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Category Archives: Essays

I’ve finally gotten a chance to write a piece on something that’s been bugging me for some time: the lazy overuse of CGI in today’s movies.

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as CGI (computer-generated imagery). Gosh, movies sure must have been boring way back then, eh?

This particular raptor is an animatronic, not CGI.

I admit, CGI definitely has its place. It allows filmmakers to stretch their imaginations and put whatever they can dream up on the screen. However, this freedom is also their liability since a good number of directors lazily substitute potentially more realistic special effects with CGI. Why build a set when it would be cheaper to digitally replace a blue background with an image of the natural world outside, or the interior of a house or spaceship?

Sure, stop-motion animation and glass paintings and models weren’t (and still aren’t) totally convincing, but they are more appropriate in a real-world context. The CGI monster in Cloverfield looks real only because it’s set in a digital landscape from the point of view of a digital camcorder. But it can be hard to buy into a movie when every character in it is real except for a few (like most fantasy films). Those CGI creations can end up distracting the audience from the storyline.

And there are simply some things that CGI can’t recreate. The jitters of the puppets in a stop-motion animated film like The Nightmare Before Christmas would have a much different effect on its audience if the movie was completed with computer graphics rather than the painstaking work of moving characters frame-by-frame. Who would’ve guessed that the opening shot of Xanadu in Citizen Kane is a superbly rendered glass painting? Honestly, it looks more real than CGI can expect to. Georges Méliès’ films and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis would not be nearly the same if they were done with a computer instead of miniatures.

German director Werner Herzog is known for showing real things happening rather than using special effects, and he always pulls off brilliant cinematic moments. The famous dancing chicken sequence in Stroszek, the scurrying rats in Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, the towing of the 340-ton steamship over a mountain in Fitzcarraldo, and the hundreds of crabs on the rocks by the sea in Invincible are all simple shots and scenes, yet they carry an incredible dramatic weight as the audience realizes, “Wow. That’s real. He didn’t fake that.”

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not a hater. Computer-generated special effects are necessary sometimes, and they can be wonderful creations. Jurassic Park alone is enough proof that CGI can work beautifully. But most action movies show that these special effects can also be abused, too. Who is dazzled anymore when Spiderman flies across the screen? Don’t we all just nod and think, “Hey, that’s pretty good CGI,” even though the fact that we recognize it reveals that it’s an example of bad CGI?

So even though fact is sometimes stranger than fiction, it’s usual more truth-telling. There’s just something about seeing something occurring on the screen and realizing it’s a true event. Don’t believe me? Go to the video store or library this week, rent a Herzog movie or documentary, and try to tell me I’m wrong.

Television as cinema? Why not?

Anyone who has taken a film course has come across the Marshall McLuhan idea of film being a “hot” medium and television a “cool” one. (Or maybe you just remember his name from movie theater lobby scene in Annie Hall?) It was an intro class, so we never discussed the idea in depth, so I actually don’t really know what McLuhan means by “hot” and “cool.”

But I do know that lately, at least in the States, TV hase started to getting a little lukewarm (if not “hot”). There are still great films every year that we see in the movie theater, but we forget about the “movies” on television. It’s as if a line has been blurred now that we see how great television can actually rival great movies.

Nothing proved this to me more than The Sopranos. I didn’t watch it until I found out the show was going off the air. I was dreading having to catch up with all the seasons, but when I found out it was coming to an end, I felt compelled to get into the show after hearing about how much people were enjoying it. Since I was working in a video store at the time (and we had a decent TV show selection), I’d rent the first season, watch a couple episodes a day, return it, rent the next season, and so on. I came down with a light case of pneumonia, so I had even more time to absorb the series. By the time I finished, part two of the sixth season already aired, but the encore episodes were broadcast the following week. Just in time.

I didn’t take in the show in intervals like regular viewers did, but watching the first episode to the last episode within a matter of a few months was something amazing, practically transcendental. I’m not as knowledgable about good TV as I wish I was, but of what I’ve seen in the last twenty years of my life, The Sopranos is essential art and one of the great television experiences. Nothing is as tense, epic, insightful, bewildering, and beautiful as this show.

Comparisons to film don’t stop here, though. What about all the great movies that started with an involvement with television like Berlin Alexanderplatz, Scenes from a Marriage, Mullholland Dr., The Last Emperor (the so-called “director’s cut”), Fanny and Alexander, etc.? I remember when No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s documentary about the life and times of the legendary Bob Dylan, was shown on PBS, and everyday people, including myself, began to realize how great filmmakers could use television to reach a mass audience (and maybe even as a more convenient method of distribution?) without having to worry about packed theaters because a movie experience at home is potentially more comfortable, convenient, and enjoyable than driving to a cineplex and being surrounded by talky cell-phone junkies.

