Meet Me Halfway: Approaching Aging Masters’ Digital Output

Jacob Q. Knight takes a look at Cronenberg and other filmic craftsmen transitioning to the digital age.

David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars is an ugly movie. A high-wire farce that mixes black comedy with the Canadian auteur’s signature examination of cancerous individuals, the picture is purposefully unlikable. The movie’s moral compass is a pyromaniac (Mia Wasikowska), hell-bent on reuniting with the estranged, child star brother (Evan Bird) she almost burned alive years ago, and the parents (John Cusack, Olivia Williams) who have since disowned her, hoping she’d never get out of an institution. Her only in to this literally incestuous Hollywood world: an online relationship with Carrie Fisher (playing herself), who sets the girl up to be the personal assistant to a has-been actress (Julianne Moore) vying for the part of her own mother. It’s the Ghosts of Inside Baseball’s Past, wherein Cronenberg again gets to explore a self-contained culture that is outlandish to outsiders, no different from the TV propagandists of Videodrome, the transformative, therapeutic cult from The Brood, or the Peking Opera in M Butterfly. These fame-hungry beasts are all part of a microcosm that exists right beneath the nose of humans who do not quite understand the language they speak, ready to burn each other down and celebrate the death of progenies, should it enable them to get what they truly want.

Beyond the movie’s chilly, sardonic subject matter is a head-on collision between Cronenberg’s established shooting style and the new technology with which he is left to craft his movie. A lot has been made about this being the director’s first motion picture shot on American soil (which only adds to the voyeuristic air of an onlooker gazing at a human car crash), yet very few reviews have delved into the fact that this is Cronenberg’s second feature foray into the realm of garish digital photography. Much how Cosmopolis embraced a shoddy, anti-reality finish in its rear projection limo rides and harsh, over-lit interiors, Maps to the Stars takes this motion smoothed Canadian TV aesthetic to a whole new level.

It could be argued that the overall brightness of Peter Suschitzky’s photography is purposeful; disorienting, bleached counter-cinema meant to emphasize the plasticity of the universe in which we’ve been immersed. However, the antithesis to this is that both Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars are products of “old world” filmic craftsmen still learning the ropes of a medium they haven’t quite yet mastered. To call the two pictures “fuck ups” in a visual sense seems extreme, but a viewer undoubtedly has to the meet the movies halfway in order to process the images displayed before them.

When compared to the latest work of Cronenberg’s New Hollywood cousin, William Friedkin, it’s remarkable to consider how two directors with distinct, established styles transitioned into the usage of HD. Friedkin’s first adaptation of a Tracy Letts play, Bug, was shot on Panavision cameras utilizing 35mm stock. While the movie is mostly contained to a single motel room, Friedkin allows the celluloid’s grain to add a tactile texture to each of the black box-ready scenes. With his next movie, Killer Joe, Friedkin switched formats, filming on an Arri Alexa. There are noticeable moments where the digital cameras penetrate the dark of the hillbillies’ cavernous trailers, letting the audience see beyond the blackness. However, Friedkin is still able to retain his usual sense of space and roughness, to the point that you can almost smell the fried chicken grease from the bucket on the sink. It’s the perfect example of an artist displaying technical adroitness, smoothing the edges of an otherwise punk rock party. Because how else was he going to persuade an audience to watch Gina Gershon get throat-fucked with a chicken leg?

Now, this may not be a fully fair comparison, as Friedkin utilized two different DPs (Michael Grady and Caleb Deschanel, respectively), where Cronenberg stuck with his usual “family member,” Suschitzky, for both Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars. The main dissimilarity, though, is that Friedkin slaved to make the medium work in service of his vision, where Cronenberg’s lack of familiarization lets the DV heighten the static, awkward nature of his framing, sometimes to the movie’s disadvantage. The one-shots Cronenberg clings to resemble overly expensive high school glamour portraits - key lighting imparting each stationary composition with a solitary, alien nature. There will be those who laud these vulgar constructions as something to celebrate, as they emphasize LA’s cold, unforgiving void. Others will immediately be repelled by the decision, as it keeps you even further than Cronenberg’s usual arm’s length.

Martin Scorsese might be a better point of comparison, as his work with Robert Richardson on Shutter Island and Hugo is a wonderful study in how a seasoned veteran seamlessly made the jump between film and digital. Some will probably be quick to point out the fact that it’s difficult to fairly evaluate big studio productions against independently financed character experiments (and it is, if we’re strictly talking visual effects or scope). Conversely, the unity in aesthetics notwithstanding, the format jump is certainly fair game. Shutter Island sees Scorsese creating a lush, hallucinogenic fantasy world in which his haunted detective protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio) finds his way back to himself. With Hugo, Scorsese achieves not only a career dream (to shoot a movie in 3D), but is also able to digitally tap into the phantasmagorical with the same effortlessness that pervaded his gothic horror picture. Though the two movies are exploring the fantastical to different ends, they are undoubtedly the product of a master filmmaker’s cohesive vision, format be damned.

