Cinema became many things after its birth but it began as one. Before narrative, documentary, propaganda—before all that precious utility, film served but one niche: The Carnival. Cinema was an attraction, but more precisely it was a gimmick, a ticket-selling optical illusion– in short, a trick. But was there value in this trick? Was it artistic? Scientific? Well, not really either but also neither none. Perhaps the value of a “Cinema of Attractions” was intrinsic, like music’s synthesis of form and content—perhaps the treat was the trick itself. One hundred years later and the trick has transformed. We call it CGI, and there’s one big difference: we stigmatize the hell out of it.
Now, where the correlation of a “Cinema of Attractions” and CGI is clear, the causality is actually reversed. While both provide pleasure directly through spectacle, the former aims to render the real fake, whilst the latter the fake real. However, applying the term “realism” would be a misstep as many story-worlds belie the tenets of what we understand as “realistic”. “Natural”, too, is missing the mark, but hits much closer. The bulls-eye term is perhaps most succinctly coined “physical”.
The degree of physical accuracy—as in, abidance by the principles of physics—of our unreal images within real and unreal worlds defines the quality of their spectacle. And to this end, even if CGI is implemented gratuitously or flippantly with regard to complementing its narrative, there is standalone value or lack thereof in it. Too much CGI can be done phenomenally while too little can be done dreadfully, and the converse follows. So long as the light, energy, and motion about our false image plays by the rules of its accepted physicality (its matter amongst its environment’s matter—because you can’t really tell a good story in non-Euclidean space…), we can laud it as proper CGI and quality art.
Some examples of CGI done beautifully because of a conscience of physics: the ripples on the back of Spider-Man’s spandex suit during the first five minutes of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (spandex will flap plummeting at [human] terminal velocity); the airborne movement of Tony Stark’s body in response to 4-5 distinct areas of directional thrust in Iron Man; and, most relevantly, the gravity of the gargantuan, mechanically-dynamic Jaegers of Pacific Rim. Sure, Pacific Rim– crap story, inane dialogue, and just outright fecal film-making; however, the sheer sense of momentum scrupulously imbued within its hundred-foot heroes is arguably one the most incredible, subtle, but deft “tricks” of our current decade. Take a closer look at the Jaegers as they whip out their brutal 1-2’s (especially Gypsy Danger). Each move appears to undergo a process of initiation (building potential energy), allocation (large parts moving in or out of position), and release (diffusing energy: kinetic, mechanical, plasma, etc). In short, everything that is big feels big. For this concept’s antithesis, look no further than the hulks of Bay’s Transformers 3 & 4. His big robots feel fake, not because they’re big or bots, but because they move too fast, are lit & colored flamboyantly, and act/speak like Walt Disney’s wet dream. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, often touted as a “guilty pleasure”, stripped of narrative, could be analyzed as one big, visual motif for the ‘art of momentum’, and there’s nothing shameful or “guilty” about art. Perhaps that scene where the Jaeger blasts through an office to lightly tap and activate a Newton-swing pendulum makes slightly more sense in this context…
So how could such a complex art form receive, more oft than not, such myopic dismissal? Is it the collective “computers killed the ‘movie-o’ star” grudge of a global gaggle of starving film critics? Maybe. Surely ignorance (fear) factors mightily in the vox pop’s reception of all nascent art forms. Yet perhaps the mightiest culprit of CGI’s mass misunderstanding lurks about the same essential impetus of its predecessor: the carney trick. Key to its name, the ‘carney trick’ always takes more than it gives, quality notwithstanding, and we always pay up front. Likewise, the ‘CGI-trick’ is lucrative, and we’ve all at least once been duped or robbed by it. We come for enthrallment, magic that makes the unreal ever more convincing, but too often leave with mental fragments of post-processed piss. After all, admission is more or less standard, while resources invested vs. gained is an unregulated dynamic for investors/studios, and not directors or other artists, to balance. Ultimately, if we seek to cast blame as to the inception and circulation of the term “CGI porn”, we have no further to look than our own filthy wallets.
However, despite the disturbing existent discrepancy between big-budget, visual scams and tricks that genuinely treat, the “Cinema of Attractions” has returned. Furthermore, with minimal effort, we as consumers can actually elevate the artistic standard of it. Before we reach for our wallets, let’s reach for the internet: do a bit of IMDB surfing, click that “see full cast and crew” link, and click some names. See what other work they’ve done; one might be surprised how prolific most of them are. Soon we’ll remember the names, foster a demand, and make stars of the men and women who toil in front of screens, longer than anything in front of any camera, to make the impossible physical.