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Go out with you? Why not... Do I like to dance? Of course! Take a walk along the beach tonight? I'd love to. But don't try to touch me. Don't try to touch me. Because that will never happen again. "Past, Present and Future"-The Shangri-Las

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Goonybird Cinema

H. G. Welles was famously unimpressed by Metropolis. And it seems to me that his criticisms were more or less on target... yet the film's aesthetics have enriched the world of film in ways that Well's own film, Things To Come, can't claim. Only a chimp could regard Metropolis as a worthwhile narrative, but whatever the film lacks from a literary perspective, the sets, costumes and such are rich in cinematic virtue. They suggest possibilities for purely cinematic expression that owe about as much to substantial dramaturgy as the average ballet.

Avatar is a proud descendant of Metropolis; dumb as it can be, but saved by technical brio. About all its got going for it is the range of possibilities it offers to future films; like Jurassic Park, no sensible person will want to watch it once its technical innovations have been absorbed by the film industry. The film boasts the most nuanced and expressive CGI animation I've ever seen (well, as nuanced and expressive as the acting on most Hollywood films, so it's little more than slick emotion-porn, but still, it's a step up from the faux-human acting in previous CGI attempts). The artificial environment of the film is a fine-grained engagement with the natural world which reveals the director to be more than a hollow technonaut, and for me this artful take on nature is the most exciting thing about this flick.

Problems? Most of the lines of dialogue could be changed to "I am a macho person!" with no harm done to the warp and woof of the film, the character aesthetics are straight out of Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell (this is not praise (god bless 'em for getting Wayne Barlowe to do the critters though)) and the just-add-water plot is marred not only by the usual paper-thin Joe Campbellianism that we expect from big loud Hollywood but by the hoary old White-Man-Impresses-The-Soul-Brothers-By-Having-Just-As-Much-Soul shtick that one would have hoped we'd be past by now. And lefty that I am, I'm uneasy about being asked to cheer the deaths of American Soldiers (yeah, I know that's not the denotation, but that's certainly the connotation. Well, maybe they're more like Blackwater, but still).

I never would have bothered posting about this film, though, if I hadn't read this post. I'm fond of the author, who gives me my weekly dose of vitamin fanboy, but "He's out to make a film that is timeless, mythic, and universal in its appeal so it should be no surprise that a story with such broad intentions would have roots in other tales that have been told many times over" stuck in my craw. It's the kind of misunderstanding that nerds generally use to excuse callow just-add-water Jungianism in their junk fiction. The logic goes something like this: "mythic, legendary stories are simple, so to tell a truly mythic tale you should strip it of complexities and idiosyncrasies." Wrong, wrong, wrong. Read Ovid. Read Beowulf. Read Malory. Lit Crit has a term: "roughen the text". This refers, as I understand it, to the ways in which texts are complicated in ways that require the reader or viewer to slow down, to get (one hopes productively) confused, to think it through, to engage the complexities nestled within the narrative. You'll find boatloads of roughening in genuinely mythic talespinning. Hollywood baby food is another story. Hollywood has taken to heart Ezra Pound's dictum: "The secret of popular writing is never to put more on a given page than the common reader can lap off it with no strain whatsoever on his habitually slack attention." The libretto of Avatar is not mythic; it is faux-mythic, lacking real insight into human motivations and history. Enjoy the spectacle, but take it seriously at real moral peril.

* * *

Another nutty movie we've enjoyed recently: The Fountainhead. Written by Ayn Rand, directed by King Vidor, music by Max Steiner. So you know it's gonna be a model of restraint and good taste. It didn't make me want to read Rand's doorstops, but it did make me wanna see more Vidor; the man had style, a style Pauline Kael described as "hog-wild expressionism." So he was a good match for Rand's spittle-flecked narratives. Laurie and I got a series of kicks from this film (Those dresses! Those suits! That old-movie hamming!) but found the overlong speech at the end a bit comical. It's the money shot for Rand, a propagandist first and foremost, and it goes on and on. Apparently Vidor wanted to cut it, but Rand insisted on keeping the whole thing, and the studio gave her a measure of respect they never dreamed of extending to, say, Faulkner. The speech could be summarized as "the first person to bake a pie was the first person to be hit in the face with a pie." It monkeys with the Prometheus myth in an odd way, turning the vengeful gods into grubby dumb humans. And while it's sometimes true that dumb people reject true innovators, isn't it truer to say that it's the gods, or fate or what have you, that grinds innovators down? The Prometheus myth rings truer than Rand's petulant appropriation of it, and her own continuing book sales should give her shade pause. If all those folks, not all of whom can be elite, love her so much, what does that do to her elitist position?
* * *

