Thursday, March 21, 2013

Black Cat Moments

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Film:  Let the Right One In (Alfredson, 2008)

Scene: In what had up until then been a somber horror-drama, a gang of CGI cats with cartoonish, hissing faces swarm a woman before jumping on her, biting and scratching until she finally falls (or throws herself) down a flight of stairs. During this scene the cats move in the unrealistic, slightly off manner indicative of CGI.

That scene nearly ruined the film for me, upsetting its well crafted, delicate balance.

Ever since then, whenever I see an out of place, silly or poor visual effect (VFX)especially CGI—I call it a Black Cat Moment.

In order for something to qualify as a Black Cat Moment it has to be in a film that is otherwise serious or ambitious. Thus there can be no Black Cat Moment in any film called The Black Cat (1934, 1941, 1981, 1991, 1995, or 2007), or in, say, Evil DeadDead Alive, or pretty much any other film with the word "Dead" in the title. The more self-serious the work, the greater the danger of a Black Cat clawing its way in and setting everything to ruin.

Somehow the men in monkey suits in Kubrick's 2001 manage to just hold up well enough to avoid such a distinction, though that's certainly due in large part to the much less realistic monkey suits used in Planet of the Apes (1968), which no doubt greatly lowered our collective expectations and filled the human race with self-loathing for at least a few decades (if not several hundred centuries). Had the monkey-men in 2001 been just a touch less well done—either in behavior or costume
then surely they would have been Black Cats instead of black apes. In a less ambitious film like Planet of the Apes, the apes may be much less believable in either respect and yet still retain their status as black primates (even though some of them happen to be brown, blonde, or orangutan).

In order for something to be a Black Cat Moment it has to be just that—a moment. Which is another reason the apes in Planet of the Apes are not Black Cats: they're in a film where black apes as Black Cats are the norm. However, in 2001 the black apes are applicable for Black Cat Moment status since they only appear in the first ten or so minutes of the film. The original black ape, King Kong, is not a Black Cat Moment because Kong is what the film consists of (therefore, not a moment), to say nothing of the fact that he dazzled at the time. (Unless one is an expert in Black Cat Momentology, it is not advisable to apply Black Cat-status retroactively; like most humans, Black Cats are not conducive to time-travel.)

(Note that this time-traveling cat is orange, not black)

Before I give some examples, a final clarification. Even though they appear nowhere else in the film, the ugly and awful computer generated images of an unborn baby that open the 2007 French horror film Inside do not constitute a Black Cat Moment. Why? Because starting off with garish CGI (in other words, starting at a low point) doesn't spoil any promise or ruin anyone's expectations, it merely establishes the correct tone for the film to follow—which, in this case, is one of increasing silliness. Though Inside is not called, say, Night Stalker, Forced Entry, or Make-shift Abortion—titles that by themselves would disqualify it from having a Black Cat Moment—its original French title is often retained in the United States—À l'intérieur—which no doubt has a fancy if not intellectual (and therefore offensive) ring to it to most of my fellow countrymen's ears. And this, I contest, largely accounts for why the film has sometimes been written about as though it were a serious artifact for deep consideration and contemplation.

Inside / À l'intérieur (2007)

The most famous and egregious Black Cat Moment of recent times has to be the dinosaur sequence in Tree of Life. Not only were the dinosaurs visually poor (read: not particularly realistic) as well as ugly in a way that only CGI can manage, they were also "programmed" to act as though they were conscious of being characters in a Malick film. I don't mean that they had the weight of Malick's themes foisted upon them (though they did), but that they—or at least one of them—wandered through the environment (a forest), looking around as if it were contemplating the wonder of the natural world.

Tree of Life (2011)

Aside from bad computer effects (and they can be "bad" for various reasons apart from verisimilitude), one of the hallmarks of a Black Cat Moment relates to how unnecessary the moment is, how something similar could have been achieved in a much simpler, subtler, or more realistic way if only a touch more imagination had been employed. (Like CGI, Black Cat Moments almost always represent a lack of inspiration, short-cuts around creativity. They're easy answers to what are very often non-problems.)

