Just like a toon to drop a safe on a guy’s head

Thursday, 3 August 2006 — 1:34am | Animation, Film

It’s no secret that Language Log is still my favourite blog, but what you might not know is that Cartoon Brew makes a strong case for second place. Last week it ran a series of stories about the dismissive ignorance of film critics, sparked in part by Mick LaSalle’s review of Monster House in The San Francisco Chronicle, where he essentially claims that motion-capture has made animation obsolete. The Brew’s coverage is located, in ascending chronological order, here, here, here, here, here and here. I was going to write a refutation of my own, heavily doused in theoretical claims about the distinction between realism and verisimilitude and the Uncanny Valley (and perhaps a few words on A Scanner Darkly), but Real Animators have already done a much better job.

Instead, what I want to examine is not so much the side of the issue concerning animation, but rather, matters pertaining to criticism itself.

I write about film from time to time, even for money on the odd occasion. While everybody who partakes in criticism, no matter how amateur, has a stake in advancing a subjective personal opinion, I like to think that my primary agenda is to advance an educated discourse about cinema. Simply put, I can’t abide people who don’t know what they’re talking about; and when it comes to film, layperson opinions are a denarius a dozen. At the same time, I do not believe that one needs to do something in order to be qualified to discuss it, which is usually the party line of the anti-critical establishment.

That does not excuse a critic from fulfilling the basic journalistic responsibility to Not Be Stupid.

I may be someone with nary a sliver of animating talent, and to say that there’s a lot I haven’t seen (Monster House included) would be a gross understatement, but I do like to think that I pay attention. So when high-profile critics like A.O. Scott of The New York Times write utter nonsense about how Monster House “uses the digitally captured movements of real actors rather than computer-generated algorithms as the basis for its animated images” (emphasis mine), my face does that crazy thing that happens every time someone in the vicinity mentions Dan Brown.

(Hmm. I suppose that’s not a very good example, given that I have a degree that says I know what algorithms are.)

There’s obviously some kind of perception gap among critics, and perhaps the general public, that confines animated films to second-class status. This is strange if you think about it, because animation is really just the continued exploration of the first principles that define everything that we perceive to be a “motion picture” to begin with.

It reminds me of another trend that I see a lot, which is the public perception of special effects and their role in live-action filmmaking. Technological advances are often greeted with a excess of enthusiasm or a surfeit of suspicion. I’ve lost track of how many writers who know way more about film theory than I do – Roger Ebert, for one – lambasted the likes of Gladiator, The Fellowship of the Ring and Attack of the Clones for allegedly intrusive computer graphics, only to go on and cite examples that were precisely the scenes composed using traditional techniques, not CG. In fact, I think the first thing I ever wrote in The Gateway was a letter picking apart an article of this flavour by then-A&E Editor Adam Rozenhart, who subsequently suggested I volunteer.

Film critics aren’t complete idiots. Okay, some of them are, but for the most part, the ones that have gotten anywhere have at least an elementary grasp of what “story” means in a cinematic context, how a film is assembled and who to blame when something goes awry – to say nothing of an awareness of history, and a veritable library of filmgoing experience to fall back on. Yet there is an overwhelming epidemic of total incompetence when it comes to evaluating the impact of technology on film.

One big brouhaha that has been making the rounds in the video game press lately is Esquire writer Chuck Klosterman bemoaning, “There is no Lester Bangs of video-game writing.” I like the sheepish consensus that Klosterman simply didn’t look very hard, and Jerry Holkins (“Tycho” of Penny Arcade) is precisely who he’s looking for. But the best response I’ve found is this terrific piece by Chris Dahlen. “We don’t have a new Bangs or Thompson yet,” argues Dahlen, “because pop culture today is primarily a technology story. And we don’t know how to write about technology.”

I think that’s the problem with animation. It’s a technology story. The critics who mishandle it think about it as an experimental bastard-child offspring for kids, a testbed for ever-improving methods marching and heiling towards some indeterminate horizon of progress. The Hollywood execs play into their hands, and the end result is the flooding of the CG market that we’ve seen all year.

You’ll often hear the same films referred to over and over as being the landmark advances of the form. You’ll read that Steamboat Willie gave as sound as we know it, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was animation’s induction into feature-length territory, and Toy Story did the same for the digital age and shifted the mode of thought from drawing to sculpting. Framing the history of animation as a series of technological advances is really easy to do.

But it’s also a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. While these films were undoubtedly seminal in method, that’s not why we remember them. We remember them for the echoes of a wishing well and a toy in a spacesuit falling with style. That such masterworks of storytelling were also technical pioneers is a happy coincidence.

You wouldn’t believe how many people I’ve encountered believe that The Wizard of Oz was the first live-action film in full colour. In fact, at the time of its release (1939), three-strip Technicolor had been around for five years, and colour processes in general were decades along. My theory is that The Wizard of Oz – specifically, the scene where Dorothy steps out of her monochromatic Kansas farmhouse and into vivid Munchkinland – made a permanent, transitional impression on the collective consciousness that said, nay, spake, “Let there be colour.” And we saw that it was good.

It’s easy to see something marvelous and say, “It must be the technology,” when really, it’s “merely” storytelling with the sublimity to fool you into believing that cameras and algorithms did all the work. Nobody would have cared a lick about the T-rex in Jurassic Park if he wasn’t an object in the mirror closer than he appeared, or if he never bellowed as the “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner floated to the ground. Take the films that we revere as technical landmarks and you’ll see that they weren’t technologically driven like their imitators, but technologically permitted.

I speculate that animation criticism is at an impasse precisely because the dream factory that produces the most dazzling visual fireworks is also the one where Story Is King. As a filmgoer detached from the process – critic, businessman, hockey mom – it’s easy to conflate the two as synonymous.

The fellows at Pixar recognize that the relationship between the tools and the work of art is a permissive one. They have all these fancy specular lighting tricks up their sleeves, but the clever part is when they use them to develop character; for instance, Lightning McQueen’s obsession with his lucky sticker. Ka-chow.

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