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« Rungius, Hunting and the Roots of Art | Main | Schizophrenic Science »

June 03, 2003

Computers, animation and drugs

Friedrich --

Are you looking forward to seeing the new Pixar "Nemo" movie? I am, if only sorta. I'm not a fan of longform animation generally, but I've found the Pixar movies pretty enjoyable and impressive.

A gal I once interviewed spends some time every year visiting the arts schools in the US and Canada recruiting fresh cannon fodder for one of the big animation departments. She told me that the best young artists she sees (ie., skillful, devoted, etc) are the kids who are serious about making a go of it as professional animators. They work hard at conventional drawing and painting skills, and they turn themselves into snazzy and imaginative computer people too. They also think sensibly about making a living as an artist. Meanwhile, the fine-arts kids drink, horse around, feel superior, and carry on like they're doing something important.

How do you react to the new animated features generally? I mainly avoid them. Longform animation goes nightmarish on me pretty quickly: please, someone, make it stop! But I do find the Pixar movies bearable. The Pixar crowd gives story and character some real focus and concentration, for one important thing. You don't feel you're being forcefed product. The pictures feel artisanal -- put together as unique pieces of cyber-handicraft.

Years ago I took one of those Robert McKee screenwriting classes -- brilliant, by the way -- and wound up during a break talking to a guy from Pixar. Nice, bright, obviously hardworking. He told me that Pixar makes every employee take McKee's class. "It's all about the storytelling at Pixar," he said. "People think it's the computers and the visuals. But it's really all about crafting the story and figuring out how best to tell it." Beats me whether it's true that literally everyone at Pixar takes the course. But he did convince me that Pixar takes storytelling seriously.

And I find the Pixar visuals impressive, though I'd have a hard time saying I plain enjoy them. Everything these days is so intense, so overproduced, and the Pixar visuals are no exception. I find that I'm constantly wincing. Why is everything so damn vivid and emphatic? Does everything have to come at my senses so damn hard? I'm also surprised that more people don't seem to have the kind of trouble I do with what computers do with light. This isn't a minor problem for me. Movies? Light? Pretty closely related. But everything in a computer-animated picture looks flat and dead -- as though lit by flourescents that were bounced off of concrete. There's never any sparkle or lyricism in the light; it isn't life-giving. I suppose the geniuses at Pixar are on the case. Heck, they've got hair and fur under some control these days. I wonder how long it'll be before they make the light behave better.

But I have a larger thesis here, which is that the whole drive with computers, electronics and the media is to create what are essentially drug trips. Wipe-you-out, overintense, mind-bending experiences -- with "the imagination" literalized and put out there before you. All that's up to you to do is watch it, and go "Whoa, dude!"

I'm cooking up an even larger thesis about how contempo mood drugs and the contempo electronic media are parallel phenomena. They've got an awful lot in common. They both do the heavy lifting for you, and thereby pump you up. There's never any need to dig down deep, because, really, that's all taken care of for you. The downside to this thesis, and the reason why I may never take it public, is that, despite a badly misspent youth, I've never actually taken a mood-enhancer drug, so I don't really know what I'm talking about.

To be honest, I'm a pretty cheerful person, really. My secret? I do my best to avoid the depths. Life drags you into 'em whether you want to go or not. So why search 'em out?

Your thoughts about computer animation?



posted by Michael at June 3, 2003


Computer animation, pro. Pixar, con. They don't get scale right, but fail to use discrepancies like music, al la old Warner Bros. Cartoons or Fleisher. (Is that how you spell Fleisher?) Koko's Earth Control.

Posted by: j.c. on June 4, 2003 02:15 AM

"To be honest, I'm a pretty cheerful person, really. My secret? I do my best to avoid the depths. Life drags you into 'em whether you want to go or not. So why search 'em out?"

Me, too. Although in my case, it may just be the Trazadone talking. I may have had Doestoevskian depths before I started taking that mild sedative/anti-depressant to help me sleep, but how can I remember?

Posted by: Steve Sailer on June 4, 2003 02:23 AM


I would do a little more research into your thesis on the mood drugs before going public with it. You may find that most people start popping the Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac and, hey the new one with hardly any side effects, Celexa, only when they are so far down in the depths they cant see any light at all. Heavy lifting? Good lord, you make folks who take them sound emotionally lazy and unwilling to withstand the slings and arrows that life tosses their way. These are not drugs you take because you've had a bad day at the office and want a little pick me up....Do your research and check your premise before putting that one forward.

Posted by: Deb on June 4, 2003 06:31 AM

I love all forms of animation, and heaven help me if they sing. I was rendered tear-stained and useless many times during "The Prince of Egypt" (Dreamworks). And-- I wasn't very impressed with the animation. Why did Moses run like that??? But the music, the tension of slavery vs. freedom, the whole "God called a man to save the Israelites" theme and let's not forget the baby in the basket scene... oh stop me.

