The Death Of Spectacle

This post is a deeper look at the ideas I proposed in my last post The Shatterers of Illusions simply because I wasn’t satisfied with the reasons I gave towards the loss of respect of today’s movies. I think it’s something deeper than cross-platform entertainment and the kind of movies studios are making today. 

…and that’s how we biked in front of the moon!

In Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, Pi Patel tells us two versions of his journey across the Pacific Ocean after a storm sinks his ship and his family with it. The first involves Pi sharing a lifeboat with a tiger, going to a carnivorous island and being saved by God. The second, on the other hand, involves Pi fighting for his life by turning to cannibalism after his mother is killed by the remaining survivors of the ship’s crew. Neither story can be proven to be true, and Pi (and by extension, Martel) asks us which story we would like to believe in.

I used to think that most, if not all, of us would choose the former story, but lately I’ve come to terms with the idea that more people might actually side with the latter. It is this skeptic shift in cinema towards realism and plausibility that I think has led to the death of spectacle in public consciousness.

The Death of Spectacle in Life

Spectacle. Those grand, overpowering images that consume your very being and make you feel awe, wonder and amazement. When I think of spectacle, I think of fireworks exploding, rockets blazing across the universe and the Northern Lights.

When we’re four years old, every facet of the whole world is spectacular. Every little insect, blade of grass, sunrise and raindrop holds our attention, because we’re seeing the world for the first time. The smell of freshly baked bread and the sound of peacocks and the taste of maple syrup fascinate us, because we’ve never experienced these things before.

The lives of children are lives of wonder and imagination as they translate the world around them through reality, fiction, myth and fantasy. When I was a kid, my parents would tell me the classic tales of Cinderella and Goldilocks as I drifted off to sleep. When my first tooth fell they told me to put it under my pillow for the Tooth Fairy to trade it for a rupee (I now realize I was shortchanged because a dollar is worth more than a rupee). And of course, Santa Claus and his band of merry reindeer would always bring presents for me on Christmas Day.

But then age brings with it the moments that break through the tapestry of innocence and expose reality for what it is. The Christmas Day tradition died an early death in my household when I was six and stumbled upon my parents hurriedly gift wrapping presents at the last minute. And then when I was seven and wanted to meet the Tooth Fairy to prove to my non-believing friends that she was real, I found my mother instead, tip toeing in the darkness with a coin in her hand.

The curtain is lifted, the truth is told, and nothing is ever the same again. You feel betrayed and cheated, the wide-eyed child becomes the skeptic teen searching for the con in every story. And instead of using your imagination to translate the world around you, you use Google instead.

The Death of Spectacle in Cinema

So when reality has been stripped of spectacle at the end of our childhoods, where can we go? To the dream factory.

Cinema is an outgrowth of a universal human desire to see subconscious dreams and fears and hopes and fantasies displayed on a grand scale, where anything is possible. Where men really can fly and monsters come alive and time machines exist. It’s an escapist form of entertainment, an escape from reality. Spectacle is the bedrock of big budget moviemaking (here are some recent examples herehere, and here).

Sure, logic and rationale explain the obvious, that Superman isn’t real or the Matrix doesn’t exist. But the real magic lies in what’s on the screen, but it vanishes when it’s revealed how it was done.

Studios love posting behind-the-scenes featurettes of their blockbusters to showcase the technical wizardry behind their stories (Peter Jackson used these featurettes to cover production on The Hobbit even before it was released). In these featurettes, scenes are deconstructed to show how amazing visual effects technology is these days. But this merely strips the spectacle from cinema just as the truth behind the Tooth Fairy did for me. Do I want to know how most of The Avengers is directed by Industrial Light & Magic? Or that Life of Pi wasn’t really shot on the Pacific Ocean but in a large water tank in Taiwan? Or the space jump scene from Star Trek was done like this?

Essentially, these videos provide fodder for audiences to engage in a guessing game with they see on screen: is it real or is it fake? When I’m on an emotional journey with the characters, I get distracted by searching for the puppet strings behind what I’m watching. When we know exactly how the magic trick works, the spectacle disappears.

The secret impresses no one. The trick you use it for is everything. – The Prestige (2006)

How Skepticism Limited Spectacle

This skepticism towards cinematic spectacle has influenced our meta-understanding of the limits of it in movies today. The Batmobile could climb up buildings in the ‘90s, but now it merely smashes through them. Spiderman’s webs were a natural effect of his radioactive spider bite, but in The Amazing Spiderman, he crafts a gadget to shoot them. Audiences now yearn for realism and grounded futuristic worlds rather than going to the fantastical world of Mars (Disney’s John Carter and Mars Needs Moms flopped at the box office).

Let me clarify. I’m not saying that the movies of today aren’t spectacular. I’m saying that the spectacle is tarnished and limited rather than allowed to exist organically on its own. It’s pretty much dead.

Is this recent realism a bad thing for movies? It is when ambitious stories cannot be told because they’re too “out there”. Films like Cloud Atlas and Dark City don’t survive in the box office because of the skepticism with which they’re met. Instead of being treated as breaths of fresh air, they’re cast away into the darkness. And so the recycling of what’s worked before goes on and on, over and over again.

And So It Is…

No wonder audiences behave with such apathy in movie theatres, without any consideration for their fellow moviegoers: they’ve lost the awareness of their four year old selves and see the money shots as blue screens…and the superficial storytelling in today’s blockbusters is supposed to make them care? Their minds are stronger than their hearts; their own illusions have been shattered, and so they choose to shatter our own.

We can blame the postmodernist critic culture we have today – they deconstruct characters and plots with philosophical and mythical lenses provided by academia – for providing biased perspectives before the movie is seen by anyone. But who is to blame for the death of spectacle in cinema?

Not all of us have passed over to the dark side. Some of us keep our four year old selves close to our hearts by day dreaming and turning those day dreams into art. By spinning our own stories with the fluff of clouds. By escaping into worlds far, far away through the thin, permeable membrane of a movie screen and living alternate lives. And as long as there are enough of us looking at the world wide-eyed with wonder and telling our children the eternal myths, I think we’ll be okay. At least I hope we will be.

Attribution: Bike ride with E.T. by Russell Darling, CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0

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