Being and Nothingness
Jeff Reichert on Robert Zemeckis’s Cast Away and The Polar Express
It’s easy to forget that when we speak of “digital” (given the myriad uses of the term in relation to everyday technology—watches, toasters, thermometers) we’re describing a system that need only be comprised of digits—it’s a category not necessarily tied to any sort of electronics at all, even if the two are often closely linked. (Technically an abacus could be considered digital.) In actuality, the digital realm as it’s more commonly understood is merely a mediating point of interaction between our fleshy bodies and a world that’s altogether more ephemeral—we can’t see energy, but we can manipulate and benefit from it thanks to massed and ordered series of 1s and 0s.
Frederick Pohl concluded his seriously intentioned, if ridiculously named, four-novel sci-fi “Heechee Saga” in 1987 with The Annals of the Heechee. By the series’ closing chapter, issued ten years after the first installment, Gateway, Pohl’s travelled, wealthy protagonist, Robinette Broadhead, had gone entirely, literally, digital—a far cry from his start as a penniless roughneck interstellar explorer possessing an actual physical body, willing to risk his life for easy wealth via pre-programmed Gateway scavenging “trips” in alien craft. A mysterious piece of Heechee (the titular disappeared alien race) technology discovered earlier in the saga turns out to be a device with the ability to produce an exact map of neural pathways, thus allowing humans to cheat death by archiving copies of themselves in a limitless electronic world—Second Life with perfect avatars. Robinette’s availed himself of it and spends the last novel interacting with body-bound humanity from the inside of a computer. Being that the novel was written in the late eighties, this process of, essentially, brain Xeroxing isn’t described in terms of digitization and digital representation, but it’s hard not to draw the connecting lines through the technological possibilities imaginable in Pohl’s day to the ubiquitous processes so easily taken for granted now. The book stays out of the nature versus nurture quandary raised by equating brain replicas with the totality of a human life, but the author’s sidelong glance at a culture split between “meat” brains and “stored minds” is a funhouse-mirror reflection of the outer fringes of today’s performance enhancement and body modification debates. If you could store yourself in a computer for eternity, would you do it? Would everyone?
This conceit of bodiless minds wandering a hard drive–bound landscape has stuck closely with me in the dozen or so years since I’ve read the books, mostly because of its frightening plausibility. There’s a lot of talk in The Annals of the Heechee about energy (the enemy the human Heechees band together to fight, the Foe, is a race of pure electricity), and what in Gateway began as a fairly lighthearted romp through the galaxy ends up an epic battle of the electric/energy versus the material and corporeal. The "Heechee Saga" was certainly prescient—this same battle is now being played out in all facets of contemporary life, and especially in our cinemas, but not Lawnmower Man 2–style. The current encroachment (perhaps evolution is more apt) of digital technologies into formerly analog realms has taken the shape of ever finer enhancements meant to bring digital representation closer to the reality of our viewed and experienced world—keeping in mind, of course, the limited sensory range of the average human. Predictably, the digital camp has lined up to trumpet each new advance in resolution, while analog folks bemoan the end of an era.
It must be noted that digital representations can always only approach reality due to kinks in the way that the technology functions. Think back to calculus for a second and all the emphasis placed on deducing the area underneath a curve. Integration employs an infinite number of volumes whose area can be calculated to measure that space, the mathematician essentially taking smaller and smaller rectangular “slices” of the expanse under the line. A good trick, but using rectilinear forms to calculate an irregular area will always leave minuscule gaps, area left unaccounted for. This missing area, though it may seem inconsequential, is the locus of argumentation for those folks who prefer the responsive warmth of analog recordings to the crispness of the CD sampling rate, 44.1khz. Similarly, while “analog” celluloid images have been affected by the physical manifestation of the subject—the record of light bouncing off an object—with digital imagery, that same light is captured, broken down, reconstituted as an approximation: hence the motion blurs, contrast problems, and restricted color tones of most digital video technologies. The equipment is always improving, always refining, and will certainly overtake celluloid as the defining capture and delivery tool for movies, even if it retains a certain level of imperfection. If little of the audience can note the difference, does it even matter?
