Monday, February 28, 2011
GasLand (2010) HBO Documentary Films Low Resolution Fair Use Video
While he was Vice President, Dick Cheney forced a bill through Congress that exempts fracking from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act. The drillers don't have to tell the public what's in the fracking liquid they mix with water and shoot into gas deposits where it can seep into the water supply or return to the surface, either to evaporate or to be carried off and dumped.
Fox makes the case that fracking injects dangerous chemicals deep underground to break up rock and shale, releasing vast quantities of natural gas, while polluting the water supplies of homes and towns near the wells, which, if natural gas drilling proceeds as planned, will be just about every home and town in America. The industry denies the charge that fracking poisons the environment and the people and animals who depend on the environment for clean water.
Formally, GasLand is about as simple as documentary film gets. Maybe a Ken Burns special, cobbled together from old photos, with voice over and dramatic music, requires less of the film maker, but not much less. The subject of GasLand is Fox and his quest for information about what fracking is and what it is doing to people and the environment. We tag along, learning as we go. The form will be familiar to anyone who has seen Supersize Me (2004), Religulous (2008), or any of Michael Moore's films. GasLand adheres closely to the form. We take a road trip, talk to people who have had their water poisoned by the frackers, see some drinking water catching fire right out of the tap, animals losing their fur, sick people describing their symptoms, big names in the oil and gas industry, including Boone Pickens, refusing to be interviewed, politicians ducking and obfuscating.
Fox has a personal stake in the issue. He owns 14 acres of unspoiled land in Pennsylvania -- his boyhood home -- that the gas industry is trying to lease for $100,000. Fox doesn't try to make the industry's offer into a will he lease or won't he lease cliff hanger. We find out he won't early in the film. The element of suspense in GasLand is situational. The issue of fracking is far from settled. Legislation to undo Cheney's exemption of natural gas drilling from the reporting requirements of the Clean Air and Water Act is still working its way through Congress, and Pennsylvania and New York are struggling with the problem of how to protect their water supplies from the frackers. All of that counts in GasLand's favor. Timeliness is a plus for documentaries.
Fox is immensely likable. His rap is pleasant, his voice easy on the ears. Strangely enough -- and maybe it's the landscape he's traveling through -- he reminds me of Don Johnson in A Boy And His Dog (1975). That Fox is able to conjure up an apocalyptic premonition of the future, using video of natural gas drillers at work in people's backyards and tap water catching fire, is a sign of his considerable talent.
Nevertheless, GasLand is a dark horse in the Oscar sweepstakes, because it's ahead of its time. To work as exposé, it has to make fracking relevant and build some outrage against the natural gas industry. Two of its competitors, Inside Job (2010) and Restrepo (2010) just have to tap into the outrage over the global financial meltdown and the war in Afghanistan that already exists.
GasLand is available on YouTube here.
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) Trailer banksyfilms
As the voting draws to a close, Academy members can choose from a list of documentaries that includes exposés of the global financial system and the natural gas industry, a film portrait of a rifle platoon on the ground in Afghanistan, and, remarkably, two documentaries about artists and the impact art has on people's lives. One of them is Waste Land (2010), Lucy Walker's sensitive study of Brazilian-born artist Vik Munoz and the catadores who separate recyclables from garbage at Rio's Jardim Gramacho, the biggest landfill in the world. Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is the other one. It is, at the same time, an entertaining recollection and an "exposé" of the art scene. Lucy Walker had to walk a thin line between portraying her subjects and exploiting them. Banksy never had that problem. He just had to have fun.
Exploitation and expropriation is the main -- if not the only -- point to street art, formerly known as graffiti. The streets are the canvas, and, in Banksyland at night, they belong to art and to artists in search of a perfect wall. Exit Through The Gift Shop puts Banksy's permanent mark on street art and the L.A. art scene. It's a clever expropriation of underground street art and the artists who make it, especially Mr. Brainwash, who set out to document Banksy and got documented himself. The streets and street art belong to whomever can control them, and, in Exit Through the Gift Shop at least, Banksy is in full control.
Artists synthesize experience. The successful ones also manage to create self-sustaining systems in which the sale of their work fuels the creation of more work until the balance tips in their favor and they are making enough money to expand the scope of their work. They become a brand. Banksy, of course, is there. He's able to sustain his own work, run an art factory, finance the work of other artists, and move out into new forms. And, in spite of his protestations to the contrary, Banksy has a flair for film.
Exit Through The Gift Shop is the most personal of the documentaries up for an Academy Award this year. It's cinema verité that is exceptionally well done, and it neatly demonstrates the power of narrative to structure time and to entertain.
