Friday, April 23, 2010

Shoot the moon . . . somehow

In her book Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film, Kathryn Kalinak relays an anecdote from composer David Raksin about working with Alfred Hitchcock on Lifeboat. Raksin was told that Hitchcock had decided to forgo a musical score, apparently because he did not think music should be present in the middle of the ocean. "Where would the music come from?" the director was quoted as saying. Raksin sent his reply: "Go back and ask him where the camera comes from and I'll tell him where the music comes from!"1

I think of that story every time such mechanisms of film construction — the ones we usually take for granted — are brought to the fore. Such was the case when I watched one of the special features on the DVD release of Moon (2009). The director, Duncan Jones, talks through the construction of a shot of a rover vehicle traversing the surface of the moon. Jones explains the different elements that were composited into the finished shot, finally mentioning, almost as an aside, the addition of artificial lens flare. There is nothing at first surprising about this revelation, as lens flare is something most film watchers recognize in shots where the camera is pointed toward a strong light source. Only in this case, there was no camera pointed at a strong light source — the flare was added only to make it appear there was.

What is unusual about this is that the convention for mainstream narrative film is to conceal the evidence of the film's construction, to hide the fact that what is being presented is artifical, an illusion, and to convince the audience that what is on screen — however fantastic — is, in a sense, real, or at the very least unmediated by a camera. Modern special effects are able to assist in this greatly due to their ability to create the "perfect shot," one which could not be captured by a real camera. Still, shots like this one are made to look like they were captured by a real camera.

Perhaps the rationale for this is that, in an ironic way, film has to look real, but not "too real." Artificial lens flare in the shot from Moon may unexpectedly make the shot look more realistic than without it. On one hand, we want the images on screen to look entirely real and to envelop us in a different reality. On the other, we are aware that fantastic scenes such as the ones depicted in Moon and other science fiction films are not real. By making even computer-generated shots appear as if they were captured by an actual camera, the shots might seem more realistic, as they appear to conform to what we understand as the reality of traditional and physical filmmaking — it may suggest, perhaps subconsciously, that what is being shown actually happened in front of a camera.

Similar examples of this are camera shake and when a camera lens is splattered with liquid from something in the shot. Another one that I always notice is when the camera breaks through the surface of water, especially when the lens is half submerged. These effects reveal to varying degrees the presence of the movie camera. (A similar example from television is the sitcom laugh track, intended to give the impression that the program is being acted in front of a live audience.)

An opposite phenomenon occurs when we are shown something that was supposedly captured by a camera within the film. Characters watching security camera footage is a prime example, and the problem occurs when the footage they are watching, which should appear to be shot by a single and stationary camera, consists instead of multiple edited shots from multiple angles. Another "moon" movie, First Men in the Moon (1964), ends with another example: as a lunar landing party evacuates a collapsing underground city, people on Earth watch the entire event on television — an event shot by cameras and camera operators that we know are not present in the story. How would Hitchcock have explained that?

See also: The Impossible POV

1Kalinak, Kathryn, Settling the Score: Music and the Classical Hollywood Film (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1992), xiii.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Four hallmarks of James Cameron movies

Alongside the action and record-setting box office numbers that typically accompany a James Cameron movie can be found some consistent themes and motifs. Here are just a few.

Relentless Soldiers
Colonel Miles Quaritch (Avatar), Lt. Coffey (The Abyss), T-800 (The Terminator), and Spicer Lovejoy (Titanic): These guys just don't quit. No matter what happens, they stay focused on the mission, only stopping when they are finally killed or destroyed. While they often fill the role of "the bad guy," they can also be seen as very capable and dedicated. They are all professional and unemotional, unswayed by factors that influence the films' protagonists, but not essentially evil. If they didn't fall on the opposite side of the movie's sympathies, these guys would be heroes.

Evil Corporations
Corporations are the ultimate evil entity in several of Cameron's movies, pursuing higher profit at the expense of human lives. Take, for example:
  • the RDA from Avatar, which destroys a people's homeland in order to mine a valuable mineral,
  • Weyland-Yutani from Aliens, which sacrifices the crew of the starship Sulaco in order to capture the ultimate bio-weapon,
  • Cyberdyne Systems from Terminator 2, caught in the blind pursuit of a dangerous technology that ultimately spells doom for humanity,
  • and the White Star Line from Titanic, which forgoes safety equipment and protocol in favor of luxury and prestige.
Female Heroes
Ellen Ripley (Aliens) and Sarah Connor (Terminator 2) top this list, though Lindsey Brigman (The Abyss), Grace Augustine (Avatar), and Neytiri (Avatar) can also be counted among female characters who are often tactically smarter, cooler under pressure, and more effective at saving lives than their male counterparts.

Advanced Technology
Certainly Cameron's movies are made with groundbreaking technology, but they are also about technology. The plots of The Abyss, Avatar, Titanic, and Terminator 2 are all driven by a breakthrough piece of technology — the underwater drilling rig, the avatars, the world's biggest passenger ship, and time-travelling cybernetic assassins. Each time we are shown a fantastic vision of technology's power — but we are also shown that in the wrong hands, it all goes south.

