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The Undeath of Cinema

An engaging essay in The New Atlantis raises important questions that, frankly, hadn’t even occurred to me. Whether that speaks to my denseness or my innocence of cutting edge filmmaking, I cannot say. In any case, “The Undeath of Cinema,” by the young editor and playwright Alexi Sargeant, is well worth reading.

In brief: Disney’s 2016 standalone Star Wars film Rogue One, contiving to capture the popularity of the original 1977 classic, set out to revive several iconic villains. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll confine myself to saying that one such villain was easy to revive, and the revival carried off brilliantly, in a concluding scene that crowned a movie whose final act saved an otherwise uneven and mediocre production. Reviving the second villain, however, proved a much heavier lift. The actor who played him, you see, is long deceased. So Disney experimented with a novel CGI technology to “resurrect” the likeness of the late actor Peter Cushing and insert this digital chimera into several scenes. The result may well have inaugurated a new and disturbing trend in cinema, whose lineaments it is the business of Mr. Sargeant to examine with a wise and critical eye.

Grand Moff Tarkin appears throughout Rogue One, to outward appearances as if the Peter Cushing of 1977 had agreed to step through time for this 2016 film. But Cushing himself could not . . . approve of the studio’s use of his likeness. Instead, his estate gave Disney the go-ahead. How confident can we be that the studio and Cushing’s heirs — actually, his former secretary Joyce Broughton, the overseer of his estate — correctly discerned the wishes of an actor who died more than twenty years ago, about his apparent resurrection using a technology that didn’t exist during his lifetime? And, leaving aside the question of consent, what would the ethical and artistic fallout be should the use of this technology become widespread?

. . . Disney made Cushing a test case for a digital resurrection freely chosen by the filmmakers. There was no overwhelming narrative need to include Grand Moff Tarkin in this Star Wars story. The script has its own cast of bickering Imperial antagonists who could have lost command of the Death Star by the film’s end without the Grand Moff appearing in person to requisition it. The reason Tarkin is in the movie is to serve as an experiment in filmmaking technology. Let us see, then, what the Cushing experiment reveals about the merits of digitally resurrecting the dead.

Sargeant then lingers a bit on the actor Cushing, an English gentlemen of grace and professional perseverance who has the ironic distinction, in light of subsequent cinematographic developments, of having played portrayed Baron Victor Frankenstein, and from that role, having launched a successful career in the horror genre, which included other noteworthy depictions of necromantic roles.

He wound up a screen horror icon. For twenty years he was a mainstay of horror films, frequently playing the Baron in Hammer Horror’s Frankenstein films and Professor Van Helsing in their Dracula films.

Cushing had a particularly interesting relationship with undeath between these two famous recurring roles. As Frankenstein, he imbued corpses with a mockery of life; as Van Helsing, he put down the undead with a stake through the heart. Cushing himself pointed out this cyclical pattern in a 1964 interview: “People look at me as if I were some sort of monster, but I can’t think why. In my macabre pictures, I have either been a monster-maker or a monster-destroyer. But never a monster. Actually, I’m a gentle fellow.”

Gentle he might have been, but thanks to Hammer and many other horror studios, Cushing’s filmography was full of technicolor gore and Gothic excess. He had the gaunt face and tall frame for it, though perhaps sometimes more of a twinkle in his eye than you’d expect from a master of horror.

These qualities of hale, imperial menace appealed to George Lucas when he set out to cast the secondary villain for the original Star Wars in 1977, and desired “a face to share the antagonist role with the masked Darth Vader.”

Cushing passed away in 1994. Some thought was given to reviving his role via CGI for one of the Star Wars prequels ten years later, but that project was abandoned for a actor who, with the assistance of facial prosthetics, was made to resemble him.

Here is Sargeant on how the digital resurrection of Cushing iconic character was accomplished:

For 2016’s Rogue One, the filmmakers took a different approach. Initially, director Gareth Edwards considered simply recasting the role. But the visual effects supervisor, John Knoll (also an executive producer of the film and the originator of its story concept) convinced Edwards they could bring back Cushing.

The technique was executed by Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the special effects studio founded by George Lucas, where Knoll is a Chief Creative Officer. ILM used cutting-edge technology to make a digital model of Peter Cushing and superimpose it on stand-in actor Guy Henry, who wore a head-mounted camera rig to capture every detail of his facial motion. Then the digital wizards transferred those motions to their virtual Tarkin maquette, making frame-by-frame adjustments to bring Henry’s movements in line with those of Cushing archive footage. Fortunately for them, they also had a three-dimensional cast of Cushing’s face to use for reference — a lifecast made for the 1984 movie Top Secret. The work took place over eighteen months. Tarkin appears frequently in Rogue One and interacts with the main villain, Director Krennic (played in the flesh by Ben Mendelsohn), taking over command of the newly built Death Star.

From there Sargeant relates in some detail the reasons why this “undeath” technique must be recognized as very different from, say, characters that are entirely the result of computer graphics, masks, puppetry, sound design, and other artifices of filmmaking. Real human actors interact with these artifices, and no matter how compelling they are, the audience instantly knows the difference and accepts it as part of the entertainment.