Banksy has the conventions of the exposé film down pat: the hooded sweatshirt, the pixilated faces, the voice-over that ties fragments of film together. He understands the use of foreshadowing as well as he understands what Tom Wolfe called "le monde", the insular little world of art makers, art dealers and art collectors. The first time we meet Mr. Brainwash, he's pawning off cheap clothes with unusual stitching as expensive designer clothes. The last time we see him, he's just sold a million bucks worth of art that's as questionable, from Banksy's point of view, as the money Banksy forged -- with Princess Di's face in place of the Queen's -- but was afraid to distribute. There is no law against the sale of bad art. As Wolfe famously noticed, le monde is very small, and collectors have always been driven to get in on the ground floor, running the risk of buying bargain basement clothes at designer prices, or near art -- the equivalent of the peripheral junk you pick up when you exit a museum through the gift shop.
But it is the brilliance of his editing, the way he alters reality by juxtaposing events, sequencing and resequencing time and space to sculpt a reality that never was or could be in the so-called real world, that finally sets Banksy apart. Somehow, from fragments of experience, recorded on hundreds of tapes, Banksy pulls together a complete narrative that, really, could not be any other narrative and still fit together so well. What's real and what isn't? Does it matter? I doubt there are two viewers anywhere who would agree on how much of Banksy's documentary is "made up" to provide continuity and context, or just to make a point. (Personally, I doubt Mr. Brainwash's grilling at the hands of Disneyland security after Banksy -- in one of the film's funniest scenes -- inserts a life-size, blow-up doll, wearing a black hood and orange Gitmo jumpsuit, into the Disney landscape. But I enjoy the Disneyland footage anyway.)
If Exit Through The Gift Shop -- and Banksy's work in general -- has a weakness, it's that his work is political. Banksy has a message. It's a cool message, but a message nevertheless, and Banksy has to lock it down. He can't leave room for the viewer to miss the point. He can't chance the kind of complexity that would make his art polyreferential, the kind of work that points to a multitude of things at once. Maybe that kind of work -- work that empowers the viewer to participate more in making the art -- would require Banksy to give up more control of his turf than he's willing to do right now.
And, finally, there is this. The Life Is Beautiful show's success is all the more remarkable, because it occurs in 2008 when the American economy was already in free fall and the fault line, separating rich America and poor America -- a fissure conservatives had been hammering on since Reagan -- finally split, sending the two Americas drifting apart, though not so far apart that the poor Americans can't still see rich America and the American dream sailing away, forever out of reach. Will the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences be able to ignore that coincidence and judge Banksy's work on its artistic merits alone?
Exit Through The Gift Shop (2010) is available from Netflix and Amazon.
Walker tried, unsuccessfully I think, to contrast the poverty of the catadores with the conspicuous wealth of Rio's south zone. Ironically, in a film that makes a point of the enormous gap, separating rich Brazilians from the poor catadores who dig through their waste for recyclables, the only rich people in the film are the artists and the collectors they serve. Waste Land starts out promisingly enough, with shots of Carnaval and a short montage that follows the custumes and other garbage from Carnaval as it's loaded into garbage trucks and hauled off to the landfill. But after that, to contrast rich and poor, Walker uses the artists, auctioneers and art collectors who move Vik Muniz's images of the catadores through le monde. That narrows the field considerably. (But don't you worry, Reader. Charles Ferguson's Inside Job (2010), another Oscar contender, has enough rich people to go around.)
In a blog she wrote while she was making the film, Walker distances herself from le monde. She says Muniz describes Rio as St. Tropez, surrounded by Mogadishu. The "garbage-clad open sewer" favela her catadores live in is the worst in town. The landfill is the place where "posh rubbish from the south zone mixes with the cheap trash from the favelas."
"Evenings we return to the south zone, she writes. I sulk as I head to a delicious dinner in a bulletproof car, I'd rather be with the catadores than these billionaires moaning about the price of contemporary art. These are the people who are going to buy the art work that Vik is making in the garbage at our charity auction at Phillips. And these are the people whose garbage will be part of the piece. We're going to trace all these comings-and-goings of things."Does she? Well, not quite, but if you've been around le monde a little, you can fill in the blanks. I remember wandering around the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston one afternoon and coming across a cocktail party in the sculpture garden. I asked the guard, a tall woman in a dark, blue suit: "What are they celebrating?" "Being so rich, I guess," she said.
