Destroy All Monsters: Filmmakers Need To Get Over The Idea That We Want To Be "Immersed"

Columnist; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Filmmakers Need To Get Over The Idea That We Want To Be "Immersed"

I'm as big a fan of high-frame-rate cinema as probably exists in the general audience (i.e. I'm not Doug Trumbull, but I've seen Ufotog). Hey, I liked Avatar a hell of a lot, too - 3-D included. Saw it six times in IMAX, for the explicit reason that it was such an inherently transportive big-screen experience. But lookit, filmmakers:

This thing where you talk about how "immersive" it all is, as the single data point for why you think HFR and 3-D are the future of cinema? Fucking stop it.

Here are a couple of real data points:

HFR completely failed. It was an embarrassing misfire that was only saved from tarring the entire Hobbit trilogy by a rapid backpedal on the part of the studio and the filmmakers after the first installment, along with the fact that the Hobbit trilogy was super busy tarring itself.

It could be argued that 3-D completely failed, too. No studios successfully capitalized on the post-Avatar interest in the technology. Instead of focusing on quality assurance, studios spent three years creating density - by pumping out as much 3-D content as they could, whether it looked like garbage or not. It was a normalization play that now sees 3-D as the default mode in the major studio releases into major screens, but which has nothing to do with the actual content or experience of the movie.

The technology got (slightly) better and the customers stopped noticing or caring, and the whole thing succeeded merely as a wedge to push ticket prices closer to $20 than $10. But depriving customers of choice does not, itself, make the default selection a win. If 3-D disappeared tomorrow and ticket prices stayed the same, audiences would complain, but only out of ignorance. A year from now, they wouldn't remember that any of this shit ever happened.

Throughout this process, a few filmmakers have strolled through with their efforts to use these exhibition technologies in a manner approaching something like artistry - or at least, in a way that explicitly supported the cinematic intentions of the films they were making. For 3-D, it's a short list: Werner Herzog with Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and Johnny Knoxville with Jackass 3-D. (No: seriously.) Everyone else - yes, including Martin Scorsese - was merely farting around with the newest toy without ever connecting the medium to the message, McLuhan-style.

On the HFR side of things, a filmmaker has finally at least made the attempt: Ang Lee, with the horrifically titled Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk. Shot in a gobsmacking 120 frames per second (and projected to match in just a handful of theatrical venues around the world), BLLHW-HFR is that rare application of a new theatrical technology, in that it's not intended here for spectacle, merely for immersion.

And this is where I hit my problem. I cannot see, for the life of me, why anyone would call "immersion" a positive, or even halfway relevant, artistic choice in this case.

It doesn't help that Billy Lynn is one hell of a terrible movie: stilted, stupid, predictable, and brought off with such a shocking lack of authorial panache that one generally wonders where the Ang Lee of even five years ago has gone. (This man made, what? Two or three of the best films of the last twenty years?) The movie is also ugly as all getout, for reasons having nothing to do with its high frame rate. Children doing their high school in independent study projects can, and have, done a better job lighting for camera than John Toll does here.

And then there's the high frame rate, which - neuroplasticity be damned - looks even more like a TV stuck on its highest refresh setting than ever before. Fun fact about the complete eradication of motion blur, by the way: simple left-to-right pans in this movie were enough to send me reeling towards my knees clutching my stomach, just as though the theatre itself had suddenly chosen to do a rapidly 360-degree pirouette. For context, I am not one of those folks who gets unduly nauseated by the camerawork of Paul Greengrass.

So really, the only thing Billy Lynn's high frame rate "immersed" me in was how desperately I wished I was doing anything besides watching this movie. It makes me want to call an audible on the whole idea, because the justification from the filmmakers always seems to be the same: an unspoken presumption that "immersion" is somehow the goal of going to see a movie.

Is it?

