CGI Smooching – The Future of On-Screen Intimacy
Dexter Woolley provides an intriguing take on what the fake kiss in Netflix’s You People means for the wider question of intimacy in cinema, as well its significance to the medium
In late January, Netflix released You People: a new take on the romantic-comedy starring Eddie Murphy, Nia Long, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and David Duchovny. Jonah Hill, a co-writer of the project, and Lauren London are the meet-cute couple of Ezra and Amira. “Opposites attract, families don’t” is the tagline, as the film sets out to explore the historical and immediate tensions in the coming together of the Jewish and Black Muslim families of our couple. The film could have potentially landed rather smoothly amongst Hill’s recent string of work as an interesting piece on the fraught history of Black and Jewish relations in the US, especially when the most prominent discussions of African American-Jewish relations arise from Kanye West’s antisemitic rants or NBA star Kyrie Irving’s conspiracy laden social media shares. However, the film has been largely criticised by critics and viewers as culturally insensitive, arguing that the filmmakers falsely equated the Jewish characters with a privileged ‘whiteness’ and produced a work based in the racial binaries and stereotypes that have produced such tension between Black and Jewish communities.
The rest of the bad press has arisen from the lack of on-screen chemistry between co-stars. The film seems to lack that necessary element that makes the genre work. Therefore, some were not surprised when Andrew Schulz, comedian and You People co-star, said on his podcast that the kiss at the end of the film had been ‘faked’. Hill and London move in for the final kiss – stop – and in the editing room, CGI is used to morph their faces into something possibly, maybe, resembling a human kiss. This has sparked some interesting debate as to what that would mean for the ‘message’ of the film and questioning the necessity of intimacy in the production of film and television.
You People is not the first film to use such techniques to visually alter an on-screen kiss. If rare, the CGI kiss has been employed to solve logistical issues, ensure the safety of actors (many interesting cinematic techniques were used during the peak of COVID), or increase the dramatic effect of a scene. Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, for example, contains a kiss between Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom so wooden, Mark Kermode compared the scene to “watching two chairs mating”: “It makes you want to get out the varnish!”. The red-hot embrace, even with a dose of CGI enhancement, didn’t seem to convince the critic. You People is perhaps a slightly different case. One can only speculate, but it appears it is just the case that either Hill, London, or both were uncomfortable with performing the scene as written and decided before hand to use the technology of post-production to finish the film – a case that all involved are entitled to and a promising sign for the agency of actors. But is anything lost when the kiss can be ‘faked’?
One of the great endings, joyous and tear jerking, the scene is perhaps the greatest case for the preservation of intimacy in film. A final love letter to film, freedom of expression, and the display of passion
In 1896, The Kiss was captured in Thomas Edison’s ‘Black Maria’ studio. Only 18 seconds long, the film depicts two actors, May Irwin and John Rice, re-enacting the final scene of the stage musical The Widow Jones: a close-up of the nuzzled duo, talking and laughing, followed by a short kiss on the lips. The first depiction of a kiss on film, the scene shocked audiences and the church. The kiss is a part of cinema history, a display of affection that can shock and scandalise, or bring to tears for how beautiful it can be to witness love on screen.
I recently watched Cinema Paradiso. The Italian masterpiece begins with the local priest watching through films in search of anything inappropriate. He shouts out to Alfredo, the projectionist, when it appears (kissing, nudity, pleasure) and calls for the scene to be physically cut from the film. Salvatore “Toto”, a film director, fell in love with film and the local Cinema in this small town, the crowds, the emotion. Bonded by a love of film, Toto and Alfredo share something beautiful. When Alfredo passes away, Salvatore, now middle aged, is left a reel of film. Returning to Rome, Salvatore has the film projected. Alfredo has kept all the cut pieces of film and sequenced them for Salvatore. One of the great endings, joyous and tear jerking, the scene is perhaps the greatest case for the preservation of intimacy in film. A final love letter to film, freedom of expression, and the display of passion.
Jonah Hill and Lauren London do not have to kiss for our entertainment, the audience is not entitled to their intimacy. However, one can ask whether the CGI kiss potentially detracts from the project, and its display of an interracial relationship?
Jonah Hill and Lauren London do not have to kiss for our entertainment, the audience is not entitled to their intimacy. However, one can ask whether the CGI kiss potentially detracts from the project, and its display of an interracial relationship? What does this mean for the future of the kiss in film? Could this become the new normal in Hollywood filmmaking?