I'm having trouble seeing movies these days. I don't mean getting to them. I mean that the way they pass through my eyeballs into my brain is becoming more and more difficult for me to process. The new technologies – high-speed, high-definition, 3-D, etc. – used in many of this year's blockbusters, are, I think, overloading my brain with so much information, forcing me to see in such a new way, that the mere act of watching them exhausts me. As a result, they stick in my memory less and less – I can't retain what I've just struggled to see. The things that set out to dazzle me merely fry my mind.
The most obvious example is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, due out next week, the latest Middle Earth adventure from director Peter Jackson, who brought us the Oscar-winning, megahit Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's shot in an entirely new way, 48-frames-per-second digital cinematography, as opposed to the 24-frames-per-second projection to which we are accustomed. This is supposed to increase clarity of image and reduce the slight stutter celluloid sometimes has.
It's also supposed to make us go, "Whoa!" Unfortunately it, and most films in 3-D, evoke in me more of a "Wha??" Instead of looking super-sophisticated and super-real, to my eye they just look super-fake. I become too aware of the forced perspectives. I keep lifting off my 3-D glasses, wanting to free myself of their tinted dimness and find the "real" movie underneath.
I don't feel like I'm watching the future of the medium. Instead, these films send me reeling back to the cheesy visuals of my past – to the kids' shows by Sid and Marty Kroft (H.R. Puffnstuff), which had the same overly bright lighting. To the early attempts at special effects, with "flying" characters that were obvious cut-outs with obvious black outlines. To the BBC-style filmed plays, where actors trapped in sets (whose stones were clearly made of Styrofoam) would over-emote to compensate. Why are we returning to obviously-faked scenes, such as the car chase in To Catch a Thief, after we've known the thrill of the real one in The French Connection?
As I was exiting one of these current brain-fryers, a fellow critic nailed it for me: "It looks just like a View-Master slide," he said. (For those born in this millennium, the View-Master was a toy that resembled plastic binoculars. You'd insert a disc of snapshots of, say, the Eiffel Tower, and see it in ultra-basic 3-D, with the monument in the extreme foreground, and a hazy backdrop far in the background.) The most sophisticated technology of today should not call to mind the crudest visuals of 1967.
I'm sure you could make an argument that my eye just needs to be trained; that faced with this new technology, I'm as unsophisticated as the audience who watched the first film of a train pulling into a station, and jumped back in fear. To that I'd counter, I wish these visuals would make me jump. Because they don't make me feel anything.
In the rush to create visual sensations, emotional reactions are being lost. For me to invest in a character or story, I have to engage with her or it as real on some level. I was more wowed by the scenery of actual New Zealand in the LOTR trilogy, for example, than by the mainly-CGI world of The Hobbit. If a character is clinging to a cliff, I'm a lot more concerned when it's a real cliff. When the camera pulls back in Gone with the Wind to reveal legions of dead and wounded soldiers at the train station, I gasp with horror; but if a bunch of computer-animated robots are punching each other, instead of rooting for one or the other, I yawn and wait for it to be over. As a pack of CGI wolves chased other CGI beasts against a CGI backdrop in a recent film, a friend turned to me and summed it up: "I don't care about any of this," she said. I need to care.
Instead of taking me into the story or character, the falseness keeps me at arm's length, or even repels me. Psychologists have written about the eeriness people feel when something they're looking at feels unreal or wrong to them. If filmmakers used that deliberately, it might enhance their stories – if, for example, in Life of Pi, director Ang Lee had used 2-D for the scenes set in "real life," in India, on the cargo ship, and in Canada, and saved 3-D for the more magical scenes in which Pi and the animals are lost at sea. This juxtaposition of the real and unreal could add to the emotional impact of the story's end. Instead, my eye struggled to find the "real" in the land-locked scenes, detracting from my enjoyment.
The experience is not unlike gazing into the face of an actress who's had too much work done, a practice that has reached epidemic levels. It not only breaks my heart, it pisses me off – I feel robbed of the chance to know what her "real" face looks like. And in addition to being aesthetically unattractive, it doesn't fool anyone. It's the female equivalent of a balding man's comb-over.
Check out Catherine Zeta-Jones and Uma Thurman in the comedy Playing for Keeps, which opened yesterday. I've met those women, and they were stunning. Now they look as if someone rubbed a thumb over their photographs. Instead of longing to see them in close-up, I find myself desperately searching their new (puffed, pulled, unrecognizable) faces for signs of their old ones – or worse, looking away.
Like too much CGI, too much facial work also has unintended story consequences. The actresses in Playing For Keeps throw their bodies around in extreme ways, perhaps because they have to overcompensate for faces that don't move. The result is, we view them as nuts instead of amusing. In the comedy Parental Guidance, due Dec. 25, Marisa Tomei's age-appropriate wrinkles contrast so sharply with Bette Midler's preternaturally stiff visage that the archetypes of "mother" and "daughter" are turned upside-down. The details that should convey to us who the characters are now convey only how the actresses want to be seen. Instead of three-dimensional characters, they seem like one-dimensional narcissists.
The beauty of two-dimensional, celluloid film has never been higher, thanks to excellent production design, cinematography, lighting, and other elements of mise-en-scène. (Freeze any frame of The Good Wife or Boardwalk Empire, and the painterliness of it will make you swoon.) So it's a cruel irony that, in trying to move forward too fast, filmmakers are going backward. They're turning away from a form they've perfected, and turning out work that underwhelms; they're throwing their energy, resources, and unthinkable amounts of money into movies that are less than the sum of their parts.