Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Squibs

The fierce commitment and the daring spirit of Hollywood's pioneer comedymakers officially came to an end in 1932. That was the year that The Kid from Spain featured Eddie Cantor frantically running away from an angry bull that was blatantly generated by rear-screen projection.

Slapstick wasn't as funny when comedians had stunt men taking their pratfalls for them. Nothing is less funny than a stunt man with a bald cap and padding performing a fall for Curly in a Three Stooges comedy. What about seeing a brawny stunt man in a Harpo wig? Okay, I admit it, that is funny. But, nowadays, we have to worry about something more than a padded, bewigged stunt man. We now have CGI.

After listening to David Fincher's director commentary on the Benjamin Button DVD, I was left with the impression that Fincher became so obsessed with the CGI effects that he lost sight of the story he was telling. Despite its profound themes, serious performances and faithful period recreations, the film ended up as much dominated by CGI effects as a Men in Black movie.

Fincher makes his CGI obsession clear as he comments on Jared Harris' death scene. Harris, playing a hard-drinking tugboat captain, is shot during a gun battle with a U-boat. As he lays dying, the captain tears open his shirt and reveals a number of bullet wounds. Fincher, in his commentary for the scene, says that he hates to do scenes with blood, what he refers to as "wetwork." Fincher explains, "I can't stand having, you know, make-up artists with pumps to pump blood out of the wounds and stuff, so. . . we turned it over to Asylum [a visual effects company] and said, 'You make giant, sucking, fifty-caliber wounds in his chest and have blood pouring out'. . . That's so much better than cleaning up someone after every take and refilling the little blood syringes and do all that stuff. I will never use squibs ever in my life ever again." The scene is so dark that, if the wounds are sucking, I sure as hell can't tell. Something sure sucks here but it ain't the wounds. I cannot even figure out a reason why a man who has just been riddled by bullets and is sure to die quickly for the lack of medical assistance would bother to rip open his shirt anyway. 

Button includes a scene where Benjamin takes his ailing father to a lake to watch a sunrise. Fincher talks about how he made special arrangements to have his crew out on location early to capture the sun rising, but he was so unhappy with how the sun came out looking that he wished he had just done it in CGI. In other words, he was confident that the CGI wizards could make a better sunrise than God. I am telling you that this guy fell in love with CGI. Hey, Fincher, you love CGI so much then why don't you marry it?

I originally expressed my concern about the growing use of CGI in an article I posted online in 2001. I accurately predicted that, in time, filmmakers would use CGI to create actors' tears. The fact is that, in 2007, a controversy arose after visual effects supervisor Jeffrey A. Okun added a digital teardrop to Jennifer Connelly's face to enhance the actress' performance in Blood Diamond.

I am not a Luddite who hates CGI, but I do think that filmmakers are overusing the technology. It seemed that, whenever Fincher encountered a problem during production, his first reaction was to consider the solutions offered by CGI. It is not only about CGI promoting laziness and dishonesty in filmmakers. It is also about directors using CGI to waste exorbitant sums of money. For less than $3.00, you can buy a 12 ounce bottle of Karo Corn Syrup. Mix in a little red food coloring and you got fake blood. Harris only needed to have this mixture dripping down his chest to show he was dying of gunshot wounds. They didn't use squibs in the old westerns and gangster movies. One guy would fire a gun at another guy, who would clutch his chest and fall down. Maybe, the guy would throw in a "You got me!" before he hit the ground. The audience had no trouble with those scenes. They got it, plain and simple. How much do I have to pay for a movie ticket so directors like Fincher can do a bloody wound in CGI? Hollywood executives should do more to minimize production costs. It is a recession after all.

The most ridiculous part of the story is that all these extra CGI effects that Fincher added to the film caused the director to run out of money before he could finish crucial CGI effects, including having Pitt's face digitally grafted onto a little boy's face near the end of the film.

In silent comedies, the actors taunted real live lions on camera. They had a scene in the Century Comedy Mind the Baby (1924) where they actually put a baby alongside an alligator. That is going out on a limb and sawing the limb off. Now, in the new comedy Old Dogs, Robin Williams and John Travolta get attacked by CGI penguins. CGI penguins???!

I will close this blog entry by making yet another predication. I predict a time when the mugging and doubletakes that enhance a comedy performance will be handled as a CGI effect. This will help comedy stars to reserve their energy and avoid the remote possibility of facial muscle strain, jaw dislocation or retinal detachment. This I, Criswell, predict. Can your heart stand the true facts of this shocking story?

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