Archive for Avatar The Way of Water

Towards a 3D Aesthetic

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 22, 2022 by dcairns


“The cinema of the future will be in colour and three dimensions, since life is in colour and three dimensions,” said Erich Von Stroheim, probably adding, “and everyone will wear authentic period underwear.” First, let me say that Von’s well-documented knicker fetish may have been in operation when he insisted on his extras wearing the right undies, but the right underclothes affect how the outer clothes appear, and so he wasn’t being crazy or perverse to insist on absolute authenticity. I imagine in 3D it would be even more important. Oh yes, 3D, that’s what I was supposed to be writing about.

In AVATAR: THE WAY OF WATER, there’s an action sequence in which one of the youngsters is pursued by an alien shark-thing. What makes it particularly effective is the way our cyanated hero hides amid coral outcrops which the predatory fish tries to bash through. Whenever 3D is particularly effective, it gives us a clue as to what it might be FOR. Here, we have a situation in which at least three visual layers are dramatically activated — the hero’s, the shark-thing’s, and the intervening coral, for starters. The far distance is a passive element but does add immersion. Also, we’re literally immersed, underwater you know — so there’s the possibility for floating particles and smaller fish to decorate the frame and keep our eyeballs excited, And, as the hero swims backwards away from the threat, the camera moves with him and so new coral outcrops come heaving into view, surprising us.

Two things are happening — the concept of DEPTH is important to the action — the distance between blue boy and shark-thing is an actual matter of life and death — and the excitement is enhanced by a lot of foreground and midground activity.

It’s a shame that the talkie scenes in ATWOW are so choppy and random, because it seems to me that at least some of the same principles could be enlisted for dramatic dialogue sequences.

Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER tries to keep its long expository scenes lively by enlisting the foreground — there are more shots from behind lamps here than in THE IPCRESS FILE, and with seemingly less reason. TIF was a spy film, so the camera behaved like a spy. DMFM is a filmed play, and so Hitch settles for reminding us of the 3D to get a “you are there” quality, suggesting but not actually recapturing the thrill of live performance. But in the standout scene, the murder attempt on Grace Kelly, again depth becomes almost a character — the would-be strangler lurks behind her, murderous sash in hands, but she’s holding the telephone to her ear and he has to wait until her hand’s out of the way.

I promise this isn’t just a list of cool 3D sequences. It IS that, but each of them is nudging us towards an appreciation of what the form can do. I’m also going to mention some flat scenes that seem like they might work really well with the added dimension.

The AVATAR film has a lot of forwards camera movement. This is pretty effective in a forest, but sideways movement — as I pointed out regarding FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN — can be better. (I tend to suspect the film’s visual pleasures derive more from Antonio Marghertiti than from credited helmer Paul Morrissey.) The thing about forward movement is that it already feels three dimensional, because of the way the perspective changes. An exponential zoom or trombone shot might look really neat though. In Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT a sudden lateral tracking shot in a forest sets of a shimmer of captivating motion, because the foreground trees are passing the camera rapidly, the midground ones more slowly, and the far distant ones slower still. The different layers overtaking one another. It’s rapturous. I don’t want upscaling to 3D, but I do want filmmakers to borrow the right kinds of scenes for new 3D movies.

(Welles doesn’t NEED 3D, his films are so lively, dimensional, vigorous in all their pan-focus deep staging, but it’s fascinating to imagine what he might have come up with. The Michael Redgrave curiosity shop in ARKADIN would be momentous in depth.)

The Wim Wenders production CATHEDRALS OF CULTURE dealt with “the soul of buildings” — lots of tracking shots down hallways, none of them very effective — until we got a curved hallway, and then things got interesting. So it seems that straightahead single vanishing-point shots of the Kubrick variety are less effective than oblique, curving approaches. Ophuls would be the guy to look at for inspiration, or the Italians.

“The best inside-a-mouth shot I ever saw was in JAWS 3D,” said Martin Scorsese in Edinburgh, “A shark eating its victim, filmed from the inside, in 3D — a new low in taste!” And I believed him, until a friend told me it was the one effective spot in the film — a diver is swallowed whole and trapped in the shark — if he tries to swim out, he’ll be bitten in two. It puts you on the spot. And apparently Cameron’s seen that one, because he has a protag swim into a whale-thing’s mouth in ATWOW, there to mind-meld with its Day-Glo epiglottis.