All right. There always has been tension between artists and the patrons they serve. Why go to the dinner parties? Better yet, why not go and take a camera along? Even a little Flip would do. Or, best of all, why not broaden the scope of the film and give us a look at the life-style of the fat cats who live in the south zone? All of them, not just the collectors of art.
Walker does step in a hole now and then.
Nevertheless, when all is said and done, she comes through the Jardim Gramacho landfill and the making of Waste Land with her artistic limbs, her integrity, and her reputation intact. Lucy Walker is an increasingly important talent, and Waste Land is a timely and engrossing film.
Early in Waste Land, while Walker's crew is filming the catadores who separate recyclables from the garbage at Jardim Gramacho, a catador, noticing the cameras, calls out: "They're filming Animal Planet!" Walker includes the remark in the film to confront the issue of exploitation head on, but the catador could not have been more wrong. Nature films are pure direct cinema. Lions maul a baby elephant. The film makers don't interfere. They record the kill and move on. Walker is up to something else.
In a statement about Waste Land, Walker tells us documentary film makers can't help interfering with their subjects. "Your presence is changing everything," she says, "there's no mistaking it. And you have a responsibility." Walker tells us Waste Land, like all of her work, is about getting to know people who you do not normally meet in your life. She aims, she says, to create an opportunity for the audience to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. That's actually a pretty limited goal. In fact, she has done much more.
Walker and her collaborator, photographer Vik Muniz, have made a genuinely anti-Fascist film.
It is the intention of Fascist art, architecture and film to reduce individual human beings to insignificance, to make them feel small. (Visit the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., or watch Leni Riefenstahl's Fascist documentary Triumph Of The Will and you'll see what I mean.) Walker and Muniz have the opposite in mind. The footage of Vik Muniz, flying into Rio to make portraits of the catadores out of the recyclables they collect at Jardim Gramacho, is strikingly similar to Riefenstahl's footage of Adolf Hitler, flying into Nuremberg for the 1934 Nazi Party Congress. (The similarity could be a coincidence, but Walker is a student of film as well as a maker of films, and my guess is that she -- on some level -- made that connection.) The intention of the Riefenstahl film is the glorification of Hitler and the Fascist Third Reich, while the intention of Waste Land is homage to the little "guy," to the working poor. If anything is glorified in Waste Land, it is humanity.
Vik Muniz wanted to find out if he could change the lives of a group of people, using the same materials they dealt with every day. Muniz showed the catadores at Jardim Gramacho how to get big bucks for their recyclables by repackaging them as art. He put together a social experiment, and Waste Land documents that experiment. Unfortunately, the Pictures of Garbage (2008) series doesn't come through in the film. The process Muniz uses to create the work is complex and abstract. He photographs catadores, posing as figures in well-known works of art, La Mort de Marat, for example, then projects a giant image of the photographs on the floor. The catadores use recyclables to realize paintings -- collages really -- from the projected images, and Muniz photographs the catadores' "paintings" to make the final work of art. There are seven of them in the Pictures of Garbage series.
Tiao as Marat Muniz Studios
(Oddly enough, "Pictures of Garbage" -- as a title -- is most interesting in English, where it picks up some real complexity from the play on the word "garbage." The pictures are of people, not garbage. And the materials used to paint them aren't garbage either. They're recyclables. The recyclables are used to outline and shade -- you might say they are where the people are not -- so the people seem to emerge from the materials, from what Muniz calls: the "garbage." All of that nuance appears to be lost in Portugese. I checked around, and I hear Brazilians never use the word lixo to refer to people. Muniz is lucky to be working in the U.S.A., a mean country that has the idioms it needs to adequately express it's meanness.)
It doesn't matter. The Pictures of Garbage series isn't about art anyway. It's about action.
And, if Muniz's images don't come through, Walker's do. And, for me, they deliver what Walker promised, an opportunity to emotionally connect with the people on the screen. Walker makes that connection in an exceptionally filmic way. I want to show you a segment of the film. It's a little long, but for anyone who wants to understand what direct cinema can be in the hands of a gifted film maker, it's worth seeing.
The situation is this. When Walker started filming Waste Land, she met a catador, Valter dos Santos, riding his bicycle, and, Walker says, right then she knew she had a film. She describes Valter as the landfill's elder statesman, recycling guru and resident bard. He's been working at Jardim Gramacho for 26 years. "It's not bad to be poor," Valter teaches. "It's bad to be rich at the height of fame with your morals a dirty shame."
