In elucidating my thoughts regarding Avatar, James Cameron's medium-altering cinematic revolution, I cannot seem to come up with a more definitive thesis statement than something that may strike one as being perverse, off-color, and even a little vague, regardless of how self-evident such a statement appears: James Cameron wants to get you pregnant. He does. He wants to fill you up, and it does not matter if you're female or male, ripe in youth, not ripe yet, or perhaps overripe as the sagginess of middle age has crept up on your gut and thighs. James Cameron, he wants to get it on with you and spread his seed.
Now, this is metaphorical I suppose. James Cameron does not really want to get you pregnant with his literal baby, and thus producing a new civilization of Baby Camerons who will pass on the crafty genius of their overlord father. No. This is the pregnancy of ideas, of an artist wanting to communicate. Surely though, every artist wants to communicate. But Cameron is not interested in being esoteric with his ideas, visions, or the conspicuousness of his new technological mode of operation. I'm certain the Coen brothers wanted to communicate something with A Serious Man, and Tom Ford wants to communicate something with A Single Man. But the coupling that the Coens and Ford engage in bespeaks a kind of choosiness with their mates – not an elitism, mind you, but there are only so many prospective partners out there willing to have a baby with those movies. No. Cameron does not care about intensiveness, but wants his vision to be extensively digested. This is a big show that will not be permitted any sort of cult status, thank you very much. "Cult status?" Cameron scoffs. "What do I look like to you? Cult status is for losers who only win years later in retrospect. It does not, damn it, erase the crushing specter of defeat!" As it is, Cameron cannot afford any kind of defeat, which makes his victory all the more triumphant, as the heroic wanderer weathered from battles past and old overcomes insurmountable odds in making something that is the envy of God. A James Cameron release, which bears the weight of a political campaign (Caesarian!), is not just an attempt to create art. It's not Michelangelo's David. It's David with a very prodigious erection, legs spread and fingers pointed between his legs like a receiver after completing a game-winning touchdown pass in the end-zone, declaring with barrel-chested cock-sureness, "I'm the king of the world!"
This is the current climate surrounding Avatar, and it was the spirit of December/January 1997/1998, after the December 14 release of Titanic, the most expensive film of its kind (not including inflation, where it still dragged behind Cleopatra and Spartacus), a reckless and much-publicized production with a long-delayed release as Cameron's need to get his vision realized rivaled stories of Coppola and Herzog in their respective jungles of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo. Could the director of The Terminator movies and Aliens really make a respectable and authentic period piece that would simultaneously interest blockbuster crowds to cover its costs, starring two individuals who were not, we should remember, box office draws: two young and very respected actors, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet (who was reportedly dogged by the abusive director during production as "Kate Weighs-a-lot")? Then the reviews came in, all of them glowing – and not just affirmative in a passing light, but conceding that Cameron had made something quite tremendous. And even if the kitsch of the love story was secondary to the special effects (though we should remember that a lot of reviewers praised the drama of Titanic), it was nevertheless a great leap. Cameron's Titanic wowed audiences, as special effect shots had those sitting next to me gasping "Holy cool!", and then later had them in tears while the credits rolled. Titanic was not only perfect Oscar fare, but it was better suited than most any other film, even at 3 hours and 14 minutes, in communicating to a large number of people. It was easy for a lot of people to digest and accept. It became the largest box office draw in history (again, not including inflation). Cameron got everyone pregnant, they all had his baby, and he was the king of the world.
Now, before moving on, many readers will be quick to point something out to me, and quite angrily. "Titanic was a bad movie." Okay, fair enough. And this is where things start to get a little complicated in the Cameron paternity saga between himself and his fickle audience. Titanic had a few vocal detractors upon its initial release, the loudest among them being Kenneth Turan at the Los Angeles Times. But in December, as far as I'm concerned on the general buzz meter, Titanic was beloved. I saw it twice, I liked it enormously, and maybe I even got a little misty eyed – the "Heart of the Ocean" imagery along with the atmosphere of doom during the final hour effectively hitting a nerve of Jungian archetypal mystery. Now, I was a lot younger back then, considerably more naïve and romantic, and in retrospect can see beyond the veil of Titanic. It is a grand carnival ride, with some kitschy love thrown in, which plays quite marvelously on a big theater and in the company of a hundred anonymous fellow viewers. But try to view it at home. The picture is (for me) close to unwatchable, and its flaws come soaking through.
