15 December 2009

Exposition - The $500,000,000 Man

Have you ever wondered what half a billion dollars looks like? If recent (unofficial) estimates are to be believed, that's exactly what you'll see if you buy a ticket to Avatar. Throw fourteen-odd years of development into the mix, an unprecedented level of hype, and a promise to revolutionise cinema as we know it, and you have quite a lot invested in a three hour experience. With the fifteen dollar cost of admission seemingly very paltry by comparison, I did my best to put any reservations aside and see whether the much prophesied 'second coming of James Cameron' could bring about a cinematic equivalent of the rapture promised by that other individual whose initials he shares. Indeed, the risk of being branded a heretic seems just as likely to result from criticising one as the other, but criticism must be made nevertheless. And although it runs against my natural instincts to pre-empt an examination with points from the conclusion, I find myself given little option in this instance. In short, the reason I have not and shall never dedicate a review to Avatar is that it runs contrary to the professed purpose of this blog, which is to delve deeper and analyse the cultural subtext. Whatever it cost to add a third dimension to the film visually, the real expense has been the loss of its cerebral equivalent. As such, it is all I can do to offer a shallow reflection upon some of the foremost points that presented themselves to me personally.

The Third Dimension, Mk.II

Various assertions have been made to the affect that Avatar will herald in a new age of 3-D cinema, eliminating the pitfalls of earlier technology, providing a greater level of audience immersion, and thus affording an overall better experience. Whether in theory or in practice, none of this is true. To its credit, Avatar avoids the in-your-face projectile obsession that relegates the majority of 3-D films to gimmick status. At its best the technology is barely perceptible, but if the measure of its success is the extent to which you don't notice it, one obviously has to question the benefit. The presence of a few bewitchingly subtle instances where it really does evoke a sense of magic was not, however, enough to offset the number of times when I found myself struggling against it, which unfortunately seemed to occur in the scenes I was most interested in. Perhaps I am something of an anomaly in the manner in which I view films, but time and again I found that if I was not watching a specific area in the frame the illusion completely fell apart. For those who don't naturally focus on the object or depth of field chosen by the director, it almost feels as though you're being unfairly punished for not surrendering to his authorial vision, to the extent that I found myself resenting the implication that I was somehow wrong to be looking at this, rather than that. Again, perhaps I am something of an oddity, but even with perfect 20 / 20 vision I frequently encountered scenes where the depth of field actually inverted itself on me, causing annoyance rather than immersion (and a left eye that has remained painful since I woke up this morning). I can only assume that those who believe this to be the next evolution in cinema also maintain the superiority of pop-up books over the traditional kind.

The Best Things in Film Are Free

Adding to my frustration with the 3-D technology was the apprehension that, while I was grappling with it, I was missing out on some of the major points in the story. This frustration rapidly gave way to disappointment, however, when I realised that I wasn't missing out on anything at all. There is a plot, in the sense that it recounts a series of linear events, but unlike the visuals it never approaches even an illusion of depth. Essentially, those who have seen Fern Gully and Pocahontas have already seen Avatar, and no attempt is made to hide its derivative nature, with the protagonist even sharing initials with John Smith. Proclaiming this a bad story makes about as much sense as accusing flat-bread of being a bad loaf, but with so much time and money invested in other aspects of the production it is incredible that no effort seems to have been invested in forming an interesting narrative. This is all the more confounding when you consider that, with a proven writer/director at the reigns, the story development is effectively free. Perhaps more disappointing are the number of potentially interesting story directions that are never even explored. At a point in time where human interaction is increasingly transacted through various electronic media – be it online games, social networking sites, or even your mobile phone to some extent – a film with the word 'avatar' as its very title should have a lot to say about the affect this has had on current society (bear in mind that what you're reading right now is also presented under the guise of an avatar). It could have dealt with the psychological implications of splitting your life between two distinct bodies/realities – whether this might alienate yourself from the idea of being synonymous with a body at all – but this is given only cursory and simplistic treatment. If stripping down the potential subtexts in favour of a single, straightforward narrative was a calculated attempt to drive-home the didactic element, then Avatar must be considered an outright failure. The heroes and villains are propelled so far into the rarefied poles of noble savage and exploitative conqueror as to loose any realistic credibility, while the story may be even be interpreted as imparting a message that seems to contradict its own moralistic stance. Presenting the choice between an unpleasant reality or the prospect of escape into a fantasy world, Avatar seems to advocate the latter. At a time when increasing numbers of people seem to be inclined to withdraw from the difficulties of society altogether, preferring to immerse themselves in an idealised virtual world, the propriety of this message seems rather dubious.

