By Fred Wagner.
The Show of Shows (2015), a recently released documentary made out of archive footage shows the lost world of the circus – a cornucopia of acts the like of which were once the vanguard of kitsch but that now seem so alien you can look at them like you sometimes would an exhibit in a museum: with curiosity and raised eyebrows. Reviewers praised the film for bringing to our attention an almost vanished culture but also pointed out the outdated ethics that underscored many of the performances in it: Mark Kermode in The Observer noted the “exploitation of animals and children” and called the film “arresting and at times disturbing”; in a Variety review, Jay Weissberg wrote that there is a “troubling objectification of animals and children in these spectacles.” It’s possible to agree with these sentiments while still having similar sensuous reactions to those the audience probably would have had at the time of these performances.
Today we may be uncomfortable with keeping lions in captivity but the spectacle of a woman placing her head inside of one’s mouth is still nail-biting, even though it has already happened. Ditto the footage of a tightrope walker setting up a table and chair on his tightrope, strung across what appear to be two cliff faces, tucking in his napkin and miming at eating his lunch. So do the filmed performances collaged in this documentary, and the kind of performances that were practiced in the circus, have anything to teach the modern film industry?
Spectacle in cinema didn’t originate in Hollywood. In his book Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century (2010), Matthew Solomon shows that in the years before the Californian studios established a formula of narrative filmmaking that became almost synonymous with the word “cinema,” a genre of “trick films” existed where sheer spectacle was far more important than the story, which was often non-existent. The primary question for audiences watching these kinds of movies was not to find out what happened next but – like in magic – to guess how the tricks were pulled off.
One such movie was George Méliès’ experimental film, L’homme orchestre (1900), which showed seven images of himself, which had been recorded separately and then superimposed onto one another, playing different instruments and conducting the band. What would seem a humble rouse by today’s standards was then an innovative and brilliant set piece. As audiences became more exposed to trick films and more familiar with the cinema they also became jaded by such routines and the stage was set for popular filmmaking to become primarily a vehicle for delivering a story, with spectacle playing a side-role to the main act of drama.
Perhaps today we are seeing similar levels of fatigue with special effects. In 2014 the film critic Jonathan Romney wrote an essay in which he criticised the blunt way CGI was being used by contemporary filmmakers, coining the term “permanent apocalypse” to describe its use in the movies Pacific Rim (2013) and Man of Steel (2013) – a label that could surely be applied to a number of other titles. Well-known directors like J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan have recently made a point of prioritising practical effects rather than CGI in their work and both have invoked the idea of sticking to “reality” as the basis for this decision. So there is now a belief amongst filmmakers that limiting the scope of digital post-production techniques makes a movie more authentic and less likely to veer towards an orgiastic cacophony of explosions and destructions: a way to ensure that story is prioritised over spectacle. If you were being cynical, you might say that it’s also a sign of directors trying to keep as much of production as possible in their own hands. How much of a film needs to be “real” and how much of it should be made by tinkering with pixels on a computer? It would clearly be unwise to speculate about a potential formula for the correct ratio and it equally goes without saying that animation as a genre does not require the use of cameras to work its wonders.
However, in the field of stunt performances things are different. There is something numbing about knowing that a sequence designed to thrill has been produced with a green screen – a context entirely devoid of thrills. Jonathan Romney put it like this: with CGI “we lose the knowledge, or at least the possibility, that real stunt people have risked their necks to entertain us.” That isn’t to say that it’s always possible to tell when and where CGI has been used but that if we as audience members know that it has been used (through the film’s marketing) it can take the edge off of scenes which are designed to provoke feelings of alarm, shock and exhilaration.
