Back in the late 19th century, in the early years of cinema, purveyors of this new art form would show the spectacle at fairgrounds and carnivals. It was not yet a new mode of storytelling, but a technological wonder. After a time (and in no small part due to the burgeoning urban population fueled by the industrial revolution), cinema moved into proper theatres. With each new technological advancement (sound, colour, etc.), there is a period of wonder, then as audiences adjust, a seemingly natural inclination to want these advancements to serve the narrative.
This had been particularly relevant of late, with the return of 3D, the proliferation of IMAX theatres, and the increased use of CGI and digital effects (I won't pretend to be an expert on these technologies, so you will forgive me the lack of detailed description.) Films such as Avatar
, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
, Life of Pi
, and Pacific Rim
have been marketed as much for the spectacle of effects as for their stories. Not that there is anything wrong with this; filmmakers and the various special effects crews have much to be proud of in their creations. And I have been impressed by some of them (I could never quite believe that the tiger in Life of Pi
wasn't real), and appalled by others (the 48fps of The Hobbit
gave me a headache). I'm a big fan of Guillermo del Toro (I wrote my MA thesis on his work), but the trailer for Pacific Rim
made me wonder: what is it about? Is it just a bunch of giant robots battling giant aliens? At the end, I reached the same question as I have with many of these films: how does this new presentation, this new spectacle, serve the narrative? Is it just a means of showing the audience what the technology can do, or is it meant to effect how we understand the story? Well, this depends on the film. I would argue that even the most amazing effects couldn't save Avatar
, and The Hobbit
was much better when I watched it a second time in 2D 24fps.
Regular readers might be familiar with Spanish director Nacho Vigalondo's upcoming film Open Windows
. Details of the plot are a closely guarded secret. In brief, a young man (Elijah Wood) is obsessed with a young film star (Sasha Grey), and is somehow given access to her private life via computer. In a twist on cinematic spectacle, the film screen will replicate a computer screen, with its various icons, camera windows, etc., so that the audience sees what Wood's character sees, and indeed what we all see, when we look at our own computers. Given the ubiquitous nature of screens in our everyday lives (if we're not watching TV or a movie, we're glued to our computers, tablets, and smart phones), this is a very different kind of spectacle: one with that the audience knows and understands, one that the audience engages with in their own lives.
I had the chance to visit the postproduction editing of Open Windows
in Madrid last week. Readers of my previous article on my visit to the set in November will recall that several cameras were used in order to capture all the various angles of footage, as computer cameras would, in order to transfer this imagery at different times. Editor Bernat Vilaplano (who just won a Goya award for his work on The Impossible
) was working on an early scene from the film, with both Wood's and Grey's characters on screen in different windows, from different locations. Vigalondo has said that, in many ways, the film has been finished for a while; each camera, in effect, has captured the entire film, and it could have been edited together is a more classical style. But the spectacle of the computer screen is part of the narrative, and putting all these puzzle pieces together is the attempt to un-dichotomize the two. The two needn't be mutually exclusive, nor must one be subservient to the other. The technology to both record and edit a film that, when stitched together, will appear to us as a computer screen, for the entire length of the film, is pretty amazing, and more than a little disturbing (in a good way). What impresses me about the what I've seen of the film is the statement that Vigalondo is making on the nature of spectacle, especially the kind of spectacle the audience is (or thinks it is) accustomed to: the access afforded by computers and the internet. The idea of such access and both the good and bad of it are not necessarily new, but the film's presentation of spectacle adds a whole new level of understanding and fear. Certainly, this is going to be a bit more challenging for the audience than a spectacle of aliens and robots. Rather than something fantastical, Open Windows
is examining intimacy, the intimacy of information, a very inventive and exciting marriage of narrative and spectacle.
No word yet on a release date for the film; I'm hoping it might appear at one or two prominent film festivals in the fall. As for spectacle, whatever kind it is, I want to understand, beyond showing off a cool new technology or software program, why it's being used.