In case you were wondering, this discussion did not start out of the blue. I began writing a post about In Treatment, HBO’s first half-hour show. The new series runs Monday through Friday at 8:30 CST as a therapist (Gabriel Byrne) has appointments with his patients, meeting with one patient each day (and sticking to that schedule for at least this season), and even visits his own shrink (Dianne Wiest).

I just watched the premiere tonight, and it’s off to a great start (it’s like watching a really good, well-filmed play), and I’ll write more on the show soon. Probably at the end of the week since no good movies are coming out for the second week in a row. I’ll be glued to the tube either watching the episodes I couldn’t catch during the week or checking out these Takashi Miike movies that are sitting on my endtable.

Yes, a Miike Mini-festival of Debauchery with Ichi the Killer, Gozu, and Izo. I think I have my sunny weekend planned out.

NOTE: Some of the images that follow are of a graphic nature. Viewer discretion is advised.

When do images like these move into the realm of art?
(from top left: Takashi Miike’s Imprint / Eli Roth’s Hostel /
Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! / David Cronenberg’s Crash)

Having been a part of the demographic of this new breed of horror films casually labelled “torture porn” since I started high school a little more than five years ago, I’ve seen a fair share of what’s been offered in the genre and how people my age, or close to it, have reacted. A lot of people I know tend to eat it up: the general public seems to assume that torture is as extreme as horror gets, and if such “entertainment” is offered in a clean and glitzy multiplex or a Blockbuster, it must be normal to like it.

Granted, this isn’t the first time movies are being fashioned in such an exploitative way. Exploitation films were popular fare in the ’60s and ’70s here in America, but audiences were willing to admit that the movies they were watching were crappy. The movies were cheaper to see and tended to be about something taboo, so even if the movie sucked, at least it could be an intriguing failure and didn’t cost as much.

People couldn’t have thought this was the next Antonioni film:
they knew what they were getting into.

But today is different. People now take exploitation movies much too seriously, and maybe it’s because the marketing for these kinds of films don’t call them what they are anymore. At least back in the day, the trailers used to say things like, “Shocking! Outrageous! Denounced by the Vatican!” and people seeing it on their TV screens were in on the joke (somewhat). However, ever since The Blair Witch Project, people have fallen for the kind of horror that comes dangerously close to being (or seeming) real, which ,ashamedly, will probably result in a release like The Poughkeepsie Tapes (coming to a theater near you February 8) making a decent chunk of change at the box office.

I worked in a local video store for a little over a year, and I saw people from all economic, social, and racial backgrounds come into the store. It would sicken me to see how strongly a surprising number of these people felt (positively, I mean) about these “torture porn” movies, or how upset people would be when they found out our VHS copy of Faces of Death was rented out. People don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation, the danger of what today’s general public defines as entertainment in the horror genre. It’s no longer about seeing a cheap double-bill for pure fun. Today, the attraction is seeing torture or death in any way, which seems to be less about curiosity for taboo subject matter than it is about getting a thrill, actually being turned-on to a degree.

Now, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with violence. Point to just about any David Cronenberg movie, and I’ll tell you it’s brilliant cinema. So, what exactly is the difference between these two camps? Somebody in the general public doesn’t have a problem sitting through Saw multiple times (and, i.e., likes it), but the same person could never in his/her life watch Salò in its entirety.

No caption necessary.

But let’s all admit: we love exploitation flicks. Who doesn’t like a good movie from Jack Hill, Russ Meyer, or John Waters? Whether you love or hate Foxy Brown or Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! or Pink Flamingos, anybody who has seen one of these can admit it’s unlike anything he/she has ever seen before. Check out these genres/subcategories of exploitation flicks from its Wikipedia entry, and see how they make you respond as you scan each one:

  • Black exploitation
  • Sex exploitation
  • Shock exploitation films (shock films)
  • Biker films
  • Cannibal films
  • Chambara films
  • Zombie films
  • Mondo films
  • Splatter films
  • Spaghetti westerns and Euroflicks
  • Women in prison films
  • Bruceploitation
  • Giallo
  • Nunsploitation
  • Nazisploitation
  • Pornochanchada
  • Pinku eiga(Pink Film)
  • Dyxploitation
  • Hixploitation
  • Cat III
  • Teensploitation
  • Rape / Revenge
  • Martial arts film
  • Slasher film
  • Revenge films
  • Propaganda film
  • Carsploitation

Each of the names of these various sub-genres reaches somewhere inside us and tells us to watch. We may very well choose not to in the end (rape? pornochanchada? hixploitation?) but there is definitely something alluring at first about each of them.

