effects and put it into creating some decent original stories. And for Pete's sake, take some risks for a change.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"And for Pete's sake, take some risks for a change."
Pete dont take risks...aint you seen Kong?

January 20, 2006 8:54 PM  
Blogger Phi said...

I had Murnaus' Nosferatu in DVD as a birthday present last year. I've already consumed the VHS...
I've also liked the Herzog version, though it doesn't compare to the old one!
The same friend also bought me (by knowing my tastes so well) Fritz Lang's Metropolis, which is not properly a thriller or horror film, but I think it's simply GREAT.
How about Murnau's Dr.Caligaris? Do you like it? That one too is a very clever realization, disturbing as it can be. Really good, indeed.

January 20, 2006 9:44 PM  
Anonymous Cissy Strutt said...

The Pete for whose sake the taking of risks is exhorted is a Pete who believes in the elastic elated power of our imagination, who thinks that thinking is a good thing, not be drowned by Musak & Noise at every turn, a Pete who appreciates a good Kitten photo & the smell of Ardbeg. This Pete is the Pete in us all who encourages, tickles, riles & dares us to be, to do, to create, to think. This Pete is our other self - a prick to our conscience, a nudge in our ribs & for his sake, we try to be ... better.

January 20, 2006 10:04 PM  
Blogger Joey Polanski said...

Right, RIGHT, RIGHT! What horror filmakers have fergot is that scary means creeeeeepy, not strikin or startlin. Harkers sposta be thinkin "Did I jus see that? What is going on here? Am I in danger here?" not Hey, COOL! DANG, do that AGAIN!"

BTW: Im pretty sure I seen Vampyr not too long ago. Dint no what it was. Watchd it fer kicks, expectin pure schlock. Happily, I was totally creept out by it.

Brownings Freaks also creept me out but good! An wit minimal special fx! Ahhh, but THAT was cheap an easy. All it takes is one friggin pinhead.

January 21, 2006 2:25 AM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

How about SAW (the first one)? Did you see that? It was a horror/thriller done on a very small budget and I thought it worked out pretty well. Freaked me out for sure.

January 21, 2006 3:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

T'other day I was tasked to edit a retail commercial for a fast food brand.In the hurry-up-and-wait nature of advertsing,I had hours of empty time in the afternoon.I slept,I read old British film magazines.
Something about "Batman Begins" may be pertainent to this thread.The fullah quoted,maybe Christopher Nolan,stated it was his aim to make alla Batman's gadgets believable,scientifically and tech-o-logically probable for today's world.As if you just may be able to source these things yourself,if you had the wherewithall.
I go Grandpa Simpson here,but bear with me.Back in my Art School days,I was researching a paper on iconography vs iconology.I read an idea that in medieval times,the unwashed had trouble with "is" and "like".So,that statue of the Virgin,was more than an image in stone.Of course,if you were unwashed and devout,you'd bring a whole bunch of your own mysticism to lay at the feet of the Virgin statue.
Geddit? The Batman Begins approach is kinda fill in the blanks,build all the bridges from screen to your imagination.Enjoy the ride,dont work to hard.Ye Olde Mystic Statue approach gives you an image to imbue with alla your inner stuff,you kinda create the experience.
I've absorbed some reviews of "Kong" over the last month (and can't remember from where,perhaps idea,not my own, on the efficacy of the original movie,claims that the flickery primitive nature of the 1930's animation has a dream/nightmare quality lacking in the Jackson copy.That the journey is metaphysical-Skull Island,going within your head to search out your monsters.Now Spectacle trumps Fear.Directors,even good ones (Stephen Chow "Kung Fu Hustle") fully visualise the internal,the spiritual,the mental,leave us little room for imagination.
Bram Stoker and Mary Shelly had their day,and it was a fair while ago.Just maybe the Horror genre is dying of old age.It happens.Romantic Landscape painting was kinda about the awe of nature.Think how devalued "awesome" has become.Alla our favourite gruesome flicks are old and b&w and flavoured with German Expressionism (Nosferatu,Caligari).And this stuff has been mainstreamed (Nightmare on Elm St) and had the tread near worn offa it.
Asking what's next is good.What do we do best with our desire and ability to show all,externalise and make manifest?Skinny young Jon Toogood from Shihad ranted some years ago against the cross over of rock and dance music.He was at pains to point out he liked both but mixing the two ya came out with gunk that wasn't no damn good as either.