Vik Muniz doesn't make a portrait of Valter, and, while Vik and young Tiao dos Santos, the charismatic president of the pickers coop, are out on the art circuit, Valter is back at the landfill. Take a look.
Waste Land by Lucy Walker Almega Projects and O2 Films
That's how documentary film makers synthesize experience and make emotionally moving films. It's how a film maker like Lucy Walker can "just tell it like it is" and still take sides. (Walker dedicated Waste Land to Valter dos Santos.)
Look. We need more artists like Lucy Walker and Vik Muniz, artists who have the power to remind us of who we were, back when we had a sense of community.
And -- at the risk of sounding too nationalistic -- we need American film makers to give us a James Agee, Walker Evans look at America -- and, yes, a Lucy Walker look at America -- and at the sore -- to borrow a phrase from Agee -- the hard, flat, incurable sore of poverty that is spreading across America.
We need American film makers to point the steady, unafraid lenses of their cameras at the real face of America, and we need to have faith that something magnificent can come from the simple act of seeing one another as we really are.
After watching Waste Land, I realize that I have chosen not to see, too often I have chosen not to even look. I have chosen not to look, because, if I looked, I might have seen, and, seeing, I might have had to do something. I have chosen not to look, just as you, Reader, and you, Mr. President, and you Senators and Congressmen and Congresswomen have chosen not to look. But my eyes are wide open now. Are yours? And don't you dare pretend that you're not reading this. -- Flame Off
Next week, Inside Job (2010).
This has been a good year for documentary film. The five documentaries the Academy's mysterious nominating system picked are so good that I honestly can't say which one I'd vote for. Fortunately, I don't have to vote. The Academy, in its infinite wisdom, has not given me a vote, just as the universe has not given the ostrich the power of flight.
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As you zoom in, the arrow points to the opening of Afghanistan's Korengal Valley at the Pech River, northwest of Asadabad, near the Pakistan border. The Korengal valley is the location of what has been, arguably, the most documented engagement between U.S. forces and the local Taliban and their allied foreign fighters in Afghanistan. The fight for control of the Korengal Valley has been recorded in award-winning photographs, a long article in the New York Times Magazine, and, of particular interest, in Restrepo, a direct cinema film by Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger that's available for sale or rental as a DVD and as streaming video from Netflix and Amazon. The film won an award at Sundance last year, and it's been nominated for an Academy Award. There is not a lot of direct cinema around anymore, and this one deals with a serious subject, with life and death decisions. On top of that, it must have been an exceptionally hard film to make.
The Hetherington-Junger documentary illustrates the difference between documentary film on the one hand and photographs and print on the other for practioners of the art and for viewers of documentary films as well. The challenges the film makers face in Restrepo are the same challenges direct cinema and cinéma vérité film makers always face: telling a story without narration, tying episodes together seamlessly, slapping on enough detail to make the film come to life and give viewers a sense of being there. In addition, they had to stay alive.
OP Restrepo as it appears in the film. Whoever shot this scene is outside the outpost, exposed to enemy fire. (Update: Tim Hetherington was killed by mortar fire in Misrata, Libya, 4/20/2011.)
The efforts of the film makers and the film's subjects, the professional soldiers of the Second Platoon of Battle Company, are exceptional, but, as film, Restrepo is not exceptional. As document, it fills some gaps that photography and print can't fill, and, for a few minutes, it achieves brilliance, but it relies too much on photography, print and a viewer's personal memories to fill the gaps in its incarnation as a 90-minute feature film. I suspect there is an exceptional 30-minute film buried in Restrepo, but, if it's there, Junger and Hetherington didn't find it.
The experience of art is a collaboration between the artist and the audience, and fragmented videos like Restrepo require viewers to participate to an unusual extent. The more we know about combat, the more gaps we can fill and the more complete and convincing Restrepo seems, especially as we recall the film a couple of days later, after the images have sunk in.
Restrepo was brought to my attention by a Marine who thought it captured the essence of combat better than any film he'd seen. He and I are both aware of the movie's many shortcomings, its lack of a central theme beyond the notion that war is hell, its episodic and elliptical nature, the absence of a point-of-view that reveals what the GIs are shooting at -- we see bombs, rockets and mortars going off in the valley, but most of the time the soldiers could be firing their own weapons into thin air for all we know -- but, for him, the personalities of the soldiers make the film worthwhile. For me, it's the greasy grill in the snack bar, the cramped bunks, the mysterious spotting device that looks like it was covered up to keep us from seeing what it is. More cerebral than my Marine friend, I admire the idea of OP Restrepo, the gesture, while he admires the spirit of the men who manned the post.
