MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: GAME CHANGE, Sarah Palin, and the Limits of Competence

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: GAME CHANGE, Sarah Palin, and the Limits of Competence

nullIn a scene from the great 1984 comedy Top Secret!, American rocker Nick Rivers (Val Kilmer) is savagely beaten by East German jailers and falls into a hallucination. He's back in high school, racing around the hallways trying to learn the location of the final chemistry exam. "All the exams are over," a classmate tells him ominously. "Haven't you been to class?" "No!" Nick cries. "No! I haven't studied! I'm back in school! I can't believe I'm back in school!" Then he wakes up to find himself being savagely whipped. "Thank God," he says.

HBO's Game Change, about the making and unmaking of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential election, is basically that scene stretched out to feature length — an agonizing experience. You don't need to know the names of political consultants or remember every detail of the campaign to become immersed in it, because in its heart, it's about coming up against the limits of one's own competence. This harsh lesson is learned not by Palin, but by the people who submitted her as McCain's running mate, and by McCain himself, who unknowingly ceded the election the minute he added her to the ticket.

For Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore), indeed for everyone on the McCain campaign team, the election season is final exam week, and as the big day draws near, they become increasingly surly and depressed. McCain (Ed Harris) and his campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) signed off on the drafting of Palin because they wanted to find an authentic and unique running mate, a woman who would kick McCain out of the old-white-guy perception rut he'd been stuck in, reestablish his "maverick" bona fides, shake up the race, and lend him a proxy version of Barack Obama's rock star buzz, which the McCain team misinterprets as empty flash. ("If he heals a sick baby, we're really fucked," McCain grumbles, after catching a glimpse of Obama thronged by admirers at a campaign event.) The film's conception of Palin as a woman who's in over her head, and a campaign that's every bit as overmatched, might account for all the early reviews that note, with some surprise, that Game Change isn't the gleeful hatchet job a lot of people anticipated, and that at times it even treats the former Alaska governor with something like sympathy. But that's no giant shock, really. Even a mostly loathsome and laughable public figure becomes likable when you put her in a position that everybody can relate to. So many scenes in this docudrama-styled movie are about people stumbling onto the precipice of their own ignorance or ill-preparedness, then pinwheeling their arms like cartoon characters to keep from falling into the abyss.

You read the rest of Matt's article here at New York Magazine.

Matt Zoller Seitz is co-founder and publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine.

LUCK RECAP: No icing error, this

LUCK RECAP: No icing error, this

nullAbout a third of the way through episode six of Luck, a conversation between the horse trainer Turo Escalante and the veterinarian Jo is cut short by portents. A flock of birds erupts from behind, or within, the stands; silhouetted, they look like bats. The horses freak out. Then comes an earthquake. The walls tremble. The ground shakes. And then it's over.

When sudden horrible and/or miraculous events unite all the characters on David Milch's cable series, the shows suggest there are mysterious forces at work in the universe — that's "forces", plural. Nature is an insistent presence on Luck, with its talk of equine and human health, blood, and broken bones. (The relationship between Ace and his parole officer revolves around piss tests.) Accounting and probability are important, too: Every episode is filled with talk of percentages and dollar figures, odds and payouts. But that's as far as the intimations go. The great shake-up this week might be a metaphor, or it might be just a physical event. The show's opening credits suggest a multiplicity of possible manifestations of luck — praying hands, crucifixes, a shamrock, dice, a spinning coin, coins in a fountain — without favoring any one of them. Ultimately, what matters isn't what's happening or how the events came about, but how the characters interpret events and react to them — how they respond to good and bad fortune.

The manager Joey Rathburn loses his stutter when the gun that he's about to kill himself with misfires because of the tremors; the bullet ricochets through the room, inflicting only a flesh wound. "Hello. My name is Joey Rathburn," Joey says, upon discovering the change. Then, reading a clothing label: "Tommy Bahama. One hundred percent cotton. Extra large. Made in China. Machine wash. Cold water." The change in his personality is subtle but instantly apparent: Joey seems a bit more confident and forthright, not as much of a shmo demoralized by a failing marriage. Entering the bar, he exclaims, "Good evening, one and all!" as if he owns the place. By the end of the episode his stutter has returned, though in that last conversation with Ronnie, it seemed to me that he was able to at least assert a bit of control over it.