Anyway, Thursday I'm going to Florida and can NOT wait to do Disney. (Especially the water parks, major SWOOSH sound here; but that's beside the point.)

Glad to hear your comments on the basic artistic behavior of animators. I'm going to email an excerpt to my son, sleeping down the hall, who naturally loves to draw cartoons.

Posted by: laurel on June 4, 2003 07:10 AM

"But I have a larger thesis here, which is that the whole drive with computers, electronics and the media is to create what are essentially drug trips."

In a book of essays about Science Fiction, Thomas Disch pointed out that "We will never be able to 'Just say no' to that part of the human mind that wants to say 'Far out!'"

But I do think casual drug use is on the decline. Of course I have no statistics to back this up, and lord knows we have enough addicts out there, but in terms of people experimenting with hallucinogens, well, I've never done it, and I know very few people who have. The concensus seems to be it's too dangerous, what if you had a life destroying "bad trip," etc. The average person has been instilled with a fear of hard drugs similar to the fear of unprotected casual sex--the thrill is just not worth the risk.

So where's the responsible modern secular sort to go for these head-trips? The movie theater seems like a safe bet.

It just occured to me also that so many cultures have traditions of inducing mind-altering visions through either drugs or meditation. Even christianity has its trippy stained glass windows with their oversaturated colors.

Now you've got me thinking about the way celebrities and spectacle are standing in for dieties and religion... Are these trippy movies part of the same ongoing substitution?

Posted by: Nate on June 4, 2003 10:37 AM

"But I have a larger thesis here, which is that the whole drive with computers, electronics and the media is to create what are essentially drug trips. Wipe-you-out, overintense, mind-bending experiences -- with 'the imagination' literalized and put out there before you."

Speaking as a constant reader and only occasional movie-goer--haven't the movies always been about literalizing the imagination? Isn't that a main reason why readers are almost invariably annoyed by what directors do to their beloved books? I grant you, technology is making it easier to do fantasy stories, but even The Wizard of Oz was pretty spiffy in its day.

Movie magic--yeah, there's a novel phrase.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 4, 2003 11:19 AM

Hey J.C. -- Which uses of computer animation have you enjoyed? Is it the idea of computer animation more than what's actually been done with it so far? Like you, I recall the old animation with pleasure. Shorter, for one thing. Also, although there's less of a "whoa!" factor, they're hard to match for wit and inventiveness.

Hey Steve, Hilarious. I've often wondered about Alzheimer's in similar ways. Maybe you can't recall anything anymore. But if one of the things you can't recall any longer is what it was once like to recall things, does it really matter? Not intending to make light of it, really more marveling that people with Alzheimer's do seem to recall (up to a point) who they were. And what does that mean about the disease? And the relationship between memory and self. Oliver Sacks, where are you when we need you?

Hey Deb, My apologies if I was being unfairly flippant about the mood drugs. I'm glad they're there for the people who need them. I've got some friends and relatives who have gotten a lot of help from them. So forgive me -- I didn't mean to make light of real problems. From my flunky-to-a-rarefied-part-of-the-world perch, though -- ie., here in the NYC arts-and-media worlds -- I do, though, see a lot of people using the mood drugs to attend to problems that probably once weren't even viewed as problems -- using the drugs as career enhancers, basically. Which is fine, I've got few if any strong moral feelings about this, though I find it a pain to deal with these always-up people. But it does have an impact on the kind of arts and media products that get made that's worth taking note of, I think. If you look at TV, or at a magazine rack, for instance? All those beaming, "my life's grrrrrrrreat, how's yours?" celebrity faces beaming back at you? Photoshop and Prozac help explain a lot of that. (In most cases, it sure ain't natural.) And knowing the kinds of drugs and booze that some people in the movie world use helps to explain the kind of product they make too. In the '20s and '30s, for instance, Hollywood ran on cocaine, alcohol and speed -- doesn't hurt to know that. '70s movies? Lots of pot and cocaine, with occasional veerings into hallucinogens. In the '80s? Era of all those hyper-pumpy movies-turning-into-rock-videos? Tons and tons and tons of cocaine. Not everyone, obviously, but enough to affect how the movies looked, felt and moved. (Doesn't hurt to know that Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Faulkner were all heavy drinkers, for instance.) My modest suggestion here is that the new mood drugs are having an impact on the kinds of media and art we're being sold, much as the new electronics are having an impact on the products. I don't mean to be talking about normal people who need help, and apologies to them. I mean to be talking instead about ambitious (and sometimes talented) nutcases who use whatever they think they need to to do whatever it is they think they have to.