The movie theatre where I saw Billy Lynn has a trope in their digital merch outside each theatre, which says "Your escape begins in [insert movie start time here]." They're leaning pretty hard on the escape angle which - especially in this decade - is probably wise. After all, escape is the mechanism by which the Golden Age of Hollywood was built, and in the best of all possible worlds, regardless of subject matter, it's still a huge part of the intention for any movie experience.

As much as they may seem like parallel initiatives, I'm starting to suspect that escape and immersion might in fact be antithetical. As much as the George Lucases and James Camerons of the world like to talk about how filmmaking technology stayed stuck in the late 19th century for much of the 20th, I've wondered in the past if this might not have been natural selection working its will - movies evolved as far as they needed to in order to survive - rather than innovative laziness on the part of the industry and its artists.

In other words, old fashioned as it might seem, what if 24 frames per second, motion blur, and photographic artifacts aren't a bug, but rather a feature? What if they're part of the means by which our brains leap over the uncanny valley and land on a promontory from which we can engage with, without being drowned by, a story?

Immersion, to me, suggests drowning instead. It also suggests ego, on the part of the directors: the belief that their imagined world, or the story that takes place there, is so unbelievably compelling that we would want to drown in it.

But by default, it also admits an inherent insecurity, which perhaps is the insecurity of the entire theatrical distribution industry: that the movies on their own terms aren't compelling enough to hold our interest without motion seats, stereoscopy, or now, puffs of scent and light mists.

I disagree wholeheartedly. Every year I find more than enough movies that suck me all the way in, without a single pair of glasses or a realer-than-real visual trick.

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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the hong Kong cavaliersNovember 23, 2016 2:11 PM

Great read , and I totally agree with you .
I was never on board with this new technology. It's seems that Hollywood is more concern about telling us what we need instead of listening to what we want.
I am missing out on a lot of movies since the only showing near me is the 3d one or they are only put out in 3d (looking at you C.A Civil war and Dredd) .

KurtNovember 23, 2016 3:15 PM

Amen Brother.

I so loathe the 'theme park' aspects of movie-going these days. I don't need Chuck E cheese in the lobby, video trivia-games (TimePlay) before the feature, and I sure as hell don't need Motion Seats (D-Box) or 'light mist scents' (4DX). CINEPLEX is the absolute worst here in Ontario, Canada.

Yes, I'm over 40, and, according to the demographic actuarial-scientists, I'm not the target group, I suppose. But understand this: I do go to the multiplex 30+ times per year, and as a repeat customer all I ask for:

1. A good selection of choices (not the same tentpole-blockbuster simultaneously on 10 screens)
2. For the movie to start on time (not the ads (although I will offer a gentle pass for Film-Trailers))
3. Be in focus (and screen properly masked) and be synched properly to the sound-stem.
4. Half decent coffee is a plus but not completely necessary.

Outside of the shockingly (and delightfully) vibrant rep-house community in Toronto (The Royal, The Revue, The Fox, The Kingsway, The Carlton), there are only three cinemas that achieves these simple basic customer service asks:

TIFF Lightbox in Toronto
The Bloor HotDocs Cinema in Toronto
The Highlands Cinema in Haliburton County

On the I subject of Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, while I personally have not seen the new Ang Lee movie, from the premise and trailer, HALFTIME seems a more simple and approachable title. It might have been less alienating, while still getting at what the movie is about, structurally, and thematically.

Yellow Rage!November 23, 2016 6:09 PM

This article makes no mention of strobing. Strobing is the devil. Made even worse when the image is blown up on a huge screen or if sitting close to it. The only real fix; Higher frame rates. IMAX learned this a long time ago, hence why many of their own films were shot and projected at 48fps.
Also, some of these filmmakers -- especially those mentioned -- are world builders. They build worlds and want to take the audience there. They're vision isn't limited to simply making a moving painting as with most directors. To the World-Builder, immersion is key. How best to immerse? The path Trumbull and Cameron have mentioned is a very good start: 3D for depth cues, better 3D by ridding of strobing and motion blur via higher frame rates, and by building theaters where the screen fills nearly the entire viewers field of view.