Much has been made about the motion capture animation and 3-D technologies in Beowulf, yet few of the critics (whose reviews I read) mentioned much in regards to what the movie and its technology are actually doing. A fair amount of critics seem comfortable to label the movie as a purely technical affair, a digital incantation of a boring story they read in high school. But in making these bland claims, these critics (if they can be called that) have not just misunderstood the film, but its source material as well. Strange is at may be to them, director Robert Zemeckis is actually after something with this movie, and he is uncharacteristically subtle about it. Beowulf is a deep exploration of the nature of heroism, and the manner in which we cling to hero myths. That Zemeckis has launched his inquiry into the hero myth with perhaps the quintessential hero's tale is no coincidence either.
Matt Zoller Seitz's review of Beowulf is one of the more thoughtful reflections on the film, not because he admired it, but because he's willing to examine the ideological undercurrents embedded within the criticism about the film, ranging from its digital animation to its humorous use of sexual imagery. Seitz certainly acknowledges its shortcomings, but like any good critic he realizes that plainly stated opinions about a film are pretty useless. In his more detailed criticism of the film, Seitz argues that it is much more going on than many are willing to see. He then offers a somewhat different approach to Robert Zemeckis' position in American filmmaking today:
"If indeed Zemeckis lost his way, he lost it in Reagan's first term. He's been on this quest -- applying technological innovation to mainstream commercial blockbusters -- for nearly two decades, starting with 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which employed motion-controlled cameras to let 'toons interact (often in elaborately choreographed long takes) with flesh-and-blood actors. Even then Zemeckis was accused of being too enamored with the mechanics of technology. From the Back to the Future sequels through Forrest Gump, Contact and What Lies Beneath, the gripes continued. (Only Cast Away escaped them.) The all-style-no-substance rap discounts the possibility that Beowulf's substance is embedded in its style. And it discounts the possibility that, in his determination to tell elemental stories with increasingly daring techniques, Zemeckis is one of the few true visionaries making studio blockbusters today."
Seitz later explains that the film's brains are in its images. This would seem like a fairly ordinary observation until you give it time to sink in. The majority of contemporary film criticism looks past the image, seemingly beyond the image, but really right through it. Movies like Beowulf are written off and placed into the "Hollwood blockbuster" box before viewers/critics even see the images, movements. Film criticism and a great deal of film studies start on the "inside", that which is suggested in or represented by the image, and then work out to the image. This approach to cinema is not about the cinema, however, but the Grand Theory thats supposedly underneath the images. In fact, the viscituded of grand theory are within the critic/spectator's own theoretical world. According to this method, the image is secondary to the ideas that the critic is looking for.
Of course, each viewer approaches a movie based on certain perspectives, values, and assumptions, but the argument here is not whether there is a "right" or objective way to assess a movie. Instead, an emphasis must be placed on seeing the image and drawing an inquiry based on that image and the relations it forges based on movement, shapes, color, and yes, narration. Only then can one approach any level of thematic depth and aesthetic value, rather than slapping images with pre-digested labels and comfortably packaging them into easily understood value claims. Rather than situating our interpretations of a film from the standpoint of whether it's "good" or "bad", critics should first see the images, react to them, and try to understand the how they affect us as spectators.
Concerning my experience with Beowulf, I'd say it was anything but straightforward for a number of reasons. I will readily admit that I approached it with a fair amount of assumptions about Zemeckis, the technology employed to construct the movie, my experience with the story over the last ten years, big-budget Hollywood moviemaking, etc. All of these factors contributed to how I saw and interpreted the film. After two weeks of thinking about it, I've still not really settled on much about it, suffice to say that it struck me. I've since learned that my inability to "place" the film is actually a good thing. (I learn that lesson over and over again, by the way.) In some ways, it was disappointing as an "action ride", but that's only because I was expecting that; all those neat shots and 3-D elements popping out at me. But the action was never really the point of the story, nor is it the focus of the movie, save for its final climactic sequence in which Beowulf fights the dragon.
Unfortunately I cannot offer much in the way of thematic or stylistic depths until I see it again. (MZS does a great job of that in his review, for those interested.) I'd therefore like to shift gears and explore the very thing that prevented me from experiencing the whole movie: the 3-D presentation. Seeing Beowulf in a digital 3-D presentation was my first experience with 3-D, in a feature length film, at least. I should note that I have been cautious about 3-D for quite some time. Rather than digital animation and photography, which I approach with great enthusiasm, 3-D technology is a different beast entirely, and not something I take lightly. Alas, my skepticism was confirmed. After the Paramount Logo and the opening title sequence -- with the stone letters coming from all angles to spell "Beowulf" -- I was entirely put off by the 3-D presentation. Simply put, the 3-D images felt like a gimmick, garnering "oohs" and "ahhs" at first, but then is ultimately distracting from the movie.
