Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Avatar (2009), James Cameron

Jake awakens - avatar
"You are not gonna believe where I am!"

I was there. I saw what Jake saw. I drowned in the fearful and delicate beauty of a too vivid dream and broke the surface gasping and grinning.

To do justice to the sights of Pandora and Avatar
I should probably wait 15 years for my vocabulary to catch up. Visually, it is often mind-boggling. Stupefying in its lurid, psychedelic depth of colour, humbling in the magnitude of its detail, I gorged myself on the vertiginous battles that play amongst the boughs of great trees and beneath the waterfalls of floating Mountains.

Yet the true magic lies in the silence. A night-time trip through a luminescent landscape of glowing flora and fauna I am sure is one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. It places the visual back where it should be: front and centre - I laughed, overflowing with the joy of discovery and the purity of new life.

Pandora gives Jake, a paraplegic, new life. He can walk again and he can run, curling his toes amongst the green reeds. All we see of his twin brother Tommy is his cold body, eyes closed, before he is slid into an incineration chamber. Later, Jake will lie down in a coffin-like capsule so that his mind may merge with his avatar host. "One life ends, another begins". Jake is Tommy's avatar. He gives new life to his brother too.

The first we see of Jake is his eyes bursting open wide. The film is not just about sight but insight; to look, to experience, yes, but also to understand and so finally to love:

"I see you".

Neytiri flies
We are told that humans have grown blind. They are selfish (Tommy was killed for the "paper in his wallet"). They have laid waste to their planet, taking until it can give no more. The army have come to extract valuable minerals from Pandora, to corrupt a new Eden.

This time we are both the aliens and the humans of War of the Worlds. We are aliens crossing space seeking to survive through technologically advanced invasion and yet we are also the humans reproached for, in Wells' words, the "ruthless and utter destruction" that our "species has wrought".

Avatar is a fable that howls for peace with disarming clarity and earnestness. All living things on Pandora are linked like neurons in the brain. They are co-dependent. If you hurt one you hurt them all. The human race comes to Pandora in search of another mother, ignorant "like a child". While some repeat the same mistakes and take the path of destruction, violently sucking a surfeit of milk from her teat, Jake allows himself to be nurtured, cradled small in Neytiri's giant arms.

As a character Neytiri is captivating - fierce and loving, loyal and strong. As an artistic creation she is one of a kind. Neytiri is Snow White's great granddaughter. She too is drawn over and from a human performance. With Snow White it was rotoscoping while with Neytiri it is minute and intricate motion capture. All I can say is that I saw as much emotion on her computer generated face as on Sigourney Weaver's. The technology is able to discriminate too. We can see, for example, that Zoe Saldana's performance is more nuanced than Sam Worthington's.

Snow White and NeytiriThe crunch of bone, the shattering of glass, the call of a bird, the plangent eyes of the Na'vi - the director wanted it to look and feel real. But now and again it feels more than that.

What prevents Avatar from being a masterpiece and one of the films of the year are two not insignificant qualms.

Firstly, for a film that shows us things that we have never seen before it is mired in what we have seen too much of.

A lonely man in a strange place, an untouched paradise, forbidden love and trials of strength; these are motifs that go further still into the past than Pocahontas.

At times the story, so time-worn, rings hollow, sparking no more than a Pavlovian reaction to the grand romance and earth-moving war. It is stirring but transient. I was left marking time. Furthermore, our hero faces challenges that are too easily overcome. His ultimate success and glory is never cast into any shadow of doubt. Jake's taming of the untameable Leonopterix is such a fait accompli as to unfold limply off screen.

Cameron's script is powerful and his direction spectacular and yet, frustratingly, he does, from time to time, fall upon the habits of recent blockbusters made by inferior film-makers: the blankly humorous one-liners that stand in for credible emotion ("let's dance", "outstanding") in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight and the sweeping camera moves over insubstantial CGI hordes of Peter Jackson's the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Secondly, for a film that is in so many ways so big-hearted it can also be mean-spirited and one-eyed. The soldiers and corporate bigwigs epitomised by Quaritch and Selfridge refer to the natives as 'savages'.
Avatar and War of the WorldsThey are dismissed as inferior. They are not worth knowing. Yet it is these human invaders whom we do not get to know or understand. In the final analysis it is they who are treated and shown as savages.

They bawl their imperial catchphrases ("fight terror with terror", "win hearts and minds", "taking the money working for the company") but why are we not told of the desperation of life on Earth, the "dying planet"? What is unobtainium to be used for? In other words: what are they fighting for? I wanted to know.

