Thursday, May 20, 2010

Or Am I Just Too Old?

You know how sometimes you watch a movie or tv show you used to really love and you're just like, "Why did I like this? This is crap!" I recently invested four and a half hours of my time in watching Dances With Wolves. And guess what? That is still a great freaking movie. And it made me realize something I like about old movies.

In the past, if creators of films wanted something to be in a movie, they had to create that thing or a very near facsimile of that thing in real life, then point a camera at it. Movies that are made this way are fundamentally different than movies now. Even movies that could have been made this way in the past are given superfluous special effects, usually by Industrial Light & Magic and a staff of hundreds, all of whom get their names in the overlong credits.

I remember watching the otherwise excellent movie Primary Colors about the election of a pseudonymous Bill Clinton. There's one scene where a character is driving in a car. The reflections on the car window jumped off the screen, took me out of the story, and screamed, "Look! I'm a computer! We added scenery reflections after we shot this scene. We did it for the same reason dogs lick their butts - BECAUSE WE CAN! I'm a computer! This is a movie! These are actors! La la la la la!"

I'm so used to this happening now that I was dreading the moment in Dances With Wolves when I'd see the special effect and go, "Oh yeah, it's that part of the movie where something totally obviously fake intrudes." Never happened. I watched the making of feature (also old-school, btw) and when the script called for a buffalo hunt they actually got real-world buffalo sculptures, covered them in real-looking fur, smashed them into the ground using various ramps and ropes, and pointed cameras at them while they were smashing into the ground. They got real Native Americans who rode horses in a herd of stampeding buffalo and pointed cameras at them while they did that. They trained a real wolf and pointed a camera at it. Sure it was hard. But it's so very much more effective at drawing me into the world of the movie and making it feel real.

It seems like no one will ever make a movie like this again. I liked Up, which was fully a cartoon, and I liked Moon, which was modern sci-fi with seriously batty, mind-blowing special effects. But I would love to see a new movie that creates its reality by making things in the real world and pointing cameras at them as they do their thing. What is the most recent great movie that has no intrusive special effects? It can't possibly be Dances With Wolves, can it?

There's this whole era of late 1990s/early 2000s movies where they used computer effects when they wouldn't have had to. And the effects weren't that good yet and so the worlds of the movies are kind of emotionally uninhabitable. Unfortunately the Star Wars prequels fall right in the middle and serve as cautionary tales of this era.

There's an interesting, contemporaneous parallel in the world of baseball, with a whole era of superstars who will never be taken seriously as Hall of Fame candidates. Would Rafael Palmero have hit 500 homers without the drugs? We'll never know and he'll always live under a cloud of shame and he'll never be in the Hall.

So please, someone make a movie by creating real things and pointing cameras at them. And if you're going to play baseball, stay off the drugs and high on life.

Oh, and don't even talk to me about the 1980 Yoda puppet or 1983 Jabba puppet versus their fake incarnations in the prequels. Blech.