Unbridled Imagination 

James Cameron had such a creative vision for Avatar that only recent technological advances would allow him to see it realised on the screen, if internet folklore is to be believed. Why then, I found myself pondering in the cinema, is everything so very, very familiar? Most of the plants are green and look just like terrestrial plants; evolution seems to have favoured six-limbed locomotion on this planet, but that still looks very much like a monkey, a rhino, a panther, a jackal, a horse, and a pterodactyl; the people are big and blue, but similar enough in sensory input that the human mind can easily interpret and control a body crafted in their image. Now, I understand the theory behind convergent evolution of this kind, but this is not a documentary, so does everything really have to be that intuitively familiar? Personally, I would be somewhat disappointed if I were to travel five years into outer space and find myself on a planet effectively the same as earth, albeit where everything seems to have run afoul of a serial fluoro-bomber. Avatar was supposed to be an act of unbridled imagination, but it turns out that the presentation is as uninspired and derivative as the story element. Walking out of the cinema I was convinced that I'd seen all this before, but when I tried to think of specific films I couldn't. That was when I realised that it wasn't film that Avatar was borrowing from, but video games. I'd been watching Halo vs Warcraft for the past three hours. As I think back on the audience, however, I had to give credit to the sleight of hand being played there, because the majority were clearly not people who would be at all familiar with the gaming medium. For them, Avatar would be unlike anything they had ever seen before, just as it was promised. Film aficionados would find a few other things a little too familiar though, such as some iconic creature noises lifted from Jurassic Park, and at least three musical cues in common with Cameron's own Aliens. It is a common misapprehension that the imagination has no limits, but even with that admission it is common sense that you shouldn't borrow elements from other high-profile films and leave them undisguised when being unique and incomparable is one of your main selling-points.

A Science-Fiction Renaissance 

Apparently I missed the obituary proclaiming the death of science-fiction film, but it doesn't matter because I was told that Avatar was about to bring it back to life, bigger and better than before. What we ended up with was certainly bigger, but I'm hesitant to even suggest that it was the same creature that was put to death, let alone entertain the idea that it's necessarily better for it. Perhaps I have too pedantic a criteria regarding what falls within the bounds of science-fiction, but to me Avatar had no more science in it than something like The Lord of the Rings (which, you'll note, is more or less faithful to Newton's laws of physics). Spaceships and aliens do not a science-fiction film make, nor does the act of simply setting something in the future. For me, the defining quality of science-fiction is the presence of plausible, scientific speculation that contributes to the story in a meaningful capacity. This does not mean that every facet of the technology need be explained or even explicable based on current scientific understanding, but it does require a certain respect for plausibility. Inventing a fictitious mineral, making it the entire motivation for the narrative, and then calling attention to the very implausibility of that element with a name like 'unobtanium' crosses the boundary between genre convention and parody. Fantasy makes allowance for the presence of the inexplicable, as does science-fiction; the crucial difference is that science-fiction must at least make a pretence toward explaining it. Any legitimate speculation in the film, which is primarily restricted to the human side, is simply things we've seen before (drawing particularly on Cameron's Aliens), and hardly the catalyst for a science-fiction renaissance. Without spoiling the conclusion, Avatar puts the final nail in its coffin by relying on the most literal form of deus ex machina.

Avatar is by no means a terrible, nor even a bad film. Perhaps its only real transgression is promising something unique and revolutionary, when it ultimately delivers only mediocrity. Issues with the 3-D technology aside, James Cameron has achieved one of the most flawless visual presentations of an imaginary world in the history of cinema. The problem is that so much time and resource should be given to material that proves unworthy of such treatment. It is unique only insofar as it combines elements that have never been put together in such a way before, but for each of those elements a better, fuller treatment can be found elsewhere. It is the epitome of perfect execution, unfortunately dedicated to the realisation of a pointless enterprise.