By the time February 1998 came, the Titanic bug was beginning to take a large toll on one particular demographic: young men. Well, maybe all men. The problem had to do with the women (basically the young women). They had projected their fantasies onto the film, particularly onto the character of Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio), the romantic young man who sweeps Kate Winslet off her feet, respects her and sees her for who she really is, immortalizes her naked body in his sketchbook, gets to make sweet love with her, and saves her repeatedly, even giving her a big chunk of boat on which to float while he freezes to death. This last gesture of goodness is what I believe women unconsciously respected most, because Jack was thoughtful enough to recognize that as he is "The One," and he cannot possibly stick around, for "The One" never can. Kate Winslet must go off to meet a nice fellow on the continent, get married properly, and make a big family – something, let's face it, Jack cannot be allowed to do. By dying, Jack allows Kate Winslet to have her cake and eat it too, forever possessing the final and loving gestures of her "One" while also maintaining a successful status. Jack, the distant but ever-there "One" who in the future would compel a married Kate Winslet to gaze off in the distance (think of James Joyce's The Dead), the way cats often do, even while raising her children and being a good wife, is the ultimate fantasy. And Cameron's fantasy, however shameless it is when deconstructed, was pulled off precisely because he had two effective performers in the roles. This was the ascension, and unraveling consequently, of Leonardo DiCaprio as female movie-goers flocked to see Titanic over and over again, pasting his image on their lockers and ceilings. The general male populace was deeply troubled. I mean they were seriously pissed off. We all know this Jack character in real life, who rouses the women we admire to turn their eyes to the ceiling and roll their tongues while they describe how "brillllliant" he is. And Jack's a douchebag, or more properly, "that douchebag," regardless if he is or is not "objectively" a "douchebag." Meanwhile, a lot of folks were thinking: what about poor Billy Zane? Does it bother anyone that Cameron seems to have no sympathy allotted towards this guy, who though admittedly is his own kind of scumbag, is really trapped by the words given to him by the Lord God Cameron, also screenwriter of this world. In the world of 1997 movies, the men of the world became more interested in Will Hunting, while the more brainier ones dug Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, and Guy Pearce in L.A. Confidential, or Mark Wahlberg and Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights.
But Titanic remained invincible throughout the month, staying on top of the box office charts for, best as I can recall, sixteen weeks – only to be topped by another DiCaprio starrer, The Man in the Iron Mask. The Academy Awards came and Titanic went 11 for 14. But this is a key moment to remember in the history of Cameron and his audience. For as we were annoyed by his paean to douchebaggery and this newly branded "Di-Craprio," he then did something that made us wonder if he was still on planet Earth. No, it was fine for him to pay credit to his own screenplay when he said he felt like "The king of the world!" Moments later, when the film itself won Best Picture, Cameron rather audaciously asked his audience of one billion people to have a "moment of silence" for the dead in the Titanic.
Now, that gives one a lot to think about. "What balls," one must reflect. It indicates that James Cameron is by no means a money-hungry opportunist who was simply interested in the wild-ride special effects of his film that would generate a lot of money. He was interested in its social significance the same way that Steven Spielberg was with Schindler's List. The Titanic was, after all, a tragedy. Which in turn made the Academy Awards audiences question themselves: "Am I such an unfeeling prick that I find this call for a moment of silence ridiculous?" But no. Cameron really cared about his content after all, the same way an enraptured audience would while still in the theater watching his film. But the signification of Titanic the film was completely different from the existential context of the story. For an audience, it was Spectacle, it was young women falling in love with that goddamned douchebag DiCaprio, it was bad dialogue in favor of great special effects, it was $600 million, it was David's erection. And subsequent to his Academy win, Titanic would suffer perhaps the biggest backlash in movie history.
Seriously, Titanic became very uncool. It was the opposite of hip, it was poison, it was pathetic. A large bulk of people remembered, after coming to their senses, that in the era of Tarantino what they prized was cleverness and quality dialogue. Now, I don't agree with this sentiment, but even if one sees the best measure of film being its alchemy of sound and image, Titanic looks a little rubbery in its evenly lit special effects world, its wowness based on computer imagery, though I would maintain that its final hour has some great sustained moments of suspense moviemaking. By the time Titanic came out on home video, its time had waned. The embarrassing "king of the world" shtick was unforgivable, the weight of both spectacle and romance was heavily deflated, and the Billy Zane character (acknowledged as one of cinema's great travesties by even one of the film's champions, screenwriter William Goldman) an increasingly awful a concoction of drama. Honestly, as the fall of 1998 set in, to be a straight male and claim some admiration for Titanic really amounted to a petty attempt to get laid. A lot of the girls still liked it, at least the normative ones. Geek girls, notorious in their distaste for anything a socially successful and attractive female would like, sneered like a bordello of collective Darias. I would argue that Emo culture did not begin with Dashboard Confessional. It began with Celine Dion's "My Heart Will Go On." The damage had been done, and Titanic was anathema to the learned moviegoer. I wonder if any other film was so responsible for sparking interest in independent cinema, as Titanic made many people eager to get away from whatever was mainstream. Cameron's victory was Pyrrhic after all. The cost of success and award recognition was an instant regurgitation on the part of the audience, realizing they had possibly been duped.
