Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Interlude: My First Printed Art?

As a break from my Kong essay, here's something I can't wait on:

Well, technically, no. It wasn't my first printed art, but damn near.

But still -- My pal Mark Martin reacted so passionately to my son Dan wearing an old Bissette's Market t-shirt that Marj and I did a new printrun of 'em, just for Mark.

Check out Mark's hilarious post on this over at
  • Jabberous!
  • It's the Monday, December 19th posting, though the rest of Mark's blog is always of interest, too!
    Off to Skull Island... (Part the Second)

    Ray Harryhausen always said it took a very special kind of actor to perform in his type of film -- interacting/shadowboxing with stop-motion creations that simply weren't there on set -- citing Kerwin Mathews (Sinbad in Harryhausen's classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1958) as an exceptional actor in that regard. Arguably, what was an extraordinary task in the era of stop-motion animation pioneer/mentor Willis O'Brien and his acolyte/breakaway sucessor Harryhausen's films is now expected of almost all screen actors, given the new CGI-dominated landscape. Instead of Harryhausen instructing William Hopper to play off, say, the eyeline-defining 25-foot-black-head-on-a-stick-standin for the Ymir in 20 Million Miles to Earth, directors Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have the entire cast of Sin City performing against green-screen sketches-of-sets in Texas to play off their absent co-stars, who will later perform on the same green-screen in abstentia imagined environments and already-in-the-can (or to-be-filmed-later) performances.

    Thus, what was the unusual province of low-budget marginal actors and non-stars in the 1930s-70s is now the norm, punctuated with aging action stars like Arnold Schwarzeneggar providing the physical templates for their CGI simulcrums -- virtual performances, of a kind -- which 'perform' in their place as necessary. The stop-motion-animated skeletal Arnold that figured so prominently in the final act of James Cameron's sleeper hit The Terminator (1984) was a transitional keystone: now, Arnold is enhanced and/or supplanted by a CGI-simulcrum in almost all his films, at some point or another. A CGI-simulcrum Arnold dominates a surprising share of screentime in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003), evidence of how far we already are in the blurring of special effects & screen acting. It is not hard to project an upcoming Schwarzeneggar opus in which the CGI template already on hand from the actor/governor's younger self dominates the film, enhanced with CGI-touched-up closeups of the still-living performer for the sake of versimilitude; a concept Peter Laird and I mused & chuckled over back in the early 1990s, then far-fetched, now business-as-usual in Hollywood.

    In this regard, then, let me acknowledge and touch upon the extraordinary performance Naomi Watts gives in King Kong, for the life of the film and of Kong is so strongly felt in part because Watts so beautifully inhabits Anne Darrow and the film as a whole. In hindsight, Watts demonstrated her chops for this once-unusual kind of performance in one of the most surprising sequences in David Lynch’s full-of-surprises Mulholland Drive (2001): when the frail ingenue Betty (Watts) gets her shot at an audition in a producer’s office, we aren’t prepared for the conviction and power of her performance. Playing off hunky Chad Everett (the handsome but undistinguished actor I still can only associate with the 1960s TV show Medical Center), Watts sweeps us off our feet in the emotional force of the moment, invigorating the hoariest and most risible of soap-opera schtick with breathtaking intensity. It’s a delicious (and distinctively Lynchian) scene, and incredibly relevent to King Kong. Just as Watts vicariously lent momentary conviction and dimension to even (chuckle) Chad Everett, her Anne lends support to her CGI co-star. Anne and her character arc, defined in large part by her mercurial dynamic with Kong, is such an affecting experience that we do not only believe in her bond, her love, for Kong, we come to share it.

    All of which would have been for naught were Kong -- specifically, the Kong created for Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong -- unworthy of such a performance, such devotion, such love.

    Thankfully, he is. Ohhhh, is he ever.

    But there is more -- much more -- to this. Dig:

    We're in an age where the term "animated feature" is no longer distinctive: most Hollywood films we see are in fact "animated features," punctuated with live-action components. While this would seem self-evident in certain genres, bear in mind that almost all live-action films from the major studios are so CGI-enhanced (placing landscapes in windows, supplanting live skies with CGI skies, etc.) that the chances of your seeing a non-CGI-enhanced "major" feature in now almost nil. With the emergence in 2004 of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and especially Robert Rodriguez's initial batch of made-in-Texas CGI-constructed live-action fantasies (culminating in the already-cited Sin City), the mutants have indeed taken over. We've come a long way from the anachronisms of silent-era live-action/animation curios like Max & Dave Fleischer's Out of the Inkwell and Walt Disney's Alice and their 1990s descendents Cool World and Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, which are as relevent to the new age of cinema as are Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen's populist monster-movie fusions of live-action actors and stop-motion creatures.

