Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Ang Lee

Don’t look in the mirror

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Shaun of the Dead

One of the incidental pleasures of having a newborn baby in the house is the chance to catch up on junk television. You invariably find yourself sitting for hours on the couch, either because the baby is feeding or because she refuses to sleep unless she’s being held at four in the morning, and you’re rarely in the mood for a show like Mad Men or Breaking Bad that demands sustained attention. Far better to go with something like The Vampire Diaries, which I’ve wanted to watch ever since reading an ecstatic writeup on The A.V. Club. My wife and I are currently burning through the first season on Netflix, and it more than lives up to its reputation as a teen soap with relentless pacing and insane plot twists. Part of the fun is how transparent it is about its sources: it’s a blatant knockoff of Twilight, but much more inventive, and it strikes a nice balance between earnestness and open acknowledgement of how ridiculous it all is. And it really won my heart in the second episode, which cheerfully indulges in not one, but two shamelessly contrived mirror scares.

You know what a mirror scare is. It’s that moment in countless scary movies and television shows when a character, alone in the bathroom, opens a medicine cabinet, then closes it to reveal someone standing right behind her in the mirror, inevitably accompanied by a scare chord on the soundtrack. It’s one of the hoariest of all horror movie tropes, to the point where the setup alone evokes a knowing grin from most viewers, yet it’s still as popular as ever, as this glorious YouTube compilation makes wonderfully clear. And you see it everywhere, in movies of all levels of quality. It’s a staple of the slasher genre, of course, but you also find it in marginally more canny entertainments, like The Mummy, or in the very clever Shaun of the Dead. Even Ang Lee, a director of tremendous technical resources, wasn’t above using it for an easy shock in Lust, Caution. And it’s worth asking why this simple effect has proven so enduring, and why it’s so hard for directors of all kinds to resist.

An American Werewolf in London

Because the great thing about the mirror scare is that it works. The visual vocabulary of horror movies isn’t large, which is why such films tend to return to the same handful of trick effects: the jump scare, the foreground or background surprise, the ominous empty hallway. As I pointed out in my post on the cinematic baguette, once a filmmaker stumbles across an effect that works on a consistent basis, it’s copied at once, because such tricks are priceless. The mirror scare is especially delicious because it’s so blatantly artificial: not only does it require a certain fixed camera angle, but it depends on the premise that characters are able to sneak up on one another in complete silence. There are other ways of suddenly revealing a character in the frame, as when, in the movies of Brian De Palma, a woman in the foreground steps aside or bends over to reveal a figure standing silently behind her. But there’s something about the use of a mirror that gives the moment an additional zing: it feels like a clever bit of sleight of hand, even if it’s been copied so many times as to lose all meaning.

And as a writer, I envy it. Cinematic horror has a bag of tricks that simply aren’t available to those of us who are forced to work on the printed page, and there are times when I wish I could draw upon something as simple and reliable. Novels and short stories can’t really startle us: you can’t just throw a cat at the reader and expect the effect to work. There’s no equivalent to the mirror scare in fiction, and when a writer tries to do something similar, usually with what John Gardner calls “superdramatic one-sentence paragraphs…of the kind favored by porno and thriller writers,” it comes off as hysterical or worse, when the mirror scare, even at its most gratuitous, has a nice kind of visual clarity. Literary horror is more about implication, anticipation, and dread, and even if its effects are more lasting, they’re much harder to achieve. It’s a reminder, as if we needed one, of how literary and cinematic horror are two very different beasts, and why the studios can crank out one horror movie after another, when truly terrifying novels remain so rare. They do it with mirrors.

Written by nevalalee

January 4, 2013 at 9:50 am

The Pi paradox

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Life of Pi

Any consideration of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi needs to begin with the point that, objectively speaking, this may be the most visually astonishing movie ever made. Yet it’s likely that many, if not most, viewers will come away with a limited sense of the film’s accomplishments. This is a movie that, for a solid hour or more, consists of a single sustained visual effect, in which every shot has been created for us out of almost nothing, but at first glance, it doesn’t feel that way. Indeed, it sometimes seems more like a small, intimate chamber piece, a two-hander that just happens to be about a boy and his tiger. Except for a limited number of shots, however, that tiger isn’t real, a point that seems to have eluded more than a few reviewers. It is, in fact, the most lifelike special effect I’ve ever seen in a movie, and the result is both totally miraculous and strangely invisible: this isn’t a tiger constantly showing off how tigerish it can be, but a living, breathing animal that we simply accept as part of the fabric of the story. (I suspect that Borges, who was obsessed by tigers of his imagination, would have found this movie both fascinating and problematic.)

As a result, I have a hunch that Life of Pi may lose the Oscar for Best Visual Effects to a showier but less accomplished movie, like Prometheus, much as 2001 didn’t win the award for makeup in the year of Planet of the Apes, allegedly because, as Arthur C. Clarke has claimed, the voters failed to realize that the monkeys weren’t real. And I can’t entirely blame them. As I watched Life of Pi, I had to constantly remind myself that I was witnessing a bravura display of visual effects, even as Lee and his collaborators seemed determined to conceal their wizardry as much as possible. I’ve noted more than once that in movies like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2, the special effects still hold up magnificently, because those few precious minutes of footage were the result of years of thought and care. These days, computer effects have become so routine that even the most spectacular examples of digital mayhem, as in The Avengers, start to look like cartoons, so it’s heartening to find a movie, and a director, willing to lavish that kind of old-fashioned attention on more than an hour’s worth of visual magic.

Keira Knightley in Anna Karenina

But when trick effects become so seamless that artifice can no longer be distinguished from reality, it’s also something of a loss. Artifice for its own sake, when pursued with the same kind of love as perfect realism, can be a joy, as in Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Anna Karenina. The movie has its problems, but I think that if I’d seen it twenty years ago, it would have instantly become one of my favorites. I went through a phase in my early teens when I was fascinated by movies that gloried in their artifice, either to pay homage to the films of an earlier era, like Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York, or to push forward into a stylized world of their own, like Coppola’s One From the Heart. With its stage sets and images of model trains moving through tabletop snowscapes, Anna Karenina is a movie that embraces its artificiality, like Coppola’s Dracula or the late movies of Powell and Pressburger. In fact, it’s arguably the most ambitious recent attempt to make what Michael Powell has called “the composed film,” in which every element has been planned by the director in advance.

Of course, this can lead to its own set of pitfalls, and if Anna Karenina has one major flaw, it’s that its actors are rarely allowed to find lives for their characters apart from the production design. (Indeed, Keira Knightley’s performance depends entirely on costuming and makeup to dramatize Anna’s descent: as David Thomson has observed elsewhere, Knightley “is still more credible as a faintly animated photographer’s model than as an actress.”) Finding the right balance between artifice and realism, as Powell and Pressburger did in their best films—along with Welles, Kubrick, and Hitchcock—is the province of our greatest directors, and such moments are the ones, as a moviegoer, that I treasure above all others. Hence my love for the sequence in Life of Pi in which the screen briefly elongates to Cinemascope proportions, allowing a swarm of flying fish not just to come right out at the audience, but spill over the edges of the frame. It goes by in a blink of an eye, and Lee notes that most viewers don’t even notice it, but it’s a thrilling example of what a great director does best: giving us something that not only reproduces reality, but advances on it—at least if we’re willing to watch carefully.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2012 at 10:19 am

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