Almost exactly 10 years ago, I sat in Knoxville’s Capri theater and watched the biggest hit of that summer, Terminator 2: Judgment Day. The Capri was the last of the old-time movie theaters in Knoxville. It had only three screenstwo half-size rooms and one gargantuan room with bucket seats you could sink into. The interior of the lobby was comprised of garish mistakes from a remodeling in the ’70s: blue shag carpet, multicolored globe lights suspended from the high ceiling, and ornate plastic trim around the restroom entrances. Going to see a film at the Capri was like walking into an old movie itself. Now it’s a furniture store, and there isn’t a single theater in all of Knoxville that has fewer than 10 screens.
There’s an appropriate irony to my having seen Terminator 2 in that theater. Much in the way that the Capri’s days were numbered thanks to the advent of massive Cineplexes, Terminator 2 was the start of a trend that has left movies changed forever. It was in this film that we witnessed the first heavy-duty use of digital special effects. Robert Patrick played an advanced cyborg composed of a liquid form of metal, enabling the character to alter his body in a variety of ways. At the time, it was unlike anything we’d ever seen beforewe got to watch an actor’s arm turn into a spike before our eyes. This was far and away a much more impressive feat than the first Terminator’s trick of making it seem as though Arnold Schwarzenegger had a metal skullwhich was achieved through old-school latex effects. Suddenly, it seemed, filmmakers had a plethora of directions in which they could take their films.
Here we are 10 years later, though, and I can’t help feeling that the opposite has happened. Filmmakers have gotten lazy because they can now create something without ever having to leave the computer. Two films in particular bothered me last year. In the Academy Award winner Gladiator, a battle in the Colosseum involved a tiger jumping out of a trap door and leaping on our fearless hero, Russell Crowe. Unfortunately, the animal in question moved in such a blur as to make it patently obvious that no real tiger had been used. I understand that this might have saved the producers money and trouble, but it would have been a far more effective sequence if a trained tiger and a stuntman had executed this five-second shot.
The same goes for the Colosseum itself. Instead of constructing it as an actual set, the filmmakers created the majority of the shots from digital images, giving the Colosseum a very unreal “real” look.
Looking real should be impressive enough, but now apparently artificiality has its own appeal. Take the whale scene in Robert Zemeckis’ Cast Away: After the creature breaks the surface of the water for a brief moment to look Tom Hanks in the eye, it merely dissipates without causing a ripple. Zemeckis seems to take for granted that we’ll now buy anything with a digital feel.
After 10 years, digital effects just don’t have the convincing immediacy that they did in the beginning; they’re airless. Recent releases like The Mummy Returns have extended sequences involving digitally generated monsters that make the movie feel more like a video game. Compare this with the extravagantly staged scenes in the Indiana Jones movies, and the difference is depressing, to say the least.
For a definitive comparison, consider two different works by the same director: George Lucas’ Star Wars and its prequel, The Phantom Menace. Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars blew audiences away with its imaginative worlds and lifelike space creatures. Of course, those creatures were nothing more than people in suits, but many of themin particular, the doglike sidekick Chewbaccabecame fan favorites. Then, more than 20 years later, Lucas created the prequel using almost entirely digital creations. The sidekick of this particular film, the animated Jar Jar Binks, was so goofy-looking and irritating that he was reviled by much of the audienceand he was memorable only because he was so aggravating.
It’s important to make technological advances in moviemaking, but those strides need to be balanced with a genuine feel for the art formmovies should captivate the audience and not just impress them. I suppose if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that while special effects may allow a filmmaker to do more than would have previously been thought possible, there’s still something to be said for a man in a dog suit.
One of the nice things about expanded cable is that with so many channels in need of programming slots to fill, old television shows get a second life. Many is the time I’ve revisited an episode of Moonlighting or WKRP in Cincinnati somewhere along the now never-ending television dial.
For a show with a cult following, this is an especially good fortune: If it can’t make it on the broadcast networks, the program always has a second chance on cable. In particular, Bedford Falls Productions seems to have turned out a lot of these shows (all of which, curiously, have been on ABC). The production company’s latest is the divorcee drama Once & Again, which is being banished to Friday nights for its third season next yearthus ensuring its imminent demise. Previously adored, short-lived Bedford Falls shows have included Relativity, a mid-’90s singles drama, and My So-Called Life, the highly praised Claire Danes vehicle that enjoyed a popular rerun of its first season on MTV.
Bedford Falls’ first show to make it onto the airwaves was thirtysomething, which has resurfaced several times over the last decade in cable reruns. This tale of married and single baby-boomers dealing with adulthood in Philadelphia was a critical success in the late ’80s, but then it was unexpectedly squashed in the third season and thereafter developed a rabidly devoted cult following. In fact, fans got excited this year when a character from thirtysomething, the loathsome Miles Cantrell, popped up on Once & Again and then died.
Bedford Falls productions are a mixed bag. They are far more intelligently written than most television shows, but they indulge in an emotional intensity that can sometimes produce laughs instead of tears. But for those who were severely hooked on thirtysomething and have direly missed Michael, Hope, Elliot, Nancy, Melissa, and the not-long-for-this-world Gary, you can start catching the series again in its entirety, beginning July 16 on Bravo. If you’re a diehard, you won’t want to miss the first night; after the pilot episode, the network will air a one-hour reunion special with the cast and creators. But just rememberno matter how nice she may seem now, Hope was and always will be a selfish, manipulative bitch.
“That is not a waiter, my dear; that is a butler.”
“Well, I can’t yell ‘Oh, butler!’ can I? Maybe somebody’s name is Butler.”
“You have a point. An idiotic one, but a point.”
Be the first to e-mail the origin of this useless bit of trivia to poplife the shame of your name printed in the paper and some free useless crap from the Nashville Scene!
Previous week’s answer: “Between thought and expression lies a lifetime.”“Some Kinda Love” by The Velvet Underground.
Winner: John Nikolai.
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