Sunday, December 27, 2009

Title cards...

If the pages of dialogue in the screenplay of the almost three-hour Avatar add up to more than five or six, I would be surprised. The sparse, functional lines function the way the title cards did in silent films, as captions or transitions. The throbbing romanticism harks back even further, to the nature worship of Green Mansions and Tarzan--though James Cameron makes the "inter-connectedness of all things" literal, envisioning a organic, global, neural network, a cool idea cleverly worked out. That the Golden Age SF landscapes and dragon-riding battle sequences are thrilling is one thing; that the love story is neither creepy nor silly is astonishing. We're looking not at animated characters but at performances that have been translitterated into a new medium with so much detail that they register directly, with no sense of a technological buffer. The real triumph of Avatar is making the fancy new tools transparent.

The ex thinks Avatar

"could challenge Titanic‘s $1.8 billion record after all.


Repeat business. There’s so much to watch and revel in. The film is such a must-see (even the president went to a local Hawai'i 3-D theater over the holidays) that people are going back again and again. One producer pal has watched it in all three formats, just to see how it plays. “I like 2-D for story,” he says. “3-D is fine but I liked IMAX 3-D best.”


Christian Lindke said...

The 3D love scene was comical and video games have been doing more powerful and meaningful relationships for years. Anyone who has played Knights of the Old Republic by BioWare has experienced a deeper and more interactive narrative than anything Avatar offered.

To say that there was no sense of technological buffer seems to me to be a practice of willful ignorance -- particularly given the number of times the cliched "lens flare" effect was used. Nothing distracts the eye from verisimilitude like animated lens flare. The film is beautiful, yes. It is magnificent in 3D and is one of the best 3D films ever made as it used the 3D effects in the proper way, that is in order to create a depth of space and not just be a gimmick. But the film came across as an animated film, because that is what it is. I balk when people say the film should be nominated for "visual effects." Watch the old Final Fantasy computer animated film, it is visually stunning. Cameron achieves a better effect, but it is still animation -- as much as rotoscoping is animation.

If you truly believe the technology is transparent, watch the film in both 2D and 3D. The film is nigh unwatchable as a 2D experience. It is the most technologically dependent film I have ever seen. The story being so trite, condescending, and vapid that the only thing that makes the film endurable is the animation and visual style. Even the sound design is relatively weak in comparison to other offerings this year.

Weta, the LotR people, did a great job with the art design and effects, but this is less the future of immersive cinema than "Jak and Daxter," "Mass Effect," "Grand Theft Auto," "Modern Warfare 2," or "Fable 2."

I was visually amazed by AVATAR, and very much entertained by the typical Cameron rehash storyline, but I wasn't awed by what he was doing regarding the technology. He is learning and applying valuable lessons from the video game field (yes I mean that as a complement to both and not in anyway demeaning -- what video games are currently capable of narratively and immersively is amazing), but is limited by the nature of its medium.

I am more amazed by the animators who painted the light and colored the environment than I was by the motion capture -- though that was impressive. One should not attribute to the "motion capture" technology elements that are better assigned to the animation departments -- especially things like the expressiveness of the N'avi eyes.

What I most enjoyed, and was annoyed by, was Cameron's synthesis of so many of my favorite SF stories. John Carter of Mars and his multilimbed versions of common animals? Check. Psionic tendrils and largely pacifist outlook from SLAN? Check. White man who "out natives" the natives from Tarzan and Dune? Check. Dragon riding like in McCaffery? Check. Giant Creature riding to prove you are the "chosen one" from Dune? Check. Cameronesque corporation uses Marines to help it acquire what it wants from Aliens? Check.

Those who critique Cameron for the movie being a "rip off" are misguided. This film is, in many ways, a demonstration of a deep affection for a wide variety of SF/F and he synthesized a wide array of titles seemlessly -- though I wish he had done it with a better narrative.

Why isn't a "sharing of minds" a part of the mating ritual of the N'avi? What is the atmosphere composed of that allows for normal ignition of flammables and supports carbon based life, but is also lethal to humans? How did the water get up into the flying mountains where it falls from waterfalls of mysterious origin?

Tulkinghorn said...

And why does a guy like Cameron, who presumably has a great deal of time off between movies to read, have the political consciousness of a five year old?

And -- I'm really asking this, not just ranting -- how could you stand being lectured at about corporate colonialism by a moron for three hours?

Generic said...

So you've seen it? Do tell!

Tulkinghorn said...

Of course not.

I might be willing to go -- just to get it out of the way -- if I could be assured of something other than constant irritation.

Generic said...

