Sunday, December 20, 2009
Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Director: James Cameron
Runtime: 162 min.
Verdict: What Cameron did with CGI in The Abyss, he does with 3-D here.
Genre: Action, Adventure
Few films have had me in such a contradictory state of mind as Mr. Cameron’s Avatar. Let it be said outright – there is no film school in the world richer in the art and technique of filmmaking than the filmography of Mr. Cameron. On a purely technical level, I believe there has only ever been one filmmaker who could rival Mr. Cameron in efficiency, and he went by the name of Stanley Kubrick. And let us leave Kubrick out of every conversation for he always is the benchmark. Now see dear reader, I might sound like the newest passenger on the Avatar-Hyperbole Express, but I have learnt more about the art of how take a shot and bring the audience right into the illusion from Mr. Cameron’s films than any other filmmaker, living or dead. Alfred Hitchcock was a master of architecture but he was an especially mediocre shot-maker. A look at Vertigo, or Strangers on a Train and we would see shots calling attention to themselves, ham-fisted usage of symbolism and wafer-thin trickery. I might invoke other directors and I might commit the next worse sin to hyperbole – indulgence.
Rather, I shall express the reservations I have been having about cinema, and its criticism. That a game-changer as Avatar comes to the screen at about the same time is both coincidental and fortunate. So I seek the opportunity, and ask the question troubling me – Have we figured out the medium? The Academy of Film Arts and Sciences says that films are about story telling. More often than not, our criticism seems to be concerned with story telling too. But then we aren’t analyzing literature right? We speak of image composition. But then we aren’t analyzing art right? What is cinema, and what is the little unit of cinema are we concerning us with? You see, Terminator 2:Judgement Day is never referred to in the same breath as Citizen Kane, but is it in anyway a lesser film. Cinematically? When Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-101 jumps onto the road and into the iconic opening chase, in a glorious moment of slow-mo, is it in anyway a lesser cinematic achievement than HAL peeping onto Dave and Frank’s conversation? I wonder if cinema is purely sensory in nature. Filmmakers and scholars, I believe, might be committing a grave error in ignoring the fact that cinema is still evolving.
And yes, my idea of cinema is as good as yours. But I know one thing, and I know it as a fact – the only film that is purely cinema is, and will be for a considerable length of time 2001: A Space Odyssey.
So, the word we are searching for is experience. Cinema, dear reader, is a fantasy. It is that little illogical world running inside our brains. Pinning it down based on its politics might be a case of setting up wrong priorities. I have always believed Schindler’s List is an adolescent’s view of the world, but isn’t that view put up pretty effectively? And I might be indulging again. So I only make one observation and ask of you to ponder over it, and that is by juxtaposing two sequences – (a) Opening tracking shot of Touch of Evil and (b) The Copacabana tracking shot of Goodfellas. I believe (a) is a horribly calculated shot, inserted at the wrong time, for a shot as attention-calling as a tracking shot should never be an opening scene. The viewer feels nothing save a sense of academic appreciation of it. But in Goodfellas, Martin Scorsese uses it so brilliantly that the viewer doesn’t see the shot but instead feels the world opening before the eyes of Henry Hill. Ask yourself, where does the brilliance lie?
And while you are at it, ask yourself – if a movie, say The Sixth Sense or Memento is enjoyed the same on a television or a laptop or the big screen, where is the cinema in it? Cinema is supposed to be grand, is it not? You see reader; Kubrick made a variety of films but always know that grandness was always a hallmark of his mise-en-scene. His sets were always grand. Michael Mann. Sergio Leone. Martin Scorsese. Andrei Tarkovsky. Have these guys, consciously or sub-consciously figured out cinema?
And so I come back to Avatar, and the contradictions that have eaten me. And Mr. Cameron, the grandest of all filmmakers alive. Here is a story that is quite beaten. Right from the days of Pocahontas to Dances with the Wolves. Mr. Cameron lends that tale a rather uncomplicated and popularly accepted political belief to the imperial nature of mankind, and the humanity that contradicts it. He has always been a believer, and here, in Avatar he might be suggesting the need for evolution. Mankind’s evolution that is. And evolution through doppelgangers. It is quite fascinating how the story plays, where Jake Sully (Mr. Worthington), a US Marine, and hence a bonehead, is thrust into a scientific mission only because his significantly more cerebral brother is dead. Humans, in 2154, haven’t developed a fix for broken spine, but have managed to invent an elaborate scientific mechanism on Planet Pandora where the local tribe, called Na’vi, have been genetically replicated and combined with human genome, and an Avatar is created. An Avatar of the concerned person’s genome, into whom the brain’s neurological bullshit is transferred via wires or something. Result the person is sleeping in a little scientific coffin while the Avatar, is out there. The Avatar is just a proxy physical representation of the person in the coffin, because the atmospheric pressure isn’t exactly suited to human beings.
