Robert Zemeckis

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tarpilot
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#51 Post by tarpilot » Thu Aug 09, 2012 11:56 pm

I'll gladly submit Back to the Future II, at the very least, as a "great film". The glee and abandon with which Zemeckis reflexively revisits his own work, and, at that point, one of the most successful movies of all-time, is more or less the perfect capper of the pleasures of 80s pop cinema for me. There's also the intensely potent "small" moments it surprises with -- I think in particular of the "waking-up" sequence in Doc's house as Howdy Doody comes on the TV, and, while it may not amount to much more than one iteration of a running joke, Marty waking up in alternate '85 to his mother post-grotesque cosmetic surgery has always struck me both funny and quietly haunting.
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Alan Smithee
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#52 Post by Alan Smithee » Fri Aug 10, 2012 12:36 am

tarpilot wrote:I'll gladly submit Back to the Future II, at the very least, as a "great film". The glee and abandon with which Zemeckis reflexively revisits his own work, and, at that point, one of the most successful movies of all-time, is more or less the perfect capper of the pleasures of 1980s pop cinema for me. There's also the intensely potent "small" moments it surprises with -- I think in particular of the "waking-up" sequence Doc's house as Howdy Doody comes on the TV, and, as much as it may not amount to much more than one iteration of a running joke, Marty waking up in alternate '85 to his mother post-grotesque cosmetic surgery has always struck me both funny and quietly haunting.
I think you're absolutely right. It's full of some amazing stuff but for me something I enjoy more on a conceptual and stylistic level. The moments when we see scenes from pt.1 at a remove just remind me how amazing pt.1 really is. I start to feel the tingle of the "get your damn hands off her" scene even when meta seeing it. It's probably in my top ten for films that are just for pure fantasy enjoyment, up there with Star Wars. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is also really great but more BTTF2 level conceptual and stylistic stuff. The rest I don't really care for at all. He's been on a two decade downward slide.

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Professor Wagstaff
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#53 Post by Professor Wagstaff » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:23 am

For the record, that Howdy Doody moment is in Part III.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#54 Post by beamish13 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:50 am

BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II is a flawless work that is infinitely re-watchable. It's both incredibly dense, but accessible and it really is about as great a sequel as you could ever expect.

Regarding Zemeckis' oeuvre, he really did have a stellar run pre-FORREST GUMP, and I think even DEATH BECOMES HER has a lot of redeeming facets, although I think by that point he was already becoming more hung up on visual effects than story elements. A big factor that made his earlier work so memorable was the input of his collaborator Bob Gale, who has retired from the film business.

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tarpilot
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#55 Post by tarpilot » Fri Aug 10, 2012 4:22 am

Professor Wagstaff wrote:For the record, that Howdy Doody moment is in Part III.
Ach! Re-watch time, I suppose

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Jeff
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#56 Post by Jeff » Fri Aug 10, 2012 9:12 am

I haven't watched it in 20 years or more, but when I was a kid, I loved Romancing the Stone.

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colinr0380
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#57 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 1:20 pm

And I'll stand up for Contact - a film that throws all those silly ideas about religious faith and career advancement out of the window (after fooling around with them) to leave the main character to just do what she wants with her life and her interests. I love that 'meeting' scene less because of all of the daddy issues (of which there are commendably few) but simply because Ellie finally gets some recognition for, and is told that someone is proud of her work, even if it just happens to be by an alien.

I'd like to meet the person who would stand up for The Polar Express though (or as I know it, the creepy subliminated child abuse film that manages to out-uncomfortable David Lynch's not insignificant achievements in that area)
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warren oates
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#58 Post by warren oates » Fri Aug 10, 2012 1:55 pm

Still no takers on a detailed defense of Gump, which I remember as being like Zelig but longer, in color and without the laughs, ideas or convincing VFX. I suppose one could say Gump is a good film in the sense that Triumph of the Will is. Both are skillfully manipulative spectacles that successfully distract a mass audience while advancing a worldview I find abhorrent. To use the film's own silly metaphor: I've never met anybody whose life is like a box of chocolates -- unless you allow that some of the confections are already missing, melted, rotting, poisoned or just full of random industrial waste. And that the overpriced ones still left will nevertheless make you fat and give you cavities and diabetes. It would be one thing if the film merely revised, glossed over and sugarcoated it's protagonist's personal history, but to do it to capital "h" History too, you know, seems, well, retarded. I'll give credit where credit is due, though, as I believe it's the only blockbuster ever to successfully spawn not a sequel but a chain of nasty family restaurants.

