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Avatar ***

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There have been many interesting things written about Avatar already, and it’s only been officially on screen in the UK for about 40 hours. Here was my immediate gut reaction:

Pandora, and the technical aspects of Avatar (excluding its irrelevant third dimension) are laudable; while Cameron’s script is vacuous, expository, even laughable. He gives the actors so little to work with that each character takes a turn as charisma vacuum, blurting incredible morsels that force one’s eyes from the screen (hands over one’s ears). The plot turns on cliché and a deluge of derivative science fiction paraphernalia. The score is risible, forgettable, generic action fare, exploiting tropes such as the operatic and the Middle-Eastern wail. It’s peppered with grunts, whoopees and “nooooo”s. Visually, it’s the same old story. Cameron is gracious enough to forgo the Michael Bay school of nausea-inducing blur, that which conceals deficiencies in graphic design while creating an artifice of movement. In its place we still have “intensified continuity”, the ADHD-symptomatic style paradigm of the day. It may generally be crystal clear, but these quick action cuts generally comprise self-consciously derivative figures like ‘soldier impaled’ and ‘slow motion mid-air projectile launch’. The svelte ten foot blue cat women have their nipples concealed with conveniently adhesive necklaces and bead bibs, because apparently animated cat nips would push Avatar into 15 rating territory. So would swearing or real blood. Forgettable, although it might grab at the child in you (or which you in fact are) for sheer (derivative) imagination. Can’t fault Cameron as a maker of worlds, even if the populace spouts drivel.

I’ve since seen a few interesting pieces, including this trio of articles from The House Next Door: by Keith Uhlich, Simon Abrams and Ali Arikan. Arikan is particularly amused, provocative, and I think we both remember the smurf analogy drawn by South Park. His semi-serious remark about “the total, totalitarian triumph of the surface and the cosmetic over content” called to mind an observation I made last night.

When watching one of these RealD 3D films, I always feel a little disorientated at first. This is because I am looking at the film the way I would if it were in the traditional two dimensions. Wherever my eyes may focus, I still pick up the rest of the screen in my peripheral vision. In 3D, the director has two images at their disposal – one seen by your left eye, the other by your right. These glasses have one polarized lens, and the film projector has one polarized image. This allows the director to compose the complete image with a foreground and background (or multiple layers). These occupy the same two dimensional space on screen, but appear to our deceived eyes to occupy separate planes. What happens, then, is that as we focus our eyes on one plane, one part of the image, the others necessarily leave focus. We can look at any part of the image directly, but what lies in the peripheral vision is, to an extent, blurred. My disorientation derives from a desire to make use of the peripheral in the image, and initial attempts to move focus to the background layers, those which the director does not wish us to look at (for example, the background environment which lies behind a drop of water as it orbits the hero, our two supposed focal points).

In two-dimensional film-making, the creators can choose which elements of the image are in focus and which are not, creating an artificial plane of focus by eliminating the others. This has been analyzed theoretically for decades, and it is widely recognized that depth of field is a politicized aesthetic choice. A director and his DoP may choose to keep all dimensional layers of the image in sharp focus, so we can see different elements at will, meanwhile seeing the others peripherally. They may choose to leave the other actors, and the environment behind a hero, out of view. All well and good. When you introduce a third dimension, the audience is forced to focus on one plane, and by optical necessity, the others are out of focus. The directors may still present us with a choice of what to focus on, but our choice is limited. Think of it as a multiple-choice scenario – the directors offers you the drop of water, or the man about which it floats. You must pick one or the other, because its alternative will be beyond your peripheral vision. The directors may also make political / aesthetic choices about depth of field by keeping certain planes out of focus entirely.

Introducing a third dimension extends greater control to the director over what we can see on screen. It also necessarily prevents us from seeing the whole, by rendering peripheral vision ancillary, by making the task of switching from viewing one plane to another onerous and disorientating. The director need not resort to resourceful stylistic devices like the axial cut to draw our attention to something – they just stick it in the foremost plane. Intriguingly, Cameron has a couple of opportunities to use axial cuts in Avatar, but instead he simply zooms in to the action. But I digress. My point is simply this – not only is the film, as a whole, a total spectacle. In terms of its technique, moment to moment, it is dictatorial. The 3D medium inserts itself into the work, proscribing our experience and subsequent analysis of the image instantaneously. By negative reinforcement, we are encouraged to look only at one part of the image. The director looks to exploit whatever potential the medium holds – the possibility of a theme-park adrenaline rush – and so is driven away from the satisfying holism of composing images. The audience experience is further homogenized, and we lose another degree of autonomy as interpreter of our movie experience.

If Arikan says in jest that the movie spectacle is totalitarian, I can agree in so far as believing 3D to be a political move in aesthetics, if not an aesthetic move in politics – that typically fascist phenomenon.


Avatar, Dir. & Writ. James Cameron, Star. Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, 20th Century Fox, USA, 2009
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Written by James P. Campbell

18/12/2009 at 18:23

Posted in News, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,

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