January 21, 2006 8:47 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Phi: Yes, I have Caligari. As you say, quite disturbing. Metropolis is a work of genius. There are few films like it. You might have missed this post on The Cow :-)

Joey: It extends into other areas aside from 'creepy' as well, but that is a good example. Film-makers, particularly Hollywood (although others are guilty of it too), spoonfeed the audience with so much that there is little space for a personal experience.

jedimacfan: I didn't see Saw. I'm not really a fan of psychological cruelty on screen. It's a kind of a cheap trick in my view. Like a lot of Damien Hirst art - show people something gross (or imply it) and they will always come back for more.

January 21, 2006 9:32 AM  
Blogger Joe Fuel said...

I have half a mind to go out and buy Dracula right now. Still, I'm with you on the original ideas part. I whole-heartedly agree.

January 21, 2006 11:44 AM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Cissy Strutt: No I think you must be thinking of Blind Freddy. Or Mike.

Joe: If you're at all interested in vampires, then you really need to have Stoker's book and the Todd Browning film and Murnau's film in your collection. Go out and buy them right away!

January 21, 2006 1:08 PM  
Blogger Martha Who? said...

hear hear! I agree 100%. There's something more than just charming about the old-school stuff. The magic is gone.

January 21, 2006 1:15 PM  
Anonymous Universal Head said...

I don't think horror is dying out, I just think directors and film-makers are still like kids at Christmas. Eventually the good ones with imagination will dump the shiny new toy and go back to playing with the cardboard box.

Case in point - that Call of Cthulhu silent really was quite scary. It was so refreshing to be given the opportunity to give my imagination a workout. I could see, for example, that it was billowing black cloth instead of a dark tempestuous sea, but by respecting my ability to imagine it, they sold it to me, and it worked.

January 21, 2006 1:41 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

anonymous(I think I will call you Wolfman):

I consider myself a fairly easy to please filmgoer. When I go to see mainstream film, I am predisposed to want to like the experience. So I am taking my offerings to lay at the foot of the virgin. Increasingly, though, I am being cheated of my spiritual reward by the disrespect that the whole cinema experience dishes up.

Going all Grampa Simpson myself, I remember a wholly different experience when I was younger. I never had this feeling that I was being cheated out of my admission money.

I haven't even seen Kong yet, and I don't even care so much if I do. I can always get it on DVD, which means it will be cheaper, I won't have to sit in a cinema full of people who behave like they're in their loungerooms anyway, and I can drink beer. Kong has almost finished its run. Surely this is screaming something at the producers.

Perhaps the horror genre is dying of old age. But in my heart-of-hearts I don't think so. I think we still see glimpses of what is possible (M. Night Shyamalan's The Village, Hideo Nakada's The Ring and I'd even accept Wan and Whannel's Saw. I think that the real problem is that in the scramble for the maximum dollar return, the film industry loses sight of the fact that if you want to make something good you can't hope to please everyone all at once. And you can't just make safe bets.

I believe the carnival-ride mentality will have dire effects eventually, just as the Super Group concept imploded in music.

We're on the verge of the Desktop Feature Film. i can't wait.

January 21, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger jedimacfan said...

anaglyphy said: "We're on the verge of the Desktop Feature Film. i can't wait."

Yes, but this can backfire, too. The Blair Witch Project was HORRIBLE. Like a bad camping video with three mentally challenged stooges.

January 21, 2006 5:00 PM  
Blogger anaglyph said...

Well, just because you can make a film doesn't mean it will be good. Blair Witch did well mainly becuase of its successful propaganda. They weren't necessarily clever making their film, but they were extremely clever in promoting it.

January 22, 2006 7:46 PM  

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