The Awe (and Aaah) Factor

Being in Los Angeles brings out the film fanatic in me.

It starts when, looking up at the hills, I see the gigantic HOLLYWOOD sign proclaiming that I am in the Land of Make Believe. My latent stargazer is fanned to a fury as I drive past huge billboards boasting images of movie stars, bragging release dates of blockbusters, and inviting me to visit this studio or that.

Finally, I am clobbered into submission when I reach my mother’s apartment. The Gods of Entertainment have smiled down upon her. She has a satellite dish and gets TV channels that play movies, movies, movies. My favorite kind. Old. Old. Old.

This is a fabulous treat for me, whose television channels are limited to those that my ancient roof antenna can suck down its metal rod.

And so, in the past few days, I have seen Kirk Douglas inspiring slaves to rebel in Spartacus. I have seen Charlton Heston leading bedraggled Israelites to the shores of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments. I have seen King Kong reduced to a simpering chimp by his love for Fay Ray, Gene Kelly galloping through puddles and Singing in the Rain, and in some ways most jaw-dropping of all, Fred Astaire defying gravity as he danced up, down, and over the ceiling and walls in Royal Wedding.

All accomplished, lest we forget, without computers.

Which makes me think, muse, percolate, and ponder about contemporary crowd scenes, contemporary epics, and contemporary movie magic.

What propelled my brain along this uphill path was an entertaining series of well-made movies that began with Michael Crichton’s (love that man) Jurassic Park. As I am sure you remember, in it, dinosaurs come to life. The cinematic achievement of their resuscitation and emergence is and was truly miraculous.

And yet …

After five or ten minutes of viewing their astonishing revivification, the “fact” of dinosaurs tearing through electrified fences and devouring obnoxious attorneys becomes routine. The story continues to captivate, but the prehistoric monsters themselves are almost too believable. They thump. They rage. They cavort. Very nice. Now what? We have seen it. We believe it. We have become blasé.

I found this also to be true for the recent remake of King Kong. Although this new Kong is not really all that different from the 1933 RKO version, great strides in animation are evident, particularly in the dinosaur stampede and people-swatting-at-giant-bugs scenes.

Again, however, after the first five minutes ... hum de dum de dum. Giant gorilla. Nasty bugs. Indomitable tyrannosaur. Enough already. When is it going to end?

In terms of adding texture, depth, and character to crowd scenes, I found myself comparing the teeming hordes in Russell Crow’s Gladiator with similar rabble in Spartacus and The Ten Commandments.

I concluded that computerized multitudes are boring.

Instead of conveying character and personality, each digitalized “person” becomes a placeholder for an amorphous and unindividualized non-person. Even when attempts are made to create differences, they are differentiated in the same way – in contrast to crowd scenes in older (and better) movies where the hopes, fears, fortitudes, sparks of elation, or grimaces of despair are expressed on each slave’s face during and after every emotion-provoking incident, uprising, or rebellion.

What they do is called acting. It is done by living, breathing, emoting human beings, and we are affected by it.

Computerized people just don’t make it as actors.

Even today when I am watching the original versions of, say, King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, halfway through the film, I find myself muttering, “How did they do that?”

I know that models of apes were brought to life by stop-motion photography. Nonetheless, the awe factor remains. Probably because the very imperfections of a 1933 dinosaur or giant gorilla make them seem less real and therefore more ... amazing. Whereas prehistoric monsters in contemporary films are so anatomically correct that we expect to see them nibbling on a Nathan’s hot dog in Central Park.

And as far as Fred Astaire’s exuberant upside-down cavort in Royal Wedding goes … when that scene was filmed, the room slowly rotated in one direction as the camera slowly rotated in the other. Or so we are told.

We know better, though.

We know that Fred really was dancing on the ceiling. We know that Gene Kelly really was singing in the rain. And the Israelites? Of course, the Red Sea parted for them, and then Charlton Heston led all of those wonderful actors to the promised land.

Which is where – the awe and aah factors permitting – all good movies lead the rest of us, too.

Shelly Reuben is an Edgar-nominated author, private detective, and fire investigator. For more about her books, visit

Copyright © 2008, Shelly Reuben

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