August 2005 | This Issue

Ned Bobkoff

The War of Special Effects

fter I read George Packer's article on the Home Front in the July 4th issue of the New Yorker focusing on the troubled and painful ambiguities of the father of a soldier killed in Iraq, I went out to see Steven Spielberg's version of War of the Worlds to get away from it all. It was revealing. There was no dramatic plot, no build, no climax, just a series of lollapalooza special effects and slam bang chases to keep you tied down to your seat. I couldn't tell whether Tom Cruise was battling creatures from another world, or was simply cleaning his engrams in a special Scientology experiment. I figured that as long as he is making a reputed 20 million buckaroos in the Spielberg epic, I was obliged to watch. It was the least I could do to help the poor man get through it all.  

Loading the dice with Special Effects doesn't require much acting, but it does demand emotionally distraught reacting. Isn't that what acting is supposed to be about? Reacting to whatever is in front of you, however unintelligible?  Reacting to Special Effects may not challenge the imagination, but it does challenge an actor's technique. How can you be distraught and make it work? What good is an alien if you can't turn an unknown into a familiar? Distraught reactions ripened all over the place in War of the Worlds but the vast majority of distraught reactions were on Tom Cruise's face. Although I thought I saw Karl Rove in the crowd running away from the horrors.  

In Spielberg's film, Cruise's usual put upon indignant rage was conjured into a usable technique. A technique that sells, a tell tale technique coupled with a divorced father's late coming parental concern for his kids. Ray Ferrier (Cruise) picks up his daughter (Dakota Fanning) and his recalcitrant teen age son (Justin Chatwin) for an outing. Thrown into a war of words with his kids, they are all suddenly tossed into a jalopy ride of Special Effects: a full-scale frontal attack on humanity by Tripods. Tripods that rumble up from deep within the Earth, after having waited millions of years to do just that. Tripods with long towers of shifting search lights beaming down on  frightened human communities. Tripods with snake like necks and camera faces that loop and dip into the hidden places of human fear. Wow, what more can an actor ask than to be surrounded by cameras and lights that pick him out of the crowd running away? War of the Worlds is a self-congratulatory homage to contemporary digital filmmaking. Put a camera face on a monstrous Tripod, and you've got yourself a horror film: a gargantuan dinosaur of technical wizardry. A last resort once the imagination has gone with the wind.   

Orson Welles' 1938 radio version of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds had an impact because it was suggestive and timely, pitched for the ear. It was all about listening with your imagination, listening to a story, listening to Welles' striking mellifluous voice with your family, your ears glued to the radio. There were no bombarding visual effects to distract the imagination. No explosive sounds deafening your ears with alienation. You listened with your Third Ear: an instrument of tribal memory native to the human imagination; capable of detecting the subtlest changes of human fear and turning it into belief. How many people walked out of Spielberg's War of the Worlds believing that it was happening outside the theatre? How many people watch the TV news and believe they are watching War Of The Worlds? Today we have a critical suspension of honest belief, a selling of goods beyond our imagination, a distraction from the real thing: the pleasures and sorrows of human destiny.    

Bamboozling Special Effects, the gods of technological wizardry, are the leading characters of many films. Special Effects dominate much of what we see these days: ads on TV and blockbuster flicks. Special Effects have become the lock, stock and barrel of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking, as well as an advertiser's dream for those who sell us everything and anything on TV. Are we at the point of not being able to distinguish between real wars and the wars of the imagination? Are we being loaded into slots like human DVD's? Perhaps we are one with the marvels because we have lost our marbles. In the face of the blitz, we walk out of the flicks, chewing our popcorn; numb, transfixed, deafened by explosions, out of our wits. There is more in heaven and earth, Horatio, than we can possibly imagine. The rest is silence. 


©2005 Ned Bobkoff
©2005 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Ned Bobkoff is a director and writer who has worked with performers from all walks of life, in a variety of community and cultural settings, throughout the United States and abroad.
For more commentary and articles by
Ned Bobkoff, check the Archives.

Your Comments Are Appreciated -Click



All prior issues are secured in the Scene4 archives.
To access the Archives:

Scene4 Archives-Click
Scene4 Magazine Subscribe

Scene4 Email This Page To A Friend-Click

© 2000-2005 Scene4 - International Magazine of Performing Arts and Media - AVIAR-DKA Ltd. All rights reserved (including author and individual copyrights as indicated). All copyrights, trademarks and servicemarks are protected by the laws of the United States and International laws. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.