1 December 2009

Exposé - Ravenous

Woeful misrepresentation of a movie by the marketing division has been touched upon in some of my previous reviews, but only rarely have I seen a case as flagrant as that of Ravenous. Transgressions of this kind are usually reserved for the back cover, but here it extends to the front as well, with David Arquette given first-billing alongside Guy Pearce and Robert Carlyle. This is not to say that I have any criticism of Arquette's performance in the film, indeed so few and far between are the scenes in which he features that it scarcely seems possible to form an opinion one way or another. To put it into perspective, one of the characters whose name we never even learn has roughly the same amount of dialogue. What raises my ire so much about this is the fact that it denies proper acknowledgement of a worthy performance on the part of Jeffrey Jones, for no reason other than a vague potential hook for adherents of the Scream franchise. Turn to the back and you'll find these charges justified, with Arquette billing dead last in the usual credit wrap-up. As for the rest of the back cover information, not only does it misconstrue the genre orientation, but so too the actual plot, providing an outline that is barely applicable to the film in question when it isn't outright erroneous. I voice this frustration because there is a surprisingly competent film being maligned by this farcical exterior. And while it may not be for everyone, I am certain that many will find it much easier to appreciate this film without labouring against the burden of misleading preconceptions. If nothing else, Ravenous is a film that demands to be taken on its own terms.

Colqhoun - Captain Boyd
Compounding the utter failure of the cover designers is the fact that the film manages to perfectly encapsulate itself only seconds from opening. "He that fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster", counsels the frontispiece in a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, to be rebutted a few moments later with the addition of "Eat me", ascribed to 'Anonymous'. This is Ravenous in a nutshell – a film about cannibalism that is equally serious and darkly humorous by turns, offers moments of wisdom only to pierce them with a razor-sharp wit, and is consistent only in the sense that it is abidingly clever. Overall, it is an experience which defies ready classification, presenting a horrifying subject without ever resorting to the clichéd horror formula, while at the same time maintaining a sense of irreverence that never crosses into the realm of pure comedy. No doubt this all sounds terribly chaotic – and for the first-time viewer this is likely to be the case – but at the same time, Ravenous is also an exercise in restraint. The most readily appreciable evidence of this lies in its brevity, with the film running in at under the hundred minute mark. At a time when even the most vacuous premise is routinely dragged out over two hours or beyond, it is refreshing to find a director who acknowledges the natural limits of an idea. With its relatively simple topic always firmly in sight, Ravenous manages to throw a enough sufficiently interesting angles into the mix to keep things engaging before putting itself to bed. Always on the move, often a step or two ahead of the viewer, Antonia Bird resists the urge to let her creation gorge itself, despite the proclivity of its central characters to the contrary.

Fort Spencer - An inglorious post
Opening in the midst of the Mexican-American war, Ravenous introduces Captain John Boyd during his commendation for a dubious – albeit fortuitous – course of action during a skirmish, the result of which is his immediate reassignment to Fort Spencer, an inglorious post guarding the mountain pass into California. Upon arrival he is greeted by the amiable Colonel Hart, who attempts to make the best of his position as commander of a small contingent, each member of which possesses some trait that has resulted in their being deemed defective. Major Knox passes for the resident medico when he isn't rendered unconscious through drink; Private Toffler suffers from a debilitating mix of intense religious belief and severe lack of social skills; Private Reich represents the opposite extreme, with such zealous devotion to the martial side of soldiering that he is a danger to his comrades; and finally Private Cleaves, whose acceptance of the two native American siblings that also inhabit the fort includes far too liberal amounts of their potent weed than his meagre span of years can handle. The rag-tag formula is familiar enough, and to its credit Ravenous opts to make use of this wheel rather than attempt to reinvent it.