This is the cost of success, and it's very much Cameron's fault. A tremendously gifted artist with mercurial technological know-how and precociousness, James Cameron may be interested in introducing new tools to the art of film, so as to "change the format," but he's not necessarily interested in "changing the form" in relation to narrative design and how an audience cognitively deals with a picture, giving it a constant resonance. This is not to say he is not smart. On the contrary, Cameron's an undisputed genius. During the wake of Titanic's success, I believe I heard him note how his goal was to reach as many people as possible – meaning that the film must be accessible. That means he constructs his story with archetypes, which however ingrained they may be in our collective unconscious, are harder to effectively paint than one might think. William Goldman reacted to those like Kenneth Turan, who attacked Cameron as a writer. For though Cameron was not necessarily the best wordsmith in Hollywood, Goldman stated that Cameron's handling the forms of screenplay writing was so masterful in terms of capturing and holding an audience's collective interest that if he didn't deserve an Academy Award for screenwriting, then no one did.
The dirty secret is that audiences, taken as a whole, are not exactly that complex, and they do not respond well to ambiguity. This is maybe an arrogant statement to make, for which I apologize, but let's face it: most people like their lines in the sand drawn clearly, regarding the proper roles of good and evil, right and wrong, sympathetic and malicious, love and hate. Our minds relate very easily to these binaries and can process the information very clearly so we know cognitively where to tread, or where the film is taking us as regards to circumstance and character. The problem is, I think, this kind of simplicity can also make the thrust of a film's central conflict fairly unmemorable. Everything is base human fantasy: one gets revenge, one gets love, one gets fulfillment, one gets success, one gets eternity and one's enemies get perdition. This is the secret to selling religion. Comparing the Zen suggestiveness of the Gnostic gospels to the canonical gospels, we can see why one group caught on and the other was banned. It's much easier to take things on faith then wrestle with them and become a "Christ" oneself. The Gospel of Luke would spread like wildfire solely based on its descriptions of Hell, where one's enemies not only burn, but one can watch them be punished – the most perverse kind of sadistic infantile satisfaction that we carry in our impulsive and unconscious lives. It's the same kind of megalomania one sees in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, for example, where William Wallace not only has his "One" that dies and gives him a drive for bloody He-Man revenge resulting in his greatness; he also gets to have sex with the beautiful English princess, get her pregnant, and, after his martyrdom, basically father the new line of British royalty. Meanwhile, the princess gets to relay this information to the dying English king, who is mute to protest. Whether James Cameron, the Gospel of Luke, or Mel Gibson, to me it is the same impulsive will to power. Masses of people, in projecting themselves onto the protagonists in these dramas, love it.
But why then should Titanic be forgotten as drivel less than a year after its release, while Star Wars, which also successfully uses archetypes, should continue to inspire love decades later? There is not necessarily one single answer, but I can offer up some suggestions. For one thing, back to the Douchebag factor, neither Luke Skywalker or Han Solo is a douchebag – something male viewers can dig. Luke does not really have an erotic life at all and Han is a scoundrel – which is different from a douchebag. Lando is a douchebag, sure, but the film properly shows him as such, while preserving a sense of heroism for him in the third film by eliminating any erotic context for him. Males love Star Wars, and so do geeks of both genders (the groups that despise Titanic). Star Wars does not have a douche. The second reason involves the archetypal characters directly, along with our binary expectation. Yes, Star Wars' conflict is between Good and Evil. We know who to like and who to dislike. But Star Wars does something that Titanic chooses not to do with poor Billy Zane. Basically, the story holds our interest because it goes beyond the artifice of the archetype by suggesting that the key villain has a soul, and is even a double for the hero: Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader comprise one Self, both capable of light and dark, and are Father and Son. And so, while though still not necessarily a dense film that can fuel too much metaphysical discussion beyond the Joseph Campbell basics, Star Wars becomes stirringly memorable and something nutritious as it accounts for a Journey into the Self. Titanic never affords us that opportunity, as Billy Zane remains hateful throughout (though one gives Cameron credit for allowing Zane to live – that is until he shoots himself in the future after the stock market crash; David Warner, as Zane's stooge, is not so lucky). Ultimately, because Titanic remains base fantasy with no troubling descents whatsoever, it is easily processed but is considerably weightless when compared to other archetypal journeys.
