I got thinking a lot this week about special effects after watching Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006)—not exactly a masterpiece (and a bit annoyingly twee in spots), but a very enjoyable film, and a welcome relief from the kind of maximalist FX porn that constitutes so much of the summer movie season. Gondry may not be a master filmmaker, but he is a visionary artist whose use of visual effects—most of them done “in camera” as opposed to in post-production—is more interesting and creative than most of the CGI wizardry that’s laboriously, humorlessly worked over by teams of computer technicians. While most modern-day action and sci-fi films are made with actors performing in front of blue screens, holding fake props, reacting to blank spaces that will later be filled in by computer graphics, Gondry’s films make dazzling use of “homemade” special effects—stop-motion animation, cut-outs and miniatures, arts-and-crafts-class materials like cellophane and cardboard. His ability to solve cinematic problems “magically”—through visual sleights of hand and in-camera effects—recalls the early silent filmmakers (Georges Melies, Thomas Edison) for whom film was a great trick, a thrilling illusion. There’s a tactile quality to Gondry’s films that CG, which by definition is always mediated by machines, always seems to lack. It’s not that we’re less aware of the effects in Gondry’s films; in The Science of Sleep (2006), for example, most are quite obviously fake. But they’re somehow more stunning, more impressive, because we can see the fingerprints and the strings—the labor that put them together is somehow more visible, and more easily appreciated.
That seems to me the primary pleasure of Sleep, or of Gondry’s subsequent film, Be Kind Rewind (2008), both of which are somehow great films that rise above quite bad screenplays (writing is not Gondry’s strong point; a friend of mine commented that Be Kind Rewind seemed to have been written by a third-grader. Gondry’s best film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , hugely benefited from Charlie Kaufman’s script. That film, one of the best of the decade, was an uncannily perfect marriage of Gondry and Kaufman’s particularly weird talents). Sleep and Rewind are films that somehow convey the sheer joy of making “amateur” art, as for example when Jack Black and Mos Def in the latter film decide to film their own backyard version of Ghostbusters using homemade props and costumes and neighbors as actors. The childlike quality of these films—their appeal to a child’s sense of play, of make-believe, dreaming and dressing up, and to the sense of excitement that attends that kind of creative play—is truly remarkable, because the act of filmmaking itself so often comes out of that kind of play. Gondry’s films are opposed to the aesthetic of using a computer file to make a perfectly photorealistic simulacrum of New York City to be destroyed by an equally photorealistic computer-created robot. They are about making the most ingenious use possible of whatever the filmmaker happens to have on hand.