My favourite shot in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE is when a kid lies on his back and throws a baseball in the air, catching it, re-throwing it. The camera is overhead, so the ball flies towards us, runs out of momentum, pauses, and drops away again. It provoked a gleeful reaction from the audience. It’s sort of decorative, I guess, but it’s not only permissible but desirable for a filmmaker to explore the visual possibilities of a situation. 3D seems to kick in on the second or third film, once the filmmakers’ have gotten used to it and have worn out the obvious ploys. Dante had shot a stereoscopic funfair ride prior to this one. Other filmmakers who have paid more than one visit to the third dimension are Cameron, Fleischer, Oboler, Arnold, Ridley Scott. Not sure Zemeckis ever improved. One issue is that the medium, if that’s what it is, hasn’t always been in the hands of the most expressive or adventurous filmmakers. William Castle! Lew Landers! Pete Walker! Harry Fucking Essex!

Throwing things at the audience has never really been the best way to get an effect. In CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, the best stuff tends to be slower — the slo-mo explosion at the start is exciting because you have time to appreciate the balletic motion of the rocks tumbling at you through space — it looks forward to the joy of GRAVITY, still the best 3D movie I’ve seen. All the same, I feel sorry for the creature.

(My enjoyment of moving vehicles in ATWOW doesn’t extend to the boat in CREATURE, probably because it’s standing still in front of a rear projection screen — the action feels like a couple of flat layers, something you might see in a toy theatre.)

Alfonso Cuaron’s space epic was the first film I ever saw in 3D that actually made me flinch, whenever bits of tiny space shrapnel zinged past. Interestingly, they got the effect by NOT firing them right at me. I was involuntarily blinking, and having more fun doing so than I ever did in a real life experience. But the movie’s true pleasure was in slower action — when Sandra Bullock, spacewalking, is in danger of losing a vital tool, Fiona actually reached up to grab the astro-spanner or whatever it was before it escaped. One again, space and distance were dramatically in play, and the 3D enhanced the fact.

A sequence that would work magnificently in three dimensions is the attack on the big car in Cuaron’s previous CHILDREN OF MEN. It’s already a (fake) long take, an aesthetic that suits the medium, not for the moving camera aspect so much as for the pleasure of looking at depth photography for long enough to appreciate its visual pleasures. And it’s a moving vehicle interior, something that works magnificently in ATWOW for the few seconds Cameron allows us in his helicopter gunships. It’s slightly mysterious already how Cuaron’s long take seems to enhance the terror of the occupants of the besieged car — maybe it has more to do with the fact that we don’t go outside, so we really feel trapped in the situation. The long take becomes an excuse for an excitingly restricted viewpoint. In 3D, we’d have all kinds of moving parts on different planes, mindblowing overstimulation for the eyeball combined with panicky confinement and a lot of urgency from the cast of actors we’re locked in with.

Scorsese may be the most visually imaginative director to use 3D, perhaps next to Godard (I’ve never had a chance to see ADIEU AU LANGAGE in 3D and get the headache JLG planned for me). I love HUGO — maybe it’s seriously imperfect as a film but it gets value for money from it’s visual depth. Lots of cinders and dust motes in the air — lovely. Two great close-ups, one where Sacha Baron Cohen looms ever closer to us, his nose an accusation, another where we move slowly in on Ben Kinglsey, his face becoming more and more dimensionally solid, hovering before us, enormous, like one of those Easter Island jobs but alive and responsive. You get to experience a very very familiar thing, the human face, in a new way — and seeing things afresh is a big part of what art is about.

It’s possible Scorsese was influenced by the opening of William Camron Menzies’ THE MAZE, in which a female narrator talks to camera while slowly advancing upon us. It gets increasingly freaky but also hilarious. It would be interesting to see more deliberately funny 3D — I wonder what could be done with visual gags. Keaton, Lester and Tati sometimes made comedy about the camera’s INABILITY to correctly judge distance: Buster would make mistakes like jumping on the wrong horse which only make sense from the camera’s position, not from his. I wonder what he might do with a genuine sense of depth?