Jake abandons his entire species (and his own human-ness) as if they can be only perpetrators and not victims, as if the sins we reap are only legacy and not inheritance. He boils human culture down to "light beer and blue jeans". Where is the compassion for all? "This is only sad", Neytiri says of a slain dog. If this is what they believe why do they consider that "the time of great sorrow was ending" if humanity is on its last legs? The Na'vi attitude is off-putting.

The fable is twisted. Innocence is lost.

An illuminating thought is that the only people who protect the Na'vi are the ones who have got to know them. Jake and Grace and Norm's morality is not absolute. They could have been just as cold and calculating had they not been given the opportunity to set foot in a Na'vi village. Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe exploitation and murder to be wrong. This is why I made the biggest connection with Trudy Chacon, played by Michelle Rodriguez. From afar she knew and sacrificed herself for the weak and unprotected.

Trudy Chacon - Avatar
Avatar is exhilarating. It is the stuff of tomorrow's nostalgia. I just wish that a film that often threatened to reshape the possibilities of Cinema hadn't ended up playing it safe. I wish that a film which could have told its tale with a smile hadn't sent its message with a scowl.

My ancillary writings on Avatar:



Thursday, 17 December 2009

Observations on Inglourious Basterds

The 'heroes' of Inglourious Basterds are heroic because of the cause they fight for rather than how they fight. These are bastards who are incontrovertibly inglorious.

The film shows the corrupting nature of hatred in war and how it effects both sides. The Basterds are unnecessarily violent - the marking of prisoners, the taking of scalps - and demonstrate a psychopathic glee at the brutal beating of a Nazi soldier. In short, they are Lieutenant Aldo Raine's disciples of death:

"We will be cruel to the German and through our cruelty they will know who we are"

Aldo and the Bear Jew scalp
This echoes the teachings of Jesus, telling his disciples that people would know them, and hence God, through their actions.

Just as Colonel Landa equates the Jews with rats so too do the Basterds perceive the Nazis as defined by their ideology...

"Did you get that for killing Jews?"


stripped of all common humanity and transformed physically by a pervasive otherness:

"Say goodbye to your Nazi balls!"

At the same time the ideology of the Nazis is given a blithely clear-headed and dispassionate voice in the shape of Hans Landa. He presents their ideas as instinctual, thoughts and feelings that the Nazis can negotiate with no more than the general populace can negotiate with the strictures of the fascist regime. It's just the way things are:

"You don't really know why you don't like them, all you know is you find them repulsive"

"Talented as your negro may be, you will operate the projector"

The killing of the Nazi high command by the Basterds, locking them in as if locking the gas chamber doors and shooting down on the screaming and faceless antlike masses from above, is final evidence that there is nothing edifying in this war and all are tainted by it. Heroism is scarred, permanently disfigured.

Tarantino, therefore, adds welcome nuance to traditional hero-villain cartoon dichotomies while managing to skilfully sidestep the trap of moral relativism.

However, paradoxically, the film's greatest strength may well be its defining and fatal weakness: we are left with nobody to care for. The comic capers, the close shaves and the copious blood-letting succeed or fail on the basis of an audience association
with these people. From the moment the Basterds murder, intimidate, mock and scalp, the overwhelming sensation can only be that of repugnance.

By the end this becomes numbness as Shoshanna's cackling visage robs herself of the humanity the Nazis seek to rob her of. She is not a new Joan of Arc for France to worship. She is not a martyr forged in the flames but an exterminating angel.

One moment of elusive tenderness and warmth sticks in my mind, though. It is a close up of one of the farmer's daughters Charlotte (Lea Seydoux, below). It is a study worthy of the Dutch masters upon whose luminous colour palette the opening farm scene draws. Her eyes are alive with fear, concern and love. It is a face of real emotion that comes to be obliterated by the 'Giant Face' of revisionist vengeance (more on that anon).

Charlotte Inglourious Basterds

'Giant Face', the chapter title that refers to Shoshanna's unexpected appearance on screen, could be rewritten as 'Giant Identity'. It is a powerful assertion of who Shoshanna is and of her right to be.

Shoshanna Giant Face

For the characters in Inglourious Basterds the essence of their identity is paramount. Landa loves his "unofficial nickname" precisely because he has "earned it". The way he is seen chimes with his own view of himself. This pleases him. Archie Hicox, too, when his British identity is uncovered, embraces it fully:

"If this is it old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's".

Zoller can't bear to watch himself on the cinema screen, perhaps because it is a misrepresentation of who he is or more likely because of its painful accuracy. These characters want to be known for who they are (Lt. Raine also goes out of his way to mention the little 'Injun' in him) and when they try to escape who they are (by vowing to burn their Nazi uniforms) they are branded.

With the theme of identity so strong in this film, it is a shame that Tarantino, a man who made his name off the back of the supposedly singularly vibrant energy of his films and their larger-than-life characterisations, creates a film that is so formal and contrived that it lacks a compulsive identity.

