Effects can be special, but storytelling must come first

I don’t think I am letting the cat out of the bag by informing you that the climactic scene in “Get
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I don’t think I am letting the cat out of the bag by informing you that the climactic scene in “Get Smart” features a long, tedious, expertly edited chase.

Planes fly under bridges, cars careen pell-mell — all kinds of mechanical acrobatics impossible to render decades ago.

On the way out of a preview screening, my companion noted something I had been thinking as I watched this orchestrated mayhem: that for all the brilliance, there was no real sense of wonderment. We all knew the effects were computerized or rendered via green screen by technical wizards.

Those planes really weren’t flying under bridges sideways. Cars really were not scraping each other apart as they flew through city streets at better-than-NASCAR speed. Whether it’s “Transformers,” “The Incredible Hulk,” “Iron Man,” countless “Spider-Mans,” and other movies of their ilk, it’s getting to be, “Been there, done that.”

Titans clash, and with state-of-the-art speakers, loud sounds can puncture eardrums. Dozens and dozens of modern-day elves labor overtime in sound and digital studios to produce the effects. Their parents are proud their kids work in Hollywood. They are smart and sharp and clever. They have risen to the top of the special-effects class. Some will pick up Oscars because they staged and orchestrated better titanic battles than the guys down the street.

Lazy way out

Though the results of their work are amazing and wondrous, and just plain “awesome,” you can’t help thinking that the marvelous accomplishments reflect a factory-line mentality. Same old, same old. Unless you’re over 10 and under 11, it’s enough to make you want to yawn. Whether it’s a blockbuster like “Transformers” or a fractured comedy like “Get Smart,” you know that the creators always have this lazy way out whenever they have no story or just cannot figure out how to resolve the one they’ve embarked on.

This may strike some in the business as disrespectful to a specialized art. My quibble is that this specialized art should always be subservient to the higher art of storytelling, which is at the core of the narrative experience. This is not to suggest that Hollywood should bag or discard the often delightful advances of digital editing or computer-generated effects. The trick is to manage their employment with artful discretion. That means resisting the urge to grandstand with the newest technique just because it is available.

Therein lies the difference between art and industry, the latter of which often exists to provide an easier way of living. I like a car with the technical advancements of heated seats, cruise control and a navigational system. They enhance my comfort. In the world of art, employing the latest advances does not necessarily enhance one’s enjoyment. Using them as ends in themselves, for no reason other than they are there, can be downright annoying, or in some cases, blasphemous.

Musical analogy

When I was a kid, I salivated each time I heard a trumpet player go stratospheric with a high G. To my impressionable mind, that and rapid-fire succession of sixteenth notes was the apex, the apotheosis of artistry. Later, I learned that even if these talents deserved respect and were damn hard to achieve, it often took even more cultivated artistry to play a tasteful ballad. Most competent composers in every musical genre can whisk off charts with difficult, labyrinthian passages. That’s great if you’re trying to approximate the frantic flight of a bumble bee and not so great if you’re showing off with a superfluous display of virtuosity. Sometimes, a tasteful combination of quarter, half, and eighth notes will do just fine.

It’s not that easy to write a beautiful, enchanting song with shape, form and resolution. Nor is it a simple chore to tell a simple, captivating story that can hold an audience for the better part of two hours. Despite all the available technical advances, it’s a simple lesson many moviemakers have yet to learn.

Categories: Life and Arts

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