The mild-mannered Colonel Hart
When a half-frozen stranger calling himself Colqhuon turns up one night, claiming to have escaped from a party of ice-bound travellers lost in the mountains, the main thrust of the story commences. Having been tended to and revived by the concerned soldiers, Colqhuon offers a tale of terror: how the desperate party fell to cannibalism as a final resort, and how their demeanour changed after that first irreversible foray into the realms beyond the bounds of social sanction. It is at this point that the mild supernatural element of the film is also introduced, involving the Native American folklore concerning the wendigo. While they remain ostensibly human, the wendigo enjoys an increase in physical strength, agility, and resilience after each cannibalistic feast. The inevitable price comes in the form of an increasingly insatiable hunger, compounded by the fact that the benefits they enjoy begin to wane after only a short time. The parallels with drug use, rampant consumerism, and other addictive behaviours which inevitably escalate in order to deliver the same rewards are obvious, but the director wisely opts to leave them as latent issues in the background rather than attempt to drive home an overtly didactic message. The result is an ongoing exchange between the depiction on the screen and its wider implications, from which both ultimately benefit; equating cannibalism with the more mundane transgressions we are used to offers a level of insight which is otherwise difficult to attain with such an extreme behaviour, while at the same time our shock and revulsion at the latter reflects a critical light back on our willingness to accept behaviour driven by a similar dynamic.

The wendigo of Native American folklore
In addition to this universal applicability, it is worth bearing in mind that the film does nevertheless opt for a specific historical context, and one that significantly expands the potential interpretation of its subject matter. The storyline is, after all, loosely based on real-life accounts such as that of the ill-fated Donner party. Indeed, the nineteenth century was something of a boom for stories involving cannibalism, due in no small part to the rapid expansion of Westerners into remote and unfamiliar territories across the globe. All too often woefully unprepared and generally too arrogant to adapt to local conditions, much less accept that aid of natives, proud explorers and foolhardy settlers set off to the frontiers in their droves. Whether it was the Americas, the isolated expanse of Australia, or in the depths of Africa, these colonists often brought with them murky accounts of savage cannibals living beyond the pall of civilised society, only to find themselves resorting to the same behaviours. Some indigenous cultures did proscribe sanctioned forms of homophagy, to be sure, but the savage delinquent so firmly entrenched in the nineteenth century imagination often turned out to be a mere farmer or society man. Indeed, one can only wonder whether these situations would have occurred anywhere near as frequently had the expedition members not held the fear of such a threat from outsiders so firmly in their minds.

Lair and larder...
Belying the danger posed by the ubiquitous savage – whether real or imagined – was a far deeper, more essential anxiety regarding his possible relationship to civilised man and the links between human and animal kind in general. The nineteenth century was, after all, to see the inception of Darwinism, the various elements of which had been fomenting and steadily coalescing for decades before Darwin himself was even born. Rather than merely citing this historical milieu, Ravenous goes one step further and combines it with the nascent ideology of the post-revolutionary United States, which was still very much in the throes of forging a unique national identity. Direct quotes from some of the founding fathers are imbued with a subversive, and yet disturbingly astute significance when uttered by the antagonist. The rhetoric used to justify his ambition to create a cannibal utopia is also telling in that it uses much of the same material as the burgeoning national ideology, with a particularly chilling approximation of the call for the tired, the poor, and the huddled masses. With such brazen implications as these, Ravenous could have easily devolved into mere sensationalism, but once again it shows enough restraint to pull back just shy of the precipice. Robert Carlyle puts in a delightfully extravagant performance, without ever resorting to scenery chewing, while Guy Pearce maintains an aura of despondency in his bleak Everyman without succumbing to the pitfalls of melodrama.

A coward's ploy
A final testament of the measured nature of this film is its sense of lingering ambiguity. It would be too much to ask for genuine empathy, given the subject matter, but even our ability to sympathise is denied a straightforward target. The amusingly devilish antics of the antagonist form one side of the equation, while on the other is a protagonist who remains stubbornly averse to any form of heroism. Boyd is a man so utterly defined by cowardice that he must ask permission of a dead man before he will take action to preserve his own life, and can only end another's when the man himself begs to be dispatched. Indeed, it is only after being taunted with the idea that true courage would be to embrace the perverted ideology of his nemesis – leaving behind the protective cover of social sanction – that our 'hero' is able to muster the resolution necessary to dispatch the villain, rendering even this an act of cowardice. The subversive elements of the film are thus sealed with an epitaph than splits human nature into two equally despicable groups – the consumers and the consumed.

