Like many of us, I’ve been indulging in my fair share of festive film-watching this past week, both catching up on some of the year’s more important titles and looking back to past gems. As the decade draws to a close, it would be difficult not to give some mention of the talking-point title of the holiday season, James Cameron’s Avatar, although having just come more or less fresh from it, I’m not sure quite what to make of it in terms of its self-touted status as a landmark in film history. For the first 40 minutes or so, I was absorbed in the immersive detail of its alien world, before the sheer idiocy of the story loomed into the foreground: one-dimensional characters and plots in a three-dimensional world. There’s no need to go into too much detail regarding the story, as I’m assuming many of you have already seen it, and if not, you’ll probably already have heard that it’s a banal hotchpotch of Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Princess Mononoke and Fern Gulley – yes, the soundtrack even includes pan pipes. The end impression, however, was something akin to how I felt coming out of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. All very impressive, yes, but just how significant is it in the long run? Will we still be talking about the film in a couple of years, and just how will it play on the small screen?
Just as the Final Fantasy film did, Avatar got me thinking about technology and cinema, this time primed by the fact that I’m currently absorbing the implications contained within the opening chapters of Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation , Thomas Lamarre’s fascinating and perceptive look at how technology has influenced the form and content of Japanese animation, and basically THE book I’ve always been waiting for on the subject. One of the axioms of Lamarre’s argument is that cinema’s development has been shaped by its technology, the movie camera, which allows movement in three dimensions, and enforces a strictly rational viewing mode upon the world, that of vanishing point perspective, whereas the basic machinery from which animation is constructed, the animation stand, provides a very different means of lending the illusion of three dimensions to its images, with the camera shooting from a fixed position and the way that the individual layers of cels are composited to work with one another just as, if not more important than the actual drawings upon them. He labels the differences cinematism, a dynamic, cine-realistic interpretation of the world, and animetism, an aesthetic unique to anime born of the machinery that produces it. Both, however, are only means of arriving at representations of the world: artists and psychologist have been arguing for at least the past century that this is not how humans actually perceive their environment.
Of course, the use of digital technologies over the past 20 years has revolutionised the way animation is made, and its aesthetic, but I think it is particularly interesting that Japanese animators have made judicious aesthetic decisions to either reject computer technology for the very purposes for which it is most suited (i.e. movement in depth), as is the case of Hayao Miyazaki, or explore other ways of representing ideas with it, the best example of which being Mamoru Oshii’s The Amazing Lives of the Fast Food Grifters. After all, why use a purely man-made medium that is so intrinsically non-rooted in reality to emulate the lens-based reality that has so defined the last century? I’ve written about this phenomenon in some depth, notable in a series of articles for the magazine 3D World, and in my chapter “Between Dimensions: 3D Computer Generated Animation in Anime”, included in Ga-Netchu: The Manga Anime Syndrome published by the Deutsches Filmmuseum back in 2008, although due to word-count constraints in this publication was not able to pursue my ideas as much as I would have liked. My basic view is that cinema of any description always requires a suspension of disbelief. Cinematic realism (cinematism) is only one way of representing the world, and total onscreen realism is a straw man. The more you strive for cinematic realism, which in the case of animation means adding more visual detail and more dynamic movement within three dimensions, the further you depart from reality, or the more you draw attention to the unreality of cinerealism. The new vogue for 3D cinema only emphasizes these points.
The visual aesthetic in Avatar attempts to dazzle with its spectacle. That is its purpose, and perhaps I’m being unfair, it is its only purpose. It has always been thus with Cameron – think Terminator 2. He delights in showing us what is possible at the cutting edge of technology. We are to be as much impressed with the machinery behind what’s onscreen as what’s onscreen itself. Avatar’s tragedy, perhaps more so than Final Fantasy, is that it fails to find its own unique form within its technical possibilities. It is pure cinematism. There was a brilliant article by Ben Walters and Nick Roddick earlier this year in the March edition of Sight and Sound, entitled “The Great Leap Forward” that looked at some of the considerations that filmmakers working in 3D need to consider; rapid editing forces the viewer to change their focal point quickly, leading to headaches, but also jolting them out of the onscreen world, while in contrast, long moving shots make one feel very much part of it. It brings about its own set of problems too – just where does one put the subtitles along the depth plane? Nevertheless, there is still a sense of liberating potential about the new technology, if used inventively, to revolutionise film aesthetics and the way we experience cinema. Rather than constructing action sequences by editing together lots of short, explosive shots to create the illusion of an impossible, dynamic hyper-realism, perhaps the new aesthetic should be a return to longer, more fluid sequences that fully exploit cinematic depth, focussing on the created worlds and how, by way of proxy through the characters who inhabit them (our avatars), audiences interact with them. For a while Avatar managed this. I revelled in every magical detail of the lush jungle planet environs of Pandora. But then it was back to fiction once again.
Form and content are inextricably linked, a factor which animators as diverse as Mamoru Oshii and the talents at Pixar seem to understand perfectly. It doesn’t help that from a narrative point of view, Avatar’s corollaries with real-world events are too obviously silly; an alien race whose blue reptilian skin and flattened noses serve as indicators of their otherworldly status (though their bare, body-painted torsos and Maasai braids seem rather closer to home) sitting on vast resources of the precious resource unobtainium (you couldn’t make this stuff up) are infiltrated and subsequent invaded by mechanized, militarized cartoon-evil humans with America accents. We’re firmly rooted in la-la land here, with nothing to take back home to reality with us. It’s all about about as heartfelt as the ersatz anti-Neocon tract of one of the daftest films of the decade, Eagle Eye. The underlying message is that war, imperialism and explosive violence may be bad things, but nevertheless, they provide the building blocks for a certain kind of action cinema born out of the 1980s, one in which bodies can fall hundreds of metres without so much as bruising, in which whole worlds are created only to be destroyed, and we can all go home with the cosy feeling that it was all only a movie, only a movie, only a movie…
Avatar was unfortunate to have been preceded into theatres this year by Coraline and Up, neither of which can be described as “realistic” in the same sense as current conceptions of “reality” – the reality of cinema and computer games – and yet which, adopting a more simplistic visual style, were far more convincing, far more immersive in their story-telling and their action sequences, and far more attuned to the aesthetic considerations brought about by the addition of an illusionary third dimension. For me, both ranked among the best of the year, fully cinematic experiences that I will treasure for a long time. James Cameron’s fascist aesthetic feels more like an evolutionary dead end than the the future of cinema, which for me seems to be better represented by Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker , and it’s evident that if the resurrection of 3D is to be any more than just the gimmick it was in the 1950s or its brief revival in the 1980s, then its possibilities must be used more inventively. I think I’ve already reached the saturation point where I won’t go and see a film just to be dazzled by the 3D unless it can do something new, a state I reached with CG animation in the ake of Toy Story around the time of the appearance of Ice Age. I’m less excited by Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland than Takashi Shimizu’s The Shock Labyrinth, because I think that given his Juon films, Shimizu’s handling of depth and shadow to create shock and suspense are going to result in something that I haven’t seen before. In the meantime, I adhere to the belief more strongly than ever that cinema is a delicate smoke-and-mirrors balancing act between what you show and what you don’t. By showing us everything from every conceivable angle, Avatar leaves no room for the imagination, making us painfully aware that actually there’s nothing really there.
Links to the rest of these articles:
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 2: Paradoxes of Visual Knowledge
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 3: Welcome to the Feelies
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 4: 3D or not 3D?
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 5: A Joyride to Nowhere?
Cinematism, Realism, and Spectacle part 6: Changing our Focus – StreetDance 3D