As I search my thoughts for a statement to follow such a generic claim, i.e., that the 3-D "distracts from the movie", I have probably uncovered a deep-ridden assumption that may account for why I approach 3-D technology so timidly. To me, cinema is the flatness. No doubt, 3-D makes for exciting moments and more involving action sequences because it blends the lines between the viewer's eye and the screen. But there's something deeply unsettling about it from the consideration of how we define cinema.
While a viewer can navigate the economy of dimension in a "flat" image, discerning its shapes and movements and making sense of them three-dimensionally, a 3-D image requires that the viewer add another lens between the eye and the image. The spectator still views a flat a screen, but the added lens of the 3-D glasses disrupts the dimensional relations of the image and alters the perception and interpretation of "flat" images. Thus, images seem to occupy a real space in front of us.
The 3-D experience is so "distracting" because it disrupts the spatial unity of the cinematic image. For those who approach cinema from a more formal theoretical perspective, 3-D technology makes cinema something else entirely. It is, quite simply, a betrayal of cinema. There are likely a good number of critics who would claim that digital animation and motion capture technology, rather than the r-D presentation, is more a "betrayal", but I would argue that cinema is built upon principles of movement on a flat surface. That's not to say that I'm advocating the "fore fathers" principle to explain why 3-D isn't cinema. (You know, the very foolish "It's what the fore founders intended" argument.) I feel that cinema is wide open with possibility, but once that motion is rendered off the screen or designated space occupying that image, one must wonder whether it's really cinema anymore, and, for that matter, what defines cinema at all.
Pat Graham, of the Chicago Reader, asks many of the same questions of 3-D movement relations and space. In a recent blog entry, he writes:
"The pictorial surface (aka window) seems primarily an occasion for helter-skelter effects. Not that it's a question of Zemeckis's doing this well or badly, it's simply the nature of the 3-D beast, what filmmakers automatically assume you'll be wanting to see—since why else do 3-D at all? Things flying out of the frame at indiscriminate angles, figures interacting (or not) at varying depths of the visual field: can't put all these elements in the same conceptual package, the mind-eye coordination isn't made for it. Not to mention the myriad irrelevant distractions: ceiling candelabras and whatnot floating seductively by you when the actual point of the scene lies elsewhere. It's hard to know which visual data to pay attention to, and by the time you've figured it out the critical dramatic moment's already come and gone.
But why should you figure it out—is it some kind of sadistic test? Because if you've been weaned on Renaissance expectation—that pictorial space has unity, that you take it all in with a kind of "global" awareness, all perspectival elements smooshed into one coordinating surface, the idea of what a fresco does, conventional portraiture or landscape (not to mention the "normal two-dimensional" filmmaking strategies Zemeckis purportedly employs)—this brave new visual paradigm can only seem jarring ... and probably disappointing. But yes, there's lots of random "reality"—details you can't help noticing whether they make any sense or not."
Graham recognizes the flatness of the cinematic image as an inherent quality of cinema. Flatness assumes a space between the spectator and the image. When the separation between spectator and screen is infringed upon, movement is perceived differently. Applying the same set of rules for cinematic interpretation to an altogether different kind of visuality results in a disjointed experience. These new spatial relations disrupt all senses of cinematic space as we've come to know it. We perceive them via interpretive schemata constructed on the principle that images that inhabit some kind of discernable space or surface, usually a screen. In other words, once the image jumps off the screen, it becomes a new kind of image, one that requires a different way of seeing than the one that has been constructed by over a century's worth of cinema.
Like drawing, painting, and even writing, part of the aesthetic beauty of cinema is internalizing the experience of sensory perception and rendering it on a seemingly restricted surface. The spectator can thus experience three dimensions through two-dimensional space. But the miracle of cinema is that through motion and sound, a whole new kind of experience can be created. Through its own spatial reality, it constructs a temporal world within which the limitations and infiniteness of human experience can exist, only in a different way. That's why, as Deleuze says, "the cinema is always as perfect as it can be." Whether its real or artificial doesn't seem to matter.
More on the the animation end of things later...