Sunday, December 20, 2009

Ben-Hur and Reality

Just watched Ben-Hur on TCM. My God, what a piece of crap!

I can’t believe I actually used to like this film. Admittedly, the last time I saw it I was a teenager but still – even then I should have known better…I really should have…

The main thing that caught my eye watching it this time around was just how freakin’ awesome that chariot race was. It's an amazing scene. In an odd way I think my appreciation of that scene now is enhanced by the fact that there are no cgi (computer generated images) involved in it. I'm so used to cgi in movies that when I see something like the chariot race in Ben-Hur the sheer reality of it sticks out. It turns out that computer generated special effects don’t improve current movies, they actually improve older ones. In Ben-Hur those are real horses and real drivers. Those are real people cheering in the arena (which is itself a huge set built on 18 acres outside Rome). When one of the chariots crashes, it’s a real stunt man taking a real tumble off it. Hell, somebody could’ve gotten killed.

I was recently watching Apocalypse Now and got a similar feeling of the power of the real. It was the scene of the helicopters taking off before they attack the village in the “Ride of the Valkyries” sequence. Nowdays a filmmaker would use cgi helicopters instead of real ones. But cgi helicopters would never stir up so much dust. (Think of the errily air-free atmosphere of Manhattan that Tobey Maguire swings through in the Spiderman movies.) And the way in which the choppers lumber into the air with their noses slightly down, like groggy animals rousing themselves to attack - these are details which would escape the eye of a computer programmer.

Don't get me wrong - I love what cgi can do in movies and some movies (The Lord of the Rings, Independence Day, etc.) are unthinkable without it. But the overuse of it has had the effect of cheapening the "specialness" of special effects and, even more perversely, created a situation in which the most impressive special effect may, in the end, turn out to be reality.

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