Friday, June 28, 2013

Imitation of Life (2): The Fall of Man

Let's begin with the obvious: Hollywood doesn’t like changes. So, all novelties Hollywood movies may bring have to be firmly counterbalanced by the most rigorously classical visual style possible. This is what I meant last time when I wrote about how Hollywood movies first represented computer-generated imagery in an ambiguous way: CGI was a new technology Hollywood admired as much as it feared, so we find this contradiction in most movies figuring CGI, from the 80's up to the end of the 90’s (to take a more recent example than the one I will discuss at length below: in the Matrix, the digital world is presented as a falsehood that we must tear apart to go back to the real analogical world, but at the end, Sion, the human city in the real world, is saved by Neo, a digital super-God).

Although Hollywood never hesitated to publicize the many virtues of CGI, filmmakers like producers had several reasons to be anxious about it: CGI was a threat for the photographic image and, more importantly, for the classical language of Hollywood movies (which was conceived around the limitations and possibilities of the photographic image anyway). So, while the movies presented a new kind of image, CGI, they continued to implicitly champion the image of old, photography – a sure way to slowly introduce the radical visual innovations made possible by CGI while anchoring them in the tradition of Hollywood cinema. Ok, we have this new CGI thing, said Hollywood, but don’t worry, our movies will remain the same. Nowadays, movies rarely think about CGI because CGI is a given, an official tool in cinema’s language: the threat has been neutralized, so to speak, in the sense that the limitless possibilities of CGI have been harnessed and restrained by the classical language of Hollywood cinema. In theory, CGI can do anything, but right now, for better and for worst, it continues the narrative tradition previously established by the photographic image.

Saturday, June 08, 2013

Imitation of Life (1)

What is cinema? Does this question still make sense today, in this age of CGI, digital cameras, heavy post-production effects, with movies distributed in a variety of formats, from the smallest screen (cellphones) to the biggest (IMAX), with the proliferation of home-made videos, with television series and video games increasingly looking like movies (and movies increasingly looking like video games), with the ubiquity of all kinds of moving images, with the rise of new media, etc., etc.? “What was cinema” seems like a better question, but I’m not ready yet to declare cinema dead, like it has been quite fashionable to do for some time (since the advent of the VCR in the 80’s at least). Like I wrote last time, I’m mostly interested in computer-generated imagery for this blog, and how it can be incorporated (or not) in the photographic image, but CGI is merely one of many factors responsible for the profound changes happening now in cinema. In this context of ever-changing technologies and constant metamorphosis of the moving image, clinging to the idea of a “pure” cinema, like I did in my introduction last week, is clearly hopeless.

But is there such a thing as “pure” cinema in the first place? Most film theorists (if not all) would say no, there isn’t. There are many reasons for this (the industrial nature of cinema, the fact that it’s a collective effort, Alain Badiou’s mix of art and non-art), but I want to focus on one for now, more related to our subject: cinema, by essence, is an amalgam of many art forms. It’s less the seventh art than the addition of the previous six. So, why is it so different now with CGI? Can’t we just say cinema has integrated animation like it did with theater? In a way, yes, cinema is moving in a new direction due to the influence of CGI, but animation is an intruder in the photographic image, in a way that wasn’t true with other art forms. Indeed, cinema is impure, but even if it can borrow heavily from theater (for the mise en scène), literature (for the screenwriting), painting (for the framing) and music, none of these challenge the specificity of cinema: the succession of photographic moving images. CGI, though, as a form of digital animation, is an intruder, a radical Other that is tearing apart the fabric of the photographic image. It's not necessarily a problem, but then we have to find a way to wed these two opposite forms in a meaningful way; it's the question I want to adress in this series titled Imitation of Life: how did cinema approach this question in movies mixing CGI with the photographic image?