For others, the appeal of Restrepo may lie in the irony of viewing a film about combat in the Korengal Valley, knowing that American troops withdrew from that valley in April of 2010, after entering it 5 years earlier specifically to pick a fight with the Taliban and the foreign fighters there. America did not stay the course in the Korengal Valley. Some might say the soldiers and Marines who died there died in vain. And some might say that the valley is a metaphor for America's war in Afghanistan, a war that is sure to end in some kind of stalemate, with neither the United Nations nor the Taliban winning a clearcut victory.
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley off and on during 2007 and 2008. Other reporters were there at the same time, notably, Elizabeth Rubin. Her story for the New York Times Magazine, Battle Company Is Out There, with photos by Lynsey Addario, fills most of Restrepo's gaps. Indeed, Restrepo works best for me when I think of it as video that illustrates Rubin's article.
Restrepo The Movie, a web site devoted to promoting the film and Junger's book version of the fight for the Korengal Valley, War, has photos of the 2nd Platoon, video interviews, some outcuts from the film and some Hetherington pictures. A little blog at the site has an entry that reminds us that Juan Restrepo was a real person who died in combat and is remembered and mourned by his family.
Reading the Rubin article and spending some time at the Restrepo web site before you watch the film -- or reading Rubin and visiting the film's web site, then viewing the film again if you've already seen it -- may add to the depth of your viewing experience. It's something I'd recommend you do.
The web site tells us that Restrepo is "an entirely experiential film: the cameras never leave the valley; there are no interviews with generals or diplomats. The only goal is to make viewers feel as if they have just been through a 90-minute deployment. This is war, full stop. The conclusions are up to you." And, describing their film -- in all modesty I suppose, --- the directors themselves assure us that: "This is reality."
But the reality is that Junger and Hetherington's cameras do leave the valley. They go to Italy with Battle Company when the company redeploys, and the film makers take the soldiers of Battle Company into a studio and interview them there. Ironically, those interviews, those remembrances of combat, provide the glue that holds the video fragments Junger and Hetherington recorded on the ground in Afghanistan together. And it is the interviews that come just before some fragments of video shot in the middle of operation Rock Avalanche, a six-day fight around the village of Yaka China, that -- for a few minutes -- lift Restrepo to the level of brilliant documentary.
Like Junger's documentary book, A Perfect Storm, Junger and Hetherington's Restrepo is about death, even to the extent that, if nobody had been killed during the year they spent making the film, it's doubtful Restrepo would have been distributed. But American soldiers did die in the Korengal Valley that year, and, as he did in A Perfect Storm, although he does not attend their deaths, Junger recreates their dying. To be sure, Junger does not presume to tell us how it feels to die in combat the way he told us how it feels to drown in A Perfect Storm. We learn from the soldiers that "Doc" Restrepo, the medic for whom outpost Restrepo and the film are named, was wounded soon after he arrived in the valley and bled to death in a medevac helicopter on the way to a field hospital. We're not there when Restrepo dies. But when another soldier, Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle, is killed, we're as close to the action and to the emotions of his comrades as it's possible to get without being there.
There is something uncomfortable -- disrespectful maybe --about deconstructing a film that shows an American soldier dying in a war that is, for some of us, morally, strategically and even tactically ambiguous. After five years of fighting for the valley, the battleground turned out to be of no strategic value. The tactic of seizing the high ground and setting up an outpost -- OP Restrepo -- to draw the enemy in did not work. The attack on the outpost never came, and Battle Company's CO, Dan Kearney, was forced to take his soldiers down the valley to engage the Taliban in Operation Rock Avalanche, a long battle that is the climax of the film and the low point of Battle Company's deployment in the Korangel Valley.
Veteran combat photographers used to advise rookies to use fast film, a fast shutter, stop down, focus at 10 meters and shoot anything that moves. That works to illustrate a story, but to tell a story with pictures, especially one that unfolds over months of fighting, much of it at night, needs a better plan.
Elizabeth Rubin says she went to Afghanistan with a question: Why, with all our technology, were we killing so many civilians in air strikes? After a few days, that question sparked others. Was there a deeper problem in the counterinsurgency campaign? Why were more American troops being killed every year?
Those questions led Rubin to focus her article on the life and death decisions being made every day in the Korengal Valley and on the man making most of them: Dan Kearney, the lord of the Korengal Valley. She follows Kearney through a fire fight that ends with him killing a woman and a child when he destroys a house with armor-piercing missiles, and on into Operation Rock Avalanche, a mission Rubin says many thought insane. It's during Rock Avalanche that Rubin's rendition of the battle for the Korengal Valley syncs up with Junger's and Hetherington's in her account of the action that cost Staff Sergeant Rougle his life.