Height may be the dimension filmmakers forget about. The early desert landscapes of Douglas Sirk’s TAZA, SON OF COCHISE are breathtaking, because they arrange the action in cascading planes / plains. The scene with the lineman up the pylon in Jack Arnold’s IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE are similarly thrilling — Arnold, not normally the most inventive filmmaker, was sensitive enough to keep learning, and he got to make more 3D movies in the 50s than just about anyone. Something about these high angles really works for me — a sense of vertigo, dramatic space, multiple active layers.

I’m still cross I never got to see PINA in 3D — I suppose I could have forgone my snobbery and seen one of those other 3D dancing films. It seems like a good medium for dance, though KISS ME KATE doesn’t prove anything either way. It’d be a great medium for scultpure also, but so far the closest thing to that is Herzog’s CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS, which gets most of its best effects out of the shallow curvature of cave walls, a lovely and counterintuitive exploitation of the medium’s possibilities. In a flat film, camera movement makes sculpture appreciable, but 3D would work very nicely with or in place of tracking shots. Somebody should have done Henry Moore.

The pornographers were not slow to seize upon the form, but without any distinguished results that I’m aware of. It seems possible that 3D could amplify what Billy Wilder called “flesh impact.” The kind of shot that would work would be Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in DR. NO. A variation on the sculptural principle. Just as good with men — Daniel Craig would do well. And the sculptural approach could enhance physiognomic interest, as we see in HUGO. A long examination of an interesting face — Brendan Gleeson would be a gift to the stereographer. Linda Hunt. A few young actors are also interesting, even if their features lack the distinguishing crenellations: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Or Beany and Cecil?

What this seems to show is that the uses of 3D might be quite specific. I think James Cameron imagines, like Stroheim, that all movies should be 3D movies. But we don’t want to go to the trouble of putting the specs on for just anything (I see they finally invented clip-ons for glasses wearers like me — the medium finally catches up with its audience’s needs, just before it rolls over and dies). I’d say that if a film naturally has a few highlights that really benefit from a 3D approach, it might be worth going that route, and then modifying the script slightly to make sure there are more worthwhile opportunities.

Without getting too silly about it.

Digital Blueface

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 20, 2022 by dcairns

For any people reading in the distant future, “digital blackface” was a term bandied about to criticise white folks who used gifs of Black people. It was a Twitter craze that blew over quickly because it was silly. Oh, do I have to explain Twitter now?

Slight spoilers ahead, nothing I would think would harm one’s enjoyment of the film, or “spoil” it.

Is it weird that James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow made a film called THE WEIGHT OF WATER and his new AVATAR film is called THE WAY OF WATER? Is it weird that water now has films about its shape, weight and way, but not its wetness?

Is it weird that this one climaxes on a sinking ship? I don’t want to be the one to say it, but, is it possible that James “King of the World” Cameron is — no, it couldn’t be! — running out of ideas? Of course he has a run-and-gun battle on this sinking ship, which it now becomes clear is what he’d have liked to do in TITANIC, and did, as much as he decently good (and then a little bit beyond decency, turning a heroic victim crewmember into a murderer).

Proof that I’ve been blogging too long: I have now written about two Cameron films on their initial release.

OK, right, the film. It’s long. MAAAAAAAAN I was hungry. Had the Vue Ocean Terminal laid on some snacks within easy distance of the screen they could have scammed even more money out of me that they did. Their website promises that every seat for every film is £6.99 but with 3D all rules are off, so they hit me for nearly twice that, after claiming that all the “cheap” (£11) seats were taken. By the time the film started the cinema was still 9/10ths empty — OK, it was a matinee, but during holiday time. The question for the future of this franchise must now be, how watertight is Cameron’s contract — is 20th Century handcuffed, like a Na’avi child, to a deal to produce further sequels, which have presumably already had a ton of money spent on them?

OK, right, the film. I said it was long, what else? It’s like TITANIC in that it’s quite boring and then there’s a huge action sequence which is exciting. Genuinely so. Cameron is still a good action director. He hasn’t worked out that a good dramatic dialogue scene can be shot like an action scene, or else he’s forgotten it. I can’t work out what’s going on with his dialogue coverage: it’s pretty well all mo-cap, which means you can decide on camera placement AFTERWARDS, you can put the camera anywhere. Cameron seems to have taken that literally, like it doesn’t matter where he puts it. Lots of random cutting from doubles to singles, it’s VERY cutty, it’s the opposite of a good 3D approach.