The dialogue is repetitious and wants for spontaneity. The characters are involved in a tightly choreographed ballet with clogs on. The language is clumsily poetic ("facts can be so misleading where rumours, true or false, are often revealing") and self-conscious, as if filtered through two foreign languages. Scenes have little spark because everything is so controlled. Tension creates a vacuum but cannot live in one.

The film advances as a succession of set-pieces rather than as a coherent flow. Only Christoph Waltz, as Hans Landa, brings life to this aridity, loosening the tight leash that constrains the film and creating a personality that is ruthless, childlike, a Prince Charming (who knows whom the shoe fits) with an intellectual acumen to be reckoned with.

He is, in many ways, playing Tarantino, teasing and probing, always one step ahead, always relishing the foreplay as much as the climax:

"Wait for the cream"

Wait for the cream is an apt description of the tactics employed by the film in its set pieces - ten minutes of build until the inevitable release. Characters play games of identity with each other both for real or in make-believe (with historical figures stuck to their foreheads). The film entire could be seen as one long anticipation of a final cathartic immolation.

I believe, though, that Tarantino's style, in no small way, discredits his subject. Take for instance the revelation of the Jews hiding under the farmer's floorboards. In the midst of an anxious exchange the camera swirls around Landa and the farmer and then pans down beneath the floorboards to show the Jewish Dreyfuses paralysed with fear. This turns horror into a flourish. Instead of just showing them, or pointing us directly to them, Tarantino takes us on a mini fairground ride.

It is in the tone of the piece too that Inglourious Basterds is weakened. Seriousness and tomfoolery are unhappily married throughout. In the first interview / interrogation scene Landa brandishes a comically large pipe, prompting the farmer to look at it bemusedly as if forgetting the terrible situation he finds himself in.

Hans Landa - Inglourious Basterds
Furthermore, there is a friction of two conflicting moralities in the audience: Real-life morality and 'Movie morality'. When watching Kill Bill, one can accept and revel in the slaughter 'The Bride' visits on those she has wronged; but if we were to hear of such actions in real life, we would find them abhorrent.

We accept that there are differences between these two mindsets. Where a moral conundrum arises is in the no-man's land created by a filmic representation and reimagination of well-known and well-understood real-life events.
It doesn't start with a blank slate. What it omits to mention we are impelled to fill in from History.

The redemption and the triumph are hollow. Zoller is redeemed in Shoshanna's eyes by his image on the screen but it is a lie. Inglourious Basterds may not be propaganda but, by sweeping so much under the carpet, it is just as misleading and just as dispiriting to watch.

The farmer's daughter in that first scene pulls back a white sheet to reveal the Nazis and at the end of the film a different white sheet will be used to erase again from view the evil of the Nazis : the Cinema Screen. We see reality lead fiction by the hand and then fiction lead reality.

Diane Kruger - Inglourious Basterds

When it obscures months and years of suffering Inglourious Basterds gives us an empty false feeling of triumph. We burn our imaginations in the cinema (in this case 350 nitrate films) to warm the cold of reality but the smoke has a putrid stench to it.

Would we welcome Superman preventing the terrorist attacks of September the 11th on the Silver Screen? Would we celebrate with him?

What is it, then, that allows Tarantino to change REAL history and REAL tragedy so readily? Is it because many have trodden on this ground before? Is it because of the time that has passed? Or is it that World War II has been so adapted and so reimagined as to pass into the very stuff of fiction itself, there to become another trope, another template, a genre like any other?

Inglourious Basterds begged the question as to whether Tarantino was exploring World War II simply so that he could up-scale his revenge fetish.

* * *

The mythologising of historical cataclysms and the cataclysms themselves were born as twins - it has always happened and it always will. These myths can say important things but the message can be compromised and distorted. Basterds wants it both ways: to have us revel and reflect, to mourn and make merry, to relish the same things we deplore.

I could have gone with it if I were sitting in a cinema in the 1940s, desperate for inspiration and hope - but in 2009 I just couldn't. The reason it fails is that the film never veers from its collision course with high entertainment - with shocks and guffaws.

I wasn't turned off by the concept in the abstract (I had enjoyed the script beforehand) but by this execution of it.
In summation, Inglourious Basterds is a largely unimpressive and uncomfortable work.

*Whose beginning is heralded by a beautifully unresolved phrase of Fur Elise and the farmer's symbolic cleansing of his hands and face, a la Pontius Pilate

Monday, 14 December 2009

Avatar : The American Flag

Avatar - American Flag
An American flag in Avatar, composed out of the slats of a perimeter fence and what could be part of an air conditioning system.