@ Christian. If I see it again I'll keep an eye out for those lens flares.

The test for me was that for long periods I forgot I was watching animation. None of the clunky clips from video games that I've seen (admittedly not many) came anywhere close to achieving that.

@ Tulk. Good call. The grinding of your teeth would only disturb your neighbors.

Generic said...

Edelstein (who also calls the film "a populist crock"):

"The problem until now with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is that it didn’t make the final perceptual leap. It was impressive rather than immersive. But Cameron moves the boundary posts. Beyond his motion-capture gizmos, he has an old-fashioned command of composition: strong foregrounds and layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame and down to the teeniest pixel."

Tulkinghorn said...

Wonderful thought, but with all the layers of texture and movement, you'd think they would have done something about those banal Keane-painting big eyes and the Disney cliche floppy ears.

Christian Lindke said...

The large eyes are a descendant of Disney animation. The reason Anime characters have large eyes, is that Mickey Mouse has large eyes.

In this case, and I think it is one of the genuine breakthroughs in the film, the eyes were expressive -- a credit to the animators and why I stressed that Weta needed acknowledgement. I am reticent to give Cameron credit for the achievements of the animators and illustrators on this one. As a manager? Yes. As an "artist"? Not until I hear from the animators that he had a clear vision and dictated used of visual layers, rather than relied on expertise.

As for video games, my only response is that you haven't seen or played enough if you can even use the word clunky or rely on referencing "clips." The interstitials are the least immersive sections of a video game. A game like Modern Warfare 2 is immersive from moment one and never lets up. It was engaging enough that Jody literally stopped in her tracks, sat down, and watched me play for an hour before she realized she was in the middle of something else. Uncharted, and Uncharted 2, is an amazing experience. The Jak and Daxter series are some of the best traditional animation story telling ever created. Mass Effect is excellent science fiction.

What all of these have that AVATAR never has, is stakes for the participant. The actions of the "viewer" matter to the results of the narrative. The "viewer" also goes through an entertaining interactive learning experience as the difficulties increase and puzzles become more complex.

Cameron's presentation of Hobbesian civilization invading Rousseauean paradise lacked real stakes -- for the viewer or for the characters -- as we all knew how the story was going to end from moment one.

What made AVATAR worth watching was the learning experience where we discover the world and how it works. As we learned about N'avi society, we were immersed and engaged. Once the film returned to narrative, I was once again returned to my world as viewer rather than exploring a new world.

My run down of some of the flaws in my last comment is only the beginning. There are so many world design problems with AVATAR that it boggles the mind -- and they become more apparent with multiple viewings.

That said, "unobtainium" as the mineral didn't bother me as much as it bothered many other geeks. As an acquaintance of John Rogers, who wrote THE CORE, I was mildly annoyed that he hasn't been acknowledged as the creator of the term -- in THE CORE, but once John put it out there it became fair game for use. It's kind of like Wolverine's adamantium. Adamantium just means "super hard"-ium, but no one cares because it is now a norm.

My problems lie in things like the "vortex" and its natural purpose and "physics." What is it other than a plot point? Given the attention paid to other aspects of the world build, things like this stand out annoyingly.

Oh, and just how much does the company pay in expenses to acquire the unobtainium. 4 1/2 year trip through outer space to send staff. 4 1/2 year trip to send a ship to pick up the materials, 4 1/2 year trip to send the materials back home. Pay to employees on Pandora is "excellent." Given that space travel is possible all points of the planet are equally accessible in "zero time," yet it takes 3 months to send equipment a couple hundred kilometers. Given they should be able to "pick up and drop" much cheaper, I don't think this company is well managed.

Generic said...

The plot of Avatar is no sillier than the plots of many operas. I wouldn’t sit at “Rigoletto” grinding my teeth over the foolishness of the story and ignore the music. Some would, I guess.

I never for a moment took the movie seriously as SF. It's a fantasy fable derived from Green Mansions by way of Dances With Wolves--and there are worse fables to dress up and recycle for new audience.

On the video game front, mea culpa. Presumably what's happening within the organic network would resemble, subjectively, an immersive Neuromancer/Matrix experience. But it never occurred to me that I was missing something crucial because I didn't get to see that stuff from the inside except for a couple of glittery snippets.

That Cameron chose to stay outside that experience looking tells me only that he's a movie guy and not, at heart, a gamer the way the Warshovskis were/are. He's closer to my age, they're closer to your age. I think you're probably right about who the future belongs to. But we're not there quite yet.

Tulkinghorn said...

The reference to opera and fables is basically lazy. To begin with, the argument proves way too much, since it applies to any witless but pretty experience.