And so Cameron was defeated by his unexpected triumph, an ironic turn of circumstance. His film's success was also its downfall. The most unfortunate casualty here would probably have been DiCaprio, a great actor damned by so many males as the douchebag Jack, whom I spent years defending to geek friends until finally people were able to put their prejudices aside with his accomplished performances in The Aviator, The Departed, and Revolutionary Road. Winslet wisely kept herself to interesting roles rather than large prestige pictures, becoming the best regarded actress of her generation. Though Titanic may have grossed more than all of her other films combined, it is not one of the five movies one thinks about when discussion focuses on "Kate Winslet." As for Cameron, he disappeared, having fun tinkering with new tools of filmmaking by making documentaries in his beloved ocean. He came close to directing an adaptation of Slanislav Lem's Solaris, but gave it to Steven Soderbergh. The decision is understandable when we consider Cameron's desire to "get you pregnant." Soderbergh's outer-space love story is romantic, but strange. Where Titanic reached everybody, Solaris upon its first week of release received one of the worst Cinemascore (audience feed-back) ratings on record, despite slightly above-average reviews. It communicated only to those receptive or curious enough to delve into its dense mysteries, a hallmark for most of Soderbergh's recent work.
James Cameron would yet have his revenge. For though he became king of the world, struck down as he was by the growing hipster population of Geekdom that held nothing more than spite for his keys to the kingdom (Titanic), he was in need of something to re-affirm his status. Certainly, he would need to up the ante on cinematic technology that would outshine his previous effort. But he would also need to win over those who despised it. Avatar, as a strategic move, is the most ingenious invention on a game-board geared towards winning a fallen director's God-like invincibility. Instead of pandering to those who loved it, he would impregnate those who had aborted his Titanic. The Geeks' Antichrist would become their Messiah. Avatar their God.
But in order for this spectacular ambition to be worth its while, he would need to plant seeds of doubt, just as he had for Titanic. And so, sparing no expense with the production of his mammoth project, utilizing the most up-to-date and mind-bending technology, the trailers for Avatar premiered. Everyone was decidedly underwhelmed. During Sunday football over Halloween weekend, another, more extensive trailer was unleashed. The result was more positive. We got the sense of the story, involving a crippled marine who undergoes some strange DNA altering process in order to communicate with a bunch of big blue aliens. Conflict ensues with his military industrial complex employers. Avatar looked kind of intriguing and action-packed. Of course, this doesn't certify that it will be a great film. Even if it's a "good" film, scoring positive with the Rotten Tomatoes crowd, what are the chances that it catches fire and makes a profit for its alleged $350 million budget? The best social critics of their day, Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park, seemed to understand the film's plot from the trailer as good as anyone, and gave the film its proper title: Dances With Smurfs. A facebook buddy of mine gave the picture a just-as-fitting subtitle, Ferngully in Space.
Then the reviews came, and on December 18, 2009, almost exactly 12 years after Titanic became a phenomena, Avatar was irresistible. The adjectives streaming from the critics' mouths, top-notch respected critics no less, pointed out how absolutely friggin' totally amazingly poop-in-your-pants change-your-religious-beliefs AWESOME Avatar was, a divine paradigm changing blessing from the gods that would alter cinema, as audiences would be soon festering in its awesomeness, bathing themselves with a whole lotta sweet lovin' Awesome. Avatar was the Awesome, and it was the answered prayer of the Science Fiction nerd (reflected in Roger Ebert's review): a new Star Wars. The only loud grumble came from Armand White, which was as much of a surprise as a complaint coming from Oscar the Grouch. Avatar was a Party, a 3D experience as never before thought possible where the audience was invited to actually be inside the action. IMAX theaters opened in conjunction with Avatar's release, completing the event as rows and rows of hungry viewers would lose their ocular virginity to Cameron's behemoth on the best of all possible honeymoon beds. Even Kenneth Turan, the grouse of Titanic days, praised the picture with loud enthusiasm. James Cameron had done the impossible, by making the kind of thing an 11-year-old boy in love with action figures and video games concocts, and then turning it into an entire mythology, ingested with no complaints by the masses. And by masses, I mean by a bulk of people worldwide who in a matter of not even a few weeks would make Avatar the sixth movie to ever pass the worldwide gross of $1 billion. More than a few moviegoers have gone ahead and said that Avatar is potentially one of the greatest films ever made. Even There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men were not afforded such praise without some caution instantly upon release.