George Méliès was one of the founders of special effects yet he saw the relationship between filmmaker and audience in a completely different way to what has become conventional wisdom in the film industry. Méliès was a magician. Trick films for him were another form of magic trick so – as Matthew Solomon describes – he believed that how a film was made should never be revealed to audiences. He even blamed the bankruptcy of his company on his employees giving away the secret of his techniques to the rival French studio, Pathé. In a genre where spectacle rather than story was paramount, revealing the method of each “trick” may be compared to “spoilers” of a narrative as the wow factor was all in how the effects were produced. It must be remembered that Méliès was working in the immediate decades after the advent of film so at the time when he exhibited and distributed his films audiences would have had far less knowledge of what we now consider to be basic techniques such as double exposure, dissolves and matte. Although in today’s context it almost certainly wouldn’t be possible to withhold new filmmaking techniques from the public domain, the film industry might benefit from a partial adoption of Méliès’ idea of not divulging how spectacles are produced to audiences. To combat CGI fatigue, filmmakers and their marketing agents could choose not to reveal where and when CGI has been used in a given film.
Revealing the intricacies of how films are made – and presenting this information as part of a coordinated marketing strategy – is an established formula in today’s press relations, used to pique interest in a title. Sometimes the use of CGI is highlighted and other times the fact that it was not used is emphasised to try to bolster the supposed authenticity of a movie. The way that Alejandro Iñárritu has spoken about Oscar’s favourite The Revenant – saying that the film would not have been as powerful if more of it had been shot with green screen technology – is a clear example of the latter strategy. Is it conceivable that this established formula of inviting the audience behind the camera, so to speak, could be turned on its head?
Two examples of studio marketing – one historical, the other contemporary – where parts of the production process have been deliberately withheld from audiences and kept out of the public domain show that the prevailing philosophy of how to do PR for a film doesn’t just involve revealing information but also, at times, concealing it as well. Jacob Smith, author of The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity and Stunt Performance (2012), shows how between the “transitional era” in the early twentieth century and 1945 the industry kept the existence of stunt performers a secret because it thought that a star’s popular image would be damaged if it was known that they didn’t take their own risks on set. This tradition of under-acknowledgement of stunt men and women has been carried over into the present as there is still no Oscar’s award for stunt performers. More recently, VFX “beauty works” that are applied to the image of actors in post-production to smooth out physical blemishes deemed too undesirable or unpalatable are also kept out of the public domain. Reports have been made that actors are regularly required to sign non-disclosure agreements which prevent them from discussing these procedures.
The film industry has systematically tried to prevent certain information about the production process of movies being made available to the public, so there is no reason to believe that it is unrealistic to think that filmmakers might sometimes decide not to reveal detailed information about when and where CGI is used in their films. The bigger obstacle to this scenario could be audiences themselves, who are used to being able to find out about the way films are made. But what if, as with sausages, knowing the ins and outs of the production process is harmful to enjoying the finished product?
In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche argued that since 4 B.C. and the advent of “Socratic culture” Western thought has privileged understanding and knowledge over a direct experience of art. He railed against this culture, declaring that it’s an illusion to think that thought “can reach to the nethermost depths of being.” Looking to find out how things work may be an ancient impulse but in the present day digital technology – for a large number of people – has meant greater ease of access and more exposure to information than was previously the case, which has surely exacerbated the tendency to value knowledge over an experience of art. Nietzsche venerated tragic Greek theatre because he saw it as being in tune with the primordial and unchanging rhythm of life. The average cinema-goer is probably looking for an opposite experience: we go to see blockbusters for escapism as they provide a way of being taken into a place which doesn’t resemble our normal lives. In the digital age when the fabric of such fantasies is often produced on computers and without glamorous “making of” stories, an audience that wants to find out about these methods will not only be disappointed but may also be diminishing their own primary experience of the film. Accepting limitations on the appetite to know may be a way of re-claiming the thrilling experiences cinema can provide.
Fred Wagner is a documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist.
Kermode, Mark (2015), “The Show of Shows review – a century of circus comes alive”, The Guardian, 6 December.
Nietzsche, Friedrich (1927), The Birth of Tragedy, New York: Dover Publications.
Romney, Jonathan (2014), “Numbing the imagination”, Aeon, 14 November.
Smith, Jacob (2012), The Thrill Makers: Celebrity, Masculinity and Stunt Performance, London, Los Angeles, Berkley: University of California Press.
Solomon, Matthew (2010), Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, Urbana, Chicago and Springfield: University of Illinois Press.
Weissberg, Jay (2016), “Film Review: ‘The Show of Shows’”, Variety, 16 January.