You can read the rest of Matt's article here at New York Magazine.

Matt Zoller Seitz is co-founder of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: What makes MAD MEN great?

MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: What makes MAD MEN great?

nullWe head into Mad Men’s" fifth season knowing nothing about it. The on-air promos recycle moments from past seasons, and the teaser art has been cryptic even by this show’s standards: an opening-credits-styled image of a falling man that could be hawking any season, and a photo of hero Don Draper staring at two mannequins — a clothed male and a naked female* — through a dress-shop window. Matthew Weiner, who banned advance screeners after a New York Times review revealed innocuous details from the season-four premiere, has dropped a cone of silence over the production. We have no idea if Don went through with plans to wed his young secretary, Megan; if Joan had Roger’s baby; or if the new agency is still in business. We don’t even know the year in which this season takes place, which at least would prepare us for the wingspan of Roger’s lapels.

On first glance, the black-ops secrecy seems insane. This isn’t a plot-twisty series like Breaking Bad or Homeland; it’s a low-key drama consisting largely of men and women in vintage clothes bantering on the same eight or nine sets. And yet the cloak-and-dagger shtick is of a piece with what’s onscreen. It’s a rare show that can vanish for seventeen months, make a tight-lipped and rather self-satisfied return, and presume we’ll give it a prodigal son’s welcome and be right. Mad Men has earned that level of blind trust because it’s serenely sure of what it’s doing.

You can read the rest of Matt's piece here at New York Magazine.

Matt Zoller Seitz is founder and publisher of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine

VIDEO ESSAY: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN HOLLYWOOD: HORROR, MAKEUP AND THE OSCARS

VIDEO ESSAY: AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN HOLLYWOOD: HORROR, MAKEUP AND THE OSCARS

Editor's Note: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

The practitioners of visual effects have a favorite phrase for what they do: the Invisible Art – effects that are imaginative, even astonishing, but that are ultimately there to sell a world, a character or a moment. Special makeup might be the best illustration of this principle. One of makeup's greatest triumphs is An American Werewolf in London, which in 1982 became the first film to win an Oscar for makeup in regular competition. Overseen by Rick Baker, who supervised all of the film's makeup effects, it shows a man changing into a werewolf in real time…right in front of your eyes. This sequence was the culmination of eight decades of movie makeup. And the film's Oscar represented a coming-out for a once-neglected aspect of filmmaking.

nullMakeup effects were always a key component of the movies. Greasepaint, wigs, putty, latex appliances and other items in the makeup master's toolkit helped make the improbable, and the impossible, seem vividly real. Boris Karloff could make us believe that he was a tormented, tragic creature built from pieces of dead men in Universal's Frankenstein films – with makeup by the great Jack Pierce. Pierce's work on The Wolfman made an ordinary man become a werewolf when the wolfbane bloomed and the moon was full and bright. A 25-year-old Orson Welles played the title character of Citizen Kane at a dazzling array of ages, thanks to inventive, at times highly theatrical effects by Maurice Seiderman.

Yet despite these and other examples of the makeup master's art, the Academy refused to acknowledge the contribution of makeup artists. Prior to the 1980s, just two Special Achievement awards were given for makeup effects. Both were handed out in the 1960s. One was for 1964’s 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, which sported effects by William Tuttle. The other was for 1968’s Planet of the Apes –makeup by John Chambers. The latter citation is fascinating because, while the Academy was right to recognize the extraordinary achievement of Apes, it ignored a film from that same year whose ape makeup was even more impressive. The ape makeup in the Dawn of Man sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey was so good that many people assumed that director Stanley Kubrick used actual, trained apes. This uptake in visual sophistication was par for the course in that period of American film.

nullThe 1960s through the 1980s were the high point of traditional, analog filmmaking techniques. Some of the most memorable films from this era showed transformation, decay and violence with unprecedented realism. Some of the most striking makeup effects of this period were the work of one man, Dick Smith, who finally received a special Oscar from the Academy in 2012 after decades of groundbreaking work. Nobody spilled blood with more panache.

