The Art of the Unseen

Last week, I read a really great article on the Onion’s AV Club commemorating the 20th Anniversary of Jurassic Park. In it, A.A. Dowd pointed out the fact that the movie’s barely aged.

Why? Because Spielberg understood that sometimes it’s the stuff we can’t see that elicit the biggest response. To elaborate:

JURASSIC PARK (1993)

Jurassic Park is basically the Cher of modern cinema. 20 years after it blockbustered with edge-cutting technology, it’s still got it. Part of that is due to the fact that in-camera trickery was Spielberg’s ace. He utilized computers sparingly, with the knowledge that nothing matches a three dimensional thing inside a three dimensional world. Sorry Mr. Game And Watch.

I'm not really sorry. You are easily the most annoying adversary in Super Smash Bros.

I’m not really sorry. You are easily the most annoying adversary in Super Smash Bros.

We need something tangible, not green-screened. That’s why the exotic greenery rustled. And why we lingered on the cup of water rippling on the dashboard. How brilliant, too, that we see the severed goat leg before Rexy (and in the rain, no less)? Sure, it is awfully odd that such a big lizard could creep so covertly, but in the name of movie magic, I’m happy it happened that way. Because it was those moments, seeing the world respond before seeing the monster, that made it feel so freakin’ REAL.

The great thing about it is that those moments of tension could be easily achieved by some well hidden guy with a guitar string. So… why did we all pay for tickets to go see Attack of the Clones almost 10 years later?

PSYCHO (1960)

Anyone who’s taken a basic film class has heard about Psycho as an exercise in mind control. Here’s the abridged version: you think you see the knife break skin, but you don’t. That’s on you buddy. It’s your sick brain that murdered Janet Leigh. YOU’RE THE PSYCHO.

A-hem. Moving on…

Hitchcock understood that the people watching his movies were way more tapped than anything contemporary studios would ever let him show. So he had fun with that. Rear Window, six years prior, warned us what happens when passive viewers with active imaginations get a bit too invested in their subjects. It’s an idea that predates gratuitous CGI, and it’s every bit as relevant now as it was then…

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (1999)

Case in point: the resurgence of “found-horror”. Before Paranormal Activity, The Devil Inside, and even Cloverfield picked up the torch, there was Blair Witch.

It certainly wasn’t much in the way of visuals. The shaky handheld reportedly nauseated some viewers. There were no effects either, but that’s to be expected for a movie with a modest budget south of $25,000. Honestly, though, who needs much more than that when you’ve got kids lost in the woods? Just throw in a prologue of assorted ghost stories to mystify the setting and you’re already killin’ it. The rest is cake.

While you’ve got asses in seats, why not rely on the horror tropes:

√ Creepy Midnight Child-Giggles (otherwise known as “chiggles”).

√ Occult symbols.

√ Faraway screams.

√ Decrepit house in the middle of nowhere.

√ Friends that drop like flies.

It’s simple: the less you actually show, the more we’ll think of things that are much worse.

SPOILER ALERT: Walking into walls is never a good idea.

SPOILER ALERT: Walking into walls is never a good idea.

 

KILL BILL: VOLUME 2 (2004)

In this ultimate modern revenge tale, we see Uma kick ass and take so many names it borders on cartoony (typical Tarantino). But for all the brilliantly choreographed battles against 88 men at a time, the movies’ biggest battle takes place in darkness. The setting? Several feet underground. The adversary? The Bride herself, of course.

She’s been buried! Before we get any lighting, it’s pitch black. Maybe a good 30 seconds. In movie time, that’s ample opportunity to freak out alongside our homicidal heroine. A few screams, heaves, and pounds let us take in the cold hard truth that this is probably it.

Naturally, she punches the crap out of her tomb and climbs to the surface, but the lead-up to that is brutal. It says something that the most visually simple scene is the most empathetic and transportive. Whereas most of these movies (awesomely) read like comic books, this sequence breaks through and drags us under. It puts us in a box, so to speak… Which is kind of the point of movies in the first place.

BABY DOLL (1956)

An essential rule to any story is this: the ending doesn’t matter to the audience as much as the journey. In sex terms, that means foreplay is key.

Imagine if the Breaking Bad series finale was the first and only episode you saw. It would still be amazing, sure. But, out of context, would it really still be THE most amazing thing EVER? Would Jesse’s outcome have packed such a wallop if we weren’t privy to his past torment? Would Walt’s final dialogue with Skyler have seemed so poignant?

No, you ninny! Because our arousal as viewers comes from making those connections. We’re given a story compelling enough for us to want a resolution. The outcome is the reward. So here’s a premise: a sensuous 19 year old girl makes a pact with her much older husband that they will not consummate their marriage until her 20th birthday.

That’s the launching pad for Baby Doll, which is included in this list as a movie about sex that never showed or even explicitly mentioned it. I mean, come on, it was 1956. That was a time when two people sharing cigarettes onscreen implied that they’d “done the nasty.” The film had to master the subtext if it was going to succeed. So just like Norman Bates’ knife, it wisely just grazed the skin and left the perversity to the film-goer. And trust me, with lines like “Excuse me, Mr. Vacarro, but I wouldn’t dream of eatin’ a nut that a man had cracked in his mouth,” the minds ran rampant.

But a penis? Well that's a whole 'nother story.

I am however not opposed to oral sex.

I’m gonna go eat a banana now. Enjoy your week, my lovelies!

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2 thoughts on “The Art of the Unseen

  1. I just watched a Startrek movie, and the special effects were stale and technically sloppy but Jurassic Park was fun to see in the theater. Despite having watched JP on TV several times, it felt out-of-my-seat new in the theater.

    Never heard of Baby Doll

    • Baby Doll is fantastic. Especially if you enjoy seeing the sly ways filmmakers skirted censorship back in the day.

      And I totally agree about Jurassic Park. I saw that movie as a wee-boy and it set a near impossible standard. It was just a marvel in so many ways. Movies like Avatar and Life of Pi have tried, but I don’t think they’ll stand the test of time the way JP has.

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