Hey, Deb's got me thinking another thought, which is: all those boys getting Ritalin in school? Many of whom probably genuinely need it and are better off for it. But at the same time there have been plenty of articles arguing that the drug's being abused by schools that simply have lost track of how to control students. Well, in any case, these Ritalinized boys are soon going to be central to the movie audience. What kind of tastes in media and entertainment will they have? How will it affect what the rest of us are sold? Sooner or later, a handful of those Ritalinized boys are going to be writing scripts, making websites, and directing movies. What will those products be like? Will we see anything of "Ritalin" in them?

Hey Laurel, "The Prince of Egypt" was a good one? Thanks for the recommendation. And, yeah, for the moment anyway there are real careers to be had in animation for arty kids. It'll be interesting to see if the market continues to be strong. The field went through some awful stretches prior to its reawakening at Disney and Pixar. But maybe the "computer-animated film" has by now become a standard, long-lasting semi-genre. I'd never have believed that science-fiction spectacle movies would ever become the standard-issue thing they have. Back in the '60s and most of the '70s, sci-fi was pretty low-rent, and also pretty rare. It took Lucas and Spielberg to make it mainstream -- and to my amazement, there it has stayed.

Hey Nate, Are you a Disch fan? I think he's great even though I can't read sci-fi. What a brainy, good writer. Have you tried his book about poetry? One of the best discussions of contempo poetry I'm aware of -- plainspoken, anti-jargon, down to earth, yet very sensitive and informed at the same time. Is the book on sci-fi any good? I have the same suspicion you do about celebs and stars -- that they play the same role (or a similar one) for us that gods used to play for, say, the Greeks. They embody forces, they occupy our imaginations, they become real characters in our lives to a surprising (and amusing) degree. Interesting to learn that the Greeks and Romans apparently used to enjoy gossiping about the gods, in much the same way, I suspect, that we enjoy gossiping about stars. It's an interesting (and I don't think trivial) topic: what function do stars serve in a society? And how does society use them? All of which can make you wonder: what are we doing exactly when we're in a movie theater staring at that screen, and at the people on it? There's more than a little of the religious spectacle about it, isn't there? A touch of hope, and even worship? What are we hoping for from being there? Often something "moving," or even "transformative" (if you're in a pretentiously academic frame of mind). But why should we? And when we get it -- what is that experience we have when we actually are touched by a work of art? "Matrix Reloaded," for instance, gives us tons and tons more "Matrix" than the original film did. Yet, in my view anyway, what it didn't deliver was actual beauty or imagination -- that hard-to-define something-or-other. (Hard to believe anyone's going to go back to watch "Matrix Reloaded" over and over again, as they did with the original. But why not?) Can we define that special something-or-other? Yet isn't that what art traffics in? Your thoughts on this?

Hey Will, Excellent point and I should have been more precise. The literalness of film is/has been part of what's maddening and what's great about it as a medium. Maddening because to, say, a fan of a novel, maybe the hero didn't look that way. Maybe the house was imagined differently. But great because there's never been a medium that did a better job of delivering the texture of fact. It's part of what some film theorists have tried to get into over the years -- how a medium that's so tied to the actuality of things (on stage, you can cast a 50 year old as a 25 year old, and the audience might well accept it; on screen, that's a real hard one to put across) can at the same time deliver imaginative experiences. We assent to things and experiences you wouldn't think we would assent to, such as "Wizard of Oz." How? Why? What the computer is changing is part of this equation: in the past, you had to make do with real things, real people. Oz may have been imaginary, but the sets were sets, the people were people. The "special effects" per se were few and far between. There were a few "whoa!" moments, but they're used at least partly to provide signals (hey, we're in a different kind of world). With computers, the entire movie (even the characters) can be a special effect, and much moviemaking effort is going these days into doing just that. Computers are being widely used even on straight-seeming movies these days -- they help fill out crowd scenes, help cover up the sun or put some mountains in the background, in all kinds of ways that can be very hard to detect. In other words, you can dip into the actual photographic movie image (which was once very unyielding) and massage it and knead it -- something that wasn't really possible, and certainly not on a big scale, before. The overall effect is that everything (and not just "Shrek") is being turned into, or can now be turned into, a kind of animation. Reality itself can get squished and stretched. Are we looking at something that was really there, or just at a bunch of pixels? We really don't know unless we've been told. "Reality" used to be central to movies; now it's just one option. (Interesting to note that "reality TV" has become its own genre at the same time. It's like "reality" has been hived off.) Photoshop is having a similar effect on photography, and as a result we don't have the same relationship to photography today that we did 20 years ago. There used to be much clearer distinctions between such categories as ads, fantasies, and documents. These days the categories are much more prone to be smooshier.