So why didn't I like it?
No, it's not because the oversized 3D glasses sometimes made the tip of my nose a little itchy, or that I was afflicted with some malady of indigestion – which I have often asserted is the cause for disliking something that everyone else seems to dig. It cannot even be reduced to a clichéd argument involving story versus spectacle or any kind of application of Aristotle's Poetics. There is a whole host of things that make me uneasy about Avatar, and this uneasiness kind of tears me apart as a moviegoer and amateur critic. In one sense, I feel like a conservative and old-fashioned fogy, hesitant to embrace this new cinema of possibilities, as I am resistant to the way of the future, trapped in my old paradigms. I feel like a Catholic cardinal cursing Galileo, a 19th century denouncer of Darwin, a fuddy duddy English teacher in the 1950s railing against Kerouac and Ginsberg. But then there's the other part of my conflict, where I feel kind of like Cassandra, a lone oracle who sees the future and the trouble it brings, something that will kill cinema instead of allowing its growth, and I am unable to do anything about this detrimental change.
There are so many things about Avatar that I don't like, and part of the reason for my disliking of it has to do with its successes: those things that I find accursed are precisely the same things that the film's admirers take as virtues. Beyond its 3D images, Avatar is not exactly a rich film, but it leaves much on which to chew for the viewer, in terms of ideas. It provokes discussion just as easily as it allows digestion, Cameron utilizing the norms of basic screenplay communication, drawing clear lines between the Positive and the Negative for our binary-rooted minds, while also dropping in a number of easily relatable political and philosophical topics that makes Avatar a rather fun discussion center. And all of this in addition to its place as a monumental release, possibly comparable to Birth of a Nation, The Jazz Singer, The Wizard of Oz, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jurassic Park, etc, as a noteworthy shift in cinema's capabilities and future. Unlike the virtues of those pictures in terms of image, sound, and general special effects, with Avatar I cannot help but think, "Something wicked this way comes." But to its admirers, Avatar has opened the world up, and is a leap of great progress. Maybe it's because of the clarity with which I see a conflict here that I am compelled to unfairly dislike Avatar more and more, in direct proportion to the accolades that it continually receives. Indeed, there's something to Avatar that connects with our whole Wired culture of internet users with smart phones, digital cameras and home video editing systems. The title alone relates to the common definition of the substitute "Online" identity that individuals choose for self-representation, though whatever is being represented in the "Spacebook" atmosphere is surely not exactly one's authentic Self, so much as a constructed one over which one has much more control. I was not surprised to see that the editors of Rottentomatoes.com had a headline for Avatar's success as being "Certified Fresh" with an exclamation mark. It was as if this was a long-awaited victory for the Wired generation, the neuromancers of the Information Age, akin to what Obama was for Progressives.
But this duplicitous representation of Self is what perhaps bugs me about Avatar and its legacy. Avatar is a futuristic space world that is also wholly created by way of the computer's animated lensing, manipulated by intelligent designers instead of the kind of strange randomness we experience in Real Life and what we experience in Other People. The spontaneous biologic impulses that have no artificial impetus, like a sudden and unexpected laugh coming after a crude joke, have been transmuted into LOL or ROFL – banal representations, avatars in and of themselves, that lack of undefined nuances of genuine laughter. Cameron has ambitions to throw the audience into a New World, aided by 3D, which indeed puts us directly into the action and thus makes Avatar maybe more of an amusement park ride than a narrative movie. It is quite amazing and soul-stirring to experience, and leaves one's eyes and mind marveling. But some problems remain. The Avatar world of Pandora is still, for all of its beauty, not a raw experience of an actual world so much as a glowing encounter with a virtual one. And even though the performance-capture effects, where an actor's facial tics are transmuted into the digital "avatar" characters, they are still, nevertheless, video-game characters (granted, the day is coming when this art will perhaps be perfected). The fuddy-duddy in me here laments that the world which is being taken for granted in light of Cameron's revelatory one of Pandora, is our own Reality.