edit: Gump should also be blamed for helping to usher in one of the worst trends in recent mainstream cinema -- the use of pop songs with lyrics that tell us exactly what to think and how to feel if not literally spelling out the on-screen action. It may not have been the first, but is surely one of the worst offenders. I remember a specific cut to S.F. when the soundtrack begin to play "Are you going to San Francisco?" Ick.
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Alan Smithee
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#59 Post by Alan Smithee » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:01 pm

It seems like I recall Roger Ebert gushing over Polar Express. "new holiday classic"or some such

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Brian C
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#60 Post by Brian C » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:09 pm

Contact has a few really wonderful sequences - the opening journey through the universe (even if the sound isn't synched quite right), the initial discovery of the signal, Ellie's atheist testimony (even knowing it'll sink her chances), the terrorist destruction of the machine (viewed entirely through TV monitors), and the entire long, sustained sequence from when she leaves her room to board the ship until she gets back.

Also, since it's cool to like Matthew McConaughey now, I'll say that I never understood the criticism of him in that role. He looks, talks, and acts pretty much exactly how I would envision someone who is essentially a Democratic version of Ralph Reed to look, talk and act. I can't remember an actual Clinton "spiritual advisor" who had the role that McConaughey's character had, but McConaughey's take on such a figure seemed more than plausible.

I also always really liked Cast Away, although I'm failing to come up with a particularly compelling case for it. I might eventually co-sign mfunk's case for Gump, too, because there's a lot of good in that movie, although when I watched it again a couple of years ago it didn't hold up as well as I remembered. What did still strike me, though, is how beautiful Robin Wright's performance is, even though the movie really goes out of its way to stack the "bad girl" deck against her character.

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warren oates
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#61 Post by warren oates » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:15 pm

Alan Smithee wrote:It seems like I recall Roger Ebert gushing over Polar Express. "new holiday classic"or some such
My s.o. is scared of the animation in this film. But she's not alone. I've heard parents say their kids were freaked out by it too. Maybe something to do with the "uncanny valley" problem. Anyone for Beowulf?

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colinr0380
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#62 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:16 pm

warren oates wrote:edit: Gump should also be blamed for helping to usher in one of the worst trends in recent mainstream cinema -- the use of pop songs with lyrics that tell us exactly what to think and how to feel if not literally spelling out the on-screen action. It may not have been the first, but is surely one of the worst offenders. I remember a specific cut to S.F. when the soundtrack begin to play "Are you going to San Francisco?" Ick.
I still prefer 1969, flawed as it is in its own way, for that kind of blatant use of iconography to counterpoint a drama. Although I quite like the scenes of action occurring in various houses in the neighbourhood all tied together with the television footage of the moon landing!

Forrest Gump is pernicious because it is so well made - a prime example of competent filmmaking skills working to obscure a heinous worldview. I'm still amazed at the way that the most interesting characters (whether in the cast - I agree Robin Wright is great but so is Gary Sinise and even Sally Field, all of whom would have more character to build a film around, but then it would become more about their character than the metaphor - or in the stock footage) are relegated to supporting roles. There is that sense about it that it is wrong to strive to achieve anything - it should come naturally or not at all, and you will only bring misery down on yourself if you make plans. It could also be seen as a hymn to a small town and staying anonymous, yet that is in constant problematic conflict with Forrest being present at every single major event of the era, and having a hand in almost every invention. If it had gone on any longer we would likely have seen him giving tips to Bill Gates. Or talking to Ronald Reagan, getting him confused with Clint Eastwood and going on about how much he liked the film he did with that monkey.
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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#63 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:17 pm

I think the treatment of Wright's character and the juxtaposition with Gump- which, to me, read that actually thinking things through and being able to make your own decisions= misery and AIDS, whereas blindly doing whatever is suggested to you= bliss. The way it's conveyed isn't particularly mean spirited- I remember it being an easy enough to watch movie, and the performances are uniformly good- but it's a really unpleasant idea.

