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A note on Brian De Palma's Mission to Mars (2000) and the spectacle of the real:

A scene.  A setpiece of around four-minutes in duration.  Music and movement expressing the personal; the poetic.  Space, like emotional distance between people.  Re-connecting.  Colliding like particles.  Like planets in orbit.  A human story within the wider context of this science-fiction.  Moving towards a similar connection - reaching out into the infinite, the unknown - but on a much larger scale.

Mission to Mars [Brian De Palma, 2000]:

When Godard questioned the definition of the term "pure cinema" and its necessity as a means of expressing the inexpressible power of the moving image, this is what I subconsciously refer back to.  De Palma's films are "pure cinema" in as much as they are defined by the filmmaking process; by the images on screen and their ability to communicate not just the surface of the drama, but the things left unsaid.  Every emotion, reaction, thought and feeling is presented as a setpiece; a moment, deconstructed by shots - by the movement of the camera - then reconstructed through montage; the juxtaposition of forms.  Like his hero, Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma looks at the world, observes it, and translates it back into something that can only be described as 'cinematic' in presentation.

While looking at the trailer for Alfonso Cuarón's critically acclaimed new film, Gravity (2013), I couldn't help but be reminded of De Palma's own much ridiculed and critically derided film and of this sequence in particular.  The images from Cuarón film are suitably stirring, but they lack any real sense of character or depth.  I've seen these images before in countless other science-fiction movies released during the last five years.  I know how these images are created and this makes the impact, at least on first appearances, less startling and less unique.

Gravity [Alfonso Cuarón, 2013]:

There is a coldness to this particular look; the high-contrast, monochromatic sheen of digital cinematography, devoid of imperfection, but also of colour and character.  Every Hollywood science-fiction film features this same imagery, creating a uniform that is both conservative and safe.  Combined with the now perfunctory use of CGI - where the majority of the film is constructed by shooting individual elements in front of a green screen - the viewer is left with something that looks closer to virtual-reality; in other words, inherently fake.  Of course it looks fake because it is.  There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that - old fashioned film techniques such as rear-screen projection, miniatures and the use of men in rubber costumes also looked fake, again, because they were - but it's also less tangible and less believable as a result.  Even with the old-fashioned, pre-digital "movie magic", we were still seeing something that existed before the camera.  Whether it was a small-scale replica of downtown Tokyo or a man dressed as Godzilla, it was still something real.

The modern approach of a film like Gravity is cinema created not in front of a camera but in front of a monitor; not filmed but rendered; a collaboration between man and machine.  Again, this isn't necessarily a criticism or even a mark against these films, which are ultimately more animation than live-action, but it is the difference between a hand drawn sketch and something created using Adobe Photoshop.  There is something physical about the former.  The feeling of a genuine moment captured on the page, in the lines and impressions of the pencil, the age of the paper, etc.  I think the same is true of this more physical form of cinema, which now seems archaic.  This scene - this dance of bodies in motion - occurred, and the camera was there to record it.  It transcends narrative function.  It's an interlude, though one filled with feeling; a small moment that reminds us of the poetry of the moving image; again, that notion of "pure cinema", whatever that means.

Unlike the images from Gravity, I don't know how the effect of De Palma's film was created.  I suspect with the use of a revolving set - similar to the one Stanley Kubrick used in his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) - but the logistics of it, the use of the physical space, boggles the mind.  Seeing this sequence is as thrilling as seeing the spectacle of the Odessa Steps in Battleship Potemkin (1925), the collapse of the bridge in The General (1926), the fall through the magical mirror in The Blood of a Poet (1932) and more recently in the Bastille Day celebrations of Les amants du Pont-Neuf (1991).  It's not just some CGI extravaganza, but something physical, even 'human.'

That De Palma's effort to put on screen this amazing act of motion as emotion was rejected by critics and mocked by the culture while Cuarón's C.G. imitation of such wonder is being lauded as revolutionary - a real-achievement - is another example of the hypocrisy of film reviewers, who seem to decide, months before a film has even been released, the extent to which they'll hype it as either a success or failure, while never looking beneath the surface, at the ideas of the film, the emotions, or celebrating such an achievement for what it really is.


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