Monday, October 26, 2009

It's Only a Model!

Some good comments in my previous post, both in terms of correcting me (it was wrong to talk as if Hitchcock was more leery of location shooting than most directors) and in terms of raising an important issue: should an obviously fake special effect or process shot in an old movie always be considered a flaw?

One commenter pointed me to this article by Chris Fujiwara, where he criticizes Mystery Science Theater 3000 and the whole culture of mocking old movies for "flaws" like lack of realism or naturalism. I'm not an MST3K fan so I'm sympathetic to most of his argument, though I will point out that he kind of misses the point by dismissing the "plot" of the show: fans of MST3K will tell you that they watched to get involved with the characters, and the fun was not just hearing the snarky comments but watching three familiar characters interact. (I personally don't find that aspect of the show interesting enough to make up for all the cheap shots, but I'm not arguing with those who do.)

But his point is a good one: there's a tendency to think that a movie is "bad" if it doesn't conform to a very narrow, fake-realistic definition of good acting, good effects, or good set design. And the problem has gotten worse in the years since he wrote the article. An easy way to get noticed on the internet is to point out some logic hole or minor continuity error in a movie, and I see more and more people not just pointing these out (which is fine) but discussing them as if they actually matter. An example would be Back to the Future writer-producer Bob Gale's list of "plot holes" in No Country For Old Men. Most of these "holes" sound like notes that no sensible director should take, yet it's clear that movies today do in fact spend way too much time finding answers to stupid questions or finding "logical" reasons for plot-fueling coincidences. Why do you think most movies today are too long? Because they waste inordinate time on answering questions that won't even be brought up by anyone who actually enjoys the movie.

And so it goes with special effects: just because a model shot or a piece of rear-projection does not look realistic does not make it bad, and we shouldn't fall into the trap of making fun of an effect the way some viewers now make fun of a stylized bit of acting.

That said, there's a danger of going the other way and assuming that there is no such thing as a bad special effect in a good movie, that it's all part of the plan. (We all have a tendency to assume that everything went right in a good movie and everything went wrong in a bad one; critics will sometimes find a jusification for the worst bit of John Ford comedy relief if it happens to occur in one of his great films.) But while the terrible special effect at the beginning of The Seventh Seal doesn't hurt the movie, and may help us understand what kind of a movie it's going to be, that doesn't mean it's a good effect. And it certainly doesn't mean it's what Bergman would have had in the movie if he'd had more money to work with.

And by not criticizing bad special effects in old movies, we lose the ability to praise good ones. There are some outstanding special effects in '30s and '40s movies, as shown in Bringing Up Baby and Citizen Kane and The Devil and Daniel Webster and other movies where the effects are so good that I haven't even noticed them (and therefore can't praise them). A tendency, weirdly shared by an equal number of classic movie fans and classic movie haters, is to assume that no special effects in old movies were of a high technical standard. That's not true at all.

Finally, I think it's important to distinguish between special effects that are bad and those that are recognizably fake. Sometimes an effect may be obviously artificial, and yet it clearly works because the whole movie is going for an artificial look, and a realistic, un-noticeable effect would be wrong. A lot of the effects in, say, Powell and Pressburger movies are like that. I don't think the model village in Lady Vanishes fits into this category because the movie is otherwise trying to be fairly naturalistic in its setting (it's set in a world of very recognizable 1938 English types in an ordinary setting). A lot of the bad effects in Hitchcock movies stick out precisely because he's trying to create suspense by putting fantastic/horrifying things into realistic settings -- and sometimes real locations -- and so the moments of obvious fakery just seem like they break the mood he's trying to create.

But I appreciate that if you see the movie a different way, it might look different; if you see The Lady Vanishes as moving from an indeterminate, fantasy village to a semi-realistic train setting (or to put it another way, from Ruritanian fantasy to the reality of a Europe on the verge of war), then the opening shot would work. I don't see the film that way, so it doesn't work for me. But it all comes back to the point that whether an effect "works" or not depends on its place in the film as a whole.


Ed Gorman said...

