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Every Speliologist for Himself and God Against All

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting, Science with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2017 by dcairns

I tweeted that Werner Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS was maybe the best 3D movie ever, but maybe I should have said “best USE of 3D”?

I watched this movie with a colossal grin. Almost every shot did something delightful to my brain.

I’ve been waiting years to see it in 3D. Edinburgh Filmhouse took awhile to install a 3D system, and in the end went for a weird one where you need your glasses to be charged with electricity — I think this had something to do with them not wanting to install a 3D screen which would have compromised the picture quality of every flat film shown. And I think the Cameo installed such a screen.

Anyhow, when the Filmhouse installed 3D I was looking forward to finally being able to see Herzog’s film as it was meant to be seen. I’d avoided seeing it flat. But then Filmhouse decided “Our audience doesn’t like 3D” and never showed it. Anyhow, happy ending, they finally did, and got a pretty good-sized audience. Imagine if they’d shown it when the film was new.

But the Filmhouse system has drawbacks. You can’t be sure the glasses are working until the film starts. Fiona’s didn’t, and she had to run and change them. Mine conked out ten minutes before the end and I spent a chunk of the film’s climax running around the whole outside of the auditorium looking for a staff member to open the shutters and release a fresh pair… However, in spite of all that, this was still maybe my favourite 3D experience.

We weren’t totally uncritical of the movie. Fiona pointed out that Herzog kind of distorted what one of his interviewees was saying in order to justify his title. We don’t know that the Chauvet cave paintings have anything to do with dreams. Sure, the nameless cro-magnons who painted the paintings probably dreamed about ibex and horses, but probably the reason they painted them is that they SAW them regularly. Herzog also goes off on a mad spree to a nearby nuclear power station where the water from the coolers has produced a microclimate in which, we are told, albino crocodiles have arisen.

Herzog, of course, can’t help seeing this as some kind of allegory for something. But Herzogian allegories, like albino crocodiles, are strange, mutant beasts. Britta in the TV show Community helpfully defines an allegory as “a thought wearing another thought’s hat” (which is lovely because her definition is itself a kind of allegory) but Herzog’s thoughts always seem to mistake their wives for hats. Like the dwarfs who started small or the man who pulled a ship up a mountain, they never quite translate one thing into another without a lot of leftover bits sticking out. Still, I was grateful for the opportunity to see the pallid reptiles, and stereoscopically too.

Also: our friend Donald was particularly scornful of the way, when a scientist suggests simply listening to the sound of the cave, Herzog can’t resist almost immediately fading up a heartbeat and music. A relatively rare failure of the poetic imagination from the maker of KASPAR HAUSER.

The 3D is gorgeous. I even found it enhanced by the low-quality video from Herzog’s recce. As has often been remarked, the film focusses on flat line drawings, but drawn on the contours of curving walls, so a lot of the movie is looking at fairly subtle spacial gradations — a nice, tasteful use of the medium. But Herzog also had a guy demonstrating cro-magnon weaponry, who sticks a spear right in our faces. Subtlety is most effective when contrasted with its opposite. Ask Ken Russell.

And those cave walls are sometimes very curvy indeed. One daubing of a woman with possibly an animal head encircles a chubby stalactite so Herzog has to stick his camera on a pole to see around it — he’s not allowed off a walkway in the cave — like the time travelers in Ray Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder. Leaving the path could disturb the past.

Herzog even has fun with the superimposed titles which identify his interviewees. I was amused by the floating subtitles in AVATAR (I guess the filmmaker has to choose a specific depth for them, they simple CAN’T be flat, but it was funny when, in an O.S. shot the foreground shoulder was closer than the subtitle. Don’t move left, Neytiri, we won’t be able to read what Eytukan is saying! When Herzog arrays two interviews at different distances, he does the same with their titles. he’s a puckish fellow, is Werner.

We also get drone shots of the surrounding countryside, but the handheld traversing of narrow paths is even better. Everything about the Cro-magnon lifestyle and environment, it seems, is perfectly suited to 3D, or else to Werner’s eye. I’ve noticed that filmmakers tend to get better at 3D on their second try — I hope we get another in-depth outing from Herzog.

