In this climate of cinematic misanthropy, it seems fitting that the most eagerly awaited summer blockbuster (well, the one I’m most eagerly awaiting, anyway) is a $125-million disaster epic about the dead of winter. Getting myself all worked up for the premiere of The Day After Tomorrow, I realized that I am really looking forward to the spectacle of the Eastern Seaboard, and New York City in particular, completely consumed by a near-future glacial winter. (The pre-CG scenery for this hibernal deathscape was, naturally, shot in Montreal.) In this seriously unserious futuristic environmental disaster flick from Independence Day director Roland Emmerich, the melting of the polar ice caps brings deadly storms to Tokyo, New Delhi, Los Angeles and the Big Apple--the trailer even promises that one gust of gale-force wind will freeze-frame the steel flame of the Statue of Liberty. The film, which opens Friday, promises to cast a bleakly frigid toll on all our dreams of frothy summer fare. How appropriate: after this weekend, we moviegoers get to stare down the barrel of summer with nary a spark in sight.
How did it come to this? With nearly sixty blockbusters in the juice to squeeze out our summer bucks, the machinery has already spit out its biggest load: Troy was fun on the first weekend, but it’s over, as are Van Helsing and The Punisher. That leaves us with three months of sweltering heat to escape in the cool darkness of the movie house, and what of it? Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (June 4) cannot last all season--most of us will have seen it four times by the middle of June--and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (July 30), while traileristically creepy, has the director seeing dead people again and it’s getting repetitive. Collateral (August 6), a Michael Mann thriller, is all about Tom Cruise as the seething serial-killer-by-night we all know he is anyway, so that’s okay. But otherwise? No thanks to The Chronicles of Riddick (June 11), a gratuitous but pricey sequel to Pitch Black that serves only to illuminate Vin Diesel. Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow probably won’t do the blue-screen thingy well enough to pull off Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. So that does it. We’re left to face the oncoming months with just two words (or one, hyphenated) between us and the oncoming heat wave.
This is where things start to get worrisome. Sure, Tobey Maguire is Peter Parker again, but he almost wasn’t. He hurt his back on some of the flying stunts (which, rumour has it, are vexingly lame) and was being a bit of a bitch about it, so Sony almost replaced him with Jake Gyllenhaal, bang-bang, just like that. Gyllenhaal, who is five years younger than Maguire, is too fresh-faced to play Parker; just because he’s Kirsten Dunst’s boyfriend doesn’t mean Sony should be able to pull a studio switcheroo like that. I mean, what is this? Batman in the ’90s?
The first Spider-Man was heartening, mostly because Sam Raimi is a god and can always be counted on to do the right thing. As he did this time, giving poor dear sweet Tobey time with the physiotherapist. Which seems important: if they plan to blather on during the press junket about how character depth is more important to this franchise than high-flying (maybe they’re counting on personality to obscure cheesy flying effects), they can’t just put in pinch-Parkers at the drop of a thread. Nevertheless, I’m still seeing two more reasons to root for this one. First, if anyone makes a better foil for Spidey than Willem Dafoe, it’s Alfred Molina as Dr. Octopus. Second, they got Michael Chabon to go in on writing the screen story. Now there’s a special effect.
Of course, I could be all wrong about all of this. I hope I am.
Rest assured, the purpose of this column space isn’t only to bellyache about Hollywood as the machine itself self-nauseates at almost every turn. This malaise is just seasonal (and usually becomes terminal by Oscar season).
What I hope to be able to do in this column is be true to the name it’s been given: Camera Obscura, an edifying Latin name for what basically amounts to fools captivated by pictures in a dark chamber. Meaning any and all images in any and all dark chambers, including, but not limited to, those that feature Tom Cruise’s white teeth and Vin Diesel’s glutes flickering back at us. The point, dear readers, is that camera obscurantism isn’t a condition that guarantees we’ll always be sitting in front of La Dolce Vita, or even Winged Migration.
camera obscura Cam”e*ra ob*scu”ra [LL. camera chamber + L. obscurus, obscura, dark.] (Opt.) 1. An apparatus in which the images of external objects, formed by a convex lens or a concave mirror, are thrown on a paper or other white surface placed in the focus of the lens or mirror within a darkened chamber, or box, so that the outlines may be traced.
2. (Photog.) An apparatus in which the image of an external object or objects is, by means of lenses, thrown upon a sensitized plate or surface placed at the back of an extensible darkened box or chamber variously modified; -- commonly called simply “the camera.” (Webster’s Dictionary)
The first incarnation of the technology known as the camera (precursor to even the most sophisticated Arriflex mounted systems, which bring frame rates down to 0.1 fps and include brand-new modular mirror shutters and sexed-up electronic exposure program recall) was the pinhole camera, or camera obscura, an ultra-simple device that reflects what’s outside onto the wall of a darkened room. Because of the nature of the apparatus, the projected images are always in reverse.
And now, I said, let me show in a figure how far our nature is enlightened or unenlightened: Behold! human beings living in an underground den, which has a mouth open towards the light and reaching all along the den; here they have been from their childhood, and have their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move, and can only see before them, being prevented by the chains from turning round their heads. Above and behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners there is a raised way; and you will see, if you look, a low wall built along the way, like the screen which marionette players have in front of them, over which they show the puppets. (Plato’s Republic, Book VII)
We are the prisoners in the Cave, shackled facing the darkness inside the camera obscura instead of lifting our chins toward the pinholes of light, but unlike the captives of Plato’s Philosopher King, we have chosen to be captivated by the backwards reflections of the real world that dance before us. Our imprisonment is voluntary; faced with the option of direct light, we have chosen to return to the dark chamber. We like it here.
And now look again, and see what will naturally follow if the prisoners are released and disabused of their error. At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck round and walk and look towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which in his former state he had seen the shadows; . . . Will he not fancy that the shadows which he formerly saw are truer than the objects which are now shown to him? (Plato’s Republic, Book VII)
Next time: a dispatch from Paris. Going to the movies is better in France.
Montreal-based journalist Melora Koepke is in her element when the theatre lights dim. Camera Obscura lights up cinema culture every second Thursday.