It seems to me (this is where I stop delivering info and start having an eminently-disputable opinion) that, partly as a consequence, something has changed in where "the imaginative experience" takes place, even at the movies. It used to take place more inside the imagination of the viewer. It was part of the job of the dramatist and of the set designer: to deliver literally visible stuff, sure, but also to deliver it in such a way that the viewer's imagination was set off and engaged. How to suggest things? What to leave out? These days the drive is to put the entire imaginative experience itself up on the screen -- to turn the whole movie into a "whoa" experience, something like watching the spinning graphics that are everywhere on television these days (and which I often find quite beautiful). At the movies these days, I often find myself amazed by what's unscreen yet completely untouched and unengaged by it -- ie., there's a lot of "imagination" being beamed at me, more so than ever before in all movie history. Yet my own imagination is feeling left out of the process. All the work's being done for me. Nothing's going on inside me (besides tedium, annoyance, occasional chuckles, etc), nothing's been stirred. I'm just being subjected to all this stuff comin' at me. I find such movies rather like drug trips. The world is turned into a lot of whirling, flashing plastic, with the "me" part just sitting there watching.

Thanks for pushing me on this, though I'm not sure I'm making any better sense. But do you ever have similar feelings at the new movies?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2003 01:56 PM

Aha, a pro making much the same point, much more concisely than I did. Joe Morgenstern in the WSJ today:

"Going to the multiplex these days can be a high-impact experience, yet, paradixocially, a largely passive one... Special effects, accompanied by volcanic emissions from subwoofer speakers, beat spectators into willing submission ...High-concept comedies provoke laughs while making few demands. And audiences respond in kind. They're subdued in the face of action, or hard-hitting plot points. When there's a lag, though, or a pause in the narrative for characterization, let alone mystery of ambiguity, moveigoers grow restless and start to talk among themselves, or reach for their cell phones."

Ie., technological distractions (if you will) are taking over the role that the viewer's imagination used to play.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2003 02:43 PM

Let's get back to the whole drugs thing. What exactly do you mean by "mood drugs"? Anti-depressants? Hallucinagens? Ecstasy? You may be on to something here, but I need more clarity. (The relationship between a society's drugs and a society's art is probably one of the keys to understanding culture.)

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 4, 2003 02:56 PM


"At the movies these days, I often find myself amazed by what's unscreen yet completely untouched and unengaged by it -- ie., there's a lot of 'imagination' being beamed at me, more so than ever before in all movie history.... I find such movies rather like drug trips. The world is turned into a lot of whirling, flashing plastic, with the 'me' part just sitting there watching."

Speaking specifically of the Pixar movies, which I'm familiar with, and not of movies in general:

It seems to be that this isn't so much an imagination problem as a suspension of disbelief problem--a difficulty in getting inside an imagined world that's sufficiently different from the real world. As evidence, you said earlier in these comments, "I can't read science fiction" -- not "won't", or "don't", but "can't". IIRC, you've also had difficulty getting into computer games, many of which have SF backgrounds.

I think the problem is simply that there's an increase of fantasy and science fiction on the big screen, and you simply don't think that way.

I mean, really--in a mainstream movie, what does it matter whether the crowd or the mountains is real or computer generated? Matte shots have been used for years, evidently without troubling you.

What do you think? Have I diagnosed the problem correctly?

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 4, 2003 02:58 PM

FvB -- Couldn't agree more that the relationship between a society's cultural products and its drugs is superimportant. I'm struck these days by the ultra-insistent "up"ness and "on"ness of so much pop culture, and I take that to be a reflection of the prevalence of mood-boosting drugs. Do you buy this? If so: funny, huh? In the past it was coke or acid or champagne - recreational drugs, while these days it's the stuff that helps you get through a normal day. Two things from a practical p-o-v: one is that I've never taken these drugs, although I've read about 'em and talked with people who do take them. Two is that I've seen the impact of these drugs (and the electronics, which do seem to me like two heads of the same creature) in the NYC artsy media world. "Push, push; pop pop; go go; bigger, brighter" -- that about summarizes it. And again I don't mean to get moral about it or condemn it, just to take note of it. Personally I don't tend to care much for these products, but obviously lots of people are willing to spend time and money on them. And personally I think it's great the drugs exist if people have a need for them. We live lives bewilderingly removed from the African savannah we were evolved for these days, and maybe it makes a lot of sense that a pill can be a big help with the new realities. But, as you say: If so, how can we see this reflected in our cultural products? Eager to hear your reflections.

Hey, "Moulin Rouge" -- Ecstasy movie or what?