James Cameron photo used with the permission described here.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Avatar, white redemption, and social critique

Avatar is the latest Hollywood movie to carry out the ritual of what could be called the "white man's Native American guilt redemption fantasy," a narrative convention seen previously in Dances With Wolves, A Man Called Horse, and Little Big Man. There are other movies that use elements of this ritual — Broken Arrow, Cheyenne Autumn, even Disney's animated Pocahontas, though Avatar adheres to a more strict formula set down by movies in the former group.

This fantasy is typically set in the Old West, and requires a white man to be captured or adopted by American Indians, to go through a trial of assimilation and acceptance, and finally to emerge as a respected member of the tribe, one who in many cases uses the sk/ills of white society to defend his adopted people against attack by outsiders, even against his own white civilization. This fantasy serves as a form of confession, and allows the white audience to confront the injustices perpetrated against American Indians during westward expansion, to refute those injustices with a modern sensibility, and to return to its own culture appeased that a long-standing debt has been paid, if only on film.

To accomplish this purging of guilt it is important that the ills of white society be vividly demonstrated, most often by showing white violence toward Indians or the white bureaucracy's unquestioning commitment to what is depicted as an outdated and senseless doctrine of expansion at all costs. Further, the American Indians need to be inversely mythologized as the opposite of whites: they must be shown not only as victims justified in their resistance, but often as embodying a way of life that is steeped in tradition, balance, and spirituality — namely, all that ostensibly has been lost by white society. Finally, the white emissary must then undergo a transformation, whereby he comes to realize that his adopted culture is more worth fighting for than the white one he leaves behind. There are variations, but that is the basic structure.

While Avatar is applicable to the historic relationship between whites and American Indians, and while the story of Jake Sully fits neatly alongside the stories of John Dunbar (Dances With Wolves) and John Morgan (A Man Called Horse), its use of a fictional alien race instead of American Indians gives it distance enough to use the fantasy not primarily to comment on historic white/American Indian relations, but to protest what its makers view as the evils of modern society in general. To that end, the film glorifies the fictional Na'vi culture as the extreme opposite of an exaggeratedly corrupt human society. By doing so, the audience is able to side against those elements of white society which the film instructs are most abhorrent and to side with the Na'vi, who in turn represent our fantasized ideal, or rather a fantasized opposite of what the film suggests are our most ruinous attributes.

Avatar sets its sights primarily on:

1. Divorce from Nature
While the Na'vi believe in the interconnectedness of all living things and thrive in the lush forest of Pandora, the humans' only contact with the ecosystem occurs when they are out to destroy it. Scenes of huge mining vehicles razing the Pandoran forest, as well as the assault on and destruction of Home Tree, are very clear references to the real-life problem of deforestation. The fact that the Pandoran atmosphere is toxic to humans symbolically underscores how far humans have separated themselves from the natural world, and also echoes the concerns many have about the effects of rising CO2 levels in Earth's atmosphere.

2. Corporate Greed
The humans' interest in Pandora is due to its deposits of the mineral "unobtanium", and the force behind this pillaging is the the RDA, Avatar's evil corporate entity. RDA stops at nothing to attain greater wealth through unobtanium (valued, according to company stooge Parker Selfridge, at "20 million a kilo"). Avatar capitalizes on the idea of corporate greed in a timely manner, amid the financial crisis of the past few years. The Na'vi, by contrast, seem not to know of greed or even of commerce. While their Home Tree sits atop a massive deposit of unobtainium, the Na'vi appear not to value it at all. The economic workings of their society are not shown, though it appears that even benign capitalism does not factor in at all.

3. Dubious Use of Military Force
RDA brings its own mercenary force to Pandora to deal with Na'vi resistance, yet given the motives of the corporation and the relative naiveté of the Na'vi, the use of force is, at best, highly questionable. This reflects a skepticism toward military action that is firmly rooted in the Viet Nam era and immediately topical with US involvement in Iraq.

Jake's decision to fight with the Na'vi, then, is as expected as the similar choices made by Dunbar, Morgan, and Jack Crabb (Little Big Man), and his decision allows the audience to agree with — and be validated by — Jake's position against our world's problems.

Where Avatar veers from the strict ritual is in its ending — by letting Jake remain with the Na'vi. This is antithetical not only to the structure of the "strict ritual", in which the white emissary ultimately chooses to leave the tribe, but to many other Westerns as well in which the hero abandons society after briefly re-entering it — Shane and The Searchers come immediately to mind — and which adhere to the archetypical "walk into the sunset". (In a general way I am calling Avatar a Western, in so much as it fits the formula of the other films discussed here, and in that it deals with territorial confrontation along a frontier.)

The heroes of the strict ritual leave at the end because we know they have to — we know that the fantasy needs to come to an end because we know the reality of the American Indian and of westward expansion. These white heroes are our time-travelling ambassadors, armed with modern ideals and sent back to a West of our imagining to act the way we imagine white society should have acted in order to create a more peaceful coexistence and to spare us the guilt we now feel, but their remaining can only create a paradox — we know that any such "happy ending" is in conflict with what really happens.

Jake, however, is free to remain because Avatar is set in a fictional future, not on Earth but on a moon millions of light years away that is populated not by American Indians with a known past, but by an alien race specific to this one movie. It is therefore more immediately discernible as fantasy. Though we may have our doubts about how long the Na'vi victory will last, about how long the RDA will stay away from its valuable installation on Pandora, we have no corresponding historical record that forces deeper consideration of the moment.

Avatar photo used with the permission described here.