Avatar
Directed and written by James Cameron
Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, etc.
2009, 20th Century Fox, 162 minutes.

***

The same storytelling plots and archetypes have been used and expanded upon for thousands of years. But does it matter that every story has been told or written if the current generation has never bothered to hear or read them? The narrative cliches here are common to the legacy of storytelling and Hollywood film structure, and furthermore are delivered without any subtlety whatsoever. Yet the narrative cliches are not as typically distracting or draining simply because the medium they’re being presented in is being dramatically altered visually. The awkward cliches are rendered painless by the visual narcotics, which gleam with an illusion almost strong enough to engage audience interaction and inviting questions about the evolution of media technology. Just as the play is an expansion upon the epic, the printed novel an expansion upon the play, the mainstream film an evolution of the novel, and video games are an expansion of the film medium, with this movie screening (let’s call it “movie +”) we have interactive suggestions of transhuman experience and real avatar generation (virtual reality).

James Cameron does not seem to have anything intentionally sophisticated to say. Most of Cameron’s directorial work amounts to family action-adventure, with 1-D caricature villains and cutting-edge high-budget visual effects. It worked best in Aliens, but became more obvious with each subsequent outing that he was the poor man’s Ridley Scott. Here Avatar‘s social commentaries are so overt and blatant they honestly can do no more than charm the reasonably mature viewer. Real-life 1-D people may find the movie and characters offensive (and so they are, if perceived as a literal reflection of real 3-D modern society) but the charm actually makes the message more resonant, in the same sense that the unintentional irony or camp of B-movie action creates a kind of interactive relationship with the audience. It’s an interesting effect in conjunction with the 3-D glasses and the impressive visuals.

So the layering is such that we have cutting edge special effects — effective enough to render human actors (avatars) unnecessary, replacing our human lead roles with computer computer effects, right in front of our eyes. It’s actually a subtle avatar transformation for us too, acclimating us to the concept of non-humanoid protagonists whom we emotionally will relate to (indeed, the female love interest is an alien with a tail, and save for the real human being Michelle Rodriguez there is an admirable lack of female eye-candy for a PG-13 blockbuster). On top of that, the optimum screening presentation uses 3-D goggles. As far as I can tell, this is unprecedented in a full-length mainstream blockbuster (Spy Kids 3-D and My Bloody Valentine, while cool, weren’t as successful nor optimized for the medium), part of a prop for the movie industry that is currently faltering due to modern networking technology and P2P networks, streaming HD media and high-quality home theaters.

Traditional science fiction, as I’ve said before, seems almost obsolete (both irrelevant and surpassed), but we do not pursue the space technology (or just don’t have the resources. See: global warming, oil prices, military spending, the war on drugs, etc.) that is the apple of our fictional eye. Instead, as my friend pointed out, the developed world has a common modern technology rich in data-mining and digital networking fueled by a mass-consumer market society, one thriving by selling people new stories about themselves. The emotional selling-point of mass-marketing new technology is that it gives the consumer a false, concrete sense of sophistication; an alluring impression of being able to buy class. But gadgetry is in fact, mostly junk.

Anyway, without the mindgames of the whole avatar/3-D/technology situation, you have an amalgamation of the following plots and films, most of which involve the traveling young Caucasian male undergoing an identity crisis:

Day of the Dead is worth mentioning because I haven’t seen anyone else draw the connection. It discusses the same direct “science vs. military” attitudes (liberal vs. conservative, pacifist vs. aggressor) within a cavernous human outpost surrounded by zombies, by way of anthropologists who want to study the same subjects the soldiers want to destroy. And like Avatar, it beholds a special effects spectacle above and beyond any of its contemporaries (Day of the Dead is still unique in this sense, using supremely fine make-up effects and being supremely R+ gorey). But Day of the Dead was done on a budget absolutely microscopic compared to the average Hollywood movie, let alone Avatar, the 2009 movie industry’s Chinese Democracy.

So actually a stupid movie, but kind of interesting, if not intentionally so, because it seeks to sell a complete visceral visual experience, but is still just 3-D CG (demi-god VR status). But it’s really gorgeous and (ironically?) features humans with alien avatars, which are CG creatures, thereby pointing out incidentally that CG effects are our avatars. Then the movie was so loaded with cliches but presented them so casually that you didn’t really focus on them — they just flowed naturally. And it occurred to me that narrative cliches almost don’t matter, if they take place in a new medium. The audience was tricked into being receptive to the experience before it even started and lost their critical assessment of the dialog, story, etc. which would be pig-slop on a tiny, non-3D screening.

*sigh* I know, sorry, this review was so obvious and unnecessary, but after watching the movie I felt compelled to practice my humanoid writing skills. Now I’m going to go watch some humanoid porn, just to make sure I am, uh… attracted to the right species and then smoke some weed cigarettes, to make sure I’m still a part of the beautiful conglomerate circle of consumer life.

@ IMDb

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Antichrist
Directed and written by Lars Von Trier
Starring Willem Defoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg
2009, Zentropa, 104 minutes

***

Lars Von Trier puts on his Haneke-helmet, and winks at Ingmar Bergman’s Vargtimmen and Persona in the rear-view mirror, giving his own charming little nightmare production a critical spin on modern western psychology as religion (plus how people, mostly males, continually fuck up the earth in trying to understand it when there’s nothing to understand).