The great Eric Rohmer died recently, so to pay tribute we watched one of my favorite films, Le Rayon Vert, released in English variously as "Summer" and "The Green Ray." One of Rohmer's most improvised films, it excites me the way Altman does, finding life with the camera instead of constructing it for the camera. The star, Marie Riviere, shows us what real expressiveness is. I have no idea if she's an actor per se or simply an intuitive performer, but she's perfect for this film, which looks better with each viewing.


Matt Stephenson said...

I leave my usual response to this kind of diatribe. Candy is part of cuisine as well as complex main courses are. Sometimes I want the candy. I Have a psychological need to every so often see the normal guy be transforemd into a hearo, see therhero get the girl defeat the bad guys and yes see some ewoks defeat the EMpire, David defeat Goliath, etc...no matter how many times I see it. Every time you eat that candy you enjoy it.
But I am not sure that it is just candy, Maybe Im a romantic cheesy guy, but consider these two more thoughts

1. Being exposed to a classic primal story that is predictabe and unoriginal is as much a part of the essential human experience as clever and insightful works are. With Avatar, yes the greatest NEW contribution is in the technical step forward. Its role in retelling a story that we have told each other since we sat around campfires contributes to the overall cultural duty of keeping us human. Consider it part of our long oral tradition that might elevate it to something above mere candy.the value of keeping that tradition going is just as valuable to our humanity as breaking new ground is.

2. It only seems predictable, simple, and unimaginative geek emo porn to those people that have logged a lot of hours in storyville. Maybe the less literate get a lot more out of it thatn you or I would, which means that the narrative does bring something improtant to the table.

I realize that the thoughts seem almost contradictory, how can people not know about it if it is supposeldy part of the big oral tradition. I believe that the narrative relates essential stories that people NEED to hear every so often. For those who already know it, it is a human joy to revel in the hearing again. For those who have not yet got there, its their all to onecessary initiation.

Yes, Dances with Wolves, Last Samuraii, Pocohantas, Antz just to name recent examples have all tread the same ground. They and Avatar are just giving us a regularly needed shot to the gut.

I will now disappear into cyberspace until I remember to come back here.

Home you and your bride are doing well. Let us knwo next time you visit your folks, we can go to dinner.


Aaron White said...

Hi Matthew!

I like candy too, but I like good candy. If a popular new kind of candy is really just corn syrup with a bold new kind of food coloring, I'm going to reject it. Avatar is that lump of corn syrup.

I read Malory's Morte Arthur a while back, and it was full of classic, primal stories. They were neither predictable nor unoriginal. I'm all for tales of valor, but One of the things that makes a story work is that roughening of the text-those elements that ring changes on the expected elements, that put them through fresh paces. And I'm not talking about Alan Moore-ish jazzing around, just good classic imaginative construction. I thought Avatar was way lacking in that regard. Not to mention the Warren Hastings-approved portrayal of de white man gettin' down wif de soul bruddas and becoming the King of Soulville. As it were. And the weirdly retrograde sexual politics icked me out, although 18 year old Aaron White would probably have approved.

I'll be in Nashville tomorrow night if the good Lord's willin' and the creek don't rise.

matthew said...

Oh heck, I need to check this thing more often. I would continue our discussion but I think in the end it will just be that we see the same things, but the things you dont like dont really bother me and the things that I like you think are no great shakes.

the real loss here is that you were in town and we did not get together. SOl and I would love to meet your wife and go to dinner with you guys.