I watched three Val Lewton movies over the weekend and done of the nice things about them--The Seventh Victim blew me away as its always does--is how much they accomplish in eighty minutes. Too many of today's movies, even some of those I enjoy and admire, go on at least half an hour too long. It's like an endurance contest--please get to the final scenes and for God's sake stop talking.

Rick Roberts said...

To judge special effects is judging workmanship. I can many a time point out models in old films but I admire how well it was built.

"Why do you think most movies today are too long? Because they waste inordinate time on answering questions that won't even be brought up by anyone who actually enjoys the movie."

Exactly. Movies today take forever to get to the point. They want some long, drawn out exposition of character development and story but it's not adding to the film, as a matter of fact, it subtracts from it. There should be one, an air of some mystery which should be left to the viewer to deduce. If a film like The Letter was made today, a modern day pretentious film maker would take about 40 minutes to just establish the relationship of all the main characters. Even, worse we would have seen all of conflict Bette Davis and her lover played out on screen. And in Anatomy of a Murder, would have seen the rape scene and the murder of the rapist. The director thinking for the sake of "realism" and emotional impact but really, a waste of time. Nothing would be left to the viewer to imagine of if Lt. Manion did or did not deserve a guilty or not guilty verdict.

Chris L. said...

If you study MST3K's history, you'll find that there were two different camps among Best Brains (the show's production staff). In fact, the two current MST3K spinoffs are a perfect reflection of the split: Cinematic Titanic, led by creator and original star Joel Hodgson, and Rifftrax, led by head writer and later star Mike Nelson. The Cinematic Titanic group had some genuine affection for the movies they featured, and their humor was focused more on playing around with the absurdities of those movies than pointing out their faults. The Rifftrax group tended to have genuine contempt for the movies, and they were the ones who took a lot of "cheap shots". Fujiwara's piece is extremely unfair because it seems like he's basing his entire opinion of MST3K on the movie, which was a poor representation of what the show was about.

Anonymous said...

What a great piece, Jamie. Thanks very much. Would love to have Fujiwara jump in here.

BTW(and no I'm not his agent), lots more of Chris here:

Thad said...

Dislike MST3K all you want (I'm not a 'fan', but I think it can be really funny), but come on. The movies they usually run deserve to be shit over. Get over it.

Anonymous said...

The movies they usually run deserve to be shit over. Get over it.

For every classic they did ("This Island Earth," "I Was a Teenage Werewolf," etc) MST3K did about 30 others that were truly bottom of the barrel.

I'm still waiting for someone to defend "Werewolf."

Jaime J. Weinman said...

It's not so much a question of whether the movie deserves to be mocked, as what they choose to mock. I find a lot of the jokes fall into the "their clothes are different from my clothes" or "that flying saucer is so fake" category.

Granted that this seems less pronounced in the earlier episodes, so maybe it got out of hand when Hodgson was replaced by Nelson.

Chicago Joe said...

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who found that Bob Gale "No Country for Old Men was so unrealistic!" rant ridiculous. I dismissed it when I realized that a Coen Brothers movie with some minor plot holes is by far a better, more stimulating aesthetic experience than, oh, say a 1941/Bordello of Blood double bill. Sort of in the same way that I no longer read Armond White, because if you honestly went to see films based on White's pans/raves you'd have tickets to Transformers 2, High School Musical and Marlon Wayans' Little Man, turning down Adaptation and There Will Be Blood. Sometimes a track record answers all questions.

Caftan Woman said...

We were about 11 years old at the time when my friend turned to me during the Saturday matinee and said "You can tell it's a movie from the fake background." I responded, "You can tell it's a movie because we paid our 50 cents and we're eating popcorn." I wonder at some people's expectations.

Thad said...

Fair enough. The jokes do get old after awhile, which is why I'm only a 'casual' fan.

And BTW - NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN is a terrible movie, and not just for the incessantly inane story. Anybody off the street could have played Javier Bardam's character and done just as well.

Anonymous said...