I have to admire that the movie was able to take something graphically sexual, and remove it from being sexually intoxicating or in any way erotic or enticing. Furthermore it did so via building up the sexual tension and increasing the power of sexuality on the main characters. The theater I went to was an indie, liberal theater in a city known for its liberal social scenes, and yet even this place came with a warning that tickets were not going to be refunded because viewers were offended by the pornographic imagery therein.

The sexual intimacy in the beginning is portrayed as a poetic, romantic act — a beautiful affair of the sensual world, the animal kingdom’s complimentary embrace to the tranquil snowy paradise taking place outside. But the couple’s sexual encounters become progressively more animated, vivid, tangible, strange and finally disgusting. However, the passion itself is expansive, as emotional heights and tension improve the dynamic of the sexual act, and make it more powerful, until it is likened to an occult force of exaggerated natural drives.

The path of love is fraught with negative emotions and the error of mainstream, puritanical religious thinking is to assume that sex is bad because it suggests sex — which is exciting and dangerous, when the error is actually that sex is questionable because people see it as something beautiful to begin with. Nature’s laws are raw and callous and sexual desire is the beast of burden.

Although Eve was created out of Adam’s limb in the western biblical creation story, is that an idealized male narrative, absolved of responsibility? The Antichrist figure — the intentional weaver of illusion who brings stark malicious truths, exposes that man specifically creates woman as a vessel for his desire. Woman is the Victorian “angel in the house”, a symbol for male romantic illusions of linear purpose, which are nothing but a self-made path through existence. But as a charming CGI fox sez* 2 Dafoe, da antichrist in question: Chaos reigns! Linear desire is somehow illogical! And true dat, fox, for what could be more bullshit than the belief that some kind of male-imposed illusory narrative can overwhelm the eye of the tempest? Existence is a black hole, brah!

And this is all a good time to be had in the theater! In the modern urban garden of eden where man and woman are being reborn into new social roles (being pulled together, inverted, combined) what is sacred and inspires awe? Lush, gorgeous aesthetics and depictions of idealized domestic retreat (think resort advertisements and New Agers — the whole movie is set in a deceivingly romantic getaway, which as is the traditional horror motif, quickly becomes dangerously isolated for all its rustic splendor), sexual intercourse and offspring, and Freudian-Jungian psychology. Freudian psychology is properly expressed to be dead, quite literally, in the film, and the rest plays out to the Jungian stereotypes, a la the visions of divine messengers and the breathing visualization/hypnosis exercises Dafoe keeps tossing out to his beloved (Jung is still pretty hip, or so I’ve heard from my crazy friends who have psychiatrists that double as meditation teachers). I should also add that the couple from the movie kept me thinking of how relevant the whole deal was to the yuppie/yoga types I see everywhere near the theater in my city, who are getting ready to raise a family with a partner.

Ah, raising a family! In some ways, isn’t it a malicious act — an abuse of power — to have a child? To have a little being to mold to your whim (to say nothing of the impending environmental calamity or social decay taking place in the world). And that’s the symbolism I saw in that opening scene before it was put in context to the rest of the film: the self-absorbed pleasures of parents who create offspring to fulfill a personal need that is bequeathed to their child, as it climbs through pain, grief and despair to fling open the doors to the world, which is revealed to be a beautiful but cold, callous place, where you’ll likely fall before you fly. Death comes from life.

But hey, we haven’t even talked about The Road yet. Oh boy oh boy ohboyohboyohboy….

***

In other news… Ann Hornaday reviewed this one and tried to set it straight for us in The Washington Post: “Von Trier fails to elevate torture porn”

“A horror film tricked out in the trappings of psycho-sexual dynamics and exegetical musings, this latest provocation from Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier qualifies as torture porn for art-house fans.”

Exegeminal what-now? *drool* Durr…. I like movies!

Hornaday’s review may be readable and way less insane in-depth, but her description sounds lazy or inaccurate to me. With regards to the above quote: that’s sort of what Haneke did with his Funny Games remake a couple years back, mocking the viewer in the classic Clockwork fashion and also deliberately emulating the actual sad state of modern Hollywood “horror” flicks; an industry that now relies on shitty horror/action remakes by music video directors, and torture porn scripted by video store clerks. Pop culture totalitarianism: you give the companies the power to enslave you.

While calling it “torture porn for art-house fans” might describe the tale’s aesthetic quality to the layman (it is gorgeous, has a lot of brilliantly crafted haunting scenes taken from the landscape and various abstract tricks — and there is hard-to-watch brutality at certain segments) but is actually an incorrect assessment. What Hornaday diagnoses as torture porn has always been a staple of art-house or cult fans, but as a separate genre entirely. Torture porn actually refers to lucrative mainstream perversions of cult and art-house cinema, like giallo or sexploitation films. Torture porn doesn’t actually have an artistic foundation; it is mired in more nihilistic sexual catharsis than sexual repulsion (and making ze moneys!). The fundamental aspect of Von Trier’s film is how it subverts that — it builds up the sexual elements and tension until sex becomes disgusting and is identified as the causal drive of the brutality in question. Putting Hanneke and Von Trier (and hell, even Argento) in the same camp as Roth and Tarantino is the same thing as mistaking love for lust, or integrity and substance for the medium they manifest through. They have similar aesthetic manifestations, but they ain’t the same.

@ IMDb

______

* I couldn’t help but laugh at that scene, not because of its over-emphasis, but because I simultaneously heard the Gecko muse that “greed is good” a la Wall Street. I can’t wait for Wall Street 2! Sike.