Friday, January 18, 2013

Beowulf (Zemeckis, 2007) and the Fleeting Riches of Motion Capture

At the risk of sounding deliberately contrarian, I'll admit that I've always found myself perversely intrigued, even thrilled, by Robert Zemeckis' motion-capture work. It's to my own surprise, seeing as I'm not particularly a fan of modern video games (the look of which generally serves as the most ideal reference point for motion capture technology) and I'm more or less indifferent to the ancient folk-tales Zemeckis has chosen to adapt with the approach. Nonetheless, The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol have to be the two strangest-feeling yuletide films in the history of cinema, committed as they are to radically re-thinking the worlds expressed in their respective texts. (They're also, given the oft-discussed "coldness" of the mo-cap look, rather unfitting for the emotional warmth of the holiday season.) I was first turned on to the films after reading Matt Zoller Seitz' fantastic Slant piece that loosely connected Zemeckis to Wes Anderson, both of whom share similarly visionary, from-the-ground-up filmmaking approaches.

Having now witnessed Zemeckis' resounding return to Earth in the form of 2012's live-action Flight, I had the impulse to check out Beowulf, the only mo-cap experiment I'd yet to see. The limits of the technique are, I suspect, fairly obvious off the bat: any sincere approach to human drama comes across stilted and awkward. (Zemeckis succumbs to this tendency far too often in Beowulf despite the unsentimental source material he's working with – though, it should be said, much less than in his other two mo-cap movies, wherein tear-jerking shorthand and message-heavy overtones routinely get in the way of spectacle.) On the flip side, scenes that figure humans in as mere pawns in a vast landscape of spectacle and don't limit the technology's capacities to 2D visual grammar (i.e. close-ups, static shots, etc.) often become sui generis exercises in the destruction of conventional screen space. As Seitz so eloquently argued, "Zemeckis digs motion-captured imagery not in spite of its unreality but because of it." I suspect he's after a certain surface that's unachievable with a live-action setup, a feeling of weightlessness that incorporates the "camera" not as a physical object defined by rational boundaries of perspective but as an omniscient observer that can be anywhere at a given moment and see anything/everything. All of this, in the ideal circumstances, should bolster spectacle, rendering it more sensory and all-encompassing.

These strengths are in evidence in what I would argue is Beowulf's best scene without contest (and a scene that comes surprisingly close to my 11th grade mind's fanciful imagining of it). It's the monster Grendel's (Crispin Glover) first raid of the mead hall, an utter massacre of the licentious and vulnerable Danes who are soon to be rescued by the swaggering warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone). Zemeckis opens the scene with a slow dolly towards the entrance of the mead hall, where the door is perched open, leading to a panorama of the dark, wintry landscape of Scandinavia. Suddenly, with a swiftness and force that would be difficult to capture with an image of a real actor, Beowulf drops into frame, loudly announcing his presence in the room, and only seconds later, leaps through the air to plant his oversized, slimy foot down on the camera.

As if to further acquaint the audience with the idea that the motion-capture approach is subject to absolutely no physical limitations, the resulting hysteria in the mead hall is distilled into a graceful money shot that begins on the quivering uvula of a screaming woman before pulling rapidly out of her mouth and all the way up to an over-the-shoulder shot of the towering Grendel, glowering over his impending meal. Essentially, it's an amped-up version of a subtle dolly move during a two-person dialogue scene, conveying vital narrative information (the fear of the Danes as well as the pulsating, exposed brain portion of Grendel, which proves to be his lone center of vulnerability) through rationality-defying acrobatics.

The resulting composition (above) is one that implies a significant power dynamic. That perpective is shifted immediately to account for the woman's view of Grendel angrily clasping her comparatively measly frame between his massive palms, at which point the camera soars upward with her before she is flung back towards the cement floor. This initial statement of extreme violence elicits a storm of slaughtering, with Grendel grabbing hold of any stray figure he sets his sights on and using his brute strength as well as a creative application of the blunt objects in the hall to his merciless advantage.