Take the following scene from John Boorman's 1967 film Point Blank. A characteraided by a shove or punch from a brawling Lee Marvinstumbles naked off the top of a skyscraper and falls to his death in a way that defies the laws of physics in both motion and speed.

Why did the filmmakers even think it necessary to show the plummet from this angle? Why not show him seconds later smashing into a car from street level, or maybe wait a few moments before peering over the edge so that his body could be far enough away to be believably replaced with a well crafted dummy? Or why not show Marvin peering over in a close-up wherein the audience can read on his face the fall that he's witnessing, then follow this with some distant sounds on the street—a crash, screams. Or perhaps some combination of the above? I'll forgive bad VFX, especially in older films. But not when the effects were never needed in the first place.

Similarly, there's a scene in the television show Breaking Bad where one of the characters (I'll keep this as spoiler free as possible) walks calmly out of a room that's recently been the scene of an explosion, yet he appears to have made it out unscathed. But when the camera cuts to another angle we see that he's actually in pretty bad shape—half his face has been rendered meaty and missing—whereupon he falls to the ground, dead. This was as unnecessary as it was stupid, and for a moment I thought I was watching a Terminator film. A Black Cat Moment through and through.

Contrast this with a much earlier episode of Breaking Bad wherein Walter White uses fulminated mercury in a manner that even MacGyver would have considered ostentatious and, well, that doesn't count as a BCM because everything in the scene looks fine and is "well done." (Black Cat Moments are not based on plot points or content; that's the realm of jumping sharks.)  

Note: MacGyver doesn't consider it ostentatious to carry a missile around from time to time

Another example of a Black Cat Moment is the part in Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day where one of the characters catches fire, and very quickly one notices that the flames aren't actually there in the scene. The fire spreads too quickly, it's made up of too many layers, and 
it just looks bad. 

If for whatever reason a fire suit or something similar couldn't be used, why show the person burning at all? Certainly there were numerous other ways to convey what was happening without resorting to something second-rate.

Moments aside, it's important to note that Black Cats themselves have nothing to do with budget.

White Dragon

Black Cats
Black Cats exemplify not only crass aesthetics but also a lack of taste or vision. A well crafted, hand made creature in a film where there's no satisfying work-around for showing (or not showing) it cannot be a Black Cat no matter how unrealistic it ends up looking.

The Black Cat is most purely made flesh with CGI, a technology best criticized by Jeff Goldblum's character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Steven Spielberg's CGI spectacle Jurassic Park:

"Your [filmmakers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [create CGI dinosaurs], they didn't stop to think if they should."  


Tyler said...

Note that Stan Winston's work in Jurassic Park -- the mechanical T. rex head, for example -- still looks good, whereas much of the CGI work -- the welcome-to-Jurassic-Park "Brontosaurus," for example -- looks ugly, false, and particularly fake to the modern eye.

Tyler said...

Hah! Or maybe: Wait a minute. . .

Me (above): "The Black Cat is most purely made flesh with CGI, a technology best criticized by Jeff Goldblum's character Dr. Ian Malcolm in Steven Spielberg's CGI spectacle Jurassic Park:

" 'Your [filmmakers] were so preoccupied with whether or not they could [create CGI dinosaurs], they didn't stop to think if they should.' "

David Christopher Bell, 6 Reasons Modern Movie CGI Looks Surprisingly Crappy, May 12, 2015: "And so that's why some people are saying that the new Jurassic World 'looks fake': The CGI is powerful, but the people who made it clearly don't have enough respect for that power. I know I'm just quoting Malcolm at this point ... but shit. They really were so preoccupied with whether or not they could have 88 dinosaurs throwing exploding helicopters at each other that they didn't stop to think if they should." (source)