Despite the primal appeal of these categories, violence, sex, and taboo topics can all be used as art (but let’s focus on violence since we’re talking about “torture porn”). Violence has been used marvelously to externalize inner pain in the past and nowadays. Miike has done this extraordinarily alongside many great directors before him. Cronenberg does so impressively in The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Crash, and Spider, each one realizing madness, anger, and angst with copious amounts of gore and flesh.

Sam Peckinpah is given credit as the director who turned violence into art with The Wild Bunch, and since I’ve only seen one of his films, the one I will mention is Straw Dogs. To be frank, though, Peckinpah doesn’t really need The Wild Bunch to earn his “artistic violence” cred. He does so from Straw Dogs alone, which shows what a man is capable of when pushed over the edge: shooting someone head-on with a shotgun, scalding a man with boiling whiskey, or closing a bear trap on somebody. And despite what you may think of Natural Born Killers (I see it not as glorifying violence like some people do but as giving even a torture-holic a generous overdose of violence — it’s supposed to make the audience feel a bit disturbed), it’s a great externalization of anger toward our celebrity-worshipping culture not unlike the way The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover is a visual tornado and fever dream of wrath in its many forms.

Therefore, any movie using torture or sadistic violence has the potential to use it in a non-exploitative manner. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with using torture in a film. It can either be used very artfully as in Takashi Miike’s Audition or Imprint (his Masters of Horrors contribution), or torture can be used in a way that lowers it to a level of unimportance as in Eli Roth’s Hostel.

So, my personal beef with movies like Hostel, Saw, and company is that they don’t have any imagination. (Eli Roth himself will tell you how the Italian giallos of old have inspired him.) Hostel believes that just laying out the T&A and torture to be seen is sufficient. But if the sex and violence have no subtext, there really is no excuse for showing it. “For realism” is often quoted as a reason, but it’s a dumb one. What’s intrinsically artistic about showing something real? The news is not art, and documentaries are art only because real events are shaped into a creative whole, not just because these movies show real people doing real things at a real time.

At first, Hostel wasn’t bad. The movie revealed itself in the beginning as some kind of incarnation of “Hotel California,” and even though I wasn’t buying the dialogue, I was turning a blind eye to for the sake of the remainder of the movie, hoping it would only improve. Then, however, Hostel fails when it decides to explain why everything is happening, when it tries to give logic to what is going on, when it tries to shock and give a twist. But no, there is nothing shocking about businessmen paying a company to provide them with a human to torture, so my respect for the film dimmed.

Another fault: if the audience doesn’t care about a character, how can you expect them to be upset when the same character is killed? How is the audience to sympathize with cardboard cutouts? In Audition, I was genuinely interested in the welfare of our poor hero because I could sympathize with his disastrous search for love. How can one not care for the likable Seth Brundle in The Fly? Even though he’s nuts, it’s Jeff Goldblum playing him. And those final shots get me every time.


Movies like Hostel have high potential to be great cinema, but they are far from the mark. What also separates today’s exploitation films from those in the past is ambition in the right area. Back then, since they had so much freedom, the directors and writers tried to be different if not necessarily artistic. Ironically, “torture porn” movies tend to suffer because they try to be art. Their problem is that they’re trying in the wrong direction. Today’s exploitation films can still attempt at being art, but if they continue to be the same rote murder and mayhem, nothing exciting and artistically stimulating will ever come from the genre.

The pause button can be a beautiful thing. It gives you a chance to got the bathroom and not miss even a frame of the movie. You can even watch it on a whole other day, or any interval of time.

However, Federico Fellini said in his semi-autobiography Fellini on Fellini that he didn’t quite approve of the home video experience. He said that’s it’s not the same as the communal event that happens when going to the theater. He did have a few rules: if you are going to watch a movie at home, for example, he said that you can have popcorn (which is traditionally offered in movie theaters), but don’t sit on your couch and have a plate of spaghetti. He also said that the room where one watches the movie should be completely dark as in a theater because doing otherwise, like eating spaghetti during a movie, would only draws attention to the fact that you aren’t in a movie theater.

And that wascally button with the double bars is a similar distraction. Jim Emerson posted at his Scanners blog almost a year ago about his experience with the evil pause button:

And this is where I finally get to… “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” I did not see it in a theater, and I regret that. Not because it is a “big-screen experience”… but because I had a remote control in my hand, I wasn’t able to submit to it… I paused it a few times… and finally, after more than an hour (and only two hospital visits), I turned it off, promising that I’d give it another shot when I felt more equal to the task. […]

If I’d been in a theater, I would have sat there and gone through it. But because I was in control, it was relatively easy to back away — even though I wanted to submit.

When I first read this post, I thought Jim was just being weak. It wasn’t long until I realized I was having the same problem.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a surprising number of similar experiences during the year. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I’m one of those trying to watch all the movies on the 1001 list (which I am now retiring), and I’ve paused too many movies that I never finished or were a pain in the ass to finish. (But sometimes, to be fair, I finished them, and I fell in love.) Most of the time, I’m bored and feel like doing something else, but it only prolongs the movie’s end (and, i.e., boredom).