You may be saying that the mise en scene of this film is the equivalent of the score of Rigoletto and the acting equal to that of the performance of a first (or even second) rate cast of singers and orchestral players -- if so, I'm interested, but very skeptical.

Besides, the old 'recycling for a new audience' trope doesn't really work if one is not actually a member of the new audience -- I am long since past an appreciation of the stale plot and its trite ideological underpinnings and have no interest in spending another second of the only life I'll have watching innocence being killed by the brutalities of capitalism.

Generic said...

"Lazy"? Must be feeling a bit backed into a corner, resorting to name calling..

Especially pointless in this case, arguing with a person who hasn't seen the film, since the aspects of it that I enjoyed only emerge if one sits down and watches the bloody thing and allows oneself to be, in a sense, intoxicated by it.

“Avatar” is a mixed experience, to say the least. You have to overlook a lot, but the effort of doing so has some rewards. A.O. Scott had a good line about New Moon: that it isn't just a movie made for 13-year-old girls, movie that for the duration can turn anybody (even a balding middle-aged New Yorker) turn into a 13-year-old girl.

Of course you have to loosen your grip on yourself for a couple of hours to allow that to happen. Cf. our conversation a while back about Socrates singing karaoke. Not as much as stake as in the cases Kael was talking about in “Fear of Movies,” but possibly related.

“Movies--and they don't even have to be first-rate, much less great--can invade our sensibilities in the way that Dickens did when we were children, and later, perhaps, George Eliot and Dostoevski, and later still, perhaps, Dickens again. They can go down even deeper--to the primitive levels on which we experience fairy tales. And if people resist this invasion by going only to movies that they've been assured have nothing upsetting in them, they're not showing higher, more refined taste; they're just acting out of fear, masked as taste. If you're afraid of movies that excite your senses, you're afraid of movies." P. Kael. "Fear of Movies." The New Yorker.

Tulkinghorn said...

Ah, yes. The dreaded fear of movies.

Of course, we now know that Kael's aesthetic led to at least a decade spent praising a great many movies solely for the reasons of violence, sexuality, or noise (or some combination of all three) and in the worship of at least two directors -- De Palma and Altman probably Bertolucci -- whose films are completely unwatchable today.

Kael has a lot to answer for beginning with a dead-end love of the macho and mindless that destroyed the best minds of my generation.

Generic said...

The sex and violence beef doesn't have a whole lot to do with Avatar. But I think you know that.

GoJoe said...

All of DePalma's, Altman's and (probably) Bertolucci's films are unwatchable?

Christian Lindke said...

DePalma's certainly. Mission to Mars alone is sufficient to permanently shun him and The Untouchables doesn't age well as a film. To the modern eye, it looks as stagey as Dick Tracey with none of the artistic bravery.

Altman? I very much enjoy Gosford Park, The Long Goodbye, and Mash. The Player amuses me. But Popeye is miserable and only the fact that Altman worked on Bonanza mitigates that error.

Bertolucci? I think I'd miss a couple of his films if they were removed from the universe's film library.

It's Truffaut that I would exile to the slaughter bench of history over Bertolucci, both for his own films and for the vast amounts of pretentious schlock "influenced" by his work. More for the latter than the former.

Tulkinghorn said...

Bertolucci's ham-fisted masochistic take on sex, its connection with violence and the connections among sex, violence, and right-wing politics is risable and should have been at the time I first saw the movies. Kael famously said that "Last Tango in Paris" was the equivalent of "Le Sacre de Printemps." I took that very seriously at the time.

My excuse for my former passion for Bertolucci is youth. Rent the (subjectively fifteen, but probably only four or five) hour long version of "1901" and try to watch it -- Go on. I dare you.

DePalma is a hack and a full-throated misogynist, full stop: useful only for those moments in a young man's life when he can't actually watch good-looking girls take showers.

Altman made MASH, true, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, but my goodness... There came to be a time when a new Altman movie was like a new album by a formerly beloved band -- huge expectations, followed by indifference.

I worship Truffaut and always will and am bemused at someone, otherwise seemingly intelligent, who can dismiss the creator of "Shoot the Piano Player."

Christian Lindke said...

He is also the creator of Jules et Jim, a film that manages to capture everything I hate about certain subcultures and condense it into one lump sum.

There are levels of narrative indulgence that I will not cotton, and Truffaut crossed that line. Certainly, there are films within his oeuvre more than worth watching, but Truffaut's imitators (whom I critiqued more than Truffaut) are the perpetrators/creators of so much "indie" crap.

Generic said...