So why are human beings on this planet? Because earth is exhausted and there is an element here that could provide for as the replacement – Unobtanium. Any other doubts that Mr. Cameron never guns for subtext should be thoroughly vaporized now. You see, human beings are a naughty lot, and the unsophisticated liberal intellect amongst us would always want to believe it. Mr. Cameron has always been one, and will always be one. So he goes about his beliefs, and wonders about the prospect of our evolution. In biblical terms, going back to Eden, and returning back to the innocence and love of it all. You see, the divine intervention of destiny is what reminds humans of their true nature, is what Mr. Cameron’s belief is. All his life. I know, that is simplistic, but then simplistic is what has delivered the goods for the filmmaker. And he always uses paper supporting characters to get his deal done. To talk of paper supporting characters in his movies is quite an unoriginal and a rather needless piece of observation, lest one hasn’t seen any one of them, for he thrives on such characters. Be it Bruce Ismay from Titanic, or Dr. Silberman from Terminator 2: Judgment Day, or the army pack from Aliens.
Why needless, one might ask? Needless because, he is not Shakespeare or Picasso or Mozart. He is James Cameron. He isn’t promising you a great story; he is promising you a great movie. And movies for him are all about experiences. So it is quite a simple story actually and quite serious about its stance. If we draw parallels from our present world, and map them to his films, we would come to conclusions that wouldn’t exactly benefit the analysis of his films in any significant way, and wouldn’t offer us any new insight that we didn’t already know since The Terminator and Aliens. You see those obligatory characters we see in most Hollywood films these days? It was guys like James Cameron and Steven Spielberg who invented that obligatory character and attached a stereotype to him. Mr. Cameron, what he does is wrap his films in a layer of seriousness and good acting so that the stereotypes aren’t so obvious. Modern filmmakers have realized, and have grown campy, and they try to hide their ineptness of movie-making behind a cloud of we-are-having-fun-with-it.
You see, you can always have fun, but the mark of a genius filmmaker is how often he can create a world and surround us with it, and create fun and fantasy for us. And what is to be learnt from Mr. Cameron is the art of filmmaking, and the almost unsurpassable and often intense fluidity he brings to his narration. Of course he amps down on the intense part according to the needs of his films. Save The Abyss, there has not been one film of his that lags at any moment. You are always in there, time flying by fast, and when the end nears, you would want more. Terminator 2: The Judgment Day is 137 min, True Lies 141 min, Aliens 137 min, and Titanic a mere 194 min. It is a wonder how fluidly Mr. Cameron constructs his movie where every scene so organically moves to the next. There are little by way of short scenes. And they aren’t long either, because for all his technology, Mr. Cameron is a genre filmmaker with the action-thriller his currency. If anyone comes up to me and calls Aliens sci-fi, I’ll bore them to death with a four-hour long discourse on why the present state of the genre is so pathetic. It is a horror film, plain and simple. So are all his movies, even Titanic, a romantic action film. More importantly, Mr. Cameron rarely believes in showcasing his spectacle by means of long objective shots in his action scenes. He always, always thrives on medium shots, shots placed at the absolutely perfect distance for us to be within the action, and also enjoy the view. That is how he frames his films, and that is why his films are always so involving.
So, to cut an already long story from being longer, that is what makes Avatar the achievement it is. Not the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, because in itself, Avatar I believe is nothing. There is no imagination that Mr. Cameron has conjured up. While the film was happening that special tree that Neytiri (Ms. Saldana), I forgot the name, reminded me of something. Then Stephanie Zacharek helped me here , and I knew instantly that it was one of those fiber optic lamps that goes round and round and is available in any gift shop. With the Na’vi, Mr. Cameron has gone safer, rather than courageous, and he has developed an alien population that looks quite similar to us. Of course, Darwinians amongst us would say if it worked with us, it makes sense it worked for them too. I cannot argue with that. And I think it is smart, blockbuster masterstroke from the great filmmaker. He replaces the eye, the most problematic part of any motion capture event, and replaces them with little golden eyes. Since the eyes are not human, any application of a two-but emotion is registered on us, for we perceive it as something completely new. The mountains, floating or not, aren’t exactly out of the world, so to speak. Neither are the dragons, or the dogs, or the luminescent flowers, which I am sure Mr. Cameron borrowed from his numerous wanderings into the ocean. The tribes fight with bows and arrows, and the arrows now being spears courtesy the added physical bulk.
