The Truth in Midair


J. Hoberman over at the NYRB's daily blog:

Like a reel of film coursing through a movie projector, the history of motion pictures rolls on—if increasingly without the projector or the film.

Two twenty-first century phenomena have changed the way moving pictures are made and perceived. The first is the accelerating use of digital technology and the inexorable rise of a cyborg cinema that, by combining animated and photographic images, compromises the direct relationship to reality that had long been the medium’s claim to truth. The second is the trauma of September 11, 2001, which for many provided the ultimate movie experience that was more than a movie—spectacular destruction, broadcast live, and watched by an audience, more or less simultaneously, of billions.

Both events inform The Walk, the new 3-D movie by Robert Zemeckis that recounts and reconstructs the French aerialist Philippe Petit’s high-wire stroll between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. Although amply justified by its thrilling twenty-minute set piece, The Walk (unlike Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón’s marvelous 2013 exploration of the 3-D void) is not a fully sustained experience. But it is a milestone in the development of digitalized cinema and the memory of 9/11.

Zemeckis is an immensely successful commercial filmmaker whose oeuvre has been characterized by recurring concerns. These include a preoccupation with the ways the American past has been made malleable by the media, mainly TV; a not unrelated fascination with the digital reshaping (or recontextualizing) of the human form; and a fondness for isolated protagonists who develop obsessive bonds with imagined entities.

Back to the Future (1985), Zemeckis’s best-loved movie, is at once celebratory and parodic, with its naïvely oedipal hero, airbrushed sense of the 1950s, and theme-park notion of America. It is a crucial Reagan-era text; Reagan himself quoted the movie in his 1986 State of the Union address when he proclaimed, “where we are going there are no roads.” (Garry Wills referred to Back to the Future several times in a chapter of Reagan’s America that speaks of our fortieth president as “America’s ‘remembered’ self.”)

More here.