Monday, July 13, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXXII: Greetings, programs!


Directed by Steven Lisberger
Written by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird

Spoiler alert: moderate

"Everybody else, and certainly since this point, has been going nuts trying to make computer animation mimic reality perfectly, and I found that the limitations of computer graphics at the time were the most exciting thing.  If computer animation is no different from reality, maybe we've lost something."
—Harrison Ellenshaw, associate producer and visual effects supervisor, TRON

was only a middling hit in the year of its release, but not, as is sometimes said, a failure: its "disappointing" box office was less because audiences actively avoided it than because it was rushed into a crowded summer slot by Disney chairman Card Walker in a weird, barely-calculated move to crush perceived Disney traitor Don Bluth and his first feature film, The Secret of NIMH.  (Other than "kids, I guess?", I don't know how TRON was ever supposed to go head-to-head for the same audience.  Incidentally, for one of these movies, the stylized capitalization in the title is actually appropriate.)  Now, TRON was divisive with critics and audiences, as such things often are, but in the end the proponents won out.  It even managed to secure several genuine raves, with both Siskel and Ebert giving it a four-star review.  More to the point, even against the stiff competition of the summer of 1982, TRON made its money back and then some.

All of this is to say that the "cult classic" moniker it sometimes gets slapped with is at least a tad ahistoric.  And yet it is true that its enduring popularity owes more to its home video release than to its theatrical run, just like it's true that Disney had absurd expectations for its box office performance (and its merchandising potential), somehow convincing themselves that it would hit on the level of Star Wars, whose juvenile, spectacle-craving audience TRON was, after all, transparently intended to capture.  When it didn't come close to that level, there were inevitably going to be regrets, and one of the standby excuses, now and then, was that TRON was "ahead of its time."  Which isn't even remotely true.  TRON is maybe the most of its time that any movie's ever been.  It is absolutely trapped in 1982—and, in this case, that's not a bad thing.

So what gets underplayed, I think, when one treats it as nothing but a Star Wars bandwagoner or an object of nostalgia, is that TRON is astoundingly formally radical for what it is—damn near revolutionary, to be frank, and probably the single most aggressively experimental film ever made under the guise of "attempted blockbuster."  (Offhand, I'd say its only potential competitor at all is 2001: A Space Odyssey, and it's still not that close.)  It's a film that practically had to be figured out from first principles just to get made, built from the ground up using esoteric techniques that were rooted in the state-of-the-art of 1982 (or, more correctly, the state-of-the-art of the late 1970s, with some assistance from the state-of-the-art of 1981), and these techniques were so cumbersome, and became obsolete so rapidly, that nobody else has even thought about bothering with them ever since.  The result is as unique a motion picture as has ever been made, the dream project of an untested writer-director and a cadre of like-minded artists, granted an irresponsible amount of money to serve as officiants at the strangest marriage possible between live-action, traditional effects animation, and newfangled computer generated imagery.  It looks like nothing else ever made, neither the 1990s' subsequent exploits in computer animation for its own sake, like The Mind's Eye, nor even its own 2010 sequel, TRON: Legacy, which might be one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen, but is ultimately still operating in the well-worn idiom of every other modern, CGI-driven blockbuster.  TRON's idiom, however, is TRON's alone.

Or maybe that's slightly overstating things.  One of the several techniques that independent animator Steven Lisberger fixed upon for his passion project was almost as old as animation, and Lisberger and others had been pushing its envelope for a few years already.  This backlit animation—i.e., "glowy crap"—that the Lisberger Studio specialized in had become so much a staple of TV ads, short subjects, and special effects animation during the last half of the 1970s that you could rightfully declare it the unofficial aesthetic of its era.  (If I said "that disco look," you'd doubtless imagine some Lisberger-style backlit animation.)  In fact, TRON itself can trace its origins back to one of those TV ads in particular, for which Lisberger had invented a backlit line-drawing character, very cosmic and sort of impersonally heroic, whom he'd dubbed "Tron."  Dude was even armed with a disk already.

Not long thereafter, Lisberger was introduced to video games, and, with a premonition that these would be hugely important going forward, he began to imagine Tron as a little glowing man inside the darkness of his Pong machine, engaged in savage gladiatorial combat whilst his oblivious human users decided whether he lived or died.  Roughly simultaneously, Lisberger also had the opportunity to see a demo reel for a computer graphics firm called MAGI, and Lisberger instantly recognized the utility of using computer animation to build a computer world.  With that, he now had all the major elements in his head, and after a few years spent fiddling with the concept (along with a few more years building his name as a successful commercial animator), he started pitching TRON to anybody who would listen.  And he didn't get anywhere until he pitched it to the company that, not so oddly, was closer to his last choice than his first, Walt Disney Productions—that is, the amusements empire that housed what was, even in those stagnant days, the single most robust animation studio on Earth.