The stripes become bars to protect and to separate.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

"Me Too" Cinema

Why is a cinema dark? Is it because we must be blinded from our world in order to see another? Or is it that we do not want to be seen by the people on the screen? Perhaps we want to remain passive or on the outside looking in.

Reviews often talk of a film that "puts you there", but this is something apart. The implication of this phrase is merely that we are watching from within their world.

It suggests that we are watching from closer but still passive, constrained to stand where the camera stands.

It is a different matter when a film makes you feel, in brief bursts, as if it is just as tangible and just as changeable as the one in which you are sitting. It is then that we become participants and not witnesses.

This is an illusion of course but an illuminating one.

On a crisp morning in Le Pont du Nord, Marie (Bulle Ogier) and her companion Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) pass through a market. Marie asks Pascale if she would like some fruit. At that moment, somewhere in Paris, part of me thought 'none for me thank you, but do you know of a patisserie near here?'.

They are rare films that are welcoming and free, that have space in them for you too.

Satantango tangoThe titular tango in Satantango, in which drunken villagers stagger around each other until they are overtaken by peaceful exhaustion, creates a similar feeling. The feeling that you are part of the proceedings, and that you can explore the village that the camera isn't showing, leave them to their own devices and come back later.

Jafar Panahi's Offside, a tale of six Iranian girls trying to see an all-important football match, culminates in a long bus trip through raucous city streets. They are being escorted to the "Vice Squad" headquarters by a couple of officers while listening to the game on the radio. The camaraderie and complex bonds that have built between all of them throughout the film drew me in. I may have ended up in court, with a record, chastened and embarrassed in front of my Mother but I wanted to be on that bus, and for a couple of short moments I felt like I was.

Offside - Jafar Panahi

For a review that really captures the spirit of the excellent Offside I recommend Sheila O'Malley's joyful piece here:


Thursday, 3 December 2009

Public Enemies (2009), Michael Mann

The first half hour of Public Enemies looks the part and sounds the part. It takes the hats and long coats out of the mothballs and practises its hard-nosed deco patter in the mirror, but those thirty minutes are flat like cardboard. They are cold, unapproachable and generate little excitement.

In the early going Mann's film is in thrall both to its gangster predecessors and its subject, the real-life bank robber John Dillinger. But. But once we feel the love between John and his girlfriend Billie (in one gorgeous scene we cut between them making love with their bodies and making love with their words, their souls), once we sense his ambition, fear and desperation and see it reflected in the eyes of the men hired to catch him, Public Enemies grows into itself and into a work of epic romantic and tragic proportions.

Johnny Depp and Marion CotillardOnce we care for and understand the chaser and the chased the chase grips ever tighter. Within this atmosphere (and Mann is a master of ambience and flow) the set-piece moments no longer stick out as constipated iconography (a clumsy shot of Dillinger leaping over a bank desk) or incongruous trailer-ready moments, but sparkle. Dillinger's second prison escape, threatening and cajoling his way up the food chain in a matter of minutes, and the last breath of a dying man on the cold air stay with me.

Mann's films have often revolved around characters on the brink, leading double lives, playing roles, yes, but playing them because they are the ones they are best suited to play. Here again he draws parallels between Dillinger and his FBI pursuer Purvis, going so far as to match a shot of Dillinger's men marching into a bank with one of Purvis' walking purposefully along a station platform. They are men trapped by destiny and by themselves, men who could find true brotherhood only in each other.

The climax of the film takes place in and around a cinema where Dillinger goes to watch Manhattan Melodrama, a gangster flick starring Myrna Loy and Clark Gable. Outside the FBI await, tipped off by one of his friends. The end is nigh. An operatic tension hangs over the thronged streets.

Inside, John watches Loy and Gable bid their tragic farewells. In his mind and ours Loy becomes Billie and Gable becomes John (they do resemble each other physically and Gable's character is said to have been based on Dillinger himself). Dillinger smiles. His expression glows with a quiet acceptance, taking the film as a comment on and validation of his life.

Most importantly, perhaps, by John associating himself with Gable, he himself takes the step onto the big screen. He passes over from a mortal man to an immortal legend. So when Dillinger leaves the cinema beaming contentedly he sees that part of him will not die. He will always be remembered and will always be loved.

A quick thought: normally when I leave a cinema and go out into the world, I can be a little dazed for a minute or two. Part of the reason for this is that things look different from a cinema reality, a reality which tends to have an artificial and 'treated' look. After Public Enemies, however, because Mann shoots with crisp high definition digital and natural light, when I went out into the real world the streets and the parks seemed cinematic. I thought to myself: that twilight, that club, those faces could be in a Michael Mann film. Public Enemies, a very good film indeed, had spilt out with me.