If you take both Cosmopolis and Maps to the Stars and hold them up against Cronenberg and Suschitzky’s previous collaborations (which date all the way back to 1988 with Dead Ringers), they almost seem like they came from different artists. The variance in subject matter the two have explored together is astounding. Cronenberg and Suschitzky navigated everything from dark, surrealist literary fantasy (Naked Lunch) to sex and car crash eroticism (Crash) to mafia hitman action riff (A History of Violence) with grace and poise. All of these movies were shot on film and carry distinct visual cues, motifs and set ups, including the same static camera placement found in Maps and Cosmopolis. On top of that, all of their 35mm collaborations carry an ophthalmic coarseness that coalesces them. The dark browns and blacks of Dead Ringers show up in Naked Lunch, with pops of color (like the red surgical outfits in Ringers) to draw the viewer back into a scene when it borders on becoming too supercilious.

Perhaps “schism” is a more apt way to describe Maps to the Stars and Cosmopolisrelation to the rest of Cronenberg and Suschitzky’s body of work together. Much how Michael Mann completely abandoned the texture of film for the raw, buoyant immediacy of the Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 and Thomson VIPER FilmStream on Collateral, Public Enemies and Miami Vice, Cronenberg and Suschitzky have discarded moody cinematic texture for an anti-realist sheen. Only where these bodies of work stop being freely associated is once you consider the fact that Mann changed his shooting style along with his cameras. Sans film, Mann began experimenting with framing, movement and composition, allowing the new technology to free him from his usual tableau-centric style. Close-ups now glided over countenances, and establishing shots could become handheld. Mann’s style evolved and grew instead of staying stagnant, all to mixed results from critics.

These movies resulted in a fascinating set of critical opinions. Many film writers have outright rejected the licentious, digital transmissions that are Public Enemies and Blackhat (whereas some are finally warming to the abstract cool of Miami Vice). Regarding Public Enemies, it’s the mix of HD and period that is often the main point of contention, as many couldn’t even believe that Mann would have the gall to attempt a '20s gangster movie utilizing digital photography. With Blackhat, the subject matter was scrutinized alongside the fragmented, impressionistic photography, as most found the movie too silly for its own good. There almost seemed to be a reluctance to reach across the aisle to try and meet the filmmaker on his own terms, despite the fact that he had not only brought the medium into fill-blown commercial experimentation, but also fragmented his style so drastically that his late period work feels vital and fresh instead of torpid and stationary.

Francis Ford Coppola may be the greatest casualty of the digital age. The legendary Godfather director’s beguilement with “student films” has led him to gradually shed his formalist skin once and for all, expanding upon what he started back in the '80s with films like One From the Heart and Rumble Fish. Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt are all radical in one way or another, with the movies gradually becoming more and more hated as Coppola gave less of a shit what people thought about them. For most, Twixt was the breaking point – an avant garde, HD dive into the bizarre that felt completely nonsensical and lacking any kind of creative oversight. Much how David Lynch deserted self-consciousness completely with his consumer grade, three-hour surrealist opus, Inland Empire (which came with a self-penned “film is dead” manifesto), Francis Ford Coppola had reverted back to being a nonconformist artiste, for better or worse.

Technology aside, age has rarely been kind to any artist. One glance at the back half of cinematographer Dean Cundey’s filmography (starting right around 1995 with Casper) reveals a shooter who lost the keen, crisp eye he displayed on so many John Carpenter anamorphic classics. Cundey’s descent into family-friendly malleability saw a once cutting edge cameraman slide into complicity, seemingly happy to collect a paycheck as a worker bee, toiling away on dreck like Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill. Meanwhile, Brian De Palma, who only dabbled in digital once for Redacted, the found footage companion piece to Casualties of War, remained a slavish devotee to celluloid with Passion. Unfortunately, that picture suffers from a dull visual flatness, failing to recapture the glory days of Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Time kills all things, it seems; even our most gifted cineastes’ visual acumen.

Nevertheless, it really all comes down to the subjective prejudices a viewer carries in with them before they sit down with any of these masters’ late period experimentations. For some, Michael Mann’s radical sense of stylistic recklessness heightens what could otherwise be viewed as ludicrous action film tropes. The inverse applies to Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars and Cosmopolis. The Canadian intellectual’s usual fascination with ideas instead of aesthetics allows a certain leeway when it comes to judging the movies’ overall cinematic composition. The key thing to remember is that, in the words of Francis Ford Coppola, we are all students, every one of us, every day of our lives. Even those we consider to be Gods are learning to adapt to and transition with the times they’re faced. Though he’s become an art house staple thanks to years of crafting cerebral cinema, financiers still aren’t lining up to fund the next Cronenberg picture. That means having to play the hand he’s dealt, and that deck includes tinkering and experimenting with a medium he’s clearly not 100% versed in. This gleeful abandonment of the familiar is precisely what defines the spirit of cinema, for Cronenberg and his ilk are no longer challenging just audiences, but also themselves. As viewers, we must approach what may at first appear to be outright failures with a diplomatic mindset, ready to accept that progression can be a painful, wounding process. The binary want to place every movie into bins labeled “good” or “bad” is a pox on the film community. For beneath stretched scar tissue is the throbbing heart of artists we’ve always known. Dig deeper. Be bold. Embrace the evolution.