Count me among those few unfortunates who didn’t “get” Hugo. Not that I failed to see what Martin Scorsese’s opulent adaptation of Brian Selznick’s graphic novel was trying to accomplish; but for me the movie’s attempt to channel and amplify a certain magic succeeded merely in bringing it leadenly to earth, burying a fragile tapestry of early-cinema memories beneath a giant cathedral (or in this case, a train station) of digital visual effects and overly literal storytelling. Some of my disaffection was likely due to viewing situation: I watched it flat and small, at home on my (HD)TV, rather than big and deep, and the lack of 3D glasses or IMAX overwhelm surely contributed to the lackluster experience. Yet I resist this bullying-by-format, and find it at odds with what Scorsese, through his marvelous machinery, appeared to be promoting: the idea that “movie magic” can blossom on the squarest of screens, the grainiest and most monochromatic of film stocks, not even needing synchronized sound to work its wonders on an audience.

I watched Hugo for a class I am co-teaching this term on the varieties of realism and “reality” deployed across multiple media, starting with early cinema’s dazzling blend of spectacularized “actuality” and suddenly plentiful illusion. Often reduced to a binary opposition between the work of Louis and Auguste Lumiere on the one hand and Georges Melies on the other, the era was more like the first femtoseconds following the Big Bang, in which cinema’s principal forces had not yet unfolded themselves from the superheated plasma of possibility. Hugo tries to take us back to that primordial celluloid soup, or more precisely to a fantasized moment — itself still hauntingly young — when the medium of film began to be aware of its own past, that is, to recognize itself as a medium and not, as one Louis Lumiere quote would have it, “an invention without a future.” Through an overwrought relay of intermediaries that includes a young boy and girl, a nascent cinema scholar, a dead father, a semifunctional automaton, and a devoted wife, that past is resurrected in the form of Melies himself, cunningly impersonated by Ben Kingsley, and it is the old magician’s backstory, dominating the final third of the film, that jolted both me and my students back to full, charmed attention.

I suppose there is something smart and reflexive about the way Hugo buries its lead, staging the delights of scholarly and aesthetic discovery through a turgid narrative that only slowly unveils its embedded wonders. But for me, too much of the movie felt like a windup toy, a rusty clockwork, a train with a coal-burning engine in dire need of stoking.

Watching Avatar


Apologies for taking a while to get around to writing about Avatar — befitting the film’s almost absurd graphical heft, the sheer surfeit of its spectacle, I decided to watch it a second time before putting my thoughts into words. In one way, this strategy was useful as a check on my initial enthusiasm; the blissful swoon of first viewing gave way, in the second, to a state resembling boredom during the movie’s more langourous stretches. (Banshee flight training, let’s just say, is not a lightning-fast process.)  But in another way, waiting to write might not have been all that smart, since by now the movie has been discussed to death. Yet for all the hot air and cold type that’s been spent dissecting Avatar, the map of the dialogue still divides neatly into two camps: one insisting that Cameron’s movie is an instant classic of cinematic science fiction, a technological breakthrough and a grand adventure of visual imagination; the other grudgingly admitting that the film is pretty, but beyond that, a trite and obvious story lifted from Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves and populated, moreover, by a bland and predictable set of character-types.

I tend to be forgiving toward experiments as grand as Avatar, especially when they’ve done such a good job laying the groundwork of hopeful expectation. Indeed, as I walked into the theater last week, ripping open the plastic bag containing my 3D glasses, I remember thinking I’d already gotten my money’s worth simply by looking forward so intensely to the experience. There’s also the matter of auteurist precedent: James Cameron has built up an enormous amount of goodwill — and, dare I say it, faith — with his contributions of Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens to the pantheon of SF greatness. (I’m also a closet fan of Battle Beyond the Stars, the derivative but fun 1980 Roger Corman production on which Cameron served as art director and contributed innovative visual effects.)

