The Digital Void

"I wanted the audience to be able to trust their eyes again."
Werner Herzog

After waiting a few weeks, I finally made the trek to my local AMC to check out the latest Indiana Jones sequel. I, like most of you, have a personal history with Indiana Jones films. Having turned seven years old with the release of Star Wars, I was the perfect age to grow up on the imaginative adventures that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were cooking up. Arriving at the falling of the boulder, my brother Andrew and I were late for Raiders of the Lost Ark and missed most of the opening sequence. It became the perfect reason to return for another viewing although we had to lie to our Mother to cough up additional movie funds as she wouldn't give us the money to see the same film twice. My entire childhood, as sad as it might seem, was devoted to buying George Lucas his beloved Skywalker Ranch and whatever wonderful mansion he must live in today.

Despite this nostalgic and sentimental opening, I am going to digress from 'reviewing' the Crystal Skull. I can say that I did enjoy the film but did not love it. What the film did do was get me thinking about synthesizers. What about them, you ask? I have already confessed my age here so it is easy to deduce that my formative years took place during the 1980's. I might be biased but I don't hold much love or nostalgia for this period in time and it is synthesizers that seem to be the icon for how I feel about it. The synthesizer, particularly in the 80's, was used excessively despite the fact that the technology felt artificial and empty. The voice of the synthesizer is without depth or feeling. Not only did this abomination ruin popular music, it ruined film music as it replaced the power of the full orchestra and the emotive playing of it's talented members. Look at how the synthesizer scores damaged films like Wall Street and Witness. With proper film scores, these films would feel less dated and have a greater impact today (yes this just my opinion but I believe it to be true). Both are fine films but they suffer under the robotic scores.

Now, in 2008, I'm starting to feel like our excessive use of 3d animation in film is having a damaging impact. I might also back track to the synthesizer and it's place in the 1990's. Musicians had played enough with the machine, explored it's potential, then picked up some traditional instruments and began making music again. Music that came from real life instruments - the non perfect kind. The kind that bent the notes, played it slightly flat or sharp and had an organic feel where no two notes were played the same. The synthesizer was not thrown out and I don't suggest it needed to be. It became a texture and highlight in the music, finding it's place in colouring the songs.

While I sat in the new Indiana Jones and watched Shia LaBeouf straddle two cars while driving through the jungle or as Indy et al go over the massive water fall, I felt like I was listening to the synthesizer again. This moment of total physics defying action pulled me out of the film and reminded me that I was watching a movie. It got me thinking about that original Raiders film and what really made it work. Partly it's the plausibility of the action. Don't misunderstand my words here, I said plausibility, not possibility. There is a difference. The fact that Spielberg used stunt men on actual sets to accomplish his action, the audience is drawn further into the action and, more importantly, the plight of the hero. Since what we are seeing feels real, the audience is much more likely to sit on the edge of their seat and empathize with the hero. Spielberg learned this famous lesson in Jaws, to create fear and tension is to make the audience believe in the shark and to let their imaginations take them the rest of the way. Show the shark and people see that it isn't real and the gig is up.

We are at that point in films right now. We can all see the shark and it doesn't look real. We see the hero fall off the water falls and we are bored. Mind you, if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid jump off the cliff, we feel it. We feel it because two stunt men jumped off a cliff.

This little rant does not suggest that we take the clock back. I am not nostalgic for old fashioned methods. I do think that us writers and filmmakers have to cut back on our synthesizers and make sure that we don't break the illusions we are creating. It damages our stories. Take a look at Peter Weir's Master and Commander as a superior example of using the technology as texture and a tool to achieve the unachievable. It's a wonderful picture, full of all sorts of visual effects but integrated with real ships, real waves and real people. Look at Ridley Scott's re release of Blade Runner to see how you can create a world of illusion with models and light. It looks better than most hundred million dollar films today. I do have to admit, however, that I've never been much of a fan of Vangelis' score in that picture. Synthesizers. I've learned to live with it over the years and rationalize it away as being futuristic... I'm only fooling myself.


For an excessive review of the Indy film, go to read the Mysteryman's Fifty Flaws of Indy IV!


Anonymous said...

I was going to recommend Mystery Man's dissection of the numerous flaws but you have it right there at the end of your post.

As for Butch and Sundance leaping off the cliff - yeah, it was two stunt men making the jump - the water below them was open and clear - the effect of the white water was achieved using outboard motorboats to churn up the surface of the water - and the boats were concealed and the scene made to look more dangerous with a glass painted foreground of jagged rocks. So it was "real", but Hollywood real.

I just recently watched the 1938 version of "The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer", produced by David O. Selznick one year prior to "Gone With The Wind" and was struck not by the "real" nature of old film making but by the artistic illustrative style of the early Hollywood productions. Matte paintings to extend a scene were in common usage in those days - as is detailed in Mark Cotta Vaz's book "The Invisible Art". But they were done in a way that was seamless - not because they were so "real" but because the entire look of the films was romanticized and painterly.

The nitty gritty of film noir was style an exercise in visual style used to convey the deeper meanings and emotions of the tales being told. The verité of neo-realism and the impact it eventually had on films through the late '60's and the '70's primed our consciousness to appreciate and expect "the real". The advent of the imaginative blockbusters from the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and others almost brings us full circle to the "heightened realities" of the classic films which influenced them in their youth.

Technology in cinema has always been that double edged sword which cuts new paths while simultaneously carving away the ground beneath our feet. Colour, sound, and CG are just part of the palette available to film makers.

In the beginning days of cinema audiences were astonished to merely see images of everyday life moving before them. Cutting to a closeup was once an astonishing display of emotional force. Animation, animatronics, matte paintings, miniatures, dolly shots, steadicam - the list goes on and is expanded daily with new technological innovations. The shift from the over 100 year old chemical film process to digital is seismic! And every new tool, every new toy, will be used and abused until it becomes embedded in our vocabulary as both creators and audience.

The shift to a new graphic novel style in cinema is something I find exciting. It's being abused horribly but will prove to be a seminal development in the evolution of the art of cinema. The boundaries of what is "real" don't, nor should they, apply to storytelling in motion pictures.

What's sad in the case of "Indiana Jones" is that Lucas and Spielberg have pissed all over their legacy. At this stage in their careers one would have thought (or liked to have thought) they were capable of expanding on their oeuvre without turning it into a bobble-head turd-on-stick puppet show.

Those are colours in the palette I can do without.


Mark said...

For me, it comes down to the logic you follow in the world you create. Raiders seemed to be grounded in the physical reality of our world so you expect that they will follow that logic through the sequels. The Matrix had it's own logic and the effects were an extension of that unique universe (and groan inducing in Charlies Angels).

It isn't that films need to be tied to realism but you need to maintain the illusions you are creating. No magician would ever allow the audience to say 'that looked fake' or 'I saw where you put the coin'...

paul said...

mark, there are so many things wrong with Indy IV
that I wouldnt know where to begin.

spielberg should stop making films he recent track record is pathetic. george should go serve fries in nevada and David Koepp continues to be a pathetic excuse for a screenwriter.

dumb dialogue, too much exposition, long talky scenes...oh and that ending....

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree Mark, "consistency" is the key when applying any sense of logic or style to the craft of motion picture storytelling. If the audience doesn't get that they will, of course, feel betrayed.

Mystery Man has also posted about the Frank Darabont screenplay, an earlier and apparently superior version, which has been making the rounds on the net. The original purveyor of the .pdf file online got stomped pretty hard by Paramount but once something gets released onto the toobs it's impossible to stop.

I got my copy at:

I'll be reading it tonight.