Thursday, May 7, 2015

"Quo Populi?"

Here’s something I used to like better.

“You won’t believe this!  There’s this old person saying that things aren’t as good as they used to be.”

I hate my “Inner Voice” sometimes.

Here goes, anyway.

Used to be, there were these big extravaganza movies – they were trying to outdo television, and besides such imaginative incentives as “Smell-O-Vision” – where they distributed these cards when you went into the theater and when there was a distinct odor of something on the screen, they would also flash a number on it, and you would scratch and sniff at a spot by the corresponding number on the card and you could like, smell what they were cooking – there were also more reliable “audience grabbers”, like “Bigger” – meaning the scope of the production – and “More.”  More on “More” shortly.

Consider Quo Vadis.  Ben-Hur.  Cleopatra.

To name but three, though there were numerous less celebrated offerings, such as Ed Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire and Taras Bulba.  (Included only because I like the name.)

The “Previews of Coming Attractions” breathlessly hyperbolized the movies’ selling points:  “The Action!  The Passion!  The Pageantry!”  And included at the end, without fail: 

“…And a Cast of Thousands!”

Which was better than television where there was rarely more than a cast of six.

To be honest, I do not recall being drawn to a movie because of how many non-speaking participants were involved.  And yet, when they included in the litany of “selling points”, along with action, passion, and pageantry, “…And a Cast of Thousands!”, the promoters must have believed they had something. 

“How was the movie?”

“So-so.  But I cannot believe how many people there were in it.  It was like, an entire army!

Sometimes, it actually was.  I recall once, though I do not remember the movie, where, to play an ancient military force, they conscripted the Yugoslavian army.  I don’t know if it was the entire Yugoslavian army.  Probably not.  Somebody had to defend Yugoslavia.

What was impressive about “… And a Cast of Thousands!”?  Well –though I most likely did not think about it at the time – how about the logistics? 

Consider the dazzling centerpiece of Ben-Hur – the climactic chariot race.  As the charioteers tore wildly around the course – they flipped over a metal fish every time they completed a lap – a cheering crowd in the stadium, easily – I’m talking “ballpark” because I did not actually count them – numbering in the thousands, populating every corner of the screen.

All of them in costumes – tunics, sandals, a rope sash (because without a delineating sash, a tunic hangs on you like a hospital gown), they had to be fed – if it was shot in Italy, that meant hundreds of pounds of spaghetti, gallons of tomato sauce – they needed water – rooting for charioteers in the blistering heat is thirsty work – and they needed to be – the insulting descriptive is “wrangled” – but whatever you call it, they needed to be instructed about what to do.

This task was invariably carried out by a “down-the-chain-of-command” associate director, wielding a microphone, or possibly, a gigantic megaphone:

ASSISTANT DIRECTOR:  (SPEAKING IN WHATEVER LANGUAGE THEY UNDERSTOOD, AS THERE WAS NO VALUE IN SPEAKING TO THEM IN A LANGUAGE THEY DIDN’T)  Okay, “extras”, would you quiet down, please?  Thank you.  We are now coming to the dramatic climax of the chariot race – I do not want to give away how exactly it plays out because we want your reactions to be genuine.  I mean, you are actors after all, albeit nameless actors without any lines.  But we respect you, and we need you.   So, just so you are not entirely caught off-guard – and we’d like to shoot the scene in as few a number of “takes” as possible because the action is extremely dangerous and we want to protect the “talent”, or at least the stuntmen pretending to be the talent while the real “talent’s” sitting their trailers.  It’s fun to have a little chuckle at their expense, isn’t it?  

Anyway, be prepared – how should I put this without compromising “The Moment” – be prepared to be horrified and shocked, while at the same time feeling that despite the devastating outcome the man got exactly what he deserved. 

I know that’s a lot to ask of people who’ve been sitting in this murderous sun all day and are being paid terribly even by the standards of your faltering economy, but remember.  They say “…And a Cast of Thousands!” in the trailer?  You know who they’re talking about, right?  You’re right, that’s you! 

Well, now is the time for the “Cast of Thousands” to shine.  And I know you can do it.  So, don’t let me down here, all right?  When you hear the word, “Action!”… act!

And they did.  Messala gets jerked out of his chariot and dragged and trampled by the other horses, and the extras act their togas off! First, registering alarm and then, a hushed silence. 

You can see in their eyes.  You can sense it in their body language.  They are really feeling for the guy.  Some out of compassion; others because they’d bet money on him.  If you watch closely, you can actually see the distinction.  The “extras” are “working their back-stories.”

Today, of course, there are more “cast of thousands.”  Instead, we have…

CGI.  (Simulated “Computer-Generated Imagery”)

It is totally over for the real thing.  No more “wrangling extras”.  No sandals and sashes.  No spaghetti.  No tomato sauce.  And can you imagine giving computer-generated characters “acting notes”?

“Okay, ‘extras’….... Never mind.”

Okay, so it’s cutting edge.  Maybe it’s cheaper.  I know it’s simpler.  You don’t have to worry where thousands of computer-generated “atmosphere” is going to park their cars. 

But it looks really stupid. 

I recently watched a few minutes of Troy.  There was a big battle scene, two massive armies merging ferociously on the battlefield.  Except it was like, thirty people on each side in the front, and the rest of the combatants were all “CGI-ed” in.

I was reminded of watching afternoon wrestling from Buffalo on television.  Encircling the ring, there were four rows of wrestling enthusiasts.  Behind them, there was an enormous, canvas backdrop of water-colored “wrestling fans” extending into the distance, captured in poses indicating that they were really appreciating the fight. 

“CGI” is wrestling from Buffalo, with computers.

Something has definitely been lost.  The pulsebeat.  The intensity.  The irreplaceable human element.

I know I am about forty years late in mentioning this, but there will be no more “… And a Cast of Thousands!” touted in movie trailers.

It is definitely the end of an era. 

“Didn’t you used to be a movie ‘extra’?”

“Yeah, but they draw me now.”

Anybody miss those guys?  Or is it, as is not infrequently the case,

…. Just me?


Pidge said...

When, as a student, I spent a summer shlepping around Europe with my friends, and one of the big attractions in Rome was the opportunity to join these casts of thousands at the movie studios where they were churning out these spectacles. All you had to do was show up!
A friend who attended the Baths of Caracalla to see the Opera 'Aida',......also renowned for its huge cast, got shuffled into the wrong lineup and was handed a helmet and spear!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

It's not wholly gone. Nashville - the current sadly soapy TV show, not the brilliant 1975 Altman movie - issues casting calls for extras to be concert-goers for its fictional stadium sell-out stars.

A factor you may not have considered is insurance and liability. I bet its hellishly expensive now to deal with that if there's even a hint of danger. ("Hot sun? You mean, thousands of people can sue us in 20 years when they get skin cancer?")