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A 3D Gallery

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 27, 2010 by dcairns

Just reminding you again that Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is out there, waiting to be seen. I’d have seen it myself by now but circumstances — yes, those damned things again — have so far thwarted me. Dante is particularly interesting in that he’s one of the few using the new technology who has prior experience of 3D filmmaking, via theme park show HAUNTED LIGHTHOUSE. And I do think experience tells — James Cameron limbered up for AVATAR by making GHOSTS OF THE ABYSS, after all, and Jack Arnold… but Jack Arnold, a good director but not the world’s best, actually defeats my argument by making his best 3D movie, IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE, first. But that feeds into my other argument, which is that you need a good script.

THE FRENCH LINE’s main asset, 3D-wise, is Jane Russell. The Great lady refused to wear a bikini, feeling that would be indecent, but consented to wear the above (very) little number, which conceals about 10% more skin, but which has the moral advantage of being a one-piece. These things mattered!

You’ll have someone’s eye out with that thing! In THE CREEPS, Charles Band (the son of Albert Band, forming a sort of low-rent Dynasty of Dinge) postulates a mad scientist with some kind of, like vortex, who reanimates the classic movie monsters, but in dwarf form. Dwarfs — 3D — geddit? Me neither. But I’d be willing to go along with the gag, especially as Band’s movies usually feature one or two surprisingly adroit comic performances, were it not for the fact that they also feature skin-crawling misogyny dressed up as chuckles.

The Lumiere Brothers experimented with 3D in 1930, and of course they just HAD to shoot a train arriving at a station, didn’t they? I’m betting that even in anaglyph form, it didn’t have the same impact as the first time they shot it…

3D is, in essence, an attempt to give the audience something extra, but one of the things that rightly makes audience’s suspicious is when that extra something is an attempt to cover for absent values of a more traditional kind. Which is perhaps why filmmakers like Band are drawn to it — they know they can’t make a conventional good film, so they shore up their weaknesses with gimmickry. I wonder if something similar was behind Robert Rodriguez’s use of the technique for his SPY KIDS 3D. He’s somebody who always strikes me as a man in search of the next big “will this do?” I point to the static chimney smoke in the background of one shot of SIN CITY as an emblem of the general prevailing cheese. Now, the movie is modestly budgeted and is seeking to make a little look like a lot, and I applaud that in principle. And had the frozen smoke-cloud, perched atop a smokestack like candyfloss on a stick, been a deliberately stylised effect, I’d have enjoyed it. But it’s a small detail, clearly not meant to be noticed, and it rather offended me in its complacent inadequacy. And I see a similar cheap-heartedness at play in SPY KIDS 3D, where the idea of a virtual universe in which the heroes become trapped is not so much a TRON tribute, as an excuse for really, really cheap-looking CGI.

Thank God for GOG, or vice versa! An inventive, ideas-packed and pleasingly dated sci-fi thriller, it may miss tricks in all three dimensions (an early helicopter flight has the chopper buzz the camera but neglects to provide any POV flying footage, surely the biggest potential thrill, cf AVATAR) but does have the perverse imagination to begin with a very cute monkey getting an injection. Like, “YES! This is what the public wants!”

There are drawbacks — knowing that Herbert Marshall was just trying to pay the medical bills incurred by a defective prosthetic leg takes some of the usual pleasure out of seeing him, but he’s utterly professional and authoritative as ever. Much of the science, and all of the sexual politics, has dated badly, and there’s no sense of humour evident, unless the following is a joke ~ (the two leads have just survived an overdose of radiation) ~

Hero (kissing heroine): How do you feel now?

Heroine: Radiant!

Loco Parentis

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2010 by dcairns

Off to Glasgow for the Glasgow Film Festival and Frightfest’s screening of SPLICE, Vincenzo Natali’s sci-fi drama with Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley. I enjoyed CUBE, Natali’s debut, on the whole (it makes highly inventive use of limited locations and cast, but those limitations seem to close of the possibility of a more interesting ending, somehow) and his follow-up, CYPHER, a good deal. A phildickian tale of industrial espionage with Jeremy Northam and Lucy Liu, it really deserved a bit more attention than it got, even if the plot twists and Northam’s pleasingly weird central perf kind of exclude the audience from full engagement.

