Monday, January 4, 2010

A Single Na'vi

Coming into the next decade we'll no doubt be seeing both filmmakers and exhibitors trying a variety of ways to keep the increasingly fractured audience in theaters. Right now, Cameron's Avatar unquestionably dominates the landscape with it's innovations in 3D, facial motion-capture and CGI texture and shading. The film looks goregous and it can rest quite comfortably on its spectacle. However, at the other end of the spectrum (in terms of scale anyway) is another film that shows that the most powerful effect of cinema is powerful ideas need not be mutually exclusive to exacting visual precision.

At this point there is nothing I can really say about Avatar that you haven't read or thought of yourself. It is certainly a spectacle of the first order and will probably influence a generation of young film-goers and may even create some filmmakers much the way Star Wars did several decades ago. You can say, without much argument, that the story isn't particularly original, the dialogue tin-earred and the characters are one dimensional ciphers. The film also cleverly evokes a lot of feelings and imagery from American history; the futile attempts to influence the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese, the Trail of Tears, 9/11, Bush's shock and awe and so on. Both simultaneously deep and shallow. The action, editing and pacing are second to none (this has never been Cameron's problem). He has also, with great help from WETA f/x supervisor Joe Latteri has created a fully realized world complete with well considered flora and fauna.

Once the thrill is gone from those visuals though, Avatar feels a little hollow and I think I've sussed out why. Avatar, for all five of you who haven't seen it, revolves around marine Jake Sully who by the fluke of his scientist twin-brother's death is a genetic candidate for the avatar program. This would give the handicapped Jake his legs back in the form of a Na'vi body. These ten foot tall, blue, cat-like aliens live in perfect equilibrium with the natural world (following a number of noble savage tropes) and their culture is permeated with the idea of seeing beyond what you see. The film consistently brings out the trope of seeing beneath surface exteriors and seeing the genuine interior. Zoe Saldana's Netyiri falls in love with Jake because she sees the nobility and courage under his moronic thug exterior. Jake needs his avatar to connect with the Na'vi culture but also to feel whole. As the film progresses Jake is constantly questioning what is the actual experience, is he the grunt in the box or the noble alien warrior? Without the experience of sacrificing his old body, of subsuming his brother's place he is empty and purposeless. When we first see him in the movie his ragged appearance evokes memories of Voight in Coming Home and Cruise in Born on the Fourth of July. Jake Sully is confused and purposeless in the film. Is he depressed? An alcoholic? Cameron never really lets us know, he's more (understandably) interested in getting to the exotica of Pandora. But the hole in Jake is filled through his new connection and stepping outside of his old damaged self. The problem is that we never really know the other side of Jake, the damaged incomplete soldier.

Similarly in Tom Ford's A Single Man the protagonist George (a masterful Colin Firth) begins having lost an integral piece of himself. His lover Jim (Matthew Goode seen only in flashbacks) has died in a car accident. Ford's film revolves around George learning to cope with his loss. He too struggles in a world beset with the threat of annihilation, in his case it's the nuclear paranoia that still lingers in 1962 Los Angeles. George too puts on an avatar himself. Under Ford's direction composition and wardrobe are wielded like the space marines pulse weapons or the Na'vis wild beasts under Cameron. When George wakes in the morning with suicidal thoughts, Firth goes through a poignnat monologue as to how he "becomes" George in the morning. Every hair in place, his suit pressed, his glasses perfectly fitting his face. The George that goes in to lecture is a cover, his real self back in bed.

Like Jake, George is pulled into a newer reality and is made whole through a new love. His relationships pull him forward and a new self emerges. As a new director Ford has a very percise control of the frame and everything that inhabits it. As a former designer for Gucci as well as his own label it's little wonder that Ford is such a natural with aesthetics. The world of A Single Man is where wardrobe is armor and weaponry to keep the outside world from penetrating the characters. As George's friend and sometime lover, Charlotte, Julianne Moore looks like the very paradigm of a swinging spinster. Yet a few drinks and the once together woman becomes disheveled and she and George are hurtling barbs and hard truths at each other. George is arguing with her not only for the legitimacy of his past relationship but the pain that society will allow him to show grief for. The pain is palpable and both actors connect in a palpable way that doesn't feel award clip showy, rather its a devastating out pouring of emotion that both endears the audience to the characters as much as it discomforts.

Chances are there isn't going to be a lot of cross-over in the audiences of both films, though I would heartily recommend A Single Man for film-goers feeling as though they haven't really seen the whole picture of loss and coping that Avatar leaves them with.


Sarah said...

did you see this article about how people are getting severely depressed after seeing Avatar? it's a little disconcerting.

And yes, I still read your blog. :)

El Gigante said...

Those people who get depressed that Avatar isn't real fail in movie-going and fail in life.

That's the point, it's not real.