Rolling in the [BEEEEEP]

Merce Cunningham will be rolling in his grave over being compared to Cats.

Well, Mercey, blame visual effects.

Both the asphyxiation-sized fur-ball of inconceivable inanity that is the Cats movie and the biographical documentary Cunningham employ CGI — of different varieties — to reorient the audience’s relationship to pre-existing work. And yet, perhaps more than any other art form, dance is rooted in the human body, which computers not only can’t replicate, they also actively get in the distracting way.

Focusing on one problem in Cats is a lot like tweezing a single follicle from the fur of the world’s largest black cat, but adding 1s and 0s to the bodies of world-class hoofers (shout-out to — and pour one out for — Robbie Fairchild) is a lot like rejecting nine lives; if you’re blessed with something special, utilize it! Formfitting, manmade costumes, unencumbered by spotty effects, would’ve more than sufficed. A defense could be proffered that since Cats has always been a turgid peon to spectacle, a screen adaptation should mix in Hollywood’s preferred brand of spectacle (yay, CGI!), but modern technology still can’t match the fluidity of the human body with so much artifice on top.

The same can be said of Cunningham. Though I’m a proponent of a biodoc’s aesthetic reflecting the spirit of whom they’re about, and though Merce never shied away from pushing the envelope perhaps past the point of bursting, and though the documentary’s 3-D is also a Merceian inversion of expectations, movement in the third dimension still isn’t smooth enough, thanks to the perceptible lag of the glasses’ motion tracking. And though three dimensions has the capacity to reconfigure cinema’s conventional sense of depth, this altered field of vision looks more similar to real life, where most Merceians have experienced his dances. Instead of the camera shedding new light on his choreography through considered cinematography — you know, like good old-fashioned shot composition and framing ingenuity — the 3-D proves to be a misdirected shortcut to achieving just that, dulling the potential cinematic effect.

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