I liked Beowulf ok, but honestly I thought the filmmaking got in the way of a script that was more interesting than the movie wound up being.

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Brian C
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#64 Post by Brian C » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:30 pm

colinr0380 wrote:There is that sense about it that it is wrong to strive to achieve anything - it should come naturally or not at all, and you will only bring misery down on yourself if you make plans.
I've never gotten that from the film, to be honest, and I think that Mrs. Gump is a counterpoint to it. She's certainly a striver in some sense - I mean, she really cares about Forrest's schooling! - and I don't think the movie is judgmental about that. Or there's Bubba, who certainly has big plans for himself, but his downfall isn't a result of misguided plans. It's rather the opposite, a tragedy that random chance took him out of the picture before he had a chance to fulfill his plans.

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matrixschmatrix
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#65 Post by matrixschmatrix » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:33 pm

Yeah, but I think Vietnam is sort of the key thing there- it's a great moral evil which Gump participates in, and remains clean throughout because of his lack of agency, whereas Jenny gets involved in the protest movement and it turns out that's wwaaaay worse. Individualistic striving for a better life is ok, but having any broader social consciousness at all is dangerous.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#66 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 2:40 pm

I don't know about Forrest Gump - it just feels like a film where someone blithely wanders through the swathes of collateral damage being brought about by a decade where uppity people tried make better lives for themselves, which seems gobsmacking when considering the importance of the issues that needed to be confronted. It safely boils things down into things that other people did such as protesting against Vietnam, or racism, which are brushed past, and the unthinking actions which Forrest does, which are lovely moments to live your life by - such as buying stock in Apple and becoming a millionaire, or becoming a trainer sponsor, as if he is before his time and just waiting for the 1980s to arrive. Forrest doesn't have an agenda and that's what saves him (and makes him the perfect everyman figure/corporate sponsor) but it also prevents him from being touched on anything more than the superficial level by any of the things he bears witness to. He could just be wandering through an entirely CGI world created just for him even before Zemeckis threw his lot in with that technique.

I'm also ambivalent about What Lies Beneath, mostly for its incredibly irritating, self deluded lead character. Most of the first three quarters plays like a proto-Desperate Housewives (or a dumb verson of The Headless Woman) with the mother coping with empty nest syndrome by prying into her neighbour's business (thinking about it now, and it may only be because their threads are in close proximity or the Hanks-Zemeckis connection, but What Lies Beneath might make a neat double bill with The 'Burbs!)

It has that excellent bathtub scene near the end, which is the whole reason for the film's existence, but fails to build much sympathy for any of the characters, who all seem to deserve their fates due at the hands of a situation almost entirely of their own making (maybe an extension of the character of Jenny from Forrest Gump?)
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#67 Post by tarpilot » Fri Aug 10, 2012 3:19 pm

Alan Smithee wrote:It seems like I recall Roger Ebert gushing over Polar Express. "new holiday classic"or some such
I know Dave Kehr legitimately adores Zemeckis's new animated works, going so far as to favourably compare their visual achievments to the work of Otto Preminger.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#68 Post by zedz » Fri Aug 10, 2012 4:31 pm

warren oates wrote:To use the film's own silly metaphor: I've never met anybody whose life is like a box of chocolates -- unless you allow that some of the confections are already missing, melted, rotting, poisoned or just full of random industrial waste.
You really must try the Spring Surprise! Make mine the Anthrax Ripple.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#69 Post by CSM126 » Fri Aug 10, 2012 6:12 pm

Polar Express is so great I'm kind of stunned that I have to defend it. I mean...what could you possibly not like about that movie? It's as beautiful, emotional, and excitingly creepy as any good children's film should be. Great sense of mystery mixed with fine nostalgia and a little bit of dread about what really lies at the end of this train ride (okay, as someone who grew up with the book of course I knew, but the movie still generates that feeling well enough to, I suspect, fool newcomers). It's nearly a mood piece at certain points, and at others it's plain funny and exciting. Maybe I'm a sap, but it genuinely moved me by the time it ended. Or maybe I just really miss those misty-memory childhood Christmases.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#70 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Sat Aug 11, 2012 4:37 am

tarpilot wrote:I know Dave Kehr legitimately adores Zemeckis's new animated works, going so far as to favourably compare their visual achievments to the work of Otto Preminger.
Kehr is a major Zemeckis admirer in general, as you can see from his old top 10 lists. He regards Gump as a satire of the attitudes people usually attribute to it, though I don't know if he's ever gone into detail on that.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#71 Post by whaleallright » Sat Aug 11, 2012 9:55 am

