The Review/Digital Digest/

Wrath Of Khan's Nicholas Meyer Fears Science-Fiction's "Eye-Candy Syndrome"

"In art — and in film — sometimes less is more"

by Nicholas Meyer
Oct 10, 2016
Nicholas Meyer

“We may brave human laws, but we cannot resist natural ones.”

Jules Verne

I am not a science-fiction fan, per se, but I discovered Jules Verne at an early age, devouring Around The World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and From the Earth to the Moon. Growing up, I also loved HG Wells, I loved Ray Bradbury. Later, I loved A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller. But beyond that, I can’t claim to be an aficionado.

As far as my thoughts regarding science-fiction on film are concerned, I perceive a paradox: all artistic media relies on the invocation, or the provocation of the imagination of the audience. Whether it's a viewer, a listener or a reader, it's their imagination that completes the experience. Movies alone have the hideous capacity to do it all for you.

Today’s science-fiction and fantasy films are especially susceptible to what I'll call "eye-candy syndrome." Thanks to the stunning advances in technology and motion capture, it is now possible to literally depict anything. When you watch Star Wars, Lord of The Rings or Game of Thrones, you’ll see vast, amazing images. But with the fulfillment of every image, there is nothing left to imagine. Absent of that sense of participation, the audience is susceptible to longueurs. How many millions of armed men can you behold filling the screen without simply tiring because you know it’s all computer-generated? If the images constantly supply all the information and answer every question, we become inured to spectacle; we become bored.

Radio is a great example of an artistic medium that leaves things to the imagination. Imagination, incidentally, requires no training; it is easily prompted. Intuitively, we flesh out the missing pieces. In any radio commercial wherein a housewife bemoans those “rings around the collar," we see what she’s talking about in what Hamlet once referred to as “my mind’s eye.”

In 1938, when Orson Welles ingeniously adapted The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells for radio, he succeeded in terrifying a large proportion of the listening population with only sound and sound effects at his disposal.

In 1975, due to technical shortcomings, the shark in Jaws could not be shown from the very start of the film. Director Steven Spielberg was obliged to protract the beast’s entrance until much later, dramatically heightening the viewer’s dread. Thus, art may be said to thrive on restrictions. Would Jaws be as potent an experience if we saw more of the shark chomping its way through victims? I suspect we’d tire of him. In art — and in film — sometimes less is more.

Now, all bets are off. Our imaginative contributions negated, we become passive, slack-jawed witnesses. We all know the movies in which millions of dollars have been spent on special effects and they flop. Techniques such as cutting faster, dialing up the sound and creating bigger and bigger explosions may be ultimately a dead-end. There is only so big and loud we can go. 3D and VR notwithstanding, I believe the technological route eventually leads to an artistic cul-de-sac. We are in danger of having seen everything. All the desperate bells and whistles dreamt up by the FX wizards will not be able to compensate for our boredom. One author titled his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death. Many films, relying exclusively on “eye-candy” do not allow us into the narrative. When there is nothing for us to do and no story to lock into, we may fall asleep.

Great filmmakers figure out what is possible to omit in movies. Think of a horror movie. You see the heroine looking at something that's moving in closer and closer. You don't know what it is and the gas will go right out of it when they show you. But up until that point, it's scary because it leaves things up to your imagination. I think the director Alfred Hitchcock is very good at this. In Psycho, Janet Leigh is in the shower, but we know there’s a man waiting in the next room. The weird man, with all the stuffed birds...

Another example: a person with an anxious and disturbed look on their face takes a pistol and goes into another room. You can really wring people out, making them wait for what we all intuit is imminent – the gunshot. You can hold an audience riveted, attenuating the anticipation of the pistol’s retort. That kind of time can be stretched on and on, tantalizing the viewer's emotional participation and involvement...

Charlie Chaplin was a master of capturing the audience’s imagination. In his short film, The Idle Class, a rich alcoholic has just been informed that his wife will leave him unless he stops drinking. He turns his back to the camera and we behold his shoulders quivering and shaking. We may think, “My god, the guy is convulsed with grief by the prospect of his wife leaving him!” Eventually, Chaplin turns back to us and we see he’s been vigorously shaking a martini mixer.

Another scene where things are left to the imagination takes place in The Sundowners (1960). It is a movie about a family of sheep drovers in Australia, made up of a father, a mother and their teenaged boy. Their job is to herd the sheep from where they're raised to where they are shorn. The problem is that the wife doesn't want to do it anymore. She's spent 12 years on the road with the boys and the chuckwagon and she's tired of it. Her son has come of an age and she wants him to have a decent education and not be a good ol' boy just like his dad. This is the condition where one of my favourite scenes in cinema takes place.

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners, 1960

It’s a Cinemascope screen at the end of the trail drive and you are looking at an outback railroad station at the ass-end of nowhere. In the foreground, running horizontally, are a set of train tracks. In front of us, driving into their own over-the-shoulder shot, is the buckboard where the man and the wife are sitting. There's only three lines of dialogue in the scene. The first line: the man turns to his wife and says, "You stay here, I'll get paid." He leaves his wife sitting in the buckboard across from the train station.

Now, a train pulls in right in front of her. Seated in a carriage window is a woman about her own age. She's wearing a silly city hat and she's powdering her face out of a compact over the rim of which she happens to glance outside and sees a woman in a buckboard staring at her. That woman is not wearing a city hat. She is wearing a torn, straw boater. And she's not wearing any makeup, she's wearing the dust of the trail. For several reciprocating close-ups, the two women stare at each other. And then, the train suddenly gives a chuff of steam and starts pulling out of the station and the spell is broken. The woman goes back to powdering her nose; she'll forget all about this. But our lady sitting in the buckboard is now re-joined by her husband who sees that, in addition of the dust on the trail, are two rivulets of tears streaming down her dusty cheeks. Second line of dialogue: "What's the matter with you?" It's a long pause. And you better believe our imaginations are working overtime at this point. Finally, she says, "Nothing really." He sees that something is the matter and he puts his arm around her and they drive away. And it's not even an important part of the movie. But I never forgot it.

No other art form can achieve a moment like that. If Henry James did it, we'd read 12 pages describing the female character's thoughts. The director here isn't telling you what these women are thinking. He’s just showing you the matching close-ups. You decide what they must be thinking. It is your imagination that completes the picture and fleshes out the narrative.

Still from Wrath Of Khan, 1982, directed by Nicholas Meyer

Last example: Wrath of Khan. What is underneath Khan’s glove? You don’t know and it's not answered. But it sure grabs your attention.

I think the only unlimited sphere is the one inside our heads. Artists need to find ways to tunnel inside that wide-open space and judiciously mind-meld with what SFX have to offer. It’s only then that movies may move on to their next, glorious era.

See Nicholas Meyer introduce the director’s cut of The Wrath of Khan, Wednesday October 12 at TIFF Bell Lightbox as part of TIFF’s 50 Years of Star Trek anniversary programming.


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