The Movie Club

Life of Pi Looked Like It Was Projected Onto a Cube of Jell-O
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 8 2013 4:48 PM

The Movie Club

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Forget Life of Pi. The year’s best digital effects were in Rust and Bone.

Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone.
Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts in Rust and Bone.

Photo by Roger Arpajou.

Dear Stephanie, Wesley, and Keith,

Dana Stevens Dana Stevens

Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic.

This photo of Wesley standing on top of his desk at the Globe to make a speech after winning the Pulitzer was like a still from what would have been the best movie of the year.

But since lack of space compels us to restrict our conversation to films that actually exist, I’m wondering what you all made of 2012’s bumper crop of movies that aimed to immerse the viewer in hyper-real sensory universes of one kind or another. This is a phenomenon I’ve been thinking about over the last few years, because I want to interrogate my resistance to the technologies I perhaps too often dismiss as so many spatio-perceptual bells and whistles: 3-D, super-high-definition formats like The Hobbit’s 48 frames per second, and even to some degree the extensive use of digitally created images. It isn’t that I don’t think filmmakers can use these innovations in arresting and novel ways. Months after seeing Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, which did remarkable things with 3-D, digital animation, and hi-def, the film’s unusual visual surface is all that sticks with me: I can only describe the image as seeming not only deep but thick, as if the movie were being projected onto a solid cube of clear Jell-O. It was neat-looking, but I’m not sure I need any more of my movies to look that way. Or that I even needed Life of Pi to, really—if anything, the movie’s lavish, hyper-designed look functioned, for me, as a buffer against genuine emotional response.

Then there was the 48fps technology in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which for me and many other viewers turned what might otherwise been an overlong-but-endearing trip deep down the hobbit-hole of Jackson’s Tolkien-loving brain into a two-hour-and-50-minute retinal assault. It may be that higher-frame-rate technology will one day change the way we watch movies, but whatever future marvels we’ll be oohing and aahing at are unlikely to bear much resemblance to the 48fps Hobbit, a movie as ugly as that goblin king with the pendulous neck-goiter who terrorizes the dwarf heroes in its second half. It isn’t just that viewers’ eyes are used to watching film advance at the slower 24fps rate (which, I know, was itself arbitrarily chosen). It’s that lighting designers, costumers, actors, and everyone behind the scenes creating the illusion are all used to working within that format as well, and their tricks are all scaled to that medium. At least in this movie’s case, the effect of jamming twice as much visual information into each frame was to continuously remind the viewer of a piece of meta-visual information she might rather not spend a fantasy film thinking about: that everything we were seeing was taking place on a series of wildly expensive film sets somewhere in New Zealand, with guys in dwarf costumes under a hot lighting rig worrying about the longevity of their beards’ spirit gum.

It’s an inevitability that the gods will exact retribution for what I just wrote by making the 48fps format the next big thing starting in 2013. (I’m imagining a trend of higher-frame-rate conversions of Hollywood classics: The Wizard of Oz, now with visible latex seams on the Scarecrow’s headpiece!) I swear I’m not being a Luddite for Ned Ludd’s sake here; if anything, I’m eager for a big technological breakthrough to come along and make my eyeballs pop out of my head cartoon-style, the way Avatar, for all its storytelling shortcomings, did a few years back. But maybe it’s just that the most magical digital effects this year took place on a smaller, less aggressively “immersive” scale: The matter-of-fact digital removal of Marion Cotillard’s lower legs for the amputee character she played in the gritty, heart-swelling French romance Rust and Bone, or that freaky motion-captured erotic encounter between Denis Lavant and an impossibly lithe female acrobat in Léos Carax’s deliciously bizarre masterwork Holy Motors.

How do you all feel about the third dimension’s by now apparently successful assault on our cinematic senses, and the general valuation of sensorial hyper-reality as an aesthetic good? Do you wish there were more or fewer films that sought to suspend you in blocks of perceptual Jell-O?

Yours,
Dana