Tom McCormack: One could think of contemporary narrative cinema as having two horizon points, the first related to wall-to-wall CGI, the second to epic long shots and the blurring of distinctions between documentary and fiction.
The Two Horizons (9 August 2011)
At least, for once, the landscape of contemporary cinema is not defined by the slow-fast polarities! But this new schema is still Manichean and remarkably absurd. At the bottom of which hypothetical cave do you have to stand to see the horizon divided between CGI and long shots, Avatar and Juventud em marcha? They are not polar opposites of the same theme. These are bad stereotypes. He assumes that CGI and long shots are mutually exclusive (The Abyss; Wall-E, Enter The Void??), that the documentary-fiction frontier is CGI-free (Waking Life; Waltz With Bashir??)... Yeah I don't think these poles are that much clear cut.
Let's ignore the bullshit about "subjectivity"... nothing insightful is expected from someone who believes that comics book nerds' obsession with fictitious-fact checking (anti-auteurism : customers are always right, the auteur shall comply) is what redefines the relation to actual Reality for the rest of the world.
By convoluting film's indexical relationship to its subjects, CGI potentially liberates cinema from an assumed truth-value [..] Avatar really is something new; it renegotiates the tripleness of movies in a revolutionary way. [..] One of Avatar's achievements is that is has no accidental surplus of description—or at least very little—while seeming to. Every shot overwhelms the visual field with a too-muchness of information, like old-fashioned movies, but the effect isn't automated but calculated. It's unprecedented and quite dazzling.
Apparently this guy never watched an animated movie. Animation (Emile Cohl; McCay; Disney...) is exactly that : producing a "motion picture" where all details are designed, not merely recorded from reality. CGI is just a fancy way to generate animation without pencils, but the principle is strictly identical. Pixels are not the equivalent of words for the simple reason that we never see pixels with a naked eye, we cannot parse them from the big picture, and that makes all the difference.
Avatar is the first time you realized that you're watching a universe that was entirely created by the designer? Well, first-off, this is not an all-CGI movie (unlike Toy Story, Ice Age, Finding Nemo, Wall-E, Cars...), there are scenes with REAL LIFE actors in set pieces. Secondly, there ARE precedents of CGI-live action hybrids that generated as much of an ex-nihilo CGI world (Tron, 1982; Total Recall, 1990; Jurassic Park, 1993; Star Wars I, 1999; King Kong, 2005; Inception, 2009...). What did Avatar do that these didn't before? Nothing. 3D is not new, CGI is not new, motion-capture is not new, animation is not new. If we can empathize with Mickey Mouse (a vague caricature of an anthropomorphic animal, badly animated), believing in half-credible CGI characters is an easy task. CGI doesn't only work on our imagination because it looks "real"... the stretch of human imagination is boundless, we'd believe in anything because we want to. We even lend life and meaning to inanimate objects or imaginary friends.
If one of the pleasures of literary fiction—of, say, Tolstoy—is simply the wow factor, delighting in watching objects conjured by means that are in some essential way alien to them (words), Avatar makes a serious claim that cinema can compete with, and maybe best, literature on these terms. Films have never offered much competition in this area because their tools for describing the world are automated, and of the world, not essentially alien like words.No. Sorry. I agree that cinema is far from the accomplishments of literature in the domain of pure narration. Still in its infancy. But if one film nears this level of maturity... it's certainly not Avatar, all technological inventions included. Take a step back from the 3D craze and the marketing buzz... this is just cheap storytelling.
Is it the first film of the entire history of cinema that transcends photorealism to you? Really??? You never watched Kino-glass (Brick); The General Line (Eisenstein); Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel/Dali); Je t'aime, je t'aime (Resnais); Film (Beckett); Le Camion (Duras); In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (Debord); La Jetée (Marker); Outer Space (Tscherkassky)...? Not to mention David Lynch, Stan Brakhage, Andrei Tarkovsky, Robert Bresson. Cinema at its best does transcend the basic face-value of images and their zero-degree illustrative content.
We watch, as it were, with three eyes: 1) attuned to the proceedings as artifice, as projected light arranged in patterns that tell a story; 2) attuned to the proceedings of the story; and 3) attuned to the proceedings as their own reality, as documents of events that actually took place. When we watch the opening of The Searchers, we simultaneously see: A) a human cipher made of light approach a house made of the same; B) Ethan Edwards return from the Civil War; and C) John Wayne ride a horse up to a solid-seeming building.
So he equates the huge divide there is in Literature between signifiers and signifiants, with the closest analogy there could be between a screen image and its corresponding mental image. The nature of the "artifice" (if you call language that...) is of a very different degree there! Think about it. The film image is a contact stamp of reality, an analogue for all purpose and intent. We could almost believe we are looking at a scene happening behind a window. The patterns of letters, words, grammar, sentences, paragraphs, chapters... is incredibly more alienated from the reality it represents than a simple image or the montage of successive scenes (be it live action, CGI or hand-drawn!). This is a grave perversion of Bazin's ontology of the photographic image.
Looked at one way, Freud's ideas are the Literary Agent Hypothesis writ large: Your life is Inspired By real events. The person listed as the author—you—is just the literary agent for the unconscious who's writing it.
This is a grave perversion of Freud's theory of the Id. The childhood subconscious might be a blue-print for the adult life... but it's not more real than life itself. The subconscious merely draws general directions, we are still authors (and responsible) of our everyday life! It would be too easy to blame an hypothetical "subconscious" for all our mistakes.
From Warhol there's a love of solid time, erotically extended durationsThere is nothing intrinsicaly "erotic" in long shots... you're confusing the content of Warhol's films, with the form it happened to take.
The shots [of Pedro Costa] are delicately composed and daubed with deep blacks, with both elements accenting their artificiality. But their length undercuts this artifice. Reality becomes distended, and the first effect of this is to divorce the individual shots from the narrative. We begin looking for the surplus, becoming connoisseurs of the accidental or impossible to plan.
Careful composition and deep black hardly distract the eye from the photographic realism, they are part of it.
Earlier on, you list the projected light on a screen as the artifice of filmic image, and now you say that a long take (thus more of that artificial image) is what make us forget the artifice...? WTF?
The divorce of the long take from the narrative would require a longer development.
If you're looking for the non-diegetic accident in a diegetic film, you're the fool who stares at the golden frame instead of the painting it surrounds... like people who watch Ed Wood's failed films for their unintentional humour. That's your personal usage of cinema.
Source: The Two Horizons. What Avatar and Pedro Costa can tell us about narrative cinema today (Tom McCormack; 9 August 2011)
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