Hey Will, Are we disagreeing about something? I'm not sure we are. It seems to me that we're looking at the same thing, if from two different angles. And maybe in the long view it doesn't matter if we're looking at pixels or "reality," but for a long time people thought it did. With photos, for example: news photos were considered trustworthy, and that was thought to be important. These days, we all know that Photoshop makes tweaking even quick-turnaround news photos easy. An interesting development, no?

An example of how this might work in movies is acting. A lot of acting generally has to do with the actor's ability to be "in the moment" -- ie., alert, aware, moving towards something yet reacting to what's in fact around her/him. A lot of acting is make-believe and pretend, of course. But reality ("the moment") counts, too: actors might well play a scene differently on a bright day than on a dull day -- we all know we behave a bit differently when the weather's different. Well, what happens if the actors give a certain performance that's to some extent keyed to weather, and in post-production the weather gets changed? They were reacting and taking into account a sunny day, but in post-production the sunny day gets Photoshopped into an overcast one. Yet the sunny-day performances are still there. Little bits of cognitive dissonance like that are slipping into films all over the place these days. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, maybe that's just how things are, maybe acting per se is going to have to adapt to the new ways computers are helping people make movies, maybe it already is. But it's worth taking note of, no?

Another contempo acting issue: It's hard to act in front of a blue screen. It's hard to act in front of nothing (even if you know that some techie is going to insert a computer-generated something opposite you). It's a very peculiar challenge. "Acting is reacting," say a lot of actors. So what becomes of acting if there's nothing there for the actor to react to? What tends to happen is that the acting becomes generalized, or schticky, and when acting becomes generalized or schticky a certain kind of connection with the audience gets lost. Maybe a different one occurs. But this is the kind of thing that helps explain why improv comedians have become more visible in movies in recent years. They've got the ability to turn on at the drop of a hat, no matter what -- and that's a handy skill to have in the current moviemaking environment. Again: interesting development, no?

Sci-fi's an interesting question, too, and thanks for bringing it up. My inability to get interested in much sci-fi to one side, the question comes up: why are we seeing so much sci-fi these days In movie-history terms, it's a really remarkable thing, all this sci-fi that we currently take for granted. I suspect that it's because of the way we've fallen in love with computer technology over the last couple of decades.

So there's more and more fantasy on the screen. And outright, out-on-the-surface fantasy -- not just "gee, what if they met at the drugstore" fantasy, but "in a world, far far away" fantasy. I'm rather struck -- and I may be alone in this, or may be a freak, it's OK with me -- by the way that as the computer-and-fantasy element in movies has grown, what I think of as "the imaginative element" (which has nothing necessarily to do with fantasy) seems to me to get crushed out. I mean, it's possible for a space opera to have no imaginative qualities whatsoever, and for a hyper-realistic road picture to have intense imaginative qualities. And I find myself wondering: "Gee, could it be that the effort of putting so much fantasy on screen is contributing to the decline of the imaginative qualities?" And, I assume, contributing as well to people's needs for mood-boosting drugs. I mean, it's tough to be "up" all the time. Imagine directing "Matrix Reloaded." That freeway car chase took three months to shoot! Imagine getting up in the morning thinking to yourself, jesus, two more months of the damn car chase yet to film. Pretty depressing. I know I'd need a mood booster to face it.

I'm probably pretty tiresome on the theme. But I'm still struck by it.

But maybe I'm alone in this? Are you not struck by it?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 4, 2003 03:51 PM

"The downside to this thesis, and the reason why I may never take it public, is that, despite a badly misspent youth, I've never actually taken a mood-enhancer drug, so I don't really know what I'm talking about."

If you go ahead and try it, you'll be able to legitimately say you were just experimenting with drugs. :-)

Posted by: Aaron Armitage on June 4, 2003 05:41 PM


OK, with regard to actors acting in front of bluescreens, I take your point completely.

Re: imagination--I think the word's getting used in two different ways in this discussion. The first is visual imagination--the movie makers imagine lots of pretty things for us to look at, and with the new techniques they are pretty good at getting those pretty things on screen. Eye candy. The second, if I understand you correctly, would be narrative imagination, that is, thinking up neat stories and figuring out neat ways to tell them visually on the screen.

And all the effort put on the former means that less effort is being put on the latter.

Which, come to think it, is my basic complaint about the "Lord of the Rings" movies--visually stunning, and they mucked with the plot to please themselves.

