We saw The Aviator with Spence last night. It was… OK.

The subject, Howard Hughes’ life as aviation-industry obsessive, is of intrinsic interest to me, and there’s a link filled post in gestation, prompted by many questions I had as I watched the film. But after sleeping on it, despite DiCaprio’s worthwhile performance, there’s no way that this should be the film that wins Scorsese his best film Oscar, even if it leads the pack this year. Even though Gangs of New York was a terribly flawed film, it had the power of obsession, and images from that film echoed around in my head for over a year after seeing it.

In The Aviator, Scorsese is fundamentally forced to rely on CGI visualizations of the key visual expressions of Hughes’ obsessiveness; thus, no full-scale reconstruction of 19th century Five Points, only digital ghosts of the Spruce Goose and the amazing in-flight sequences from Hell’s Angels. Unfortunately for Scorsese, I found the CGI to be sadly weightless and unconvincing. As much as it thrills me to have been granted the chance to fly with Leo-as-Howard in the H-1 and the H-4, in the external shots of these planes in flight, I was reminded of the physical unreality of the planes seen onscreen.

Too smooth, the perfectly even silver skin of aluminum airplane dope the CGI emulated exceeds even the factory-fresh finish of any plane from that era. Shots of the real Spruce Goose on its’ taxi run in Long Beach harbor show weight and mass behind the wake and spray the plane kicked up. Undoubtedly, the film’s CGI artists knew the imagery, and it’s very likely that there are frame-matches for well-known stills of the event on-screen.

But this problem – of accurately integrating CGI-based images into real-world photography in ways that capture the effects of mass and weight on the environment of the object – is the non-anthromorphic equivalent of the uncanny valley. It’s not unsettling to note these problems as one watches the imagery; but it just looks wrong, and distracts from the sought after illusion. Viv commonly critiques this observation of mine, saying that she doesn’t see the problems, and she probably represents the vast majority of moviegoers. But over time, as we become educated in the ways in which CGI fails mimesis, more people see the problems.

Remember the first time you saw Titanic, or Jurassic Park, or Twister? Flipped into one lately in the tube? Looks a whole lot more fake now than it did originally, huh?

I think, in the end, this is part of my concern. Films like Jackson’s LOTR trilogy and The Aviator are intended by their creators as works with a longer half life than even Titanic. Reliance on CGI, as long as the imaging techniques are in motion, shortens the effective lifespan of these films as accessible, ambitious works of art for a mass audience.

Right. Well, I gotta go. More on The Aviator soon.

3 thoughts on “Struts

  1. Having just watched “Hell’s Angels” on DVD last night, I’m even more convinced that the segments from that film incorporated into “The Aviator” are in fact the genuine article.

    “Hell’s Angels,” btw, is really not bad — especially when viewed in context with other early talkies ca. 1929/1930. The sequence with the zeppelin over England that ends the first half is plain kick-ass. The photography of the air battles — whether models or the real deal –is all very impressive, even today.

    Overall it’s a little over-long, has too much emphasis on the brothers-in-arms-meet-femme-fatale soap opera (enough with the mushy stuff, bring on the ACTION!), and the ending is strangely abrupt. But like I say: compared to other 1930-period talkies it’s practically “The Matrix.” (Let’s just leave masterpieces like “M” and “Blue Angel” out of the discussion, okay?)

  2. I hear that Hughes’ obsessiveness may have led to a full-scale replica of a zeppelin for the film, although this is the first I’ve heard and so that sounds doubtful.

    The screening-room footage in The Aviator is probably real. Are you saying that the CGI in the Hell’s Angels sequences is essentially used in the service of montage? Cuz, like, that would be cool.

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