This is not a problem for Cameron. Scientific philosophers tell us about the coming "Singularity" when human beings and technology will merge at last, and perhaps we have grown so cybernetic over so many years that we would not be able to, as David Cronenberg suggested, mate with human beings 1,000 years ago if we could try: we are a different species already. The "Other" Reality of Pandora, of Avatars in the Forest of the Ether constructed of binary ones and zeroes, is the Actual Reality, the Final Reality. When Cameron shows his Na'vi giant Smurf people linking their tails with the earth of Pandora, he is suggesting that what is happening is a "download" process, creating stability and harmony, and capable of fixing in our corrupted biological selves, which was before hopeless (the main character here is, after all, a paraplegic). It is a positive thing, Avatar is telling us, to actually become our avatars, our digital reflections, and leave the land of meatspace earth forever. There is no Return to Kansas. Avatar suggests a new Platonism where the Ideal Forms are online and waiting to be downloaded. Immediately, one can see why Avatar is a kind of God Project for our stereotyped Sci-Fi Geek, spiteful of physicality and flesh, as he is able to (recalling South Park) become one with the World of Warcraft figures he controls online. And what more, what this suggests for Cinema's Future is that no longer will we attend films like listeners at a campfire storytelling ritual where Mythic Forms are there to be identified with psychologically, as projections of mythological archetypes within ourselves. Rather, we are the Story, we are the Myth in action. There is no room for Reflection or cognitive identification. Just immediate agency on the part of the viewer/participant. We are playing a videogame.
I have always despised that what I call the "Videogame Aesthetic," which has infected films since CGI became rampant, and Avatar's final section feels like nothing else but a big video game. It is huge spectacle with loud noises and explosions, but the digitized forms, the "Avatars" in this virtual space of Pandora, do not dissemble grotesquely, and there is no sense of the actual consequence of violence as flesh is destroyed (though this is a necessity for a PG-13 rating I guess). And here is where my tired philosophical conflict in current cinema comes to a head. This kind of a "thrilling" spare-no-expense movie action with all of its formal techniques (rising melodramatic music between cutting cues as three or four different vectors of action are being followed by the narrative) is sometimes quite exemplary to look at. But to me, it is simply incomparable to the complex real-time real-space action choreography one sees in pictures like Children of Men or Collateral. The bloated romance of developing relationships on Pandora, which echo the "King of the World" moments of Titanic as the protagonist is simply amazed by the world surrounding him, still fails to match the awe that directors like Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, and Werner Herzog are able to sense in our Real World of actual spaces, making things visible which were previously only beholden to the Artist in question. Certainly an apt comparison in terms of Avatar's derivative story should be made to Malick's The New World, which is also about colonialism and a Native Princess saving a technologically advanced Outsider. And yet, for all of Cameron's colors and craft, not one image of his own budding inter-tribal romance can hold a candle to the delicateness with how Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki, using 65mm film on a 2D image, photograph John Smith's hand moving up Pocahontas' arm, James Horner's music coming in like a passing breeze (I should here note that Horner's score here for Avatar is one of the weakest elements of the picture, its end-credit pop manifestation – meant to repeat the success of "My Heart Will Go On" from Titanic – one of the most cringing uses of an original song in a film that I've ever encountered while exiting a theater). The rawness of the real world is far more sublime than anything the imagination can conjure up – in fact, the Reality is the Dream. Avatar repeats a motif of The New World (beyond the many plot similarities): what was Real was the fantasy in the Forest, while all of practicalities of official day-to-day life were untrue. The difference between the two pictures is that in The New World, the transcendent is married to our terrestrial existence, an ever-present sense that does not require special effects.
