‘The Jungle Book’, like ‘The Revenant’, is a showcase for new technology that’s making it increasingly difficult to watch older films.
Let’s begin with a quiz. You just have to name the film. It features an attack by a grizzly bear. The victim is a Caucasian man making a living in an unforgiving, inhospitable, bitterly cold setting. The protagonist, based on a character who ate liver, has a dead wife, a son who is murdered – he swears revenge. The film’s director made a big deal about publicizing how difficult the shoot was. “There are no second takes for a director to cover himself with,” he said. “There was barely enough light… the crew had to set up [a shot] at three in the morning.” Then there’s an attack by Indians. The film is headlined by a big star, known for his environmental activism, a heartthrob who played the lead in a film version of The Great Gatsby. You’ve guessed the film, of course. It’s Jeremiah Johnson, the 1972 hit that featured Robert Redford at the height of his sun-blonde Robert Redford-ness.
Not many speak of Jeremiah Johnson today, at least not as much as they do of the other big hits of 1972, like The Godfather or The Poseidon Adventure or Deliverance. The film wasn’t exactly at the top of my mind until I saw Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, which is similar in all the ways listed above. But there’s one crucial difference, and that’s the technology available at the time of the movie’s making. Take that bear attack scene, which has now slipped into legend. The way the enraged creature lumbers towards the DiCaprio character, pockets of flesh rippling beneath its fur. The way it mauls him, tossing him around like a rag doll. The squelchy sound of its claws slashing into the flesh on his back, yielding deep rivers of blood. The dull shine of greyish claws as its foot rests on his face. The rasp of its breath, the strings of saliva as it takes a break to sniff the air, apparently wondering if this is enough proof of its superiority in these surroundings.
Compare this with the wolf attack in Jeremiah Johnson. Because they couldn’t obviously set a pack of wolves on the leading man, and because the animatronics technology that birthed such terrifying-looking wolves in The Grey was still forty-plus years away, the film had to resort to quick cuts. We see the blur of a wolf’s underside as it leaps across the screen. We see a wolf baring its fangs. We see a wolf pulling at a shoe. (Or maybe it’s a fur coat, the quick cuts make it hard to tell.) What we don’t see is man and wolf in the same frame, at least in a way that makes us fear for his life. It’s like abstract art, leaving us with the mere impression of a wolf attack, as opposed to the one in The Revenant, which we watch horrified, as though this man is really being ripped to shreds by this enormous bear.
The point isn’t about which is the better movie. (I’d pick the minimalist Jeremiah Johnson any day, over the overblown, over-praised Revenant.) What I’m talking about is how a film like The Revenant ends up making a film like Jeremiah Johnson irrelevant, old-fashioned. The older film may still appeal to critics and cinephiles who possess the antennae to tune into the cinema of any era, but to general audiences, Jeremiah Johnson, today, will be a disappointment because its frames aren’t imbued with the you-are-there-ness of today’s technology – just like the astonishingly life-like animation in the splendid new Jungle Book movie is going to make it just a little more difficult to view the simpler, cartoony frames in the 1967 classic a lot of us grew up with. Again, this isn’t about which is the better version. It’s about how, in the earlier film, the serpent Kaa’s mesmeric abilities were depicted through ever-expanding circles in the eyes – it looked like something a child would draw – whereas in the new film, Kaa’s orbs light up like chambers of hypnotic secrets. Forget Mowgli, we feel like we’re under a spell.
Even more amazing than the newness of all this technology is how quickly it becomes old. While I was entertained by this Jungle Book, my jaw didn’t quite scrape the floor the way it did when I met the shape-shifting killing machine from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the mother spaceship at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, or Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, or the fantastically expressive ape in King Kong – all first-time-ever experiences for me. And the reason The Jungle Book wasn’t that kind of a blow-the-mind experience was that Life of Pi has already shown us what today’s techno-magicians can whip out of a keyboard, how bits and bytes can transform into teeth and whiskers and fur to the extent that if someone placed this tiger next to the real article, no one would be able to tell the difference. Life of Pi was released in 2012, just a little over three years ago. That’s how “old” has come to be defined in Hollywood.
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