Posted by: Will Duquette on June 4, 2003 07:07 PM

It seems to me a lot of the acting challenges you refer to have always been there---I mean, if acting in front of a blue screen is very hard, then think about acting as if you are in Paris and you are on a sound stage in Culver City?? It reminds me of a story about Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman when they made "Marathon Man." Dustin Hoffman had to be out of breath from running from the bad guys in one scene, and so before filming, he ran up and down stairs repeatedly to get hot and breathless. Olivier shook his head. "That's why it's called ACTING," was his take on Hoffman's method. But I'm not sure any of it matters. If Olivier gets there one way, and Hoffman another---what matters is where the audience goes when they experience it. I mean, I don't really care (from an emotional experience perspective) what an actor went through to deliver the goods (does it really matter if Daniel Day-Lewis never got out of a wheelchair during the filming of "My Left Foot" or if he was doing handsprings 5 minutes before the camera rolled?) if he or she transports me when the goods are delivered. And if drugs are responsible for some of the current movies, I mean, who cares, if the emotional wallop is there, and it doesn't make the disappointment less if the wallop isn't there.

Posted by: annette on June 4, 2003 09:47 PM

In _Slow Dancing in America_, Michael Ventura suggests that movies are becoming more and more like dreams--flickerings of sexual and violent imagery. Even though my dreams aren't much like that, it could explain something about what's going on in movies, and it's an altered state that everyone goes through.

I've seen a complaint or two about movies with CGI crowd scenes just not being as moving somehow as movies with live crowds. As someone suggested, it may be that subtle kinds of coherence are
getting lost.

As a sidetrack, I'm tired of movies where the theme seems to be "I have morphing software"--
aside from any deficiencies of plot, writing, or
acting, the morphing is just plain wrong. When
one thing changes into another, it shouldn't just be a visual transformation of the surface--the underlying structure should be changing.

I'll put in a good word for the movie _Waking Life_--a non-computerized animated movie (all hand-painted from film) about dreams. Visually interesting, doesn't have that chilly CGI effect, and wonderful music. OK, not much plot, but the philosophy's fun.

Michael, I'm not sure what you mean by "imaginative qualities" which can be missing even from very science fictional or fantasyish movies. I think you've got a point--sometimes there's a dragon, but who cares?--but I'd like to get the idea pinned down a little better.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on June 5, 2003 10:27 AM

Hey Annette -- You're right, I don't know why anyone should care. I just find it interesting. I mean, it's a basic fact of film history that movies up till about 1965 were influenced mainly by alcohol -- everyone's ideas of what a good time was, and what a tragic artistic time was, came largely from alcohol. Circa 1965 -- boomers, counterculture, etc -- that started to shift. People's ideas of "good time" and "arty time" started to come largely from drug experiences, and the movies started to mimic those drug experiences. Recently computers have gotten so powerful that they've made it much easier and more plausible to do so, and the new Dolbyized cineplexes make the delivery of the movies that much more effective. You like this or you don't like this (my appetite for drug-trip-like experiences is pretty limited, but who cares), but it's kinda interesting to know these things, isn't it? Maybe not. My little contribution to this discussion is to suggest that maybe the mood-enhancing prescription drugs that are such a fact of life these days (and which do get wildly overused in the media and arts worlds) are having an impact on the feel of the movies we're being sold. I'm pretty sure that case can be made, but it also doesn't bother me if anyone disagrees.

Hi Nancy, Thanks for reminding us of "Waking Life." I wasn't crazy about it (largely because it left me a little seasick) but like you found it provocative and interesting. A modest and thoughtful use of the movies-as-drug-trip thing! What a good idea.

I find it useful -- others may not -- to think of imagination as a big, meta-thing, and "fantasy" as a subcategory of it. I could write a realistic book about the life of a drugstore owner, and it might be a very imaginative work in the sense that I've imagined my way into his character and his life, and I've imagined useful and interesting ways of presenting the material and telling the story. And the reader's imagination might well be tickled, if I did a good job: "So that's what it's like! You know, that probably is how it feels, and what that kind of brain is like, and what his ups and downs are ..." That's a work of the imagination that has no fantasy in it. (This specific kind is usually called "sympathetic" or "empathetic" imagination -- you've thought and felt your way into someone else's skin. Actors often work this way.) The "imagination" is all internal -- in the way I worked, in how I presented it, and in how you experienced it. And there's a degree of this kind of imagination in almost all Hollywood movies up to the drug years. It was taken for granted there would be -- it was simply part of what was expected of art. It helped define mainstream art and entertainment. Even in something like "Wizard of Oz," we're made to feel for Dorothy, and as much time and craft and imagination is spent on making us feel for her as is spent on coming up with the fantasy.

"Fantasy" is one of the many uses imagination can be put to. (And pardon my pedantic tone here -- gets away from sometimes.) You externalize what you're imagining. I'm no longer imagining the life of someone different than me in realistic terms; I'm projecting an entire alternative universe with its own different rules and bases, and placing the characters and situations in that fantasy environment. Which can be cool and great in its own way. Fantasy categories I confess I'm not that familiar with. I'm just not drawn to them. But it's "Lord of the Rings," sword-and-sorcery, the many different sci-fi categories, certain kinds of porn...