But we're still allowing the names of Coppola and Scorsese to cross our lips without a sneer?

Does the fact that we no longer respond to something the way we did when we were 30 mean that response was never valid? I was never a huge Altman-ite, but I worshipped De Palma. Watching "The Fury" again a year or so ago was dismaying, to say the least.

"Blow Out" still works fine, though in a comparatively minor, good-thriller sort of way. ("Tell No One" is just as good if not better.)

Kael was always also talking about the intoxication of the filmmaking, however, exactly the sort of accomplishment that is radically diminished on video, while novelistic story values survive. No-one would make huge narrative claims for either De Palma or Altman. Watching pristine restored print of "The Fury" or "McCabe and Mrs Miller" at the Wilder would likely be quite a different experience.

Tulkinghorn said...

There's an inconsistency in disliking The Untouchables and Wise Guys and liking The Godfather, Taxi Driver, and Goodfellas?

Your point about the validity of youthful reactions gives me pause... But it can't be true that I was smarter at thirty than I am now?

Could it?

Generic said...

I doubt we get any smarter over the years. I hope we know a little more. But mental acuity and speed certainly diminish. And memory! Have IQs been shown to increase with age?

Perhaps your mistake is in assuming that being "smarter" has a lot to do with the kinds of responses we're talking about. You can apply your "smartness" to these responses after the fact, but in order for that to be a meaningful exercise you first have to have them. (We're getting into Warshow, now, as an alternative to Kael.)

Easier for me, perhaps. Pretty sure I never was as smart as I used to think I was.

GoJoe said...

For a few misguided souls, MISSION TO MARS was intriguing and amusing from the very first shot, when a rocket streaking into the sky is revealed to be a toy. I always smile when I think of the movie's answer to Kubrick's zero-g shadowboxing, an exuberant gravity-defying musical number (of sorts) set to Van Halen's "Dance the Night Away." It's not a movie I would go to the mat defending as "good" but I remember thinking the apocalyptic critical/audience response was out of proportion with what was essentially a flawed but good-natured throwback.

AVATAR, in my opinion, shares a similar naïve quality that some will see as regressive, others as refreshing. I think Chute Saab liked it a little more than I did but I enjoyed reading and respected his enthusiastic take.

I thought THE UNTOUCHABLES was the one of the few DePalma movies folks could get behind? I saw it a couple of years ago and thought it held up nicely. Better than remembered, actually. Sean Connery's scenes really crackle. At least they did for me.

And I love BLOW OUT.

The accusation of misogyny is a well-worn conversation stopper, for DePalma, Peckinpah and many more filmmakers whose work I happen to like. I won't mount a defense better than others already have and figure you've heard/rejected those arguments so you can consider this a surrender if you like. ;) I just don't have the spirit to enter that fray again. Perhaps an admission of my own misogyny?

I'm not going to lie and say I've loved everything Altman's been involved with, but I do think most of the films of his I've seen were worth seeing, including recent efforts like THE COMPANY and A PRAIRIE HOME COMPANION.


Bertolucci I'm colder on but I guess I was surprised to see whole filmographies dismissed with such casual disdain. Provocative sure, and of course Sacred Cows are fair game...

Boy, talk about feeling like the slow kid in class!

Christian Lindke said...

Scorsese has made some brilliant movies, and comparing The Godfather to The Untouchables is akin to comparing Ride the High Country with White Commanche -- same genre different caliber films. The Aviator surpasses anything DePalma dreamed of bringing to the big screen.

BTW, IQs as a measurement are a predictive measure of potential and not a measurement of practical application. It is obtuse to imagine that having greater context and experience when engaging with a subject doesn't make one "smarter" when engaging with a particular object for the purpose of evaluation.

I have never been a fan of the bullshit baby boomer worship of youth as virtue. Young people have value, but their opinions/tastes are not more valuable than those of experience.

Imagine the lives of child actors who transition to adulthood if they weren't expected to remain "young" by society. What would Brittany Spears look like in a society that valued prudence over maintaining the illusion of youth -- or Marie Osmond for that matter?

Generic said...

Certainly not a worshiper of youth. Other regulars even less so. But I’m not embracing senescence with open arms, either, like some people I know.

I actually think Truffaut has been largely forgotten by the cinematic taste maker. He would be a keeper for me, too, for: 400 Blows, Piano Player, Wild Child, Story of Adele H. (Rivette, also yes; Godard, not so much.)

My guess is that more young film students In the post-Tarantino era would cite Leone or Argento as key influences rather than Bertolucci--much less Rosi, Bellochio, De Sica or Visconti. What was that you saying about "the wisdom of youth"?