Chaos comes first, and only then does Zemeckis reveal the scene's single psychological/narrative perspective, an angle he returns to for the entire scene. The alignment is with Lord Hrothgar's (Anthony Hopkins) meek and, frankly, paper-thin wife Wealthow (Robin Wright), the soon-to-be love interest of Beowulf, who presides over the scene from behind a wooden table, peering through shards of wood and metal at the horrid spectacle around the mess hall. Her perspective is continually signaled by a shot evoking a telephoto lens, the frame dirtied on its left third by a dark foreground shape.

Throughout the scene, Zemeckis couples Wealthow's passive observation of the battle with the heroic – if short-lived – attempts of over-ambitious warriors to put a stop to Grendel. Thus, the scene alternates furiously between different perspectives, some attached to humans and some attached to objects, each of them coming and going at the speed of brutal death. At one point, a man trying to take Grendel down with his bare hands is swiftly tossed by the monster into the rafters of the mead hall. Here, Zemeckis offers an ethereal, Godlike perspective: a fleeting slow-motion shot from the highest point in the room watching this poor warrior pirouette in mid-air above the heinous events below. It's a nearly beautiful moment, capturing sudden grace within all the savagery, if only for the brief moment before the man is impaled on his way down by a spike jutting out from a chandelier. The cold, sudden force of death is then announced by the subsequent shot from underneath his body, the camera planted on the floor to watch – and then be blinded by – the drips of blood falling like rain water from above.

Suddenly, a new motif is introduced. In an almost Hitchcockian image, Wealthow is seen glimpsing through a metal lens of some sort (totally random and unexplained perhaps, but a neat touch nonetheless). This placing of a lens in between her and the action only makes it appear more distant, the humans even smaller and more trivial – a better approximation of Grendel's own attitude towards those in the mead hall. At the very least, it's a way of adding yet another way of seeing to this already undiscriminating visual palette.

More men try to take charge of their fates. This time, we see an axe thrown from the shadowy back end of the hall by Hrothgar in a smooth backwards dolly move, such that the heavy weapon is hurdling towards the direction of the camera – a shot that, for obvious reasons, would be truly unachievable in live action. The axe lands in Grendel's scaly thigh, sending out spurts of blood.

Next, a swooping crane move takes the frame from Grendel's wound to a close-up of his enraged expression as he singles out the culprit of the axe-throwing. It turns out he unknowingly chooses the wrong man, yet the punishment is ruthless. This is the underlying ethos of the scene: insignificant figures hopelessly pitted against a superhuman beast, their deaths unmotivated by any sense of logic. The ensuing slaughter is the nastiest of the entire scene, even though it's implied rather than directly shown by Zemeckis via shadows on the wall and Wealthow's expression of horror. For good measure, Grendel fires the man's disembodied lower half at the camera to conclude the murdering. Shortly thereafter, Hrothgar reveals himself, and – for reasons unknown this early in the film – scares Grendel back to his swampy dwelling in the forest, thereby ending the scene.

What I find most fascinating about this sequence is the relative lucidity of the images in evoking chaos and carnage. Of course, the overarching impression here is of bodies being flung to and fro, blood splattering like plastic ketchup bottles subjected to a falling boulder, tiny Danes screaming in anguish at the sight of a ghastly monster (who, visually speaking, is the point of focus for most of the scene), but questions of cause-and-effect and spatial logistics are surprisingly clear. This is what Zemeckis has always understood better than other technologically high-minded, action-mad peers: the creation of chaotic spectacle need not necessitate a negation of classical narrative visual language. That Zemeckis manages to maintain clarity of the scene's obvious, if somewhat narrow-minded, narrative goals (Wealthow is a stubborn nymph, Hrothgar has some sort of personal relationship with Grendel) and indulge in a radical anything-goes technology at the same time is to be commended.

Also of note is the sequence's overarching aesthetic choices. When the evil Grendel first enters, his mere presence transforms the bonfire in the center of the mead hall from its warming tones to an icy blue. This newfound light source dominates the scene, casting the brutality under a furious flicker that lends the violence an apocalyptic aura. To complement this feeling, Zemeckis eschews supplementary music, limiting the soundtrack to a reverberating mass of Grendel's moans, the sounds of flesh meeting concrete and metal, and the Danes' screams of terror. If only for this single isolated moment in an otherwise overlong, variably exciting and routine action epic, it's a surprisingly despairing vision of mass slaughter in which the few human focal points are utterly helpless in the face of their own doom.

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