And nobody has ever done more convincing old-age makeup. For The Exorcist, Dick Smith helped turn preteen actress Linda Blair into a rotting, puking, devil-possessed monstrosity so profoundly revolting that it haunted the dreams of millions. But the film also contains a much subtler triumph: Max von Sydow's transformation into the title character. Von Sydow was just 43 when he played the role. But Dick Smith's wrinkles and liver spots were so believable that for years afterward, casting agents kept offering him old man parts. Just as viewers thought that the costumed actors in 2001 were real apes, casting agents unfamiliar with von Sydow's work for director Ingmar Bergman thought he was some doddering European character actor. For makeup artists, such misperceptions are the highest possible praise.

nullThe late 1970s saw makeup effects moving away from realistic applications and moving toward the extremes of fantasy. Christopher Tucker's remarkable makeup for David Lynch's 1980 drama The Elephant Man may have pushed the Academy to start handing out a Best Makeup award the following year. After eight decades' worth of movie makeup effects, and 20 years of rapid technical innovations, to continue ignoring the makeup artist's craft would have seemed perverse. And speaking of perverse….

When Rick Baker received the first Best Makeup Oscar ever given in regular competition for 1981's An American Werewolf in London, it was sweet vindication, not just for makeup artists, but for fans of genre movies. The creation of a makeup category was not just a means of acknowledging a branch of the industry that had been glossed over in the past. It was also a sneaky way to let Academy voters bestow awards on horror, science fiction, fantasy, action and other genres that were, and maybe still are, considered un-serious, or low-class. With its still-unique mix of slapstick, romance and gore, American Werewolf never could have gotten Oscar nominations in the major categories. In retrospect, the makeup award seems not just a prize for the movie's sophisticated use of latex, air bladders and audio-animatronic puppets, but for the originality of writer-director John Landis' vision. The technical categories let Academy voters honor offbeat fare – including genre films that tend not to get nominated in the picture, director, screenplay or acting categories.

The 1970s and '80s were the age of the makeup artist as cult figure. Magazines aimed at genre buffs and wannabe-gore wizards turned the giants of the field into heroes: Jack Pierce; Dick Smith; John Chambers; Tom Savini, George Romero's go-to guy for zombie makeup; Rob Bottin, who created similarly dazzling lycanthropes a year before American Werewolf in Joe Dante's The Howling and still-unmatched alien transformation effects in John Carpenter's The Thing.

nullThe Oscar for American Werewolf signaled that the 1980s – the decade of high-concept blockbusters – would be the golden age of analog makeup effects. When you look back over genre movies from the period – small and big, sensitive and crass, clichéd and innovative – the special effects often hold up surprisingly well. In some cases they're the main reason that people still talk about the movies. Modern makeup effects are slicker and more consistent from scene to scene and shot to shot for reasons that we'll get to in a minute. But, given the mechanical limitations of the pre-digital era, their achievements are still impressive. Even when the storytelling falters, or when the film itself seems less an artistic statement than the end result of a studio deal memo, you can still see the behind-the-scenes craftspeople working at the peak of their powers, always striving to innovate and impress.

But as it turned out, this golden age also represented a final flowering. The industry was about to change in ways that transformed every aspect of production, including makeup. With few exceptions, the '80s heyday of makeup focused on the fantastic – the spectacular. For every film like The Elephant Man or Mask, which integrated extraordinary makeup into a realistic drama, there were a dozen more films in which the makeup was the real show. But the thing is, on some fundamental level, even in the very best makeup-driven movies of that period, you were still aware of the makeup. The effects looked, at times, a little too wet – too painted-on. This was always true, even in earlier periods, when the abstracting effect of black-and-white film gave makeup people another layer of artifice to work with. In the early '90s, right around the time that Bram Stoker's Dracula was winning an Oscar for its state-of-the-art yet old-school makeup effects, new technological advances were making it harder to tell the difference between the real and the virtual. Starting in the late 1980s, advancements in computer generated imagery had begun to offer a level of detail that wasn't possible when done practically. It reached a point where you couldn’t tell where the makeup ended and the computer imagery began.