A vast expanse in which to lose touch with humanity

Screen -
Jonathan auf der Heide

A recent Australian production based on the notorious exploits of Alexander Pearce: one of a small party of convicts who resorted to cannibalism after escaping from a penal colony on the west coast of Tasmania in the early nineteenth century. When his sensational account was met with disbelief, Pearce was sent back to the site of his imprisonment, only to escape once more. His accomplice was devoured within ten days of absconding this time, and with plentiful sources of nourishment in the immediate area. Historical incidents of this nature undoubtedly leant much apocryphal weight to the pervasive idea that the act of cannibalism results in some kind of pathological alteration. The steady degeneration of the social dynamics within the party is in good contrast to the plunge in Ravenous.

Eric Kripke

A television series based on the premise that a pair of brothers confront all manner of creatures out of folklore and urban legend. The second episode of the first season is the only one to feature a true wendigo, but entities with similar tendencies are encountered with relative frequency. With at least half of season five still to come at this point, chances are there will be a few more entries of this nature. Constantly playing off the most well known horror films, Supernatural often manages to deliver more atmosphere and genuine scares than the material which inspires it. An ever-expanding menagerie of nasty creatures and figures from urban legend makes for a compelling modern take on traditional folklore.

Script -
Edgar Alan Poe

As verbose and convoluted as its title suggests, the only novel-length work by the legendary Edgar Alan Poe is a true oddity. From humble beginnings as a rather simple adventure story, The Narrative undergoes a series of increasingly jarring redirections in terms of both subject and tone, including a sensational tale of mutiny and survival, a decidedly dry account of south-sea exploration, and most bewildering of all, a final Antarctic voyage that focuses on seemingly impenetrable philosophical symbolism, leading to one of the most abrupt and unsatisfying conclusions in all of literature. Purveyed under the guise of a 'true account', Poe cobbled together whole sections plagiarised from legitimate sources with others of the most fantastic invention to perpetrate one of the most infamous literary hoaxes of his day. And while it may not be entirely successful as a whole, each clearly delineated section in this sprawling tale represents a masterful treatment of various individual genres. Among these is a tale of high-seas survival and cannibalism that epitomises the nineteenth century approach to the subject, both in terms of literary convention and the anxieties it evokes.


Accusations of cannibalistic behaviour as a means of asserting racial superiority may have been a particular vogue during the nineteenth century, but Herodotus proves that the practice is literally as old as history itself. Considered a milestone in the formation of the discipline, The Histories is part social chronicle, part ethnographic study, part rationalisation of one the most defining conflicts of the ancient world. What truly sets it apart from the work of his predecessors is its dedication to autopsy, and the process of bringing sceptical consideration to what is generally known and accepted. That said, the work is still a long way from what modern historians would deem an objective treatment. With a bias not only toward Greece, but toward specific city-states as well, The Histories provides a fascinating insight toward the various ethnic prejudices of its day. From the furthest reaches of Africa to the northern steppes, and as far east as India, cannibalistic behaviour is one of many behaviours frequently used to cast aspersions upon other, often mythical peoples.

Still -
Théodore Géricault

The scandal surrounding the wreck of the naval frigate Méduse would be just another in a long line of similar tragedies were it not for this painting, which has ultimately transcended its topical origins to become an enduring emblem for the phenomenon of survival cannibalism as a whole. Defying the Neoclassical movement in vogue during his day, Géricault imbued his painting with a horror that the familiar tropes of Greek and Roman myth and Christian theology could never truly approach – the uncomfortable appreciation that his subject was real. As such, while its style is neither as grotesque or exaggerated as other depictions of cannibalism – such as Michelangelo's The Last Judgement or Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son – there is a far more disturbing immediacy to this painting than its archetypical fellows.