To address the comments in the prev post re Marnie, I recall a story of a fan discussing w/Hithcock the brilliance of using the rather cheesy matte paintings of the street end to signify whatever psychology they were supposed to signify, and Hitchcock replying: "No, they were just bad matte paintings."
Also, the models in Lady Vanishes, Young and Innocent, and even Number 17 never bothered me, I thought they were rather charming, and compared to anything else coming out of Britain at the time, the were virtually state of the art.

Ivan said...

Just discovered your site: some great topics; I look forward to reading further.

I agree with Rick Roberts: when I see that as much work as possible under the circumstances has been done, I accept the effects: I noticed on some of the Netflix reviews of Bogie's The Caine Mutiny--a flick I think we could all say could be called a "classic"--complaining about the SPFX for the typhoon sequence. So what? Suspend your disbelief (if you can).

Some movies deserve an audience snarkfest, but most don't, I think.

Rick Roberts said...

Thad: What was so inane about the story ? It's very clear cut and well directed. Man finds drug money and he is on the run from a killer who wants it back. And Tommy Lee Jones as Sherrif Ed Tom Bell was terrfic as the sheriff overwhelmed by the murders. His whole life POV changes.My only complaint is Javier Bardem's stupid voice.

Kenny said...

I will concede there are arguments to be made against MST3K (though I am a fan), but Fujiwara comes off as a humorless prig from a world without laughter.

As other commenters have noted, MST included some affectionate jabs as well as contemptuous ones. And the movie had a disproportionate share of cheap jokes (it was intended for a broader audience, after all) and fewer clever or obscure ones.

However, there have been times when I've found Mike Nelson's comedy of contempt (usually post-MST3K, in book or Rifftrax form) overly curdled, even curmudgeonly, making you question exactly what, if anything, he could actually enjoy. In other words, not unlike Fujiwara.

Jaime J. Weinman said...

I will admit that one unfair criticism I see in a lot of MST3K criticisms is "why don't they make fun of big-budget movies instead of easy targets?" (Fujiwara isn't the only one who said this; Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of the MST3K movie suggested that they should mock Woody Allen's Interiors. Which would indeed be a great subject for MST3K-type treatment.) That wasn't the mission statement of the show and the rights issues were complicated enough without trying to get the rights to any movies of actual value.

I think it's fair to say that the selection of This Island Earth for the movie was one of the franchise's bigger mistakes. Mocking a pretty good movie (and Nelson has made it clear that he has no idea why people consider it good) made them look mean, whereas in their better episodes they did seem to be kind of rooting for the movie instead of against it.

EJK said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
EJK said...

Back to Marnie.

Hitchcock made many stupid comments, intentionally trying to hide the fact that he was one of great artists of the 20th Century.

If the Marnie backdrops were the result of merely careless production, why -- after she is "cured" -- is the backdrop suddenly not a backdrop, but crystal clear, bright reality?

Anonymous said...

Just a follow-up. I actually saw Marnie in a theater when I was 7, and what freaked me out were those very creepy shots of the street & backdrops, with the strange children playing nearby. (Followed closely by all the RED and those knocks on the window.)

Not a happy movie experience. :-)

Thad said...

Hate to burst the illusion of Hitchcock being modest about the genius [sic] of MARNIE, but I call your attention to:

Shot A.

Shot B.

Shot C (final shot in the movie.

A and C are almost identical. So why? Sorry, man, but Hitch had it right. It was just a shitty matte painting.

Thad said...

OK, one is stormy and one isn't, which you could argue, but whatever. The matte still sucks, as does the movie.

Anonymous said...

Well, Thad, if it's as easy as that're wrong, and you don't
know what you're talking about

Thad said...

... Said the anonymous chickenshit.

Tony said...

For me, MST3K has (oddly enough) helped me appreciate "bad" movies even more. I have a number of movies in my collection that many would consider bad (some that were on the show, many that weren't), and that show is probably a big reason for that. Pointing out the flaws in these movies helped me realize just how imaginitive some of these people had to be with extremely limited budgets.

To me, the only "bad" movie is a boring one.