I followed Piosa through the brush toward the ridge. We came upon Rice and Specialist Carl Vandenberge behind some trees. Vandenberge was drenched in blood. The shot to his arm had hit an artery. Rice was shot in the stomach. A soldier was using the heating chemicals from a Meal Ready to Eat to warm Vandenberge and keep him from going into shock.It may be that some day someone like Sebastian Junger or Elizabeth Rubin will write a book, and the electronic version of that book will include hyperlinks to video clips that illustrate the author's prose. The words and images and sounds will all come together in the same work -- a new kind of art that combines the best of narrative, video, photography and sound.
Piosa moved on to the hill where the men had been overrun. I saw big blue-eyed John Clinard, a sergeant from North Carolina, falling to pieces. He worshiped Rougle. “Sergeant Rougle is dying. It’s my fault. . . . I’m sorry. . . . I tried to get up the hill. . . .” Sergeant Rougle was lying behind him. Someone had already covered him with a blanket. Only the soles of his boots were visible.
“There’s nothing you could do,” Piosa said, grabbing Clinard’s shoulder. “You got to be the man now. You can do it. I need you to get down to Rice and Vandenberge and get them to the medevac.” Clinard wiped his face, seemed to snap to and headed off through the trees.
Or maybe we'll have to keep pulling that kind of work together ourselves, creating cathedrals of our own imagining like my recollection of Restrepo, with chapels by Rubin and Junger, stained glass windows by Hetherington and Addario, statues of Restrepo, Rougle, Kearney and Sal Giunta, the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War, clips from YouTube put up there by GIs -- and, high up on a back roof, a little gargoyle fashioned from these thoughts.
Restrepo is available from Netflix and Amazon.
The people producing ads these days don't have the art historical references to understand the work they're ripping off. Their knock offs aren't just unoriginal. They're bad.
The latest example is an AT&T rip off of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The producer probably saw an article about Christo and Jeanne-Claude somewhere -- though I doubt he or she ever actually saw a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project -- and figured it would be a good idea to make a visual pun on the word "cover" by showing buildings and other landmarks being draped in colored cloth.
This pretentious commercial, the latest in AT&T's ongoing "coverage" war with Verizon, is a good example of how mangled art turns up in advertising, and it could have some unintended consequences for AT&T. That's what they get. As every school child knows, you're not supposed to "touch the art." If AT&T rethinks anything, they should rethink this ad, before Verizon jumps on it with an ad that takes the wraps off.
I see people working in an office with big windows and a fantastic view. Some of them are talking on their cell phones. Suddenly, their windows are covered by falling drapes, the room gets dark and the cell phones stop working. We see AT&T covering buildings, cities, a beach. Everything stops until Verizon starts tearing down the drapes, uncovering buildings, rolling up the fabric covering the beach. The cell phones start working again.
Here's a real Christo and Jeanne-Claude project from the Sixties. A study for a wrapped beach in Australia.
If the ad person who produced the AT&T ad had actually experienced a Christo/Jeanne-Claude project, he or she might have realized that wrapping an object confines it, hides it, interferes with it, shuts it up and closes it in. Something wrapped is limited by the wrapping. It's the unwrapping that's the significant event.
Christo's Valley Curtain at Rifle Gap, Colorado. The size and shape of the "waves" are based on Coast Guard research and designed to evoke feelings of dread.
AT&T has had to remake their commercial and add a disclaimer, saying that Christo and Jeanne-Claude have nothing to do with AT&T. One more obnoxious commercial like this one and I'll join them.
Whether she deserves the Best Director prize -- and I happen to think she does -- is beside the point. Ms. Bigelow will come away with the Oscar for Best Director as a consolation prize, because the Academy can't afford to admit that The Hurt Locker was the best picture of the year.
The Hurt Locker is up against Hollywood's real glass ceiling: the industry's profit margin.
Can Hollywood acknowledge that a low-budget movie that has grossed less than $20 million is a better film than the box office event Avatar that has grossed over $1 billion and is on its way to becoming one of the most profitable films of all time? Can the industry tell moviegoers: Thanks for the bucks, but the 3D spectacle you blew your money on last Christmas wasn't a great movie after all?
The face-off between The Hurt Locker and Avatar has been billed as woman against man, ex-wife against ex-husband, blockbuster against art house breakout. But, in the most basic sense, the confrontation looming at the Academy Awards is about whether movies can come to grips with the human condition instead of trying to escape from it.