By the time of The Dark Knight and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, viewers started to assume that makeup effects were achieved not with putty, powder, latex or other physical materials, but with computer generated effects. And increasingly, they were right. Movies were always driven by the mandate to make the implausible plausible. But this became an even more urgent mission in the '90s and aughts. Entertainment became centered on TVs, then computers, then ultimately phones. Hollywood strove to give viewers reasons to go to theaters and experience movies on a big screen. That increasingly meant spotlighting the unreal. The ostentatious. The overwhelming. All these qualities were more achievable with CGI. Special makeup effects have gradually become less apparent, and ultimately almost invisible, thanks to CGI. The work of makeup artists and visual effects wizards became intertwined – blended together after-the-fact by digital manipulation. The new tools blend acting, photography and visual effects with makeup. CGI is like a finishing coat of paint, applied to everything. For makeup artists, and indeed for all special effects people, this is the ultimate irony. The invisible art has finally earned its nickname.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television. A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Ken Cancelosi is the co-founder of Press Play and photographer living in Dallas, Texas

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – Yoda, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – Yoda, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK


[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Muppets creator Jim Henson once said, “When Frank Oz does Grover, I think he is a better actor than Lawrence Olivier.” That’s not really an exaggeration. Puppeteering is not just a clever way to entertain children. It’s an ancient art, common to cultures all over the world.

And it’s another kind of performance — sort of a merger of acting, gesture and dance. It combines vocal performance with hand movements that approximate the movements of a human, an animal, or a non-human character.

nullIf you doubt it, go back and watch Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, the Star Wars film that introduced Frank Oz’s first great non-Muppet character, the 800-year old, swamp-dwelling Jedi master Yoda.

At the time, there was some buzz about Frank Oz receiving a special award from the Academy for performing Yoda, but it didn’t happen. Who knows why, but I suspect it was because when judging this sort of achievement, nobody, even sci-fi and fantasy buffs, is entirely sure where performance ends and optical effects or makeup or puppet fabrication begin.

Oz and the Empire crew that backed him up would have been ideal candidates for a best collaborative performance Oscar if one had existed back in 1981, the year that the movie won a special Oscar for its visual effects. The performance is primarily the work of one person, Frank Oz.

But he is assisted by a small army of artists and technicians, including the craftspeople in Jim Henson’s creature shop who built the different versions of Yoda, and the special visual effects and production design elements around Yoda, created by Lucas’ company Industrial Light and Magic. These all help to create the illusion that Yoda is living, breathing, organic creation, part of a natural world.

nullYou never see Frank Oz when you’re watching Yoda. When he performs the character, he’s hidden behind props or underneath a platform. But this is nevertheless a performance, one that’s as imaginative, serious and engaging as any that are given by the movie’s human characters. Maybe more so. In the training scene with Luke, Yoda is mainly played by a dummy, affixed to the shoulders of actor Mark Hamill and the stuntman who plays Luke during his more acrobatic moments. The sequence relies entirely on our suspension of disbelief, carried over from earlier scenes that were more obviously dominated by Frank Oz the puppeteer.

This purely analog approach to the character continued in the next Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi.  In the first of the Star Wars prequels, 1997’s The Phantom Menace, Yoda was again played by a puppet, albeit a different looking one with a lot less texture and personality.

The Phantom Menace Yoda was revised by George Lucas many years after the film’s release, to make him visually consistent with the Yoda we saw in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith — a totally computer-animated character. The Clones and Sith versions of Yoda were voiced by Frank Oz, but involved no traditional puppeteering. They were still a collaborative effort, though.

Any of these incarnations of Yoda would have qualified for a nomination in a collaborative performance Oscar category. They all illustrate the idea behind such an award: that when group of people work together to bring a single, memorable character to life onscreen, the sum total of their efforts results in something greater than they might have achieved on their own.

Matt Zoller Seitz is founder of Press Play and TV critic for New York Magazine. Matthias Stork is a Press Play contributor and   film scholar-critic from Germany who continues to pursue an academic career at UCLA where he studies film and television. He has an MA in Education with emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended The Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representitive of Goethe University's film school and you can read his blog here.

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance – E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. A case can also be made for Yoda. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

For a pretty long time, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extraterrestrial was the top grossing film ever made, and it’s still one of the most beloved. The title character is a space alien. Who plays him? It’s hard to even begin to answer that question. There were so many people involved, and they all contributed something. But it you rule out the obvious suspects – Spielberg, who directed the movie, and Melissa Mathison, who wrote it – it’s still a pretty long list. And when you actually try to sit down and cite specific people, what you end up with is a case study in why
there should be an Academy Award for outstanding collaborative performance.