Here then, I must think about the comparisons and contrasts of the two aesthetics in action, between the Materialist Awe versus the Idealized Virtual one. Film is always privy to the technology being handed to it, and moves forth accordingly. In the late 1920s, because of the sudden wide availability of panchromatic film stock, Carl Theodore Dreyer was able to experiment with cinema's language by using actors without makeup and framing them for much of the running time in close-up. This actually was quite disarming for many viewers, who were not exactly receptive to Dreyer's play with the evolving language of film (though now it is regarded universally as beautiful). He was shifting the paradigm – and not necessarily only in format. But how does one tell a story through close-ups? Dreyer drew narrative away from the staginess of Theatre, as if to reinforce that this medium was wholly unique (simultaneously, Dreyer believed he was making a documentary). Sometimes, directors must wait for the technology to catch up with their vision, which may result is some films never being made. Kubrick had acquired the rights to AI in the 1980s, but it was not until after Jurassic Park in 1993 that he actually went forth with preproduction (though true to form, the development was drawn out beyond his own life-span). Lucas has stated similar things regarding his Star Wars prequels. And Cameron has said the same of Avatar. And yet – how does it all work out in the end? Whatever one's quibbles with the new Star Wars films regarding dialogue, acting, story, and character, I believe the truest flaw had less to do with Lucas' screenwriting and more to do with how the efficiency of special effects technology had changed from 1983 to 1998. Part of the allure of this first Star Wars trilogy was how it was convincing environmentally, in both its leafy or sandy natural worlds, or smoky and blinking interior imperial architecture. Peter Suschitzky's cinematography for The Empire Strikes Back is correctly acknowledged as perhaps the best job of sci-fi cinematography in history, precisely because of how he has lit a set constructed in real space. The world of The Phantom Menace, by comparison, too often feels like a cartoon. As much as we would like to fool our senses, we cannot. The entropy of Lucasfilm effects was a contagious detriment to Indiana Jones, as the live action stunts and gruesome melting faces last seen in 1989 gave way to the videogame Pitfall action of The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, complete with a digitally evaporating Cate Blanchett (far less horrifying than the demise of the 1980s villains) and virtual prairie dogs (a very unfortunate outcome, considering that Steven Spielberg, I believe, up to that point was very responsible with his frequent CGI use in both AI and Minority Report).
Cameron, I think, is a lot smarter than George Lucas though, and his prudence, in addition to his megalomaniacal commanding direction, made Avatar a much more easy pill to swallow, as well as being a visually amazing experience. He works in harmony with his technology. The problem here is that one may, as I did, see beyond his 3D curtain – and behind that curtain, there's a lot of plot fat. Cameron's image is two dimensions more than his characters. Again, as I stated, Cameron does not care about making his characters particularly complex because he wants them to remain easily digested. Instead of Billy Zane here, he has two memorable turns by Stephen Lang as a military man (easily the film's best performance) and Giovanni Ribisi as a corporate colonialist, eager to bulldoze Pandora's inhabitants to make a profit from a resource called "Unobtanium" (a genuinely funny wink by Cameron, for which I give him credit). The audience for Avatar is thus wowed as this goes into their systems with a spoonful-of-sugar plot, and the picture fulfills its immediate goals (possibly setting up a franchise in the process). Having veered away from the kitsch of feminine fantasy and into the alternate kitsch of geek fantasy, he has won back an audience, won back his status, and spawned a new Kingdom of self-proclaimed "Avatards." As for me, I am one of the "doubters" (I'm only a "hater" when the film encounters a sudden burst of orgasmic praise from a recent viewer).
If I fear Avatar because of what it means for the future of cinema, as old and tired action norms are reinforced and the earthier elements of performance, impressionism, narrative, and the utilization of neglected actual environments are taken for granted, it's because that which I love in movies may go the way of the dodo. Digital is the way of the future. Film stock is going to be obsolete. Do I see anything progressive at all for movies? Yes, I do – but they are not things that get a lot of folks pregnant, so to speak. In 2009, Avatar's counterpart was another film that I have written much about, Public Enemies. If Cameron and Lucas represent to me the Platonic emptiness of the Digital Era, as we scramble away from the Earth and into the Ether, Michael Mann, David Fincher, and David Lynch are the three directors, flaunting their love for Digital images, who represent a kind of Hope. The most difficult of the three, in addition to being the most political, is Mann, whose Public Enemies encouraged an outcry from movie buffs because of its hand-held videography, where Mann and cinematographer Dante Spinotti made no secret of the technology they were using in their document of the 1930s, as the lossless compression of digital feedback was distinct, just as it was with Mann's previous two films (videos?), Collateral and Miami Vice (where Dion Beebe was Mann's credited cinematographer). For all of its press and revolutionary pretenses, Avatar is no Rite of Spring. Public Enemies, on the other hand, is quite extraordinary. It stands in opposition to how audiences have ever experienced a 1930s gangster picture, made so familiar by works like Road to Perdition and The Untouchables. Much of the hatred for the way Mann shot Public Enemies has come from professional videographers and schooled critics – but to me, this is precisely why it is powerful. Criticizing Mann's work here is akin to criticizing what the French New Wave directors were doing (and it deliberately recalls Breathless) with cutting and shooting in the 1960s – or Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc and its close-ups (Dreyer is one of Mann's heroes, and his own repeated use of disarming close-ups in a wide-screen canvas also upsets many viewers; indeed, Public Enemies does not seem to have more than a handful of wide establishing shots throughout its 140 minutes – utterly bizarre for a "period epic"). For me, this is the difference between Cameron and Mann, Avatar and Public Enemies. Cameron wants us to disappear in his Platonic Ideal forms and forget about the earth, while paying lip service – all too simplistically in the verve of a propaganda film – to pressing social issues; Mann also wants us to be in his world, yet also calls attention to his format, so as to encourage, in true Kino-Eye/Vertovian fashion, a kind of dialectic with the picture, as the content becomes cognitively processed in a complex fashion along with the form. The image comes home with us, and affects how we "become" in the Real World, just as Manhattan Melodrama is in a kind of "relationship" with John Dillinger. Transcendence is found in the individual's subjectivity, not in a downloaded program.
