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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

One person's special effect is another's sensory bombardment

Posted By on 12.11.13 at 04:08 PM

The Polar Express
  • The Polar Express
I've been somewhat bewildered by the advertising push for the state-of-the-art Dolby Atmos sound system, which a number of local multiplexes installed in their theaters this past year. Most people I know go to movies based on what they're about or which actors are in them or perhaps who wrote or directed them. The amenities of the theater might play some role in where they choose to see a film, but often the deciding factor is which theater's closest to home. The implied message of the Dolby Atmos ads is that the technology somehow makes movies better, as though it delivers a film's sound design so powerfully that it transcends any flaws in the storytelling, acting, et cetera, and transforms the movie into an immersive sensory experience. But if there are really so many people who want to enjoy movies that way, then why aren't multiplexes routinely showing the work of Ken Jacobs, Ben Russell, and Jodie Mack?

Sometimes I suspect that effects-heavy multiplex movies are at the mercy of expensive technology and not the other way around. Several reviews I've read of the upcoming Hobbit movie fault it for being overlong and containing too-little story, yet this same criticism could be applied to multiple blockbusters of recent years that exceed two-hour running times. I understand the logic behind the growing lengths—blockbuster movies cost so much, both to make and to see, that studios and spectators alike want to get their money's worth. But what might register for one spectator as a feast of pleasurable sounds and images (similar to the candy binge children enjoy on Halloween night) could be, to another, a form of sensory bombardment.

Never was this so apparent to me as when I watched Robert Zemeckis's Polar Express, whose sophisticated use of motion-capture technology surely makes it a milestone in 21st-century F/X cinema. I saw the film at the day center for developmentally disabled adults where I once worked as a direct-care provider. When a coworker rented it and brought it into the center, I was working mainly with the profoundly retarded clients, those with an IQ of roughly 25 or below. They never advanced beyond the mental capacity of a three-month-old infant. Two had been born "normal" and suffered irreversible brain damage during botched medical operations, but most were the victims of congenital disorders and had been like this from birth.

In any case, working with them was rather like caring for very large infants. I changed their diapers, spoon-fed them their lunches (they hadn't developed the mental capacity to chew), and introduced them to as much of the world as they might comprehend. This latter activity took the form of sensory-stimulation exercises. For 20-to-30 minute periods, we'd engage the clients with different pieces of fabric, put on a CD, or show them pictures from a storybook. We didn't read as often as we engaged in sensory or auditory stimulation, as a few of the clients had been born blind. Whatever we did, though, we tried to focus on one sense at a time, as anything more complicated could register as overload and send the clients into tantrums. One of the men suffered little seizures whenever he felt overwhelmed, which happened at least once an hour. He spent most of his life in a custom-made padded wheelchair that he could thrash around in without any risk to his well-being.

When our boss offered to let my coworkers and me watch Polar Express with the profounds, she clearly meant it as a treat for us and not the clients. It was getting close to Christmas break, and no one wanted to work very much. We'd spent little time on vocational activities that week (as I've noted before, we had to devote so many minutes each day to engaging the clients in activities that might be described as career-building so that the center could qualify for state funding). The nonprofound clients passed many of the hours coloring and playing games; the ones whom my two coworkers and I assisted kept mainly the same schedule, as the profounds seemed to enjoy the sensory-stimulation exercises.

To be honest, I don't know what they got out of the movie. I got the feeling that the simultaneity of music, dialogue, colors, and movement was all too much for them. Our client in the especially padded chair convulsed nonstop till he fell asleep (this was how he responded to every movie I saw him watch), while the others merely fell asleep without convulsing. We'd turned the lights off in the room to create a "movie theater" atmosphere, which was a polite way of saying we were going to let the profounds take a nap. I'm not sure if the music or warm colors of Polar Express played a role in putting them to sleep. But I can say for certain that those sequences defined by busy action, color, and sound—in short, those "immersive" parts that the Dolby Atmos ads would have us believe are the cornerstone of cinematic art—were what made them wake up periodically from their naps, look around the room befuddled, and sob in terror.

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