The voice of E.T. was provided by Pat Welsh, an old woman who lived in Marin County, California. She was a two pack a day smoker. And when you listen to the dialogue, you can tell.

But 16 other people contributed just to E.T.’s voice. Supposedly one of them was Debra Winger, the star of Midnight Cowboy and An Officer and a Gentleman. It’s impossible to tell which voice actors did what , because their contributions are filtered through the sound effects wizardry of a legendary sound wizard named Ben Burtt. Burtt worked on a lot of classic science
fiction, fantasy and horror movies, including the Star Wars and Indiana Jones films, the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Wall-E.

Who performed E.T.? And how many were there? It depends on the scene. The physical creation of E.T. was mainly the work of creature designer Carlo Rambaldi. Among other things, he created a lot of audio animatronic versions of the title creature for the 1976 version of King Kong. He also did the aliens for Spielberg’s previous science fiction movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And he did the mechanical head effects for the original Alien.

When you see E.T. acting in closeup, and he’s reacting with great precision to the human actors around him, you’re seeing a very sophisticated, partly mechanical puppet, being manipulated by several people.

When you see E.T. in long shot, it’s a little person wearing a suit.

For some of the close-ups of E.T.’s hands, they went old-school and got a mime named Caprice Roth to wear prosthetic gloves.

I mean, you can’t really can’t argue that E.T. is an underappreciated film. Not only was it a huge hit, it got nine Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and original Screenplay. And it won four technical awards, including best visual effects. But it still seems like kind of a shame that E.T. himself could not be recognized as an astonishing, singular creation. The system just isn’t set up for it.

The title character is a really just a collection of inanimate, inorganic things created in a workshop. But the parts are made so lovingly, and lit and shot and voiced with such imagination, that they that sell the illusion that E.T. is Elliott’s best friend, that he’s a creature with a personality and even a moral code. And I think if there had been an outstanding collaborative performance category that year, E.T. would have taken it for sure.

He’s one of the greatest fantasy characters in the history of cinema, and a walking, talking, living, breathing argument for a collaborative performance Oscar.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Boone is a film critic and video essayist for Fandor and Roger Ebert's Far Flung Correspondents. He writes a column on street life for Capital New York and blogs at Big Media Vandalism.

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Picture TREE OF LIFE

‘SHOULD WIN’ VIDEO ESSAY SERIES: Best Picture TREE OF LIFE

[EDITOR'S NOTE: Press Play presents "Should Win," a series of video essays advocating winners in seven Academy Awards categories: supporting actor and actress, best actor and actress, best director and best picture. These are consensus choices hashed out by a pool of Press Play contributors. Follow along HERE as Press Play decides the rest of the major categories including Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting ActressBest Supporting Actor and Best Documentary. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

Narration:

All of the 2011 Best Picture nominees have their merits, but one towers above the rest: The Tree of Life, writer/director Terrence Malick's film about…well what is The Tree of Life about, anyway? For a free-associative non-linear movie that skips back and forth through time and space, and that includes a lengthy early section recounting the creation of the universe, the movie was a surprising commercial success, dominating discussion among cinephiles throughout a summer moviegoing season that is usually overshadowed by much louder, dumber movies. And at the center of the discussion were very basic questions about writing and direction – about storytelling generally – that cut to the heart of what movies are and what they can be.

nullIt's impossible to discuss the movie without posing a number of questions. Whose story are we seeing here? Is it the story of the middle-aged Jack, played by Sean Penn, and his younger self? That point of view would not account for the voiceovers and subjective sequences told from the point of view of the father, played by Brad Pitt, and the mother, played by Jessica Chastain. Is the creation sequence an integral part of the movie's vision or an unnecessary and indulgent side-trip? In the scene between the wounded dinosaur and the predator down by that prehistoric river, why does the predator seem as though he's going to crush his skull, and then suddenly back off? Are we seeing the first stirrings of the schism that is discussed and visualized in different sections of the film – the way of nature versus the way of grace? Or is there some other explanation? Is there a God in Terrence Malick's universe? The repeated shots of trees, water, clouds, sky and figures haloed or backlit by intense, almost heavenly light would seem to indicate that, yes, there is a God, but uncertainty permeates the entire story, if indeed there is a story – and this, too, was the subject of debate.

