Sunday, January 3, 2010
AVATAR: the hype, the world, the disappearing screen
There's been a racket of writing about Avatar, James Cameron's sci-fi Pocahontas epic. Reviewing it almost seems "beside the point," says Dana Stevens on Slate, "like the three wise men reviewing the birth of Jesus."
For a filmmaker who hasn't had a release in a decade, it was more like the return of the prodigal son. A lengthy New Yorker profile published in October chronicles the military determination of Avatar's writer, director, and producer: "James Cameron doesn’t go to the bathroom; he goes to the head. In his universe, there is no front and back, right and left, just fore and aft, starboard and port." Twelve years in the making, employing the same performance capture technology used to turn a human actor into Golem in Lord of the Rings, critics are calling Avatar, at the very least, the next step in cinema. A. O. Scott says it was comparable only to watching Star Wars at the multiplex when he was eleven years old. "The most beautiful film I've seen in years," writes David Denby. The final product shows off Cameron's massive ambitions, Manohla Dargis writes,a desire to "transcend a single movie or mere stories to embrace cinema as an art, as a social experience and a shamanistic ritual, one still capable of producing the big WOW." It's a lush, enveloping world: beauty without Peter Jackson's irritating fancy, action without Michael Bay's general nonsense.
But what do we do with the crap parts? The clunky dialogue worthy of a George Lucas prequel, the moralizing, the notion that, as Salon.com's Stephanie Zacharek opines, "Avatar would be great fun, if only James Cameron... had a sense of humor about himself." It's undeniable. Cameron also blithely recycles lots of his own memes,as i09.com lists. The stock characters in his stable are all present: spineless corporate stooge (Giovanni Ribisi, admirably suppressing his natural vocal cadence), gay-lady-soldier-with-a-heart-of-gold (Michelle Rodriguez reprising Jeanette Goldstein's role in Aliens), cartoonishly butch army Corporal with a Terminator-like resilience. All are present, few share the three-dimensionality of the film they star in. What to do with storytelling in such broad, humorless strokes? And what to do with the ear-bleeding pan-flute on the soundtrack?
Cameron has said the film is probably the first installment in a trilogy. A decade and a half down the road, once the next two blockbuster installments have arrived and left and glorious 3-D has become the norm, perhaps this film will be revealed for how conventional it really is -- in narrative structure, moral ideology, even its own limited speculative astrobiology. What stands out to us now, at the end of the millenium's first decade, is how glorious it was to watch.
Though film art is synthetic (a narrative art, a photographic art, a performing art, an audiovisual art) the device of the screen is undeniably pictorial, painterly, a flat canvas upon which images (photographed or illustrated, black and white or color) are laid. There's motion, sure, and an illusion of depth, but if a spectator sitting in a darkened reperatory theater so wishes, they can mentally step outside Vertigo and see the photograph of Jimmy Stewart and the Golden Gate Bridge, a projected cell blown up to fill a large, white two-dimensional space.
Avatar in 3-D defies this step-out-ability. From the uncoiling ferns situated roughly near our elbows to the sentient dandelion fluff that floats in our midst, Avatar can't be watched from a distance. To watch the film is to be inside the world -- as Dargis says, this compelling but un-showy 3-D "closes the space between audience and screen." Other advanced cinematic technologies like Cinemascope, Cinerama or IMAX, seek to increase the frame, and in doing so can bring you up to the edge of the screen, surround you with it, but can't make it disappear.
At the end of each day on glorious technicolor Pandora, Jake Sully wakes up: he's a small, limited being in a flourescent-lit lab. Though Cameron's sci-fi narrative device calls to mind MMORPG or social networking, the avatar's daily awakening is closer to that of the movies -- of the lights flickering on at the end of the film, of taking off the Rivers Cuomo 3-D specs, and shuffling back out into reality.