Once upon a Time, Part 1: The Most Powerful Empathy Machine of All Arts

Originally published

by Johann Schopplich

🇩🇪 You can read the article in German as well.

Statistically not proven, yet considered basic ingredients of a motion picture visit.

On Wednesday I finally went to the movies again. Indeed, I was in the offshoot of a mainstream cinema company whose halls rarely attract me with a film. Since I’ve only discovered and followed Tarantino’s filmography in my home cinema so far and haven’t enjoyed any of his films in the cinema yet, the time was opportune to watch his new and ninth film at the place it was made for. Projected onto a screen - where even the hierarchy of steps and the air sweetened with the scent of popcorn succumbs to the radiantly powerful sound image. I was full of anticipation.

Preamble

Film: The Strongest Empathy Machine of All Arts

We are born into a box of space and time, strictly speaking according to Einstein, into the space-time-continuum. We can grow and change our personality to a certain extent because it is not as predetermined as it was assumed for a long time. Nevertheless, we remain who we are. We can escape this internal imprisonment by owning ourselves and growing beyond our limits. The latter is achieved through experience.

We can gain experience both with and through other people, but also from films.

If I go into a good film, I have the opportunity to live the life of another person for a limited period of time, to step into his shoes. I can experience what it feels like to belong to a different gender, nationality or ethnic group. I can experience different epochs and confess different beliefs.

For me, films are the strongest empathy machine.

The combination of acoustic and visual stimuli allows me to immerse myself in a strange world in which I am no longer stuck in myself. In which I identify with other people. Films can have a liberating, horizon-expanding effect.

My Preferences Correspond to My Bias

Obviously, I have a penchant for movies. I love what they are capable of expressing and effecting, as well as the underlying craft. The complete work of script, staging, shooting, acting, scenery and all other ingredients can be a unique experience sensation.

Anyone who knows me knows that I have a weakness for good cinematography. Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven is an example; furthermore, more or less everything Emmanuel Lubezki can capture with his gaze and wide camera angle.

Style vs. Substance

Outside of horror — Jordan Peele’s Get Out excluded — I don’t prefer any genre. I like to be absorbed by everything that was made with love.

I’m convinced that a good film doesn’t necessarily have to originate from a complex script. Take John Wick (2014), for instance, which was shot from pure love for handmade action. The plot is simple and predictable. Nevertheless, the visual execution and ingenious combat choreographies are so original and gripping that the style of the film overshadows its substance.

Visually, John Wick is a continuation of the 40s and 50s Noire, which he knows how to show and doesn’t claim to have to convince with substance.

A New Era of Mediocrity

Disney’s soulless real-life adaptations of recent years disappoint me. Polarizing and serious topics are circumnavigated widely, the only goal is to appeal to the masses through lightweight entertainment and to maximize the monetary endpoint. With the purchase of 20th Century Fox, Disney now owns half of the films, brands and franchises, screened in mainstream cinema. Adieu, diverse cinema market.

Disney’s power has also been felt by Quentin Tarantino when the company threatened an analogue cinema not to grant licenses for Disney films anymore unless a Star Wars film released in parallel to The Hateful Eight was broadcast for a longer period - contrary to the existing contract with Tarantino. The cinema broke this contract, and Tarantino vehemently defended himself publicly and complained. To this day, Disney has had no consequences.

Are Computer Animated Graphics Getting Worse Instead of Better?

Anyone watching films today will not be able to escape the clutches of CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) any more than Disney will. In itself, I have no objection to the use of CGI. I’m annoyed by excessive use, especially when unrestrainedly used scene by scene, à la: “We will make it work it in post-production”. Whether used for backgrounds or as a substitute for practical effects - in most cases our eyes quickly recognize when the CGI is not good enough to deceive us. The reactions to the recently released Cats (2019) trailer clearly show that CGI can quickly create an unreal world that we don’t fall for and don’t want to get to know. Our eye feels that something is wrong. We are shown the artificiality of the on-screen world, which causes us to distance ourselves from it and throw us back into reality instead of being invited to engage with it.

We can unconsciously see if the sharpness or delicacy of texture is not realistic enough. Or if objects do not follow the physically defined laws of light, respectively feel too lightweight. We see the world every day - incorporating a fictional element into it automatically means reaching the level of true perfection.

Several years ago I thought CGI could only get better. Avatar’s almost entirely virtual world amazed me when I saw the film in 2009. But when I now compare, for example, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) with Jurassic Park (1993!), I find every dinosaur from the first movie much more frightening. In other words: Jurassic World leaves me cold; the characteristic Tyrannosaurus looks... fake. His skin is plastic and not real. This is partially due to the fact that Jurassic Park used practical effects as far as possible. All scenes in which CGI is used amount to six minutes. Nothing more. In Jurassic World, on the other hand, hardly a minute is without effect. Which, by the way, also dramaturgically reduces the powerful presence. Instead of hinting at dinosaurs acoustically or using practical effects in close-ups, you constantly get the CGI creatures rubbed under your eyes. As it is the case in all Marvel movies and blockbusters anyway. At least there are exceptions like The Lion King (2019), which is completely computer animated and looks flawless.

With modern digital technologies, great scenes can be accomplished. The possibilities of portraying a fictional world on canvas, artificially ageing or rejuvenating the faces of actors are breathtaking. When used in a balanced and high-quality manner, I love to immerse myself in an imaginary world. Today’s CGI can still be good if it's not used in every scene. The field of visual effects is highly competitive and studios want to buy the best effects in the shortest time at the lowest price. Not surprisingly, quality suffers in a CGI-heavy film. I would like to see fewer effects, in which more time is invested. So that the artificiality of a visual effect has the opportunity to become one with the scene.

Nevertheless, I tend to fall under the spell of practical effects, even compared to technically good CGI. What’s the emotional impact and excitement of an exploding star in Star Wars against a frontally overturning truck in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Night? I can grasp the van, tell by its reflections and shades that the van is genuine, and feel the impact it makes on the asphalt.

Martin Scorsese knows how to embed the possibilities of computer-animated graphics in such a way that the viewer doesn’t even get the idea that CGI was used:

My thoughts on the tasteful and supportive use of CGI — in the sense that the artificial elements suck more into the film than the nature of the film as fiction is brought to our attention due to a lack of care — were aptly summed up in this video: Why CG Sucks (Except It Doesn’t)

Knights of the Analogue Movie

Like Christopher Nolan or Damien Chazelle, I appreciate Quentin Tarantino for his love for and commitment to analog cinema. I appreciate directors who preserve the analog tradition.

Digital cameras give filmmakers a relatively inexpensive way to realize their vision compared to classical methods. With direct playback. Contrary to those who advocate the film look, I have nothing against the look of digital cameras. While in the transition from analogue to digital cinema the film look was missed by audiences, the tide has turned since the era of Netflix and other streaming providers at the latest.

Netflix uses the same camera setup for almost every film so that our eyes get used to the sharpness of the image and the digital colouring, which also remains after colour correction and colour grading and no artificial grain is added.

Despite comprehensive tools, no digital profile can yet emulate the look of an analog film. The way light is captured analogue is a chemical process, so the image is detected and recorded fundamentally different from that of a digital sensor.

My appetite for this classic film look was strong, especially when paired with the staged blaze of the colour of a historicized Hollywood from the imagination of a Quentin Tarantino.

👉 Part two of the article


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