My pliable co-star and I

Software is increasingly replacing flesh-and-blood movie extras, and the exotic locations we see on the big screen often exist only in cyberspace. Now that director Andrew Niccol has revealed that the star of his next film will be be computer-generated, where will it all end?
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The Independent Culture

These days, it is up to us what we make of the news. The internet is a field of irresponsibility that allows one to say virtually anything - because it has only been virtually said. Last week, Salon - an American internet magazine - ran the item that the Black Dahlia murder committed in Los Angeles in 1947 had been the work of Orson Welles. The charge was serenely unimpeded by evidence, but the great blurring in which we wander had managed to merge two legends for a moment.

These days, it is up to us what we make of the news. The internet is a field of irresponsibility that allows one to say virtually anything - because it has only been virtually said. Last week, Salon - an American internet magazine - ran the item that the Black Dahlia murder committed in Los Angeles in 1947 had been the work of Orson Welles. The charge was serenely unimpeded by evidence, but the great blurring in which we wander had managed to merge two legends for a moment.

Meanwhile, in the Hollywood trade press, there was a report (amply based in fact) that may be the most far-reaching media story of the year. The young film-maker Andrew Niccol announced that, for his forthcoming movie, Simone, he had decided against using a real actress in the title role. Instead, he would employ a computer-generated creature. His film concerns a young woman who becomes a movie star, working for a producer to be played by Al Pacino. You might be forgiven for wondering whether, in the last few years, this trick hasn't been pulled off several times already. But no, this time will be the first, and if it doesn't signal the end of one age of movies, then it means the beginning of another for which we have no name yet.

It's no surprise that this methodology is being tried first with a female character. It re-affirms the orthodoxy that the female on screen is, ideally, fresh young sexual meat, ready to do, or show, more than has ever been shown before. Woman has been material for the male fantasy on screen for a hundred years, and now the fantasising power is given an extra twist - this woman is inhuman, servile, pliable. She has no conscience, memory or dignity to protest against the way she is used.

Every year, real actresses go further than they want to - in how much clothing they'll remove, or what sexual behaviour they'll simulate - because they know that to be squeamish is to risk losing the job. Beyond that, actresses with eloquent bodies may lack the skill or imagination to be good performers. Shooting can be held up because the girl can't get the right look of dread or ecstasy. Those delays may be over. If the look can be "drawn" or "generated", it is there: the computer will call it something like F277/B/gr. You only have to tap at a keyboard to gain access to the immense, codified treasury of looks.

We don't know who tried out for the part of Simone before Niccol took his radical decision. We may wonder if he ever intended to use an actual person. But let's suppose that Julia Roberts "lost" the part, or Meg Ryan, or Mena Suvari (the young temptress in American Beauty). Without them, at current ratings, you save $15m-$20m, $7.5m, or $2m in up-front cash. If the film is a hit, you might save far more, for Roberts's post- Erin Brockovich salary will be only part of a deal that includes a significant percentage of the profits.

You may suppose that Square USA, the company set to "do" Simone for the movie, will get that $20m. I doubt it. Computer generation is not cheap, but the economics are yielding to refinements that have occurred in the last few years. Brave new enterprises foreseeing their place in film-making are keen to show how modestly their work can be done. In many obvious situations - mimicking large sets, huge numbers of extras, to say nothing of "star" figures - the computer can reduce the cost of film-making out of all recognition, just because the job can be done in a small room as opposed to a variety of crammed arenas.

Already, the need to hire, feed, transport and costume thousands of extras (as in Gladiator) has been eliminated by computer. But that is a small plus, compared with the chance that producers and studios can fundamentally offset the income and power of stars and their agents.

How do stars respond? Can they muster any argument for essential unfairness, or illegality? I don't see how. Their one area for being inventive is to make a pact with some computer house that could lay down a "bank" of imagery of themselves, available for all kinds of movies, for years or decades to come.

That's not far-fetched. It's the process we have seen already with the recreation of stars like Wayne, Bogart and Astaire, and the insertion of their image in TV commercials. The "re-tread" use of dead stars depends on legal arrangements with their estates, and on what the computer can do with available imagery. But a Julia Roberts, say, could go into a computer house for a year and put down a catalogue of imagery for nearly infinite story situations. Then she'd be available for ever, and always 33, her present age. The thing she may fear most - reaching 40 - might be avoided.

Of course, actors and agents could stand on their unique reality. They might argue that the public won't buy "fake" people. The success or failure of Simone isn't going to be crucial in that argument. I can see the novelty of one, or several, new "phantoms" working very effectively before the public began to grow restless with the lack of "real" breathing skin and seeing eyes. There's a sentimental attitude - call it nostalgia or humanism - that is heartened by that thought. As a film critic, I want to believe in the hesitations of James Dean, the insolent gaze of Cary Grant, and even the narcissistic grin of Julia Roberts. As someone who's made a few films, I have had the same feeling of wonder or delight in the look and feel of twilight on some girl's face - some girl I knew, and was filming. I have lived by the idea of precious moments, and glimpses of the soul beneath the flesh.

Yet I am uncertain. So many current films mock the emotional expressiveness of older films, if only because younger generations than I belong to have become cynical about movie story-telling. Moreover, I can point to modern traditions of screen acting that are increasingly robotic or automaton-like. It's as if, to match the stricken poker faces of young people today, or the deliberate, affectless stare that is so common, we have evolved a kind of acting that goes through McQueen and Eastwood to Schwarzenegger, Keanu Reeves and the dismay of Johnny Depp. It is as if, after 150 years or so of photography and film, we have become more resistant to the danger that our faces can betray us. So we are determined to make a mask of the face. Isn't that a cultural vector that has been converging for the last decades on the course plotted by computer imagery?

Consider how many movies there have been in the last decades - some of them pretty good - in which characters were not human or alive, but aspiring to some automatic state: Alien; Terminator; Robocop; The Matrix; The Sixth Sense; The Faculty; the Living Dead pictures; Face/Off; the recent Eddie Murphy films in which, like DNA, he is everyone; Gattaca and The Truman Show.

Some of you may perhaps recall that Andrew Niccol, the maker of Simone, wrote and directed the movie Gattaca (in which Ethan Hawke is an "in-valid" in a world of genetically flawless "valids") and wrote The Truman Show (in which the Jim Carrey character attempts to opt out of the totally designed show of his own life). Those two films demonstrate that Niccol is far from a mindless prophet of futurism. Indeed, The Truman Show (directed by Peter Weir) is one of the greatest and most truly horrific American movies at a time when horror has been nearly ruined by slick knowingness.

But I give Niccol credit for being smart and young (he is only 36), and for seeing that it is not only our movies that are becoming more artificial and less human. Society at large is taking on the same habits and flavours. We should not be too surprised if the movies change to keep up. There was a brief period, 1927-77, let's say, in which films were content to be life-like - the camera not lying, sound and colour completing the illusion, and stories being told for our moral benefit.

Since then, however, so many new things have appeared - a content of films that would be impossible in life (Lucas and Spielberg), the pressure of having us see things we have never seen before (special effects), the diminution of narrative, the mockery of moral purpose, the movement away from photography and light to electronic imagery, and now our appetite for ghostly or body-snatched people. Put it all together, and you can see how live-action movies are coming to resemble animated pictures.

They will be less than we had once. But they may be more. And the draining away of the glamour of actors could undercut the cult of celebrity. The person who needs to be most worried - and he does worry well - is Al Pacino.

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