Can we afford to make movies that synthesize real experience, to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists, or can we only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world?
Rejecting The Hurt Locker will be a clear statement that Hollywood doesn't have the heart to take on the real world. In the head-to-head match-up between The Hurt Locker and Avatar, there is no question that The Hurt Locker is the better film.
Avatar is a significant motion picture event, designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release has been accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. It’s probably the first of many 3D blockbusters Hollywood will crank out over the next couple of years, and, in that sense at least, it represents the future of the industry.
Unfortunately, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills. Worst of all, the film consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves. Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.
There is more real meaning in any single scene of The Hurt Locker than there is in all of Avatar.
Ms. Bigelow's film conveys both the incredible pressure American troops in Iraq have been under to make instant life-and-death decisions and the limits of high-tech to take the pressure off of them. As she develops the film's premise that war is addictive, it doesn't take us long to discover it's not just Sgt. James who's addicted to war, it's America itself that's addicted as well. In James' case, it's an addiction that craves the unmediated experience of danger. He disarms bombs with his own hands. But it's an addiction that's tempered by James' and his team's regard for human life.
Ms. Bigelow's GIs are reluctant killers who risk their own lives to save the lives of others. Somehow, as we watch James' teammate, Specialist Eldridge, struggle to engage the enemy, Ms. Bigelow leads us to the realization that we are all Specialists now.
Critics of the Iraq occupation will find no cheap shots at America or the American military in The Hurt Locker. Ms. Bigelow invites us to see the war from the point of view of our best kind of soldier -- one whose job is to save lives, not take them.
That one of them is unable to find his way home, that by the end of the film all he wants is another moonwalk down a deserted Baghdad street in search of another bomb, says something important, though disturbing, about what it means to be a human being -- or a nation -- at war.
Nevertheless, Hollywood will split the Oscars between Ms. Bigelow and Mr. Cameron. Ms. Bigelow will win the Best Director Oscar, but the Best Picture award will go to Avatar. That's the bottom line.
(AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)
Just when I thought Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker didn't have a chance to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, the AP reports that some pesky Palestinians have decided to get into the act. Palestinian protesters at Bilin have painted themselves blue and posed as characters from Avatar. Apparently, the demonstrators equate their fight at Bilin to the Na'vi's fight against intergalactic corporatism in Cameron's film.
With the Best Director Oscar already in the bag for Bigelow, Cameron now finds his Best Picture Oscar in jeopardy. Hollywood needs 3D, but do they need it enough to associate themselves with a film that's been picked up on by those controversial Palestinians?
Could be a sweep for Bigelow.
Sunday, February 13, 2011
After single-handedly creating a 3D bubble with Avatar, James Cameron is trying to fill it. Since Avatar was released last year, the universe of available 3D screens has doubled internationally. That's a lot of seats to fill.
So Cameron's Avatar, already the highest grossing movie of all time, is being re-released today.
The marketing angle for the re-release, aimed at filling some of those seats in the over-built world of 3D theaters, is nine -- yes, nine -- previously unseen minutes of film, picked up from the cutting room floor.
Avatar fans will see their beloved Na'vis mourn the death of a fallen warrior in a "big, emotional scene" that Cameron claims is the best CG he's done. (Like Jesus, Cameron has saved his best wine for last.)
We're also promised a "rousing action-adventure, pulse-pounding" hunting sequence.
Following the re-release today, an extended Avatar DVD will be released in November that includes the new footage, plus an "alternate reality version" of the film that is 16 minutes longer than the original.
Cameron says it will be a long time before there is an Avatar sequel -- if we're lucky, it will be a very long time -- but, apparently, Cameron will be able to find plenty of scraps to keep Avatar fans on the hook during the long wait.
The success of Avatar is a sign of the times. It tells us more about ourselves and the world we live in now than about whether Avatar is a particularly good film, or even a particularly entertaining one.
Escapist movies do well in hard times. And the times these days are hard enough to require exceptionally escapist movies. Avatar fills the bill. More than anything else, it's a movie about escaping from the reality of the human condition.
Sadly, it's not a good movie to boot. In fact, Avatar is a very bad film. The story, dialogue, art, characters, sound and music are all trite. It’s even weak in the one area you’d expect a 3D film to deliver: retinal pressure and the sensation of movement. There’s not enough subjective viewpoint to suck the viewer into the action and provide real thrills.