This, I would guess, is the final death knell for this phase of 3D, which has a certain pleasing symmetry about it, Cameron’s Smurfs bracketing the era. But I like 3D, which still hasn’t been properly tapped, so I’m sad about this. This movie mainly just lets it sit there, except for the underwater stuff to some extent (“More particles!” was my cry) and the fires (he’s seen HUGO, he knows that ash and cinders are WAFTING ENTERTAINMENT). I found myself getting *very excited* whenever we went inside one of the big helicopter gunships. It turns out that being inside a plexiglass chamber with moving scenery outside and moving people and camera inside is one of the best things 3D can do. And those scenes are NEVER more than ten seconds long. It turns out, in fact, that 3D is much better suited to vehicles than it is to exteriors. In a vehicle you have all kinds of movement and perspective and layers, whereas outdoors you often just have figures and a horizon. And this film is 99% outdoors.

Cameron hasn’t seen FLESH FOR FRANKENSTEIN, apparently, so he hasn’t seen what can be done with trees and tracking shots in 3D. He’d need to have had some smaller trees to pull it off, but he could have justified that.

Mainly he seems to want the 3D to be unnoticeable and just make things more immersive — I was uncomfortable conscious of the few heads in front of me for the first hour, and sort of wondered why I was paying more for something I’m rarely aware of. But there were SOME nice stereographic effects. Some nice colour, too: this one’s less gaudy than its predecessor, going by memory (haven’t seen AVATAR since it came out). The fire scenes are not only distinguished by their floating particles, but by their variations on the old orange-and-teal cliche — they make it seem fresh. We’re not in the Bava or Shamroy zone, but it’s excitingly close.

It’s not TOTALLY boring until the big battles that liven up the last hour. The teenage battles, out of the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE playbook, are sort of diverting. I became borderline involved. So, better than TITANIC, which was excruciating until people started being in mild peril. It doesn’t help that the actors aren’t the world’s best and are all hampered by mo-cap, except poor Jack Champion, looking silly in loin cloth, dreads and perspex mask, failing to act in a greenscreen vacuum. I don’t blame him, he was probably great in the audition, but everything around him is conspiring to dehumanize his presence.

I was wondering what effect the addition of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver to the writing team would have. They wrote RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, which was pretty good, and emotional, and made the human race the baddies (individual humans were allowed to display virtue, so it wasn’t humanracist), which would seem to make them a good fit here. But would Cameron allow them to make any improvements?

The story is largely a retread of the first film, with flourishes. Stephen Lang, who died in Film 1, is back as a Na’avi avatar himself, on a mission of vengeance — heavily funded, it seems, and so important (for no narrative reason) he can be allowed to jeopardize the quest for the new unobtanium, a chemical harvested from big alien whales’ brains.

Unobtanium was an engineering joke — I thought it was just evidence of Cameron being stupid and coming up with a lame name for something, but it’s a reference to a bit of physics humour AND evidence of Cameron being stupid etc. Ken Campbell warned against the perils of engineering jokes — jokes that are only funny to the in-group concerned. Cameron is a kind of two-fisted postmodernist, he may have actually read Eco’s bit on CASABLANCA, or the Wikipedia page on Joseph Campbell — which is more than George Lucas has read — he thinks his job is to bolt together memes (or cliches), compress recognizable moments borrowed from elsewhere into maximum density until he’s created a black hole of references from which nothing, not even the audience’s attention, can escape.

“We’re not in Kansas anymore,” says Stephen Lang, displaying Cameron’s touching faith that a reference to a 1939 movie will work in the far-flung future. It doesn’t work NOW — it will draw groans from those who get it and blank stares from most of the youngsters who don’t.

So the new writers haven’t helped the dialogue. The aliens, in the best Spock tradition, are unable to use contractions, which made me laugh out loud when one of them says “We are here,” meaning, “We’ve arrived” or “This is the spot.” It sounded like she was saying “You and I exist. We are in our relative positions.” My other big laugh was when it suddenly turned out that the big whale guy could talk, but needed subtitles, and his first rumble was subbed as “It’s too painful.” I can’t quite explain why that seemed hilarious.