So I’m not fussed about whether Avatar‘s story is particularly deep or original. This is, to me, a case of the dancer over the dance; the important thing is not the tale, but Avatar‘s telling of it. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that in such a technically intricate production, a relatively simple narrative gearing is required to anchor audiences and lead them, as in a rail game, along a precise path through the jungle. (That said, Cameron’s first “scriptment” was apparently a much more complex and nuanced saga, and one wonders to what degree his narrative ambitions were stripped away as the humongous physical nature of the undertaking became clear.) Cameron is correctly understood as a techno-auteur of the highest order, a man who doesn’t make films so much as build them, and if he has, post-Titanic, become complicit in fanning the flames of his own worshipful publicity, we ought to take that as simply another feat of engineering — in this instance discursive rather than digital. It would hardly be the first time (I’m looking at you, Alfred Hitchcock) and is certainly better-deserved than some (I’m looking at you, George Lucas).

Did I like Avatar? Very much so — but as I indicated above, this is practically a foregone conclusion; to disavow the thing now would be tantamount to aesthetic seppuku. Of course, in the strange numismatics of fandom, hatred is just the other side of the coin from veneration, and the raging “avatolds” (as in, You just got avatold!) of 4chan may or may not realize that, love it or hate it, we’re all playing in Cameron’s world now. And what a world it is, literally! Avatar the film is something of a delivery system for Pandora the planet (OK, moon), an act of subcreation so extensive it has generated its own wiki. The detailed landscapes we see in the movie are merely the topmost layer of a topography and ecosystem fathoms deep, an enormous bank of 3D assets and encyclopedic autotextuality that, now established as a profitable pop-culture phenomenon, stands ready for extrapolation and exploration in transmedia to come. (Ironic, then, that a launching narrative so opposed to stripmining is itself destined to be mined, or in Jason Mittell’s evocative term, drilled.)

And in this sense, I suspect, we can locate a double meaning to the idea of the avatar, or tank-grown alien body driven by human operators via direct neural link. A biological vessel designed to allow visitors to explore an alien world, the story’s avatars are but metaphors for Avatar the movie, itself a technological prosthesis for viewers hungry to experience new landscapes (and for whom the exotics of Jersey Shore don’t cut it). 3D, IMAX, and great sound systems are merely sensory upgrades for our cinematic avatarialism, and as I watched the audience around me check the little glowing squares of their cell phones, my usual dismay was mitigated by the notion that, like the human characters in the movie, they were merely augmenting their immersion with floating GUIs and HUDs.

My liking for the film isn’t entirely unalloyed, and deep down I’m still wondering by what promotional magic we have collectively agreed to see Avatar as a live-action movie with substantial CG components rather than a CG animated film (a la Up, or more analogously Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) into which human performances have cunningly been threaded. Much has been made of the motion-capture technology by which actors Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver et al performed their roles into one end of a real-time rendering apparatus while Cameron peered into a computer display — essentially his own avatarial envoy to Pandora — directing his troupe through their videogame doubles. But this is merely the latest sexing-up of an “apparatus” as old as cinema, by which virtual bodies are brought to life on an animation stand, their features and vocals synched to a dialogue track (and sometimes reference footage of the original performances).

Cameron’s nifty trick, though, has always been to frame his visual and practical effects in ways that lend them a crucial layer of believability. I’m not talking about photorealism, that unreachable horizon (unreachable precisely because it’s a moving target, a fantasized attribute we hallucinate within the imaginary body of cinema: as Lacan would put it, in you more than you). I’m talking about the way he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the human skin around a robotic core in the Terminator films, craftily selling an actor of limited expressiveness through the conceit of a cyborg trying to pass as human; Arnold’s stilted performance, rather than a disbelief-puncturing liability, became proof of his (diegetically) mechanoid nature, and when the cutaways to stop-motion stand-ins and Stan Winston’s animatronics took over, we accepted the endoskeleton as though it had been there all along, the real star, just waiting to be discovered. An identical if hugely more expensive logic underlies the human-inhabited Nav’i of Avatar: if Jake Sully’s alien body doesn’t register as absolutely realistic and plausible, it’s OK — for as the editing constantly reminds us, we are watching a performance within a performance, Sully playing his avatar as Worthington plays Sully, Cameron and his cronies at WETA and ILM playing us in a game of high-tech Russian nesting dolls. The biggest “special effect” in Cameron’s films is the way in which diegesis and production reality collapse into each other.