NOTHING, Natali’s third feature, is a pretty crashing disappointment, even though his visual skills are much in evidence. The movie’s puppyish desire to please drives it into irksome comedy, and the central premise — the main characters wish the world out of existence and find themselves and their house stranded in a featureless white limbo — is ignored in terms of narrative logic and dramatic development, which means the film really has to try and be funny about, literally, nothing.

But that misfire has proven useful in a way, forcing Natali to add a more kinetic series of tricks to his repertoire, out of that need to make something from NOTHING, and he’s able to shuffle between sparky high-speed mode (montages of weird science) and slow, suspenseful creepiness, in the new SPLICE, a dream project he’s been working on for years. Basically a tale of science-meets-parenthood, it deals with a young couple of brilliant geneticists who splice human and animal DNA together to create Dren, played by Delphine Chanéac (and young Abigail Chu, and a bunch of CGI), who develops at an accelerated rate (as these things always do), and falls awkwardly between the status of child and experiment for the hitherto childless couple.

The stylistic and genre trappings that inform the film stem mostly from Cronenberg’s THE FLY and Ridley Scott’s ALIEN, with flashes of exec Guillermo Del Toro’s monster movie maudit MIMIC (things in jars). This splicing of different movie worlds (Sarah Polley plays Elsa Castle, a near-anagram of Elsa Lanchester, and Brody plays Clive, named after Colin Clive, both references to James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN films — this cuteness is sustained but fortunately never intrusive) forces me to recall Cronenberg’s verdict on ALIEN: he loved the evolving monster’s life-cycle (of course he did!) but felt that in the last third the movie plunged wholeheartedly into the least interesting potential direction: monster chases girl.

SPLICE seems to have been hard to get made because Natali was genuinely interested in exploring the disturbing emotional possibilities of his story, and he sends tendrils of interest out in a number of fascinating directions. But the perceived need to climax in a monster holocaust effectively amputates most of those possibilities, and it all comes down to conflict, that Holy Grail of the unimaginative. As Olivier Assayas said, lots of American movies start out with interesting ideas, but they usually wind up with a fight in a warehouse. What worlds of weary derision that phrase contains.

Substitute barn for warehouse and you might have SPLICE. And this is a great shame, because the movie explicitly sets out what it’s supposed to be about early on — this child is aging rapidly and will die of its own accord very soon. The scientists who have created her were unable emotionally to face parenthood, but find it thrust upon them, and in the most painful way. They’re far more unprepared for the struggles ahead than most of us would be, since their “offspring” is a previously unknown species with mysterious dietary, emotional and sexual needs. Which makes the set-up perfect for a satire on both parenting and science. The whole second act is rich in this kind of amusing, and sometimes alarming, material.

(Fiona thought it was a shame Natali couldn’t attend, to hear the collective gasp from the audience when the little girl version of Dren scuttles onscreen for the first time in a cute little dress: her sudden quasi-humanity erects a big sign reading “Welcome to Uncanny Valley.”)

There’s also the scientific ethics side — real-life investigators who have raised chimps as children have faced the dilemmas created by taking responsibility for another living thing, and in a sense robbing it of its birthright as a wild animal, substituting the (uncertain) benefits of civilisation and humanity, but never quite delivering the supposed advantages that come with being human. Again, SPLICE evokes all this pretty well.

It’s rather unfair of me to slam Natali for copping out with an action climax — it’s unlikely the film would ever have been made without one. And he does his best to take us into icky moral terrain immediately after the dust has settled. On the plus side, he has fine perfs from his leads (Polley in particular is more natural than you ever expect anybody to be in this kind of movie) and the combination of effects work and performance is stunningly effective in the creature character — for a fraction of the cost, he’s made something a lot more interesting and beautiful than the artificial population of AVATAR. It’s a little unfortunate that Cameron’s megasplurge uses the same eyes-wide-apart design aesthetic for its creatures, but Natali’s beast actually has a better reason for having that look, and Natali is a lot less squeamish about exploiting the squirmy possibilities of xenophilia. Natali’s mascot, David Hewlett, appears again, this time as a corporate sleaze, a role he essays with unseemly relish. Despite my reservations, SPLICE may be the most wholehearted proper science fiction film we see this year.