And on top of it, the filmmaker commits curious errors so alien to him. For instance, there is this huge tree, and he doesn’t even establish it well in advance. If we dwell on it any further, the geography of the Pandora world isn’t established as clearly as it should have been. We don’t really invest ourselves in the tree before the humans attack it, and we only see a spectacle. Of course, we feel, because Mr. Cameron has made us spend significant time with the Na’vi tribe, to whom the tree is so dear, and so when we see the wonderfully conceived reaction shots, we are moved.
And as I write this, in comes a text message from a friend re-watching the film in 2-D saying it isn’t for 2-D. And I say him I always knew that. You see reader, in there in the film, I was exhilarated. I drove my way back to home, a good 20-km drive, and I felt empty. Not overwhelmed. What does that say, I asked myself. The answer I now know is that Avatar is not a film in itself. Not a film as we know films. The friend replies back, as I said to him earlier, that the action is too close. I agree, the action might be too close for 2-D, but is nothing short of magnificent in 3-D. I don’t think Avatar is even meant for 2-D. I think a film made for 2-D can be put as 3-D but not the vice-versa. I cannot say why, because I would have to watch a lot more movies, and come up with a credible enough theory. I shall, I promise dear reader, for now I feel the need to jump away from the 3-D skeptic team. What I suspect though is that Mr. Cameron, as he discovered the means to CGI in The Abyss, only to perfect its usage in Terminator 2, has done the same with Avatar. We should wait for his next film, which I’m sure will just change the map.
Back to the 3-D. 3-D is not about spear treatment. As I predicted in my review of A Christmas Carol, 3-D is a better way to achieve deep focus, and pull us right into the image. And that is what Cameron does, and I didn’t know the results would be this spectacular. Suddenly I find myself a believer, for films are illusions, and 3-D it seems, is better equipped to create the illusion. I say 3-D and I mean Mr. Cameron’s usage of 3-D as a narrative (cinematic) device. The other filmmakers are still playing with a fireball. Mr. Cameron, it seems, has achieved what was impossible, and demonstrated through Avatar that 3-D was indeed the game changer. He shows it how. Now I ask, is 3-D the future of films? Was cinema always meant to be 3-D? I ask because I have been reimagining every movie I have wanted to lose myself in, from The Good the Bad The Ugly to Lawrence of Arabia to Terminator 2: Judgment Day to 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Dark Knight to Rachel Getting Married to The Good The Bad The Weird to Zodiac to The General to Raging Bull to The Fall, in 3-D. Of course Avatar isn’t perfect. There are times when things start floating in the foreground and you lose it. But we feel the people and characters even more, we feel the moments more. 3-D conceals severe problems of filmmaking and plot. Sully rides a dragon and it is an experience like nothing before, although several folks in several fantasy adventures have flown beasts and machines. A little tree or a little tear feels all the more, well, real.
The thing is, Avatar is not the future of filmmaking, but I think it heralds that future. In terms of the experience, this is what cinema ought to be. Avatar doesn’t have content, and we ought not to look at the content. What we ought to instead consider is what Mr. Cameron has done with the meager and dubious content (White man amongst blue populace->Blue->Black->White man’s guilt->The Heart of Darkness). He doesn’t bring the film to us; he rather pulls us into it. We feel it all even more. A corny little moment as a bright little thing settling on Sully’s Avatar is heartfelt here. I almost cried, dear reader. If we choose to look at it in my skewed way, Avatar rightly doesn’t create or imagine anything new. It takes the generics of our films and film-world and shows them in a new, what do we say, avatar. How beautiful it all could be? Think of the opening credit sequence of Raging Bull with La Motta practicing is slow-mo, and imagine you being there. Or you being there with T.L. Lawrence in the desert. Avatar is a game changer. And I don’t think there is more befitting image to end the film with than Sully’s eyes opening. I think this is the step for a new evolved future. And it includes the opening of another dimension for us.
Mr. Cameron, now that you have it, show us now what you can really do with the technology.