On the surface — a very shiny, CG-enhanced surface — it would appear that the reigning masters of American cinema have all gone off on high-tech tangents: Martin Scorsese has made a 3D family movie (“Hugo”). Steven Spielberg has tackled a motion-capture cartoon (“The Adventures of Tintin”). Terrence Malick has fused his own family history to hallucinatory cosmology (“The Tree of Life”). Woody Allen has imagined historical figures in re-created yesteryear (“Midnight in Paris”), much like Canadian cousin David Cronenberg, who visited the pioneering psycho-therapists Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud on the eve of World War I (“A Dangerous Method”).
But just beneath the digitized veneer — and/or the seemingly foreign turf onto which these particular directors have wandered — lie the same obsessions that have informed their careers from the start. Scorsese — via “Hugo’s” slightly fictionalized story of silent-cinema magician Georges Melies — explores the origins of film and the issue of its preservation. “Tintin” recalls the adventure serials that were firing Spielberg up as long ago as “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Neither Cronenberg nor Malick are strangers to aberrant psychology, of course. And Allen? In addition to the neurotic insecurities evident in “Midnight’s” hero Gil (Owen Wilson), there are other obvious Allen trademarks: A love affair with Jazz Age music; a recurring nostalgic impulse (i.e. “Radio Days,” “Sweet and Lowdown,” “Purple Rose of Cairo”), and an affinity for the literary Lost Generation. All of this frames “Midnight’s” trip to bygone Paris as wish-fulfillment-by-cinema.
“Well, it certainly sounds seductive,” Allen says of time-traveling to the ’20s, although he adds he’d rather not do it — it would shorten his life span. “But I would like to be able to take a trip there for a day every now and then, as one takes a trip to Aspen or Hawaii, just to take a little trip and have lunch at Maxim’s in Paris in 1923 and then come back to Manhattan.”
About yearning for an elusive past, however, Allen more or less agrees. “Almost every film I do has that particular quality to it,” he says — while adding that filmmaking itself is a fantasy, of sorts: “I get a chance to spend a year working with the kind of music I like, beautiful women, scintillating guys who are amusing and charming and gifted. I get a chance to go in every morning and work at great locations and sets. Each film that I do practically does fulfill that fantasy of living in a world that I can’t really live in real life.”
For Scorsese, re-creating the birth of cinema and Melies’ contributions to it (such as the seminal silent “A Trip to the Moon”) was a no-brainer. “I couldn’t resist on that one,” he says. “It’s interesting to show how much not only imagination, but scientific work, went into the magic.”
It’s a magic he felt compelled to explore, and view, through the eyes of someone like Melies, who had an imagination that transcended his medium. “Imagine what you could do with 3D. Imagine what you could do with computers. You’re talking more than 3D, you’re talking holograms. That’s where it’s going anyway, ultimately,” Scorsese says. “Imagine an epic hologram.”
Cronenberg, who has operated in extremis, both physically and psychologically, in so many films, pointed to the ways in which “A Dangerous Method” did not differ from his previous work.
“A friend reminded me that the first film I ever did was a seven-minute short called ‘Transfer’ (1966) about a psychiatrist and a patient,” he says. “And this is before I did horror or sci-fi films. Also, I had Oliver Reed as a psychotherapist in ‘The Brood,’ a strange one.”
Cronenberg notes, too, that he’d also done period pieces before — including “M. Butterfly,” “Spider” and “Naked Lunch” — “but the difference, certainly, is that these are historical people. So that was intriguing and a lot of fun. People have sometimes said, as to Michael Fassbender, ‘Does it make it more difficult playing a real person?’ (Fassbender portrays Carl Jung.) “And he said that no, in fact it makes it easier, because there’s so much known about these people and there’s so much information, you don’t have to build it up from scratch. It’s the same for me, as well.”
But what’s totally different is the creative process. “I can’t imagine it’s not like this for Marty Scorsese, too,” Cronenberg says, “because I talked with him at length before my last movie. Each movie is like you have never made another film. They’re all irrelevant to you, creatively. They don’t give you anything. The idea that you have these themes or obsessions, whatever people like to think, has no bearing on the movie you’re doing now.” Except, of course, for the craft of it all. “You know how to make movies,” Cronenberg says. “But as far as the creative process, each movie is like the first you’ve ever made.”
Or, in Allen’s case, the last. “Everything was normal routine for me,” Allen says, when asked if “Midnight’s” content had any effect on his directing style. For Scorsese, conversely, the very dramatic technical obstacles had him rethinking his technique “all the time. Everything. But it also was a test.”
“If I found out (if) you can’t, then OK,” he says. “But I need to see it for myself.” So he says they tested everything.
The way the old has informed the new makes all the current innovation seem much more organic to the ongoing evolution of cinema — it may be moving faster, and more dramatically, but the movies refuse to let go of the past.
The alchemists behind “Tree of Life’s” visual cocktail of astrophysics and microbiology realized much of what Malick was imagining was realized through what have to be considered old-fashioned means — the kind of stuff visual effects expert Doug Trumbull was doing back on “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Spielberg’s heart has always been with the kind of heroic exploits with which Tintin finds himself engaged. And Scorsese, through Melies, ties it all together.
“Everything that’s been done in cinema, he did first,” Scorsese says. “In terms of special effects, the visual tricks to a certain extent — what became matte paintings, what became matte shots, what became blue screen and green screen and now computer animation. I mean, all of this was done by him. He had an idea, because he was a magician, and he wanted to utilize the film to create these magical illusions. So he had to come up with a way.”
That history, technology and the marketplace have all converged, and steered the careers of some illustrious directors, is probably true — but only to a certain point.
“It’s lovely to think that ‘Now at this point, in my career, I should do a romantic comedy,’ ” Cronenberg says. “But it’s so hard to get a movie made, you might have five possibilities. Why did I do a particular movie at a particular time? Because it got the financing.
“I understand the desire to have a schematic that’s interesting and appealing,” he says. “But it also helps to know the realities of the film world.”
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