I think there are some unwritten rules that Sully and his kids can use contractions and swear (It’s a shock when one of them suddenly says “Shit” halfway through the film, the first time that word has been startling in a while) but the pure Na’avi can’t, but I was never entirely sure who was permitted apostrophes. There are quite a few variants in the film: there are the blue Naa’avi, the new green, water-dwelling Na’avi (the Shell People, I call them), Sully’s technically all-Na’avi kids, and the de-aged, blued, alienized Sigourney Weaver, who seems to be the child of the original Sigourney’s comatose avatar and an unnamed human. The idea that humans and Na’avi can interbreed is preposterous and it’s creepily unexplained if she got knocked up while conscious or un. This will all be explained in the next sequel, coming not very soon to a comic store near you — I hope they have something that makes sense and isn’t repellant, but it seems an unpleasant mystery to dangle.

To describe the characters as one-note would be an insult to notes. The actors do their variable best with varying success. Sam Worthington has maybe improved with age, and at least doesn’t have to cry “I don’t know who I am!” this time in order to explain his plight. Zoe Saldana’s hysterical mom is REALLY annoying. Kate Winslet plays a pregnant chieftainess and you wouldn’t know it was her, or anyone good. Lang is the best actor here but his role is so devoid of nuance, he might as well be a cartoon character, and in fact IS. The story evokes American war crimes in Vietnam but doesn’t want to have him do anything TOO awful. Which, in a way, shows taste, but it also shows a reluctance to actually deal with what the film’s about, the destruction of the environment and the extermination of indigenous peoples. It’s tasteful but it’s calculated, and it’s running up against the problem of a light entertainment trying to say something about the environmental holocaust and genocide.

Sidebar: my problem with THE MISSION. I think Roland Joffe and Robert Bolt’s film is part of AVATAR’s DNA alongside DANCES WITH WOLVES and Ursula LeGuin’s xenoanthropological scifi classic The Word for World is Forest (she could have sued over the first film, as Harlan Ellison successfully did over THE TERMINATOR). THE MISSION’s best quality, its gorgeous Ennio Morricone score, is also its biggest problem (discounting Joffe’s lame script additions — “None of us wants to do this,” protests a guilt-stricken exterminator of natives). The movie deals with a conflict between pacifism and activism, and shows Jeremy Irons martyring himself and Robert DeNiro going down fighting. Irons makes it very clear in his dialogue that you can’t have it both ways, you have to choose. But the movie tries to have it both ways: solemn religious music for Irons’ sacrifice, upbeat native-inflected music for DeNiro’s guerrilla warfare. As if this was Errol Flynn swinging into action. Totally unacceptable.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got that off my chest. My more relevant point being, this doesn’t matter at all to Cameron’s movie. There’s some guff about the green guys never taking life (except for fish, you can eat those) but that’s soon abandoned and nobody has any irritating pangs of conscience once battle is joined. Human beings are used as projectiles: now, EVERYONE is Propeller Guy. It’s insanely gleeful, conscienceless and unconsciable. I was chortling over the mayhem. It’s cartoon stuff. The earthlings have had years to build arrow-proof cockpits, but they’ve chosen not to.

The technological achievement here is incredible: everything looks convincing, or convincing enough. I think the smooth crash zooms on aircraft and spacecraft, pioneered by the Battlestar Galactica reboot, here tend to make the vehicles look like models, somehow, but that’s quibbling. Considering that even TITANIC with its hundreds of millions didn’t have enough quality control to make everything look believable, vast progress has been made. But I find myself not really caring about all that. Cameron does. He’s become, like Zemeckis was for a while, a tech-led filmmaker, more interested in what he can do that hasn’t been done before than in why it should be worth doing. (Zemeckis is now just merely a maker of bad films.)

But — see it: it’s entertaining in stretches and it may be the last worthwhile in any sense 3D movie you’ll be offered on a big screen for some time. The ANT-MAN sequel and the other thing, whatever it was, that they had trailers for looked even further from having a useful aesthetic for the third dimension (characters greenscreened against horizons) than this one.

I think I should write NOTES TOWARDS A 3D AESTHETIC. It’s too late for it to be useful — I always like to be behind the curve.