So: a work of fantasy fiction might be completely dreary and a drag -- it might have plenty of fantasy, but perhaps ill-imagined fantasy, or uninspired fantasy, or just routine rip-off stuff. That would be a work of fantasy that has no imagination. Where a work of imagination might have no fantasy at all.

What's happened that's so interesting is that what used to be a trashy little fantasy subgenre -- sci-fi -- has exploded and become so mainstream. It's unprecendented, I think (could be wrong here, but offhand...). How to explain this? I suggest that it has something to do with the way the drug-trip values have become so prevalent. On a drug trip, much like in sci-fi, your fantasies are projected out there, you're a world of your own imagining. This was once (pre-'60s) considered a really minority taste and pleasure. Since the '60s, it's become in many ways the point and goal of much art and entertainment. Interesting, no? Computers have replaced drugs for many people, and visiting and interacting with cyberspace has become its own kind of trippy entertainment and pasttime -- once drugs kind of collapsed as a utopian/redemptive movement, a lot of that boomer/counterculture energy went into computers instead. And now computers are helping sell trippy entertainment values at the cineplex.

My little attempt at a contribution here is to suggest that I'm finding many of these hard-driving works of trippy fantasy that we're being sold these days (XMen 2, Matrix Reloaded) lack real imaginative qualities. They've got lots of fantasy, but rather grim and routine stuff. And the characters and stories seem dead on the screen. My senses get pummeled by the Dolby and visuals, but my imagination is never tickled into responsive life. So I'm wondering if maybe too much energy is going into the trippiness and fantasy, and maybe not enough is going into the other imaginative sides.

But others probably disagree about this.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2003 11:37 AM

In re Waking Life and seesickness: For a while after I see that movie, I notice that a lot of the visual movement in it is an accurate representation of how things look when I walk--things really do move up and down and side to side relative to each other, but usually I edit it out. I don't have a similar experience with the writhing from Waking Life, but who knows? Maybe that's part of ordinary vision, too.
Here's something I'd like to see in a movie--perhaps you know of one that's got it. What if filters and color manipulation and focus were used to distinguish between character viewpoints? I bet that no two people's vision and hearing are quite the same.
Drugstore owner example: Have you read Dorothy Sayers' _The Mind of the Maker_? She draws parallels between the doctrine of the Trinity and the experience of making art: the original vision is the Father, the work of getting the piece produced is the Son, and the presense of the author in the characters is the Holy Ghost..
Why has fantasy become such a major thing? It might be the return of the repressed. Afaik, it's a fairly modern thing (the beginning of this century?) to assume that real art has no fantastic elements. Before that, there was Dante, Swift, some of Shakespeare, the Odyssey.....
I really don't think it's psychedelics--afaik, they've been out of fashion (though still used somewhat) for a while.
Some other things happened. One of them was Lord of the Rings. I recommend Tom Shippey's _Tolkien: Author of the Century_ for somewhat about how rich a work it is thematically and historically. (One of the cliches recently is how much of WWI is in Lord of the Rings.)
Then Lester Del Ray (an editor) decided to figure out what the most popular things about LOTR were, and market them. This led to _The Sword of Shanarra_ and any amount of ordinary epic fantasy.
I feel as though there should be a rant about the effects of fantasy role-playing games in here somewhere, but (a) My aquaintance with them is pretty casual and (b) I don't think they've affected the movies much.
On the movie side, Star Wars was a qualitative jump in special effects, and it was at least adequate as a mythic/adventure story, and had fair-to-middling wiseass dialogue.
I think that what happened was that ambitious special effects became relatively cheap and easy, and the movie makers tend to follow each other until someone has an inspiration for something new that works. I 'm not sure whether you're being fair to the present--are you comparing the ruck of ordinary sfx movies to the best westerns, mysteries, comedies, and dramas while ignoring the uninspired movies of the past?
"My little attempt at a contribution here is to suggest that I'm finding many of these hard-driving works of trippy fantasy that we're being sold these days (XMen 2, Matrix Reloaded) lack real imaginative qualities. They've got lots of fantasy, but rather grim and routine stuff. And the characters and stories seem dead on the screen. My senses get pummeled by the Dolby and visuals, but my imagination is never tickled into responsive life. So I'm wondering if maybe too much energy is going into the trippiness and fantasy, and maybe not enough is going into the other imaginative sides.:"
Probably, but don't leave out the deadly effect of sequelizing. I haven't seen Xmen2, but Xmen1 had some good moments. Star Wars went downhill to a shocking extent.

