The Most Powerful Empathy Machine of All Arts
On Wednesday I finally went to the cinema again. Actually, I went to a branch of a mainstream cinema company whose halls rarely attract me with a film. Since I’ve only discovered and followed Tarantino’s filmography on my home cinema system, and haven’t yet enjoyed any of his films in the cinema, it was a good time to see his new and ninth film in the place for which it was made. Projected on a screen – where even the hierarchy of footsteps and the air sweetened with the smell of popcorn succumb to the radiantly powerful sound image. I was full of anticipation.
We are born into a box of space and time, strictly speaking, according to Einstein, into the space-time continuum. We can grow and change our personality to a certain extent, because it is not as predetermined as it was long believed. Yet we remain who we are. We can escape this inner imprisonment by owning ourselves and growing beyond our limitations. The latter is achieved through experience.
We can gain experience with and through other people, but also from films.
When I go into a good film, I have the opportunity to live another person’s life for a limited period of time, to step into their shoes. I can experience what it feels like to be of a different gender, nationality or ethnicity. I can experience different eras and hold different beliefs.
For me, films are the most powerful empathy machine.
The combination of acoustic and visual stimuli allows me to immerse myself in a foreign world in which I am no longer stuck in myself. Where I can identify with other people. Films can have a liberating, horizon-expanding effect.
Obviously, I have a soft spot for films. I love what they can express and do, as well as the craft behind them. The complete work of script, direction, cinematography, acting, sets and all the other ingredients can be a unique experience.
Anyone who knows me knows that I have a weakness for good cinematography. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is a case in point, and more or less anything that Emmanuel Lubezki can capture with his eye and wide camera angle.
Outside of horror – Jordan Peele’s Get Out notwithstanding – I don’t have a favorite genre. I like to be absorbed by anything that is made with love.
I’m convinced that a good film doesn’t necessarily have to come from a complex script. Take, for example, John Wick (2014), which was made out of pure love for hand-made action. The plot is simple and predictable. Yet, the visual execution and ingenious fight choreography are so original and gripping that the film’s style overshadows its substance.
Visually, John Wick is a continuation of the 40’s and 50’s Noire, which it knows how to show off, and which doesn’t claim to have to convince with substance.
Disney’s soulless real-life adaptations of recent years disappoint me. Polarizing and serious issues are largely sidestepped, the only aim being to appeal to the masses with lightweight entertainment and to maximize the financial bottom line. With the purchase of 20th Century Fox, Disney now owns half of the films, brands and franchises shown in mainstream cinemas. Goodbye, diverse cinema market.
Disney’s power was also felt by Quentin Tarantino when the company threatened an analogue cinema with the loss of Disney film licenses if it did not show a Star Wars film released alongside The Hateful Eight for a longer period of time - contrary to the existing contract with Tarantino. The theater broke the contract, and Tarantino vehemently defended himself and sued. To date, Disney has suffered no consequences.
If you watch films today, you will not be able to escape the clutches of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) any more than Disney will. I have no objection to the use of CGI per se. What I do object to is the excessive use of it, especially when it’s used scene by scene, as in: “We’ll make it work in post-production”. Whether used for backgrounds or as a substitute for practical effects, in most cases our eyes can quickly tell when the CGI is not good enough to fool us. The reactions to the recently released trailer for Cats (2019) clearly show that CGI can quickly create an unreal world that we don’t fall for and don’t want to get to know. Our eye senses that something is not right. We are shown the artificiality of the world on screen, which distances us from it and throws us back into reality, rather than inviting us to engage with it.
We can subconsciously see if the sharpness or delicacy of texture is not realistic enough. Or if objects do not follow the physically defined laws of light, or feel too light. We see the world every day - adding a fictional element to it automatically means reaching the level of true perfection.
A few years ago, I thought CGI could only get better. The almost entirely virtual world of Avatar amazed me when I saw it in 2009. But now when I compare, for example, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) with Jurassic Park (1993!), I find every dinosaur from the first film much more frightening. In other words: Jurassic World leaves me cold; the signature Tyrannosaurus looks... fake. Its skin is plastic, not real. This is partly due to the fact that Jurassic Park used practical effects as much as possible. All the scenes where CGI is used last six minutes. Nothing more. In Jurassic World, on the other hand, there is hardly a minute without effects. Which, by the way, also dramatically reduces the powerful presence. Instead of hinting at dinosaurs acoustically or using practical effects in close-ups, the CGI creatures are constantly rubbed in your face. As is the case with all Marvel films and blockbusters. At least there are exceptions, like The Lion King (2019), which is entirely computer animated and looks flawless.
With modern digital technology, great scenes can be created. The possibilities of portraying a fictional world on canvas, artificially aging or rejuvenating the faces of actors, are breathtaking. When used in a balanced and high quality way, I love to immerse myself in an imaginary world. Today’s CGI can still be good if it’s not used in every scene. The field of visual effects is highly competitive, and studios want to buy the best effects in the shortest time at the lowest price. Not surprisingly, quality suffers in a CGI-heavy film. I would like to see fewer effects and more time spent on them. So that the artificiality of a visual effect has a chance to become one with the scene.
Nevertheless, I tend to fall under the spell of practical effects, even compared to technically good CGI. What’s the emotional impact and excitement of an exploding star in Star Wars versus a front overturning truck in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Night? I can touch the truck, see the reflections and shadows that tell me it is real, and feel the impact it makes on the asphalt.
Martin Scorsese knows how to use the possibilities of computer-animated graphics in such a way that the viewer doesn’t even know that CGI has been used:
My thoughts on the tasteful and supportive use of CGI – in the sense that the artificial elements suck more into the film than the nature of the film as fiction is brought to our attention through lack of care – were aptly summed up in this video: Why CG Sucks (Except It Doesn’t)
Like Christopher Nolan or Damien Chazelle, I appreciate Quentin Tarantino for his love and commitment to analogue cinema. I appreciate directors who preserve the analogue tradition.
Digital cameras give filmmakers a relatively inexpensive way to realize their vision compared to classic methods. With direct playback. Contrary to those who advocate the film look, I have nothing against the look of digital cameras. While the film look was missed by audiences during the transition from analogue to digital cinema, the era of Netflix and other streaming providers has turned the tide.
Netflix uses the same camera setup for almost every film, so our eyes get used to the sharpness and digital coloring that remains after color correction and grading, and no artificial grain is added.
Despite the extensive tools available, no digital profile can replicate the look of analogue film. The way light is captured in analogue is a chemical process, so the image is detected and recorded in a fundamentally different way to that of a digital sensor.
My appetite for this classic film look was strong, especially when combined with the staged color blaze of a historicized Hollywood from the imagination of Quentin Tarantino.
End of article. If you spot a typo or have thoughts about this article, feel free to write me. 🙆♂️
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