No other major American release provoked so many questions about the meaning of its images and situations, the agenda of its writer/director and the validity of its methods. And no other American release provoked such intense, personal reactions – such deep reflection – among people who saw it. Even those who didn't particularly care for Tree of Life or who had serious problems with its structure or tone seemed to respect what it was doing or trying to do. And the unusual rhythms of the filmmaking, at once fractured yet graceful, seemed to mimic the structure of thought itself. The mind races forward, the mind races backward; past becomes present, present becomes past. This is what it means to be conscious, to be alive. This is what it means to be aware of one's own mortality. These are the sensations that movies should provoke. This is the sort of reflection that movies should inspire. This is the achievement of Tree of Life. It is an original, beautiful, unique movie by a defiantly individual director, and Press Play's choice for Best Picture.

Serena Bramble is a rookie film editor and publisher of the blog Brief Encounters of the Cinematic Kind. Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

VIDEO ESSAY: Outstanding Collaborative Performance: The Fly (1986)

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of four video essays arguing for the creation of a new Academy Awards category Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor teams of artists who create a vivid and memorable movie character whose existence is built upon performance but heavily assisted by CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry or other behind-the-scenes filmmaking craft. To read Matt Zoller Seitz's piece explaining why the film industry needs this category, and to view a video essay about the career of motion capture performance wizard Andy Serkis, click here. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Important notice: Press Play is aware that our videos can not be played on Apple mobile devices. We are, therefore, making this and every video in this series available on Vimeo for these Press Play readers. If you own an Apple mobile device, click here.]

NARRATION:

nullDavid Cronenberg’s 1986 remake of The Fly would have been a shoo-in for a theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. What makes it truly special is its empathy for its arrogant scientist hero, Seth Brundle, who tests his revolutionary new matter transporter on himself and becomes genetically fused with a fly that was not supposed to be in the telepod with him. Jeff Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle is a nexus point for all the film’s creative elements: direction, writing, acting, makeup, optical effects, miniatures and puppetry. Goldblum’s work here brings everything together. It’s kind of a thespian telepod.

The original The Fly is a triumph of visual effects and special makeup. But these aspects of filmmaking are, for the most part, separate from the acting.  
This is the other one.

Where the subtext of the original was deformity, the remake is about mortality and decay. It’s a tragic love story about the fragility of flesh. And that requires a more ambitious, and subtler, merger of special effects, makeup and acting.

Seth Brundle impulsively enters his invention, the telepod, because he’s despondent over a misunderstanding. He mistakenly believes that his lover, reporter Veronica Quaife, played by Geena Davis, is still in love her previous boyfriend. For a while after, Seth thinks he’s superhuman — an outwardly normal-looking person with extraordinary physical powers, which the movie sells through old-school filmmaking tricks. These include a gymnastic stunt double … and a rotating set.
Unfortunately for Seth, the merger of human DNA and fly DNA isn’t quite done yet. With each passing hour, Seth becomes less of a man and more of an insect. And Jeff Goldblum’s performance becomes incrementally submerged beneath ever-more-unsettling layers of gruesome makeup.

nullThe effects are layered on incrementally, scene by scene, and they are showcased almost entirely through a single character, Seth Brundle, and a single performance, Jeff Goldblum’s.  

But it’s the very last scene in the film that makes The Fly qualify, beyond any doubt, for our theoretical best collaborative performance Oscar. When Seth tries to disentangle his DNA from the fly’s by bringing a third teleporter into the mix, Goldblum is nowhere to be seen, and the resulting, even more repulsive creature is played by a puppet. This is one of the saddest endings in all of horror, and it’s not just because of the writing, the direction, Howard Shore’s music, or that magnificent puppet. It’s because when we look at this pitiful creature, we’re remembering Seth as played by Jeff Goldblum.  

Makeup masters Chris Walas and Stephen Doo Pwah deservedly won an academy award for their makeup effects on The Fly, and they graciously remembered to thank the film’s star.