And Disney's animation studio didn't want a damned thing to do with this weird, dumb, vaguely avant-garde thing—despite some occasional overtures, amounting to requests for assistance from Lisberger's beleaguered production, they remained disinterested till the end.  As far as I can determine, there was practically no personnel overlap, and the closest it gets to Disney animation is that a Lisberger associate, Roger Allers, presently a storyboarder on TRON, would become a very big wheel in the Disney Renaissance a few years down the line.  Instead, the team that brought TRON to the screen, besides Lisberger himself—who remained what I would unabashedly call TRON's "auteur," even as Ron Miller dumped a bunch of Disney's money into it and demanded several screenplay rewrites—consisted almost entirely of outsiders, including futurist Syd Mead, French comics legend Moebius, and technological artist Peter Lloyd.  (And, later on, electronica pioneer Wendy Carlos joined the project; I detect something of a theme.)  The one insider was still more like an expatriate.  This was Harrison Ellenshaw, son of Disney live-action stalwart Peter Ellenshaw, but recently of ILM himself, thus a veteran of both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.  A matte painter like his father before him, the younger Ellenshaw still provides a more tangible link to Disney than anybody else involved, and he served as a crucial liaison between the first-time director and the studio that he'd somehow convinced to give him seventeen million 1982 dollars to make a movie about what happens inside Pong.

Ellenshaw is, in the end, a fairly tenuous thread by which to pull TRON into a Disney animation retrospective, but I could make a case for it otherwise: given that the Lisberger organization was roughly a dozen people, the project necessitated the outsourcing of an enormous amount of work, making TRON the first animated film (a hybrid animated film, but one arguably representing even more of a fulfillment of the promise of Walt's foundational Alice Comedies than Roger Rabbit would be) that Disney ever had to look outside of its own organization to get done.  It would be far from the last, and, even though it contributed to an animators' strike, directed against this kind of offshoring, the first steps toward Disney's global animation workflow were taken here on TRON, with the contract awarded to Taiwan's Cuckoo's Nest Studios for the bulk of the film's effects animation.  Obviously, this isn't even counting the fifteen to twenty minutes of actual CGI, which couldn't have come from Disney—but did point in the direction of Disney's ultimate future.

Of course, I'm reviewing TRON not because it was of industrial importance, but because I dig the shit out of it, and at some point I have to start talking about the movie itself, which is essentially an art film, but unfortunately isn't usually judged as one.  That's not exactly bad faith—it was marketed as another rollicking 1980s adventure—but, you know, nobody ever complains about Videodrome's lack of coherence or sloppy narrative, while any latterday reviewer of TRON seems to be obliged to talk at length about how, actually, the movie based on the premise, "there are little people inside my computer who make it work," is pretty stupid.

Regardless, I suppose it is worth pointing out that the first forty-odd minutes of TRON (and it takes a surprising amount of time to get into the computer world, and TRON is only 96 minutes long, so it spends less than an hour there) are not reflective of an especially great screenplay.  So: our story principally concerns a certain Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a programmer and video game designer formerly of ENCOM, who quit after having his work stolen by Ed Dillinger (David Warner), though it's hard to be sure which one really is the more gifted programmer, considering that Dillinger presumably contributed to the design of his ally, the Master Control Program (also Warner, by way of a great deal of electronic voice distortion), the self-aware mainframe at the heart of ENCOM's system.  Hence one of the smaller questions TRON raises is why no human even seems, like, slightly surprised by the existence of a strong AI, only a little chagrined by it.

Well, Flynn has devoted the past several months to hacking his way back into ENCOM by way of an ill-fated little computer person named Clu (also Bridges, but he distorted his voice himself).  Meanwhile, mid-level ENCOM techs Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), having become suspicious of Dillinger and his MCP, make contact with their erstwhile colleague to help them figure out what's what.  And also there is a laser that vaporizes objects and turns them into digital information, for the sound reason that the plot requires Flynn to be transported into the MCP's stark computer realm, in order to do battle with the fascist program for the soul of our new digital age.

On the plus side, by no means is it hard to follow logistically, and pretty much everything connects causally with what came before—and, yeah, you gotta explain Flynn's journey into the crazy mixed-up world of the programs somehow, and "huge unattended sci-fantasy laser" is as good a reason as any—but TRON posits at least three huge ideas regarding what it's going to be about, from "parable of late capitalism as applied to the cutthroat world of software design" to "warning about the danger of out-of-control technology" to "religious allegory with programs as stand-ins for people and their users as stands-ins for God."  It doesn't really have the rigor to pursue any of these ideas beyond the surface, though I suppose it invokes "religious allegory" more than it does anything else.  (Even then, it was left to TRON: Legacy to tell any fully-formed story on that theme.)  Ultimately, it's mostly just an extremely simplistic adventure fantasy, concerned with good battling evil (the MCP being a dictator, if not the digital devil), though I won't say it has no resonance at all.  Lisberger, still passionate about his vision years down the line, clearly thinks that this vision has more substance than it actually does, but even so there's something in the equation of Flynn's real world and his computer world that comes off at least artfully suggestive (I didn't bring up Videodrome at random), however foggy and formless this suggestion turns out to be whenever you, or the film itself, actually tries to grasp at it.

