Tom Sutcliffe: When a film is not a film

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When the Cannes organisers invited Disney/ Pixar to present Up as the opening film of the 2009 festival they made history. It was, as was widely reported at the time, the first animated feature to open Cannes and the invitation was broadly treated as an acknowledgement – by the most Brahmin band of cineastes – that animated film really has acquired the status of "filme" , not just a children's entertainment. I'm sure the organisers didn't regret it. Up, as most reviewers agreed last week, is hugely enjoyable and a masterclass in a certain kind of storytelling – particularly in the wonderful opening section, which compresses an entire marriage into a few poignant minutes. But, as I peered through my 3D glasses at the adventures of Carl and Russell, I found myself thinking that what I was looking at wasn't really a film at all – but a kind of literature.

There's a straightforward sense in which the word film shouldn't be used of Up. Pixar doesn't use celluloid in the creation of these works and, in many cases, they don't use celluloid to show them, since their proper home is a cinema that has been fitted out for digital projection. You could argue, I suppose, that this is just an accident of technology – no more significant in its way than the move to a new kind of film stock or a new kind of camera. What makes a film a film is its "filminess" – the segregation of the audience into that darkened room, the temporary suspension of disbelief, the fact that it is netted in to a web of filmic allusions and pre-history (as Up certainly is). But it seems odd to arrive at a definition of film that doesn't somehow include a notion of the photographic. That's what staggered cinema's first audiences, after all, and what still captivates us over a hundred years on.

These things we look at on screen are amphibiously poised between fiction and fact – real faces and people in pursuit of an imaginary story. And it's what accounts for the faintly cloying feeling you get when you watch a film that has been heavily swathed in CGI, so that you can't tell where the real things stop and the inventions begin. The beauty of cinema is often that it captures the world in ways that couldn't have been predicted by the director or the writer and haven't been planned by them. Virtues develop in the darkroom that nobody on set knew were there. A great film sequence is sometimes 24 accidents a second.

With Up, though, absolutely nothing has happened by chance. Every flicker of light has been calculated – first by those creatively involved and then by the render-farms that turn the rough work into the finished product. Its much truer to say of these films that they are written, rather than filmed – since what produces their thrilling simulation of surface and texture is long, long lines of code. In much conventional animation we're invited to do the fill in work ourselves, mentally pasting a rock-like texture on to the rock-like shape and often doing it so cursorily that we never really "see" the effect.

In computer-generated animation, by contrast, we're endlessly comparing the effects on screen with our data-banks of real-world textures – and often returning that most literary of judgements "but that's just what it's like!". We understand, as we gape, that this image has been judged and assessed by a human mind for its verisimilitude – rather than simply passed through a mechanism that replicates without knowledge of what it is looking at. And so (paradoxically perhaps, given the amount of computers involved) we feel a sense of human contact when we look at a CGI film. One human mind is saying to another "Have you ever noticed this?". I love it, but it's writing, not film.

Code breakers

The Scientific American offers a neat scientific explanation for the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile in a recent feature on facial illusions. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neurobiologist, suggests that it's because different parts of our visual field offer different levels of acuity. When you look directly at the Mona Lisa's lips the smile all but disappears (the theory goes) because you're seeing Leonardo's perfectly crafted neutrality in sharp focus. Look away at her eyes or her hair, on the other hand, and the mouth is now being seen peripherally, and your brain co-opts the shadows on either side of the lips as part of a broader smile. Essentially, she only smiles when you're not looking. It seemed quite plausible to me when looking at the painting itself, but the effect disappeared completely when you look at the Photoshopped images that Livingstone has worked up to prove her theory (Google Illusions: What's in a Face? to see for yourself). I suspect a full explanation will have to take into account our obliging readiness to see what we've been told we will see.

Terry Gilliam may have missed a trick in the marketing of his new film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, given recent controversies over an Australian talent show that featured a group called the Jackson Jive (five white guys in clownish blackface) and a French Vogue photoshoot, which blacked up the Dutch model Lara Stone for several of its shots. Both discovered – in contradiction to Henry Ford's famous phrase – that you can have any colour you want as long as it's not black, minstrelsy of any kind having a tendency to start a fire these days.

Even Spike Lee got into trouble when he had someone black up in his 2000 film Bamboozled, despite the fact that the humiliation of that form of entertainment was the target of his satire. Gilliam has surely gone one better in affront though, given that he has a dwarf black up – complete with afro wig.

I took it that this scene was a mischievous Gilliam prod at political correctness, since there's also a running gag in which Verne Troyer, the dwarf in question, keeps using the M-word about himself. But if it was intended to stir up some useful pre-launch publicity it doesn't seem to have worked.

Perhaps, he should have put him in an SS costume as well to really nail the deal.

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