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on June 5, 2003 12:38 PM

I've always been a huge fan of animation. As a kid, that was my one choice for future career - animator. In college, that hardest course I took was a graduate class in animation. The professor chuckled evilly as he spoke on the first day of class, "for those of you who took this class on cartoons thinking it would be easy, I warn you right now this will be one of the hardest, most information and homework intensive classes you will ever take," and boy was he right. It was wonderful.

I like animated films because I think they are the purest form of movie making there is. Since every element of every frame has to be created from scratch, nothing you see is accidental and somebody had to think of it. How much purer can you get? Also, because it is so labor intensive, and you have to think of everything, the stories in animated films are typically of a higher quality than the vast majority of live action films. The economy of animated films makes the storytelling very deliberate, and thus typically good. Yes, there are the Pocahontases and the occasional Ralph Bakshi abortive efforts, but the majority of animated films are typically very good in the story dept.

I didn't like "Finding Nemo" for reasons I outline in my blog ( - Monday, June 02, 2003 - Summer Movies thus far), so I won't waste the space here.

As for the drug angle. Animation has always been about wild visual trips that could not be recreated with standard special effects in live action films. The new digital effects that can do the same reality distortion on live-action films is going to change things a little bit, since live action can now intrude upon what was solely animation's territory. So animation will probably get a little wilder, visually and conceptually, for a while to answer that threat. However, the tight, quality storytelling for animation will stay the same, just due to the necessities of the medium. And kids are a nice built-in audience.

Speaking of kids, I read somewhere once, and it would seem to be backed up anecdotally by what I've observed with my daughter, that the simpler color and shape palette of standard hand-drawn animation (even when part of it is digital as it was in Disney's "Tarzan") is easier for children to "see" and follow than live action films. The eye lands easily on the sharply drawn shapes with clean lines and big washes of color. It is easer to follow an animated film as there is less information presented to you, and any information that is presented is important. If I were to draw an analogy in literature, I would compare Dostoevsky to Kurt Vonnegut. The prior is multi-layered, complex Russian symbolism and imagery that mixes realistic storytelling with elements of surrealism or magical realism; where the latter is much simpler narratives couched in a joke/punchline format which is just as effective as a storytelling strategy, but a much easier read due to the broad, colorful strokes, and lightness of approach - even though both typically delve into dark subject matter. Thus, Dostoevsky is to live action films as Kurt Vonnegut is to animated films. And "the average person" is more likely to read and enjoy Vonnegut as opposed to Dostoevsky.

That is why animation will always be popular.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on June 5, 2003 01:07 PM

Wow, great thread so far, on which I've got a lot of thoughts!

The computers as electronic drug mechanism is one I have a lot of experience with. The receptive trance induced by video is now married to realistic live-action with the plasticity of animation.

The digital live-action stuff looks so flat and dead because they haven't quite got down the 'dirtiness' algorithms yet, but are working on it (see the novels of William Gibson for an exploration of this and much else).

Popularity of lorazepam and friends sees a return of the valium like edge of the 50's, layered with the feel-good base of prozac and friends.

The only psychdelic in fashion is the ongoing favorite of pot, which is most noted for it's other effects. Ecstasy, a recreational mood elevator, has replaced hard psychdelics in the mainstream underground: don't think about what's being pumped into you electronically, just feel good.

Dark little open secret about the computer industry; Both Unix and the MacOS were incluenced by heavy psychdelic use by a large minority of their creators. And those ritalin kids? The one's who weren't really hyperactive, and have entered the computer industry, often got hooked on other Schedule III-IV 'weight loss' amphetamines during the dot-com boom.

Junk food eating computer geeks have NO PROBLEM meeting the body mass index for them, and if you don't your friend will. Unless you just lie on the web form.

Prozac and friends, speed, and other 'lifestyle' drugs are ALL available, legally, online, with no doctor visit.

Aside from the speed, they generally make you more receptive to media messages. The speed is a wild card 'up' that just makes you whatever you were, only more so.

And TV is the legally sanctioned hypnotic.

And the audiences are all lazy, and if the creators can do more of the imagining for them, they're all for it.

It's looking more and more like Huxley got our coming world more right than Orwell, although the British are giving it a good go with the cameras.

American sheep are self-herding!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 6, 2003 10:46 PM

Oh, and nearly the entire production of The Wizard of Oz happened to be on Opium!!

Posted by: David Mercer on June 6, 2003 10:47 PM

Waking Life was rotoscoped, which is an ancient, as far as film goes, technique. That was interesting all by its lonesome.

Better late than never - I like this computer animation -

This is a prize

And this is worth doing

Used to love a dutch student's work, but he seems to be down lately.

Posted by: j. "all your base" c. on June 10, 2003 08:25 PM

fuck you hahahahahahaha

Posted by: william on December 9, 2003 02:17 PM

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