An acting teacher of mine passed on what she claimed was an old saying, advising actors to be “the real frog in the artificial garden.” This means that the sets and costumes and given circumstances of a fictive world, be they ever so fanciful or abstract, are simply reality for one’s character. One should react as a real person would to these surroundings, telling the truth under imagined circumstances. This is not just a bargain the actor makes with the audience in exchange for the audience’s suspension of disbelief. The actor’s realness helps the audience to suspend disbelief, modeling what it is like to live in the reality of the story.

How will it affect audiences to know that the actor himself, the human face and body we identify with, is a piece of cinematic illusion? Reality, usually that of the actor, is our bridge into the fiction, fantasy, or surreality of the work. There is nothing any longer to hook us in when all we can see in the artificial garden is the artificial frog.

Acting, again, is the art of presence. The first taboo that Rogue One’s use of at-will resurrection violated was an artistic one. We don’t want actors who are the puppets of directors, each facial tic reflecting a director’s decree rather than a performer inhabiting his character’s reality. But that’s precisely what we get when we Frankenstein together an uncannily lifelike facsimile of an actor and give technicians the puppet strings.

The second taboo that Rogue One violated, Sargeant argues, was “the taboo against dishonoring dead bodies. Note that I say ‘dead bodies’ and not ‘the dead.’ The CGI Cushing-as-Tarkin is not disrespecting Cushing’s memory in the way that, say, slandering him at his funeral might. No, what is violated here is closer to a religious than a social taboo.”

He goes on:

Peter Cushing’s spare frame, sharp cheekbones, and long limbs are part of what made him him; they are essential to his Cushing-ness. Creating a convincing facsimile of his living, breathing, moving form after his death should not be undertaken lightly, any more than exhuming his corpse should be. The grave-robbing version is surely more egregious. Yet if it would be wrong to make a puppet of a dead man’s mortal remains, then it is also wrong to make a puppet of a dead man’s imitated form. A simulacrum is fraught with the dignity of the individual it represents.

Dishonoring the remains of the dead is a near-universal, but poorly articulated, taboo. Many people agree that it is wrong without having a metaphysical framework that justifies their belief in the dignity of the human body. But the widespread unease at the CGI Cushing testifies to the power and wisdom of this taboo, however inchoate.

The technology of digitally bringing deceased actors back to the screen runs counter to this humane impulse, this feeling that it is proper to allow the dead to remain buried.

I’m passing over several other troubling points made in the course of this essay, which is why I encourage readers to engage the whole thing. For instance, Sargeant shrewdly introduces the peril that that may arise within the context of the “fake news” controversies: technology is now available that will allow video editors to essentially put words in the mouth of anyone, altogether regardless of whether he or she actually articulated those words in that order. I have personally seen this tech at work and can attest that its potential for mischief is enormous and alarming. Nor should we overlook the disturbing possibilities afforded for manipulative advertisers, social media trolls, or pornographers, the details of I will not expound upon here.

Sargeant’s conclusion strikes an elegiac note:

One piece of trivia about Peter Cushing’s performance in the original 1977 film is treasured by many Star Wars fans. The black riding boots provided by the wardrobe department for Imperial officers pinched Cushing’s feet painfully — he had exceptionally large feet. He got permission from George Lucas to remove the uncomfortable boots and instead play the role in carpet slippers, and the camera operators adjusted by filming him only from the knees up or else with his feet obscured by set pieces. In an interview, Cushing recalls the irony of playing an iron-fisted totalitarian in such soft footwear: “So for the rest of the film I stomped around, looking extremely angry, very cross, with that dear little Carrie Fisher, as old Grand Moff Tarkin in carpet slippers.”

This story endures in part because it is simply charming, in part because it illustrates the humanity and presence of an actor’s performance, even when he plays a villain — or, as Cushing describes the part, a “very cross, unpleasant gentleman.” We root against Tarkin, as the Grand Moff is a smug, Imperial mass murderer, yet we are glad to remember that just off-screen are those carpet slippers, an objective correlative of Cushing’s warmth and gentility. Whatever the role, a good actor imbues his performance with an irreducible human element.

The ghost of Cushing we see summoned in Rogue One is missing that human element. He’s less than the sum of his parts: a dead man’s face, a living man’s voice, a whole team of programmers’ code. More machine now than man, the uncanny new Tarkin has an absence at its heart. It’s jackboots all the way down.

Comments (2)

Wow, this is a fascinating concern, and I agree that it is not a good sign. Incarnate reality dies in so many aspects of our lives. Cinephiles should be interested in this trend and not happy about it.

Fascinating, and disturbing indeed.

As an aside, just last week I watched a film that unbeknownst to me contained one of Mr. Cushing's earliest screen appearances -- the 1940 Laurel & Hardy comedy A Chump at Oxford. Cushing has several scenes as a member of the group of Oxford students that torment L&H upon their arrival and for the rest of the movie.

I was a big fan of the Hammer movies in the 60's/70's and thus was pleased to see him in Star Wars when I first watched it upon its initial release. So, yeah, this strikes me as something of a travesty, in more ways than one.

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