A generally disrespected figure like Robert Zemeckis may well prove to be a flashpoint for unlocking this moment. His filmmaking career offers the true cinephile little more than the nostalgic kick of his Back the Future films or the pleasure of a derisive snort directed at his Oscar-winning, history-raping Forrest Gump, but his blend of restless technological experimentation and generally massive blockbuster success make him the perfect embodiment of the times. Zemeckis is a consummate hack—one who’s built his career on the same nerdy fascination with gee-gaws and technology as Spielberg (the two have collaborated regularly), but who hasn’t been able to bend that machinery to greater semiotic purpose as Spielberg did in A.I. or War of the Worlds. His career is full of technical highs—the seamless blend of animation and live action in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the crumbling immortals of Death Becomes Her, the pillaging of cultural memory via the Zelig-esque insertion of Tom Hanks into newsreel footage in Gump—but his usages signify little beyond their own existences. Zemeckis is not entirely inept as a director—there are shots in Beowulf more inventive and visually enticing than entire blockbusters, but for every moment in which his technique matches with some sense of planned artistry, we find another handful that evince his baser instincts, resulting in a crass gag, obvious turn of plot, clunky bit of staging, or worse. It’s clear from his often fantastical narratives that he believes in the power of cinema as an engine of limitless imagination, but in many ways he’s misconceived the nature and true power of his idol, pursuing the pictures in his head while giving little thought to their proper placement in a narrative in service to meaning.
Have these advances that Zemeckis has pioneered and popularized changed the grammar of his films and cinema at large? Not tremendously. The director’s works—and the more techno-savvy among them represent no exception—are nothing if not standard bearers for convention and classical construction. Even when he’s provided access to an image impossible without the assistance a certain technological innovation, the best he induces in audiences is an acknowledgment of the deftness of the trickery, rather than an expansion of cinematic potential. While breathless coverage in trade magazines and pop publications like Entertainment Weekly may make each new gadget seems like the end, or reinvention of cinema (remember the obsessive coverage of “bullet time”?), no single piece of technology necessarily affects the syntax of film—they only offer the possibility of doing so. Indeed, the fundamental blocks that define how narrative is rendered visually have proven rather concrete since the introduction of sound, proving that it’s always an open question as to whether technological innovations spark narrative change or vice versa.
Zemeckis’s two recent forays into newly minted performance capture technologies (in which live actors perform, their motion captured into a computer by dozens of body-mounted sensors and then redrawn digitally), The Polar Express and Beowulf, ironically immediately follow his least adorned, least conventional, and easily best film, the one-man show Cast Away. Inexplicably unheralded, Cast Away is probably most famous for its extended Robinson Crusoe-esque survivalist sequence after Tom Hanks’s chubby FedEx employee is stranded alone on a deserted Pacific island. It’s an inherently physical film, and once Cast Away sheds its trappings as a commercial for the shipping giant (though in truth the ubiquity of the company in question is such that most audiences would have likely wondered if its familiar logo had been absent) in favor of tropical minimalism, its general lack of two and reverse shots, longer static takes, and eschewal of music represent a break with the conventions Zemeckis usually adheres to. It’s a gentle break—Cast Away may not be terribly revelatory, but its unexpected asceticism, coupled with the filmmaker’s total investment in the picayune details of the survival narrative results in an experience largely free of bombast and open for reflection. For the bulk of the viewing experience Zemeckis trains his steady lens on the kinds of spectacle largely absent from Hollywood films—unarmed man fending off unfettered nature, and at points, himself. Hanks struggles against the weather, the waves, starvation, and isolation—a far cry from the dumbly charmed existence of his Forrest Gump. The culmination of this movie within the civilization-bound bookends is his epic battle to make fire—epic in the scope of the film’s eye, at least. Camera placed low the ground, Zemeckis tracks this struggle silently, the intensity level such that one might expect high action instead of a man using rudimentary, handcrafted tools, the rising smoke and burning embers a championship triumph—a very immediate reminder of the conveniences of modern life and our own vulnerability in the face of their removal. Zemeckis dampens the effect by showing Hanks idly playing with a cigarette lighter later in the film, but it’s such an effective sequence that I’d be honestly upset to learn that it’d been the result of digital trickery.