But that moment also underlined a persistent problem in genre films that showcase nonhuman, or partly-human, characters. Whether it’s the acting, the makeup, the sets or the special visual effects that are being honored, the acclaim always has an implied asterisk next to it.  Would the makeup and visual effects in The Fly have been as effective without Goldblum’s brilliant performance? No. And would Goldblum have been as magnificent and terrifying without the effects and makeup? Of course not. This was a collective effort that resulted in a singular achievement.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at StevenEdits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

VIDEO ESSAY And the Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance goes to…

[EDITOR'S NOTE: In this series of video essays, Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz argues for the creation of a new Academy Awards category: Outstanding Collaborative Performance. This category would honor memorable characters created by mixing performance with CGI, immersive makeup, puppetry, or other behind-the-scenes craft. Part 1 — a piece the motion capture performances of Andy Serkis, edited by Press Play contributor Steven Santos — is embedded above; to view the piece on an Apple mobile device, click here. David Cronenberg's make up and effects team in The Fly (1986) certainly would have garnered this award had it existed at the time. We make a case for Jeff Goldblum's The Fly here. A case can also be made for Yoda and E.T. Click on the links!]

Why hasn't Andy Serkis won an Oscar? Should he win one? Is Serkis an actor, or is his physical performance in a CGI-assisted role just a guide for digital effects?

Press Play's staff kicked these questions around last summer following the release of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie dominated by Serkis' magnetic performance as the rebellious ape Caesar. We discussed them again when Serkis co-starred as Capt. Haddock in Steven Spielberg's The Adventures of Tintin. It was not a new conversation. It's been happening among moviegoers all over the world for long time. And it's the subject of a new series of four Press Play video essays titled "Collaborative Performance."

nullThis series argues for a new Oscar category that would honor characters brought to life through a combination of acting and behind-scenes-craft. This new category would not just acknowledge the important role that motion capture plays in modern cinema; it would open the door for honoring other forms of performance that have traditionally gotten snubbed by awards groups, including puppetry and acting under very heavy makeup.

Some background: In late 2001, Peter Jackson's first Lord of the Rings picture The Fellowship of the Ring merged special effects and acting with a new cleverness. That film and its sequels, The Two Towers and Return of the King, were populated by CGI characters whose movements were based on human actors. The performances were later merged with CGI brushwork — basically digital costumes and makeup. Earlier movies had attempted similar CGI trickery, notably 1999's Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, and the practice itself was descended from Rotoscoping, a cel animation process that traced over live-action performers. (For historical context, read James Clarke's article here.) But the crew at Jackson's New Zealand-based special effects shop Weta Digital raised the bar, especially in scenes featuring Gollum, a character portrayed by Serkis.

Each time a new chapter of the Rings saga came out, there was a buzz about Serkis being nominated as an Oscar as best supporting actor, or perhaps getting a special award.

It never happened.

nullIt also didn't happen for Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, who played multiple roles in Robert Zemeckis' The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol respectively, or Crispin Glover, who was brilliant as Grendel in Zemeckis' Beowulf; all three films used motion capture technology.

Collaborative performance has a long history of greatness, and an equally long history of being snubbed by awards groups. That's a shame, because the best collaborative performances have a huge number of moving parts, yet result in characters that seem as real as any created by solo actors.  Back in 1981, fans of The Empire Strikes Back floated the idea of giving Frank Oz a special award for his masterful puppetry in the role of Yoda, but in the end Oz had to be content with being implicitly honored as part of a team that also created tauntauns, walkers, TIE fighters, asteroids and space worms. There was talk of Jeff Goldbum getting nominated as Best Actor for playing Seth Brundle in The Fly — one of the most moving performances in all of horrror — but he got snubbed; when Chris Walas and Stephen DuPuis won a special makeup Oscar for their work on the film, they thanked Goldblum for making their victory possible. The irony, of course, is that, like many genre films, The Empire Strikes Back and The Fly were hugely dependent on the intuitive genius of performers.

Yes, it's true; these films and others won awards for their special effects. But the specific characterizations — the performances — that gave the films their magic were never given their due. To be fair to the Academy and other awards groups, there's no established method for judging the kinds of performances that somebody like Andy Serkis gives. What Serkls is doing in Apes and Tintin counts as acting, but not in exactly the same way as, say, Brad Pitt in Moneyball. In the latter, Pitt is playing a regular person in real surroundings. We can look at Moneyball and say, "That's Brad Pitt playing Billy Bean," and judge the performance's quality apart from other aspects of filmmaking that surround and/or support it. We can't really do that with Serkis' motion-capture performances because we can't see Serkis. He's wrapped in digital skin.

