Sometimes you find yourself having variations on the same frustrating conversation over the years. I first saw the original King Kong on television one weekend when I was in junior high after years of reading about it in books. It more than lived up to its reputation. I was already a fan of the big ape having seen the 1976 remake many times as a kid, but watching the original version felt akin to hearing Elvis Presley’s Sun Studios recordings after only knowing him as that guy from the Aloha From Hawaii special. (Which was more or less my experience with Elvis, but that’s another story.) It was raw and wonderful, filled with strange, gigantic beasts that didn’t feel quite real and were all the scarier for it. They seemed liked creatures from beyond reality and not subject to its laws. Like the best fantasy movies, watching it felt like stepping into a dream.
I came back to school on Monday enthused and talked to a friend who’d also watched it. “Yeah,” she replied, “but the effects were so dated.” Dream over.
I didn’t fully understand what my friend meant then and I’m not sure I understand it now when I find myself having similar conversations, most recently about the original Star Wars. On one level, I get it. Older films use older techniques. The special effects of 1933 and 1977 don’t look like the effects of 2017. On the other hand: So what? Does that have to be a movie-disrupting distraction?
I think there are several factors that lead viewers to think this way. I also think people would enjoy movies more, and enjoy more movies, if they’d learn to ignore them.
The first is a bias toward the new. In countless ways — even beyond special effects — the era in which we live influences the entertainment we consume, be it via fashion, music choices, styles of cinematography, editing techniques, the fonts used for credits, or any number of other factors. We get so used to the way things are done now that entertainment from just a few years ago can already look like it belongs to an earlier time. I recently rewatched chunks of Party Down and the flip phones alone make it look like the product of a different era. It’s less than a decade old.
This is unavoidable. It’s also just fine. There are people who use the term “dated” to dismiss anything created before the last Olympics. The key here: Don’t be one of those people. Art is the only form of time travel we’ve yet invented and to not recognize this is to deny yourself one of its greatest pleasures. Yes, Alicia Silverstone’s wardrobe in Clueless cements it squarely in 1995. No, the acting styles of the studio era aren’t as naturalistic as the sort of performances we’re used to seeing today. These are part of the pleasures of older films. The wave them off as dated is to reveal you have unadventurous taste.*
[* The more thought I’ve given it, the only context in which the word “dated” makes sense to me is when applied to antiquated attitudes toward race, gender, sexual orientation and so forth. To watch an older movie and to suddenly be confronted with, say, a blackface routine or Mickey Rooney playing a Japanese man and so on is, to say the least, jarring.]
But back to special effects: There’s a misperception that technological advances have made us more sophisticated viewers who can’t be tricked like the rubes of yesteryear. But look no further than Variety’s 1933 review of King Kong to learn otherwise. After praising it as a “highly imaginative” if “super-goofy yarn” about a “50-foot ape who goes for a five-foot blonde,” critic Joe Bigelow describes it as a film of “many flaws” that will “probably be overlooked.” “It takes a couple of reels,” he continues, “for Kong to be believed, and until then it doesn’t grip. But after the audience becomes used to the machine-like movements and other mechanical flaws in the gigantic animals on view, and become accustomed to the phoney atmosphere, they may commence to feel the power.”
It’s hard to understate the newness of what Bigelow’s describing here. There had been special effects spectaculars before King Kong. Willis O’Brien, the film’s effects wizard, had a filmography that already included The Lost World, an Arthur Conan O’Doyle adaptation about a voyage to a land filled with dinosaurs to which Kong owed a debt. But it’s Kong to which every other larger-than-life blockbuster that followed can trace its DNA. In a case of art imitating life, audiences had never seen anything like it, much like the New York spectators with the film had never seen anything like Kong.
Which isn’t to say that they didn’t see it for what it was: a clever creation. “There are times,” Bigelow continues, “when the plot takes advantage of its imaginative status and goes too far. On these occasions the customers are liable to laugh in the wrong way. A most tolerant audience at the Music Hall broke down now and then, but on the whole was exceedingly kind.”
Watching a movie — really watching a movie — isn’t a passive act and never has been. It’s a matter of constant negotiation. Viewers must continually agree to surrender themselves to the illusion created by the film. The film has to continually earn this surrender. This means, whether we realize it or not, accepting what we’re shown as real within the world being created by the movie, whether or not it matches up with what we know of the real world, be it the stylized dialogue of a romantic comedy or a giant ape carrying Fay Wray up the Empire State Building. What Bigelow saw the audience around him doing in 1933 — sinking into the film and taking time to feel its “power” is what audiences still do today. (Good, attentive audiences, anyway. Surely no one reading this would ever talk or use a cell phone during a movie, right?)
Inevitably, these worlds belong to the eras from which they spring, even when they’re set in a galaxy far, far away. It’s now easy to see Star Wars: A New Hope as a lower-budget production than its successors. So many technological advances and making-of documentaries later, it’s easy to see the creators’ hands behind the effects. And the feathered hair and sideburns give it a way as a product of 1977. Yet it’s these same elements that make up the building blocks of the film’s universe. So, in A New Hope, we only see small portions of the Death Star and a handful of stormtroopers are used and reused to suggest a vast army. This is just how the world functions within the film. To demand it work some other way is to demand a different film entirely. **
[** Which is exactly why trying to drop, say, mid-‘90s CGI in the middle of it would be a terrible idea that would disrupt the movie. Not that anyone would be dumb enough to do that.]
And don’t think for a moment that the films being made now work any differently. It’s not even a matter of pitting CGI effects against practical effects. Both have their place, and time will make even the most persuasive CGI creations we see this year as creations of 2017. Kong: Skull Island may have a giant ape that looks more like a giant ape you might encounter in our world than O’Brien’s creature, but the way he’s filmed and choices made in presenting him and dozens of tiny factors that we don’t notice now will someday look every bit as much a product of this moment as the 1933 film does of its moment. This Kong, too, will age.
Which brings us full circle: That doesn’t mean it will be dated, or at least not dated in the dismissive “This is old and not what I’m used to and I don’t need to respect or pay attention to it” sense. Kong: Skull Island, which I’m looking forward to seeing this weekend, may create the most believable giant ape ever put to screen, but we’re still agreeing to buy into the fantasy of a giant ape in the first place. And if the illusion should slip here and there and this new Kong reveal itself as a special effect even now, what does that matter? It’s how this Kong works in this world he inhabits, and which we share with him for an hour or two. I’ve never seen that as a distraction or thought that effects should aspire to be realistic above all. Reality is what happens when you leave the theater or hit the pause button. I watch movies to go somewhere else.