Kehr's defenses of Zemeckis's work have seemed a bit willful to me. Like a lot of self-described auteurists, Kehr fixes on a favorite and then finds reasons to admire all of their films. Also in the auteurist tradition, he's tried to piece together a "worldview" or at least a coherent thematics out of Zemeckis's diverse (in genre, tone, and quality) body of work. A lot of his admiration seems to depend on an aggressively against-the-grain reading of the films for which I don't see a lot of real evidence. For example, I recall him characterizing the ending of Back to the Future as a rejection the materialist values Marty McFly held at the beginning of the film. See also the unusual reading of Forrest Gump mentioned above.

My love for Back to the Future is second to none. I think it's one of the most joyous, beautifully engineered films of its time and certainly the greatest thing to come out of the whole Spielberg axis of contemporary Hollywood. I think a lot of the irreverent, boisterous sensibility of the film (as well as its hyperclassical destiny... I mean density) is due to the collaboration between Zemeckis and Bob Gale, and its only fitfully evident in Zemeckis's later films made without Gale. Zemeckis is a natural filmmaker--he has a tremendous feel for staging and pacing a scene, for camera movement and editing, for visual storytelling in general--but doesn't always apply these talents to the most promising material.

In any event, rather than contest Zemeckis's greatness, I'd argue that the orthodox (Cahiers, Sarris) way of making such a claim--again, by constructing a nebulous worldview out of idiosyncratic readings of the individual films--doesn't function equally well for all filmmakers. Contra Kael, this has nothing to do with "art" vs. "trash." I think Back to the Future is a stunning work of popular art. But it simply cannot be interpreted productively as "personal" in the same way, say, one might choose to interpret Persona or even The Sun Shines Bright.

As for Zemeckis's recent mo-cap films, I haven't watched them nearly enough to make a truly informed judgement, but Kehr's claims about a "Bazinian" approach and the comparison to Otto Preminger seem way off the mark (it's also a misreading of Bazin). Like a lot of contemporary filmmakers, Zemeckis likes to stage a few scenes in bravura long takes with elaborate camera movement, but that's hardly the foundation of his style. His films seem to me to be cut nearly as fast (if more intelligently) than your average blockbuster. I'd welcome any empirical evidence to the contrary.

I don't mean to attribute bad faith to Kehr. He's demonstrated that he's a critic who can appreciate a wide range of films. But he seems to approach film almost solely via a midcentury auteurist heuristic that doesn't always do justice to the films and filmmakers he admires.
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#72 Post by The Fanciful Norwegian » Sat Aug 11, 2012 11:18 am

jonah.77 wrote:His films seem to me to be cut nearly as fast (if more intelligently) than your average blockbuster. I'd welcome any empirical evidence to the contrary.
Cinemetrics can be useful for this sort of thing. Its database for Zemeckis has some big gaps, but it's not bad -- the BTTF trilogy, Cast Away, What Lies Beneath, Forrest Gump, an excerpt from Roger Rabbit. The BTTF films and the Roger Rabbit segment have pretty typical shot lengths for their time, but Cast Away comes in at 9.5 seconds and What Lies Beneath at 7.1 seconds. None of the other top 10 films from 2000 come in at longer than 4.8s. Meanwhile Forrest Gump has an ASL of 8.9s, compared to around 4.5s for The Lion King, 3.5s for True Lies, 7.5s for Pulp Fiction, and 7.6s for The Shawshank Redemption. (The "Simple" and "Advanced" modes can give very different results -- "Advanced" calculations are usually shorter -- but all of these were calculated with the "Simple" mode, so the playing field should at least be level.) It would be nice to have the animated films in there as well, but from the available data it seems that mid '90s-early 2000s Zemeckis preferred takes not only longer than the blockbuster norm, but longer than what he himself was doing earlier in this career. (Though I suspect the 9.5 seconds for Cast Away is the outlier in his case.)