I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t revolutionary, just that amid the more colorful flora and fauna of its technological garden we should be careful to note that other layer of “movie magic,” the impression of reality that is as much a discursive and ideological production as any clump of pixels pushed through a pipeline. We submit, in other words, to Avatar‘s description of itself as a step forward, an excursion into a future cinema as alien and exhilarating as anything to be found on Pandora, and that too is part of the spell the movie casts. Yet the animating spirit behind that future cinema — the ghost in the machine — remains the familiar package of hopes and beliefs we always bring to the darkened theater: the desire to escape into another body, and when the adventure is over, to wake up and go home.

Harry Potter 3D

I very much planned today’s expedition to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix as an experiential field trip. I’m a fan of the books, have been speeding my way through #7 (Deathly Hallows), and would have seen the film of #5 in any case. But it happened to be playing near me on an Imax screen in 3D. The last movie I saw at an Imax theater was The Matrix Reloaded (2003), and though I noted last year’s release of Superman Returns in Imax 3D, the general awfulness of the 2D, economy-sized version of Bryan Singer’s weird waxwork tribute was enough to keep me from going. But Order of the Phoenix is getting strong reviews, and I wanted to sample this latest in high-tech visual splendor.

Order of the Phoenix poster

I already knew that, as with Superman Returns, only a portion of Phoenix would be 3D. What surprised me was how explicitly this was made clear to spectators, both as a matter of publicity and in ad-hoc fashion. Warnings were taped on the ticket window: ONLY THE LAST 20 MINUTES OF HARRY POTTER ARE IN 3D. The man who tore my ticket told me the samew thing, in a rote voice, as he handed me the yellow plastic glasses. As the lights went down, a recorded announcement reiterated the point a third time, except in a tone of awe and promise: “When you see the flashing icon at the bottom of the screen, put on your glasses, and prepare to enter the spectacular world of Harry Potter in an amazing action climax” was the gist of it.

All this tutoring, not just in the timing of the glasses, but the proper level of anticipation! Calibrating the audience’s reactions, indeed their perceptions, stoking the excitement while warning us not to get too excited. It went hand-in-hand with the promos for the Imax format itself, playing before the film and describing the awesome fidelity and sensory intensification we were about to experience. It seemed odd that we needed such schooling; aren’t 3D and giant-screen technologies about removing layers of mediation?

But of course that’s naïve; the most basic theory of cinematic spectacle reminds us that special effects (and Imax 3D, like sound, color, widescreen, and other threshold bumps, is a kind of meta-special-effect, an envelope or delivery system for smaller, more textually specific clusters of effects) function both as enhancements of illusion’s power and as a reminder of the technology involved in bringing the illusion to us. At the movies, we’re perfectly capable of believing in what we see while also believing in (and celebrating) its constructed nature; this is as true of special effects as it is of the editing that strings together a story, or our perception of Albus Dumbledore as being simultaneously the headmaster of Hogwarts and a performance (of subtle strength, in this case) by Michael Gambon.

And we do need the calibration of expectation, the technological tutoring, that frames the Imax 3D experience, as demonstrated by the woman buying tickets in front of me who asked, “What’s Knocked Up? Is that 3D? Do you have a list of which movies are 3D and which aren’t?” I’m not mocking her: in our imaginations, all movies are 3D, in the sense of possessing a life beyond the play of light and shadow, in the sense that all media “realities” are to some extent already “virtual.” The interesting thing right now is that the technological assist provided by 3D is so prohibitively expensive and labor-intensive that only short sequences – those corresponding, as in Order of the Phoenix, to climactic stretches of action – enjoy it. For the moment, 3D is a sharply bordered land within the larger imaginary domain of movies. Like any border crossing, there must be signposts to let us know when we are entering and leaving the territory.

What of Phoenix’s 3D itself? I sure got a kick out of it – that final 20 is fantastic in dramatic terms, and as critics have pointed out, it’s designed perfectly for spatial amplification. I had tears in my eyes by the end of it, but partly this was due to the strange nostalgia the 3D experience brought out – nostalgia for all the promises movies make, whether in 2006, 1956, or 1906: each era offering its technological tricks so eagerly, convinced of its charms but taking time to warn us not to get too excited, lest we be disappointed and never return.