At about Cast Away’s midpoint, Zemeckis cuts abruptly to four years later. A spear flashes into the water impaling a fish and the camera pans up to reveal the movie’s greatest special effect: Tom Hanks, considerably thinner, hair long and stringy, beard grown to unmanageable proportions. His physical transformation provided an easy stand-in for the kinds of technological coverage Cast Away’s relatively austere shooting strategies didn’t lend themselves to, but also its most iconic image. The escape from the island also rests (seemingly) on plausible physics rather than digital enhancement—Hanks’s makeshift raft and sail combination seems not only handmade but also as though it could well have been made by this man’s hands. But it’s the film’s conclusion, back in civilization, in which Zemeckis reveals his project: a simple human interaction reinvites the familiar into the filmmaking mix and recasts the “unconventional” man alone sequence in a more traditional light. Helen Hunt (generally tolerable) invites her “lost” fiancé in out of the rain to share a cup of coffee in the home she occupies with her new husband and daughter. This moment of intimacy recalls nothing so much as a classic western and reveals the through line Cast Away’s tropical locales masked all along: Zemeckis has managed to reinscribe convention in a wholly new context. And all with barely a computer in sight. The film’s aura of authenticity relies on the invisibility of whatever technologies were employed in its creation.
Near the end of Cast Away, Hanks reveals that before attempting suicide at some point during his time there he’d arrived at the realization that he had “power over nothing.” In The Polar Express, playing five digitally captured characters, including Santa Claus, he is power unleashed. If Hanks’s transformation in Cast Away was utterly corporeal, here his multiple mutations are strictly digital (the cinematic equivalent of Pohl’s Broadhead). At least, sort of. It’s easy (and fun) to knock The Polar Express for its jabbering plasticine, stiff-backed creations with their beady expressionless eyes and gaping asymmetrical maws, but these representations are, or were, real people. They don’t look like real people, but one can imagine the moment ahead when motion capture is used to merely reproduce nearly exact copies of the live actor. If that moment does indeed arrive, couldn’t we then copy them exactly for eternal manipulation in film after film? Could we control their aging—perhaps in 2145, Eighties-era Tom Hanks will be in, while Hanks circa 2000 will be on the outs? And when that occurs, what exactly will we be watching? The most direct cinematic interventions are those that apply the image directly to the filmic surface, like Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. Traditionally animated films bear the mark of their maker, not unlike a painting in motion, twenty-four times a second. Digital animation is more ephemeral, always already existing within the realm of computers. The Polar Express’s register is another beast entirely, its oddness only kept in check Zemeckis’s overweening adherence to a kind of classical language that the technology paradoxically allows the possibility of casting off. Recall in Cast Away the mammoth composite that pulls up from Tom Hanks in a raft to reveal the mountainous swells around his tiny lifeboat. It’s a digitally rendered shot that’s similar in intent to, but much more hesitant in execution than, a long sequence shot in The Polar Express which follows a golden ticket out of a window on the train, down a gorge, into a pack of wolves, up to an eagle’s nest and back onto the train, all in the span of a few minutes. It’s in these kinds of physically impossible shots that the referent (something or someone filmed in the real) drops out entirely—the ability of Oz-ian wizards to discard real physics so easily makes the fact that the performance-captured individuals radiate some kind of scant aura cold comfort.