I just recently started Celine and Julie Go Boating, the Jacques Rivette movie that’s over three hours long (well, one of ’em). I tend to get antsy after sitting down for more than two hours (Orson Welles was the same way, I found out), but since I’ve never seen a Rivette film and the movie is supposed to be phenomenal, I thought it’d be worth checking out. I was watching it late at night and stopped it after an hour since I was getting tired. I haven’t played the tape since. The movie is a little whacked out (a bit too post-modern for my tastes), but I’m not going to say anything concrete about it until I’m done with it.

The Lives of Others (I’m confused — is it a 2006 movie or 2007?) was in my DVD player two days ago, and I stopped it to check my e-mail around the 47-minute mark because I remembered I was waiting on an important message. Today, I still haven’t watched the rest of it. And it’s overdue. Dammit.

This also just happened with The Blue Angel. Thankfully, though, I finished it on another day, and I’m glad to report it’s a beautiful film with another performance from Emil Jannings that makes me want to cry.

Should more directors discourage pausing/stopping a movie? I think so. I encourage them. Most of David Lynch’s DVDs aren’t divided into chapters so the movie has to be watched at one time unless you want to restart the movie and do a lot of fast-forwarding, which really sucks (I stopped Eraserhead during the first time that I tried to watch it and learned the hard way). I need more hard medicine like this, or else it’s just going to keep on happening to me.

Now I sound like an addict. Maybe because it’s 10:30 in the morning and I haven’t gotten a wink of sleep since yesterday. I may have to get to work on that now…

There are plenty of lenient “rules” to filmmaking, but seeing someone shatter conventions is quite refreshing. There are plenty of great directors, actors, writers, and other artists out there who meet this criterion, yet there are a few who go unnoticed. Nick Broomfield, a British documentary director, is probably the nerviest interviewer I’ve ever come across. He asks bold questions, performs some wild stunts, and will go to any lengths to see his documentary turn out the way he wants it to. Even though I haven’t yet seen a film from him that I would call a classic, he is one the best contemporary documentary filmmakers out there.

Broomfield consistently breaks rules. He’s not Jean-Luc Godard, but he is great when it comes to breaking “rules” of documentary filmmaking. For example, interviewers/directors are not supposed to be an active element of the movie, for the point of a documentary is to… well, document. However, like Michael Moore after him, Broomfield sprinkles his face all over his documentaries, and in a sense, he is a secondary subject in his movies. Or actually, he is the subject. As Roger Ebert said in his review of Broomfield’s Biggie and Tupac, “His movies are, in a sense, about his experiences in making them.” While his chosen subject (Lily Tomlin, fetishes, Heidi Fleiss, etc.) is the main focus of his film, his role is very active indeed.

In addition, unlike most directors these days, Broomfield refuses to use a large crew. He is his own sound recorder, and someone else acts as the photographer. Anyone watching him knows he is brilliant when they see that amid the cords, boom mike, headphones, and other sound equipment, Broomfield is surprisingly clear-headed, completely organized, and focused.

Unafraid to ask tough questions, Broomfield will even get himself into some trouble in order to make his point or to get what he wants. For Aileen Wuornos: the Selling of a Serial Killer, he spoke openly with Wuornos, America’s supposedly first female serial killer. (Most other people in his place would probably freeze and not know what to ask.) When one woman reveals herself as practically Machiavellian, Broomfield puts her in her place, calling her deceptive, conniving, and the like, not worried about the possible consequences due to the twisted people he’s involved with.

In Kurt & Courtney, he attends a party at which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) awards Courtney Love with an award about free speech. After Love makes her acceptance speech, Broomfield improvises: he approaches the podium on stage and talks about how inappropriate it is that Love, who sent death threats to reporters and journalists who discussed her in an unfriendly light following the death of Kurt Cobain, receive an award from a group that supports the freedom of the press. (Unsurprisingly, he was immediately removed from the stage.) If anyone can say anything about Broomfield, it would regard his fearlessness.

As awesome and relentless as he his, Broomfield and his work consistently go overlooked. Most of his documentaries were for Channel Four of the BBC, which has offered minimal exposure of Broomfield’s films in the States. Barely even a third of his movies is (or ever has been) available in the U.S. Even while he made movies in the United States, I had never heard of Broomfield until I saw Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam (thanks to Roger Ebert for placing the movie in his top ten list for 1996), and I was left greatly impressed. Documentaries aren’t exactly at the top of people’s lists of movies to check out, but when they’re done well, like when Broomfield makes them, they’re more than worth the cost of a rental.