The mirroring, anyway, is obviously at its most forceful with its repeated actors, including Warner in a third role, as the MCP's henchbot, Sark (gods within gods, I guess), as well as Boxleitner as the titular electronic champion, and Morgan as the girl program who probably has some in-universe function but whose cinematic purpose is for Flynn to hypothetically experience wistful feelings about the electronic image of his ex-girlfriend Lora, and, more to the point, for men and boys to experience erotic feelings whenever she's onscreen (which we usually do, and since Morgan has evidently been flattered by the affection, let's not take that accomplishment away from her even if her character is very much on the fanservicey side).  The mirroring is at its most graceful, I suppose, with the way that it insists, not unpersuasively, that its timelapse footage of Los Angeles at night resembles its fanciful rendition of blazing circuits.  But, if I'm honest, I really like all of the "real world" section of TRON, even as drawn out as it is.  It's lovingly photographed in 70mm by Bruce Logan, replete with interesting uses of soft artificial light, and the production design is incredibly strong, from the austere black-and-grayness of Dillinger's office, to Flynn's arcade, to the Apartment-like field of cubicles stretching out into ridiculousness, to the location shooting at Lawrence Livermoore National Laboratory, which conjures up "high technology" with such cartoonish purity ("that's a big door!") that I had assumed it simply was a very expensive set.  I'm also eager to credit Lisberger for finding strange and asymmetrical geometries within his frame, thereby prefiguring the even more discomfiting lines of his computer world.

But, of course, TRON is mainly an excuse for spending fifty minutes inside that computer world, and it's as weird a fantasy world as any movie's ever delivered.  Not rich—precious little about the MCP's world invites you to even try to make sense of it—but very weird, and moody as hell, starting with the decision to use black-and-white to capture the actors, removing skin tones from the palette entirely.  It's certainly a desperately circumscribed palette otherwise, all backlit neon colors blazing out of a void, usually shaped into sharp, violent lines or oppressive patterns that define the hard drive space the MCP has laid out for its captive population of kidnapped programs.  It's somehow both beautiful and slightly painful to look at, usually leaning toward the former, but always abrasive, consistently and punishingly technological even when it's just a bunch of guys in rotoscoped, backlit-animated suits talking by a glowy pool of energy.  (TRON has surprisingly adequate performances, considering how it was shot—on desolate black soundstages—and that photographic limitations often meant that the actors were filmed one at a time even if they were in the same scene.  For all that TRON is like no other movie, in this respect, it's the forerunner of every movie made now.)  Due to the staggering complexity of the compositing, TRON is about as locked down as any movie since the advent of sound, but the shot design this handicap imposes turns out to be a boon: TRON's usual immobility gives its long sequences of album cover backgrounds the most wonderfully meditative quality.  And, yes, the animated circuit boards and depthless black voids are supplemented further by a then-unprecedented amount of actual CGI, painstakingly done frame-by-frame in the days before physics programs, yet it's surprising how willing they were to start experimenting with Z-axis movement and a free-floating camera in computer-generated space, in bold but, somehow, barely-felt opposition to all TRON's (ahem) "conventionally" created images.

There's something perfect about TRON's primitivist CGI, even when it's objectively awful—as the notional space inside a computer, it simply is what it says it is.  So even when the mixed media are radically different in origin—backlit animation, backlit backgrounds, airbrushed backgrounds, vector graphics by one digital animation company, raster graphics by another (and now add two more digital animation companies, because TRON exceeded the capacity of that nascent industry almost immediately)—they merge into a certain minimalist abstraction, the most flawless of cinema's electric nightmares.  The MCP's pillar of crystalline red fire is, by any standards but TRON's, an unforgivably crappy visual effect.  But its very hideousness works for it in ways "good" CGI never could.

For its assaultive beauty, what that leaves TRON with, unfortunately, is a certain chilliness: it is an intoxicating (and sometimes irritating) film visually, that by design has no secure anchor in human feeling.  Flynn's the closest we get, and Flynn's barely nonplussed to find himself inside a computer.  It tries to force something with Flynn and Lora—he misses his ex, and winds up saying farewell to her via her digital counterpart—and, like everything else in TRON, it's a flatteningly gorgeous image, so if TRON's world could support the slightest credible romance, the coruscating, enveloping light of the MCU would probably recommend Flynn's goodbye as one of the all-time great screen kisses.  But it can't, so it's just one more cool image amongst many.  (A wisely-deleted scene indulged in the programs' own sexuality, and there's something altogether obscene about beholding Yori with her helmet off.  It confused Boxleitner greatly: "we're not people!")  Now, TRON, on balance, remains a tremendous piece of silly matinee fun: it's maybe barely even a good screenplay (it's one that drops subplots willy-nilly, and engages in at least one questionable deus ex machina to achieve its nonsensical climax), but there's something fundamentally appealing about Lisberger's direction of his fantasy, as well as his actors' playfulness within their respective giant black boxes, which allows TRON to keep to an utterly straight-faced tone, but with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek (Daniel Shor's Ram is a treasure in this regard), and that's in pretty striking contrast to the buying-their-own-bullshit quality that worked for Star Wars for precisely three feature films, and no more.  But, by the same token, you don't feel much emotionally for even one single character.  That's not a hard negative when a film brings atmosphere like TRON does, but even I won't pretend it's not a negative.

Score: 9/10

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