A few years after Honey, I Shrunk the Kids hit theaters, my parents took me on a trip down to Universal Studios in Florida. While touring a massive special-effects stage, I found myself summarily plopped by an overzealous volunteer onto a plaster bee mounted in front of a huge blue screen (still before green-screen days). He asked me to act frightened for a few minutes as if I were traveling quickly through space on the back of the insect. With a huge fan blowing in my hair, I did as asked. A few minutes after dismounting the bee, my “performance” was projected on the screen for the collected tour group, bee and I seamlessly integrated into a real-world setting—here a garden background that see-sawed with the “movement” of the bee. But when images (or anything) become too easy to create, when the impossible becomes possible, do they lose value? Which leads naturally to the question: what do we watch movies for anyway? And is that changing? The box-office success of Polar Express suggests that it is, and has been for quite some time. The thrust of the film lies in pushing its child protagonists towards belief—explicitly in the narrative in the form of Santa Claus, but more generally in the ephemeral power of cinema, and particularly performance-captured cinema. An indoctrination text in the guise of family entertainment, The Polar Express hitches a ride to the North Pole as a surefire way to cram the new technology down the throats of willing viewers, viewers who seem to actually desire it.
Rewatching that key moment when F.W. Murnau pushed his camera awkwardly through the space of a hotel lobby in The Last Laugh (arguably the first such shot in cinema history) remains a spiritual moment—for perhaps the first time, audiences plumbed the space on the screen along with the movie actors. Though there is something exhilarating in the vertiginous physics-defying movement of camera through space in The Polar Express, it all still retains a certain weightlessness. Spectacle has always been a driver for the art form, but the breathlessness in the face of it has most often come from the tension at having the unimaginable made visible by human hands (and the possibility that all might go awry). This physicality around effects work is in danger of disappearing. The failure of the new Star Wars films (inasmuch as one can call the earlier trilogy artistic successes) lies in this simple dichotomy—one series bears the weight of real, filmed objects, the others do not. But does that necessarily grant it priority? The digital illusion seems to be working quite well for most, but something ineluctable is missing. The insurgent digital is changing the very physicality of cinema, and it might be that no one truly cares.
You can’t touch something digital, but does that mean we should be wary of it? A.I., The New World, There Will Be Blood—none of these, among the greatest films of this decade, would have been possible without some digital assistance. The masterworks of our collective cinematic history wouldn’t be widely available today without the digital video discs more commonly referred to as DVDs. (And what of the revolution the digital has wrought in the way we listen to and interact with music?) The great irony of the Heechee saga is that the mysterious electric “Foe,” so threatening in their desire to end and then resurrect the universe that we know, are only doing so in order to hasten the ascension of the remaining physical creatures to a more desirable matter-less existence. For all our clumsy physicality we are just energy, but energy bound and gagged by various forces with the weight of corporeality. Is the realm of the digital where we must move in order to create a more perfect cinema? And if our dreams go the way of the computer, will we follow?
If (very broadly speaking) the power of the Lumière imagery lay in how its novelty afforded it a certain extra-representational weight, and Méliès took that knowledge and ran with it, employing invisible fakery to enhance the wonderment factor, where does something like The Polar Express, with its intangibility overlaid on the once-tangible, lie on this trajectory? (And what of James Cameron’s fully digital creation Avatar which will so surely be hailed as the future of cinema before it even sees the light of day?) The movement from Cast Away to The Polar Express (the five-year gap in between) follows the same physical actor along Pohl’s path—both Broadhead and Hanks move from fragile corporeality to invincible ethereality. As celluloid is further backgrounded, cinema seems to be heading this way as well—this issue of Reverse Shot tracks one major filmmaker after another moving away from celluloid to high-definition video. All that’s left to complete the conquest is for the exhibition community to follow suit and install the proper projection systems on every screen. Even so, when the digital image is re-projected, especially at lesser qualities, the referent, that thing which I think was and is still is (but may not forever be) the drawing power of cinema, is gone and the mark of technology is visible. As of right now motion capture requires the presence of physicality before erasing all but the barest trace. But how long will it be before all traces of artifacting and the physical can be quickly and cleanly erased? As for all of us, with our individual kino-eyes, what’s reflected back at us when we look at The Polar Express? Who knows what we’ll see ten years from now?