Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Lens Flair

Pixar’s Cars was a movie I avoided for as long as I possibly could, almost solely because of my utter disavowal of any and all entertainments connected to Larry the Cable Guy, who provides the voice of Mater the tow truck for the film. As it happened, “as long as I possibly could” turned out to be exactly equal to “as long as it took to have a child and then take said child on a cross-country airplane trip”.

In an effort to stave off as many foreseeable terrors as possible while planning to visit my mother in new Mexico for Thanksgiving, my wife and I buckled and bought a portable DVD player as well as a few DVDs we expected would be particularly appealing to the little guy, which included Cars as well as a collection of Dr. Seuss cartoons and a compilation of episodes of Bob the Builder. The little guy really dug Bob the Builder, the episodes of which are only about 15 minutes long, and he similarly enjoyed both the Cat in the Hat and the Lorax in animated form, having long since internalized the original books. Those DVDs were especially useful on the plane itself because our flight connected through Chicago, and chances were pretty good that we wouldn’t have been able to get through the entire running time of Cars in the short window during which portable electronic devices could be turned on for either leg in the air. And, except for the cabin depressurization nightmare I alluded to in my first post back from the holiday, the flights really were smooth sailing with the little guy a content little angel wearing his big boy headphones and watching shows (“on my computer!” as he informed us the portable DVD player was to be called. My mom got the little guy some Sesame Street toys, too, and when I opened the blister pack one edge remained affixed to the backing board, so the whole thing could fold and unfold like a laptop, and the little guy also declared that to be “his computer”.)

But, ha ha ha ha ha, the little guy never really did get the hang of Mountain Standard Time. Whether we put him to bed at the local version of his bed time, or kept him up an extra hour or more, he still woke up at 5 a.m. every day we were in Albuquerque. Of course we tried bringing him from the crib into our bed to doze a little longer, but he was well and truly wide awake, so I ended up taking him out to the living room, putting Cars in the DVD player, and laying on the couch with him. He was hypnotized, thankfully, and to be honest, so was I. Of course I was. Pixar makes amazing movies, full stop, and they magically elevate all the participants. If history had gone a bit differently, Pixar could have made a musical about yak herding which starred the voices of Madonna and Kurt Cobain and won me over with it. (Probably. Eventually.)

The next morning it was my wife’s turn to coordinate the 5 a.m. viewing of Cars, and the morning after that I took a turn again. So, for the record, the little guy saw Cars at least three times over Thanksgiving, and I saw it twice, and my wife saw it once. (And I think at one point we all watched the DVD’s bonus short “Mater and the Ghost Light” together.) The first time I was sucked into the characters and the story, but by my second viewing I was observing all the technical achievements in the movie, which are pretty stunning.

I remember talking to my dad once about animated movies and him recounting an interview he saw or read where an animator said the hardest things to render realistically were smoke and water. So, of course, there is a moment in Cars where Lightning McQueen tries to burn rubber and white smoke pours out of his wheel wells, and there’s another moment where Red the fire truck hoses him down with water. And even in those moments, it is supremely easy to forget you are watching a CGI cartoon, because nothing really looks cartoony. Everything has a realistic physicality about it. Pure illusion, of course, but a really convincing one.

And one of the bigger setpieces in the whole story is a night scene in which all the businesses in Radiator Springs turn on their neon lights, and the color tones and the reflections and the shadows and everything are all just perfect. (So perfect that you probably wouldn’t notice them at all, if you weren’t watching the movie for the second time in 48 hours and predisposed to picking apart technical layers like that anyway.) But what really got to me was a brief sequence, also at night, in which Mater shows off how he can drive backwards and ends up crashing through the woods behind the motel, at which point all the audience can see is stray beams from his yellow flashers cutting through the branches of the trees. Once again it’s this incredibly complex visual phenomenon to model and once again it looks exactly right, and while I respect the hell out of it I do also slightly suspect that it was really a case of the animators going there purely so they could show off.

Which, overall, is one of those things that I’m really sensitive to in a lot of movies. I mentioned last week that when the little guy was home from daycare with a teething-related temperature, I spent his naptime watching a movie. The movie in question was a subtitled Korean flick called Oldboy, which is about as far from Cars as you are likely to get. It’s a dark, twisted, violent revenge story, and even that barely scratches the surface, and to say any more would risk spoilers, which is not to say that I’m recommending it per se, because it is also gut-churningly disturbing in places, so, you know, you be the judge if that’s your thing. But despite the sometimes appalling subject matter it truly is a well-constructed movie, both in terms of storytelling and cinematography. Almost too well-constructed in the latter, as I found my brain sometimes disengaging from the characters and the story and just trying to parse the composition of the shots and figure out how they physically constructed them. There is a scene where the protagonist, armed only with a claw hammer, has to fight his way down a hallway full of goons. The scene goes on for minutes and minutes from the same low angle as the tide of the battle flows up and down the hall, all in one take, with no slow-motion or other effects. Which on the one hand sounds kind of mundane but after a certain point your brain (my brain, at least) starts demanding to know how many takes that actually took, and how it was choreographed, because the whole thing is so improbable. Still, I’m glad my mind switched tracks back and forth the way that it did, because once I got to the end I knew that I wouldn’t want to subject myself to watching the movie again. (Kind of the same way I feel about SE7EN, honestly. Is Oldboy more disturbing than SE7EN? YES, YES IT IS.)

All of this may be coming across as a complaint, and I really don’t mean it that way. I’m certainly not advocating that all movie-makers play it safe and dumb down what they’re capable of just so that I don’t get distracted by thoughts of how insanely difficult it must be to put the final product up on screen. I like the fact that I can be amused by what a movie is doing on various levels. I honestly wish I had the time to re-watch more movies and appreciate them fully. I’m just not going to get up at 5 a.m. on my days off on a regular basis to do it.

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