    The true nature of the crossroads we're at in 21st Century cinema has already spawned noisy-but-empty exercises in tedium like Van Helsing: seamless technological versimilitude guarantees only the relative illusion of high production values will be slathered over the most voidoid of turds, if the studios deem said turd worthy of such window-dressing.

    Still, there's no computer-generating talent, nor is there any magic bullet for the emotional vacuum most CGI creations embody. What's been forgotten by all but a few in the post-O'Brien/Harryhausen era is that shopping-out effects sequences in the crazy-quilt production mode Hollywood has indoctrinated as the norm is inherently antithetical to the convincing creation of life on the screen.

    For instance, though Ang Lee reportedly dedicated intensive attention and time to 'directing' the CGI 'performance' of The Hulk for his ambitious 2003 adaptation of the Stan Lee/Jack Kirby Marvel comic character, the failure to infuse the Hulk with any recognizable personality traits was almost a given. You cannot 'shop out' or 'outsource' a performance: the many hands behind the CGI Hulk -- the character, that sense of being alone -- doomed the project from the beginning in a way most audiences and critics were unable to articulate, but all felt. It wasn't just the fact that Eric Bana -- playing the Hulk's human alter-ego Bruce Banner -- seemed in no way connected to that green CGI brute in purple shorts; it was the fact that no single presence or personality was evident or could be felt in the Hulk. He remained an impersonal, soulless CGI confection.

    On a conscious level, we all reacted to that. On an unconscious level, we knew there was literally nothing there.

    The multi-effects-house school of film production is by definition destructive to a film like Ang Lee's The Hulk. The end result is, by definition, unavoidable. Primary lessons have been lost: there is a reason, for instance, that Walt Disney and Dave Fleischer assigned particular animators to particular characters in their animated shorts and features. Betty Boop animated by anyone but her creator Grim Natwick simply wasn't Betty: she'd pass for a shot or sequence when the necessities of tight production deadlines and scheduling required other animators animate Betty for a shot or two, but unless Grim's hand was behind the key sequences, it just wasn't Betty (until her look, movements, and manner was suitably codified later in the series). Disney and his directors made sure Bill Tytla animated Stromboli in Pinocchio because they understood Tytla was as much a performer as an animator: Bill inhabited his creations, from the winged-and-horned demon in The Night on Bald Mountain sequence of Fantasia to Stromboli and beyond, in ways that indeed communicated directly to audiences. Assigning animators was inherently a form of casting, and "casting" Tytla as Stromboli was a masterstroke, a perfect fusion of animator and character.

    Those men were also alchemists: they projected essential aspects of themselves into their animated creations. The same was absolutely true of O'Brien and Harryhausen's work, via their interaction with those stop-motion-animated puppets. It was their distinctive personalities and performances we responded to (and still respond to). Thus, Willis O'Brien was Kong in a measurable way: Kong embodied and projected vital elements of O'Brien.

    Stop-motion animation was not a mere technical exercise in the hands of a true artist.

    Ray Harryhausen has often recalled in interviews and his books that when he worked under his mentor O'Brien on the animation of Mighty Joe Young (1949), there was one particular Joe puppet Harryhausen felt a great affinity for, and that affinity comes through in the particular sequences Harryhausen animated in the film using that puppet: those sequences, in fact, define Joe's personality in ways that carry the film. Harryhausen's most memorable solo stop-motion creations, from the Rhedosaurus of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms to the Medusa of Clash of the Titans, were recognizably extensions of Harryhausen the actor: they acted, reacted, moved and inhabited their cinematic worlds in ways our unconscious minds recognized as distinctively, uniquely Harryhausen's way of acting, reacting, moving and inhabiting the world. It wasn't just a matter of similar movements or stances -- though those manifest threads are self-evident upon scrutiny, from Harryhausen's 1940s fairy tale shorts to his final feature Clash of the Titans -- but of the literal projection of the artist through his art, the alchemy I referred to above. Artists like O'Brien and Harryhausen expressed themselves so eloquently through their stop-motion creations that we recognized them and reacted to them as projections, loved them as such.