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#73 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Aug 11, 2012 11:37 am

One of the weaknessess of auteurist criticism is the insistence that the auteur's work be personal (that being a way to distinguish the director's input from everyone else working on the thing). Except some artists are impersonal artists, and you don't have to go very far to find examples in other arts. So there's the chance that you have an auteurist continually arguing for the personal elements in impersonal works and ceasing to make much sense. Auteurists plain have to find a personal stamp in a movie; that is the implicit argument of their criticism. All auteurist criticism is an implicit polemic, it's in its nature. Critics of any other field can simply take the artistic presence of their artist for granted.

As well, constructing a single worldview out of a career is nonsensical. These things are never stable, and part of studying an artist's career in its entirety is not to come to an overarching generalization but to see how the artist shifts and changes with each stage of their career. Auteurists are being (deliberately?) myopic when they spend all of their time insisting on the continuities and ignoring the changes. Again, I think this is a leftover of the polemic of simply trying to prove auteurism exists in the first place (and not all auteurists do it). But I see it happen quite a lot.

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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#74 Post by colinr0380 » Sat Aug 11, 2012 12:17 pm

Wasn't the big issue with Cast Away at the time all of the blatant Fed Ex product placement? The Cinemetrics database is interesting, although we have to think about the type of film that is being made influencing shot lengths. Something in the dramatic/lyrical vein of Shawshank Redemption or Forrest Gump is going to have lots of long held shots of prisoners listening to opera or floating feathers to hammer home the gravitas (I do like Shawshank by the way!), whereas Back To The Future or the CG films are also going to have heavy editing to whiz the audience around. Similarly Cast Away would need to emphasise the duration and isolation of the island through its long takes (and allow for long take performances from Hanks playing off of a beach ball). That is just finding the appropriate, or most obvious, way of approaching the material and shouldn't really be seen entirely as an auteuristic philosophy, or even a sign that the resulting film is better or worse for having longer or shorter shots in it.

There's also the issue with the auteur theory that an auteur can make films that fulfil that criteria, but which are still terrible, such as late Preminger. I think Zemeckis' CG films are in keeping with his earlier stuff, especially in the way that there is always that move towards portraying things that cannot be shown any other way (I remember What Lies Beneath being sold in the publicity materials as having finally removed the camera from physical constraints, and being something that Hitchcock would have loved to play with, in that sequence where Pfeiffer is driving across the bridge at the end of the film in which the camera moves from an extreme long shot to a tight close up and then reframes a couple of times more within the scene, which is a technique that Spielberg used later on in War of the Worlds), but it is losing real-world tangibility which even the more extreme pre-fully CG films like Contact, Back To The Future or even What Lies Benath still have a vestige of contact with. Forrest Gump for me is the film that is getting closest to what the CG films became.

I must admit that I have no real relationship with The Polar Express in any other form than the Zemeckis film, so I wasn't coming to it with any great childhood fondness, but I found the same issues with the Christmas Carol film (I haven't worked up the nerve to see Beowulf yet), in which the lack of connection with any form of tangible reality even as a jumping off point just leaves the film feeling empty. A spectacle theme park ride without the excitement or danger on display.

Of course Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is the key work here, and one of the reasons that is a great Zemeckis film (perhaps the greatest) is that the conflict between the real (and real world consquences) and the created (flexible, anything goes, consequence free) is the main theme of the film. It also helps that it is trying to recreate an ink and paint art style too with the cartoon world, so even there has some foundation to draw upon.

As much as I might complain about Zemeckis's films, he's been involved in some fantastic works. I remember saying when posting about Mark Cousins' The Story of Film that there was an enormous Zemeckis-shaped hole in his theory of cinema, especially for a documentary that was constantly emphasising the irreconcilable difference between the 'real' and the 'created', and think that holds truer than ever, even if I can't stand the last few works.
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Re: Robert Zemeckis

#75 Post by Mr Sausage » Sat Aug 11, 2012 1:33 pm

colinr0398 wrote:Wasn't the big issue with Cast Away at the time all of the blatant Fed Ex product placement?
I remember people making a lot out of this, but in the director's commentary Zemeckis explained it wasn't product placement, he just wanted to use a real-world business instead of creating a distracting fake one. I believe him. Product placements are generally throw away moments, but this one, Hanks' job, was central to the character's arc and to the general irony of the narrative (guy over-concerned with small slices of time is granted all the time in the world).

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