nullHowever, Serkis' motion capture acting can be compared, sort of, to Brad Pitt's work in 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which the star played a man who ages backward. Pitt's performance generated the expressions and body language that CGI artists needed to create Button's gnarled-old-man physique in early scenes, as well as the "youthful" face and body that he acquired later. Pitt earned an Oscar nod as Best Actor for Button but did not win; I would not be surprised to learn that the special effects disqualified him in voters' minds. Some people consider this kind of performance to be "cheating," and think the same of performances given under immersive makeup. John Hurt's makeup-submerged performance as the disfigured John Merrick in The Elephant Man (1980) was nominated as Best Actor that year, but didn't win, maybe for similar reasons. That year's eventual Best Actor winner Robert DeNiro sported heavy makeup in the fat-middle-aged scenes of Raging Bull, but you could always tell it was DeNiro; he wasn't swallowed up like Hurt in The Elephant Man, Pitt in most of Button, and Jeff Goldblum in the second half of The Fly.

The devil's advocate might argue, "The Oscars already have categories honoring visual effects and makeup. Why should they add yet another category? When E.T. won an award for its visual effects, that basically counted as an award for creating the charater of E.T."  Such objections miss the point of my proposal, and betray a prejudce against anything but the most plain-vanilla types of performance. E.T. is the result of a collaborative performance among many dedicated professionals who are tasked with a single purpose: to make us believe that this character is real.  He is not one more special effect among many. The character is a singular achievement that deserves recognition apart from other accolades bestowed on the movie, just as Marlon Brando's performance in On the Waterfront deserved to be cited apart from that film's script, direction and photography.

The current method for judging collaborative performances factors makeup and special effects out of the equation. Why not change our way of thinking, and factor them in?

All the existing Oscars categories would still exist. We'd just add a new one: Outstanding Collaborative Performance.

Collaborative Performance would be a character-based category. It would be distinct from actor, actress, supporting actor and supporting actress. It would also be distinct from special effects and special makeup, which honor excellence in design and technique for whole films, not just a particular character.

The actor and the heads of any relevant filmmaking departments would be cited in a Collaborative Performance nomination. The actor's name would come first.

nullFor example: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 1980 goes to: Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back. Frank Oz, performance and voice; Jim Henson's Creature Shop, fabrication; Industrial Light and Magic, motion control."

Or: "The Oscar for Outstanding Collaborative Performance of 2011 goes to Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Andy Serkis, performance and voice; Weta Digital, motion capture and computer-generated imagery."

I don't know precisely how a Collaborative Performance category might be administered, which branches of the Academy would choose it or vote for it, or which individuals or groups might be eligible to win it. I don't know how many nominees there should be, either — although considering the large number of special-effects driven movies being made every year, I bet you could find at least three characters worthy of nomination.

What I do know is that awards groups should find a way to honor one of the most potent sources of magic throughout movie history: the Collaborative Performance.

Discuss.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play. Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based who has cut docu-series for cable networks such as MTV, The Travel Channel, The Biography Channel, The Science Channel and Animal Planet.

ADWEEK INTERVIEW: New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz takes a tough stand on reality TV shows

ADWEEK INTERVIEW: New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz takes a tough stand on reality TV shows

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Have you been surprised at any of the comments you’ve gotten about what you’ve written so far?
I don’t feel like Indiana Jones in front of the boulder at New York magazine. Everything that happened at [ex-employer] Salon is like what happened on the island of Lost. There were people who would comment on everything. On one level it was terrifying, but it was kind of nice. There were people who cared about every little thing.

You’re not a fan of Jersey Shore. Are you prepared to take heat from its big fan base among the magazine’s readers?
I have very particular tastes when it comes to reality TV. Just because people are stupid enough to be exploited doesn’t mean you should take advantage of them. My idea of a good reality show is like Survivor, where it’s goal-directed and they have to use their minds to solve problems.

You have a soft spot for doomed shows like Pan Am and Community. Do you hope that by writing about them you can save them?
I want people who make these shows to know someone appreciates what they’re doing, even though they’re not quite pulling it off. I’m 43 years old. I want to see things I haven’t seen before. I think Pan Am is trying to be extremely rich and extremely light at the same time. They haven’t quite mastered the art of making a soufflé every week.

You can read the rest of Adweek's interview with Matt Zoller Seitz here.