    I know from an early age, long before I stumbled upon the first articles on O'Brien or Harryhausen in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland, the child I was recognized upon seeing 20 Million Miles to Earth for the first time that it was somehow, mysteriously linked to "that monster" in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Little did I know at the time that Harryhausen had pursued the path he did due to his own overwhelming, definitively formative exposure to O'Brien's magic in the original King Kong: art as communicative disease.

    As children, we unconsciously respond to these things. We grasp them on an organic, beyond-words level. This is something the best puppeteers have always understood and worked with. There's a reason Jim Henson, Frank Oz and their fellow Muppeteers always played the same roles on Sesame Street: the puppeteers were their puppets. The kids would know when Big Bird was right, and would respond on a gut-level if Big Bird was "wrong." It isn't just a matter of vocal performances (though that has an organic reality, too: since Mel Blanc's death, we've all missed on a very real level the Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam et al of our youths), it's physical, interactive, and children know when Bert & Ernie aren't really Bert & Ernie. It's a sort of alchemy, it's magic; as children, we respond to this. As adults, we may consciously forget, but when confronted by as soulless and fragmented a non-personality as the CGI Hulk of Ang Lee's film, our unconsciousness makes the same assessment. The kid in us all knew there was nothing really there.

    All of which brings me (at last!) to Peter Jackson and his Kong. Jackson never, ever forgot his childhood perceptions of film, and of the original Kong; never forgetting, Jackson has attended to his films with the necessary childlike intensity of play and zeal for creating convincing realities on a primal, organic level. Hence, the alchemy and magic of his King Kong is genuine.

    From his first film, the delightfully daft gorefest Bad Taste (1988), Jackson demonstrated a fundamental grasp of cinema and its potential that was intoxicating. Even with no money to work with, the ever-inventive Jackson and his cronies pulled off ambitious effects (including almost seamless forced in-camera, live perspective shots using detailed miniatures) that lent their cheapjack opus a sense of expansive scale and scope that belied its impoverished means. En route to the reportedly $200+ million budget of Kong, Jackson has never lost sight of the core issues of cinema, its fundamental nature.

    Unlike Ang Lee (or, more to the point, the insufferably detached George Lucas, whose films since the 1977 Star Wars and his magnificent production of The Empire Strikes Back have been steadfastly soulless confections), Jackson understood that it is not the director that infuses life into special effects and CGI characters. As The Hulk painfully demonstrated, the work of many hands adds up to a dramatic cipher, however involving the narrative and dramatic context, if we do not feel, sense, and believe in the organic totality of a character. Fragmented among multiple effects house and technicians (and, yes, artists), however attentively Ang Lee directed the performance of his Hulk, the CGI Hulk would be less than a hulk: a thing of disconnected illusory movement and images, shards of a notion of a character, splinters and bytes of what might-have-been. Lee's Hulk will sadly forever remain a fragmented cipher: less, in fact, than the sum of his parts.

    As in theatrical puppetry, the creation of cinematic characters via effects requires a single, organically-identifiable personality be projected into a 'virtual' character, and it must obey the rules of such alchemy: it is unavoidably either the animator or the puppeteer who instills life in the character.

    If Kong were to live, he had to have a single, solitary, and strongly felt soul injecting life into that otherwise soulless simulcrum. However much Naomi Watts poured into her heartfelt performance, she would have been stranded high and dry (much like Jennifer Connolly, who gave an excellent performance in The Hulk) were the CGI-spawn-of-Skull-Island Kong unworthy of her (or our) devotion.

    Thus, Jackson knew his Kong depended entirely on Kong being a perceivable extension of a single personality: a soul had to be enfused into the CGI beast. With the reality of 21st Century theatrical feature film production belying the remote chance of a single animator being the soul of his Kong, Jackson embraced the model he had already forged in his remarkable Lord of the Rings trilogy: he cast his Kong.

    Thus, the heart and soul and voice of Gollum, the incredibly versatile and personable Andy Serkis, was Jackson's perfect Kong.

    Andy Serkis played -- he was -- Gollum, the greatest CGI character in the history of cinema.

    Andy Serkis is now Kong, and we are in the thrall of a new spectacle: the perfect synthesis of technology and art, of CGI and performance, of computers and magic.

    [Continued tomorrow...]