Fincher is not so much of an impressionist like Mann, and does not make the video-look blatant, as his images show no compression. His films (Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) were both stored data on set, instead of being downloaded from tape. The result is an incomparable visual richness that nevertheless feels natural in how it sutures us, its beauty related to how well it is able to represent our terrestrial world in a fashion that 35mm film could not touch. But like Mann, there is a kind of philosophical reflection on the technology being used, particularly in Benjamin Button. A story about how the world has fallen into a kind of ruin with its detachment from memory and its analog relationship to the past (with an apt metaphor of a hurricane destroying one of America's most historically rich cities), Fincher has a befuddling prologue about a blind clockmaker, filmed as a colorized pre-sound era motion picture with scratches on celluloid. He also has a humorous collection of Edison-like black-and-white moments documenting the various times an old man has been hit by lightning. In the context of Benjamin Button, Fincher is communicating something very directly to us about the changing nature of cinema, as the old clock comes down and the digital clock ascends: With these new tools of narrative communication, we must not forget where we came from, maintaining a line to the past as we go forth into the future, instead of being swallowed by the future. Benjamin Button is cutting-edge in its use of special effects, but it is reverent of its precedents.
And then, perhaps the most visually arresting of digital films is the standard definition world that David Lynch creates in INLAND EMPIRE. Like Mann, Lynch is a sensual impressionist drawing the viewer into the syntax at hand, which provokes a cognitive discussion with the material. Again, half of the audience was dismayed by what they were being shown (if Public Enemies is still too decidedly mainstream to be The Rite of Spring, INLAND EMPIRE is not), and the filmmaker was engaging the audience in a kind of ephemeral discourse about the relationship between cinema and consciousness. Like Public Enemies, the protagonist (Laura Dern) encounters a semblance of herself on a movie screen near the conclusion of her journey, which in turn reflects onto the audience in a movie house.
These three examples (surely there are more that must fit into this camp) represent progress in cinema, a medium of mass communication and reflection that can be all-too-often reduced to escapism and neglect. Their problem is akin to the problem of the formation of a canonical gospel: whereas the Gnostic gospels encouraged reflection and immersion on the part of the cult, the ones that were ultimately canonical mainly centered around belief and obedience. In 3D, we believe in James Cameron's Pandora and its world, and so too do we obey it, submissive to its visceral impact – Plato made simple as we enter the Hereafter.
James Cameron then has succeeded once more in getting you pregnant, and may well be on his way to having directed the two most successful movies of all time (not including inflation and keeping those IMAX ticket prices out of mind). But his method of Myth Made Easy, with a virtual terrain that certainly has a sense of depth but characters and ideas that perhaps do not, calls into to question the same Fate of Titanic: Having fallen in love so quickly and eloping with Avatar, will we once more settle down and get to thinking, penning a cruel Dear John letter to the King of the World a second time, after we realize that our eyes are rolling just as they are impressed? Will we perhaps see that what we are seeing, however technologically groundbreaking, is little more than the biggest video game in history, and given its dramatic approaches, it is perhaps ultimately more recessive than progressive for movies? When love comes quickly, I believe we should be weary of changing minds. Though, as Star Trek and Star Wars in all of their incarnations have proven, this newly impregnated fan base is perhaps more devoted and loyal than a race of infatuated teenage girls quite taken with Subject Douchebag. No, Avatar will prevail in the end, a notion I have as something of a technological determinist. We will, after all, come to identify more and more with our own avatars in the Spacebook universe, escaping into the comfort of these forms over which we have complete control. After being asked if a computer would ever make a film, Jean-Claude Carriere once remarked, "Yes. And other computers will go to see them." As artists like Mann, Lynch, and possibly even Fincher die out (he seems the most adept of surviving), I am very much afraid of having to rely on my own solitary walks in order to experience those wonderful visions that before I could experience in a dark cinema. Though, on the other hand, who's to say that My Dinner With Andre on 3D IMAX won't be a worthwhile experience?