Worst of all, Avatar consciously tries to rise to the level of myth, but can’t quite make it. That’s what happens when a film maker succumbs to the idea he can create myths rather than channel them. In a medium that lends itself to metaphor, Avatar is remarkably without characters, scenes or images that point to anything beyond themselves. Cameron's images, like his film, are, essentially, meaningless.
Maybe the times are too hard for films that synthesize real experience. Maybe Hollywood can't afford to support producers and directors who engage the world as artists. Maybe the market will only support escapist spectaculars that distract us from the real world.
Avatar is a significant motion picture event. It was designed to revive a floundering industry by providing a 3D experience that can’t be matched by television or DVDs. Its release was accompanied by the kind of marketing campaign you’d expect for a film that took over 10 years and a few hundred million dollars to produce. The industry is betting it will be the first of many 3D blockbusters that will be cranked out over the next couple of years. The theaters and seats are waiting. And Cameron has set the bar low enough that Avatar might represent the future of the industry.
That's a pity, because Cameron has done much better in the past. In Avatar, the 3D technology Cameron pursued so faithfully and so completely was just frittered away.
In his best film, T2, Cameron resolved the age-old conflict between human beings and machines by uniting the best of humans and the best of machines in Schwarzenegger's cyborg.
In T2's Wagnerian finale, the cyborg sacrifices himself to save the human race by following his evil counterpart into the caldron to make sure that the last remnant of the mad scientist's work, the computer chip inside the cyborg's own head, is destroyed. As the cyborg prepares to enter the flames, Cameron uses a series of close-ups to create a beautiful and unforgettable portrait of the cyborg. Half of the face is human, the other half, where the skin has been torn away to reveal the gleaming metal armor underneath, is machine.
But, in Avatar, Cameron rejects humanity to pursue a comic book vision of nature in revolt against man and his efforts to subdue it.
To his credit, Cameron has always sided with men and women who oppose the cynical exploitation of people and nature by corporations. But that's a theme he developed far more successfully years ago in Aliens (1986) and in The Abyss (1989), although Cameron's efforts along those lines never approached the movie Avatar rips off most blatantly, Roland Joffe's moving and historically accurate film, The Mission (1986).
Cameron's reprise of The Mission is pure escapism that offers his audience the temporary and vicarious thrill of watching alien natives defeat well-armed corporate mercenaries.
Ultimately, films exist as memories. I saw Avatar twice when it was first released, once in digital 3D and once in IMAX 3D. I don't vividly remember a single image from the film.
Maybe that's the key to a successful re-release. If you don't remember a film at all, it makes sense to see it again. In the inside out, upside down world of pop culture, the most forgettable films will have the longest lives. Viewers will watch them again and again, as though they're seeing them for the very first time.
The plot is trite and hard to follow, the acting average, and most of the time Hayward's visualization of the comic book material is boring. Ironically, Hayward got his start in the Toy Story franchise. He was an animator on Toy Story and Toy Story 2. But, watching Hayward's Hex, I was reminded of an old friend's put down of Midland, Texas. I spent a week there one night, he told me.
Josh Brolin, a talented and intelligent actor who has been on a roll lately, plods along in the title role. John Malkovitch seems to have dropped in for a couple of disconnected scenes. Malkovich can play villains like Quentin Humbolt, Hex's arch enemy, in his sleep, but there is so little connection between him and Brolin that you have to wonder if they were ever on the same set at the same time.
Megan Fox is billed as a star, but comes across as a bit player, making a cameo appearance. Fox badly needs to make the transition from teenager to woman to put the Transformer franchise behind her, but in Hex she comes across as a kid, dressing up in her grandma's clothes. There is something about her voice that works against Fox. She hasn't learned to make the slight disconnect between her body and her voice work for her the way Monroe did.
Hex won't appeal to fans of the Jonah Hex comic books, either. The writers left too much good stuff out. Fox's Tallulah Black is a far cry from the disfigured female bounty hunter of the Hex books, and El Diablo and Lazarus Lane, two -- or one, depending on how you look at it -- of the books' most imaginative creations, are missing completely.
Unlike Watchmen, the seminal graphic novel that established the form, the Hex books spanned so many years and versions that the writers had to boil the comics down in an attempt to distill the essential Jonah Hex from the books. In deciding what to leave in and what to leave out, they invariably chose to use the most hackneyed elements of the comics.
The next blockbuster franchise and comic book superhero turned movie icon won't be Jonah Hex. And yet, for anyone who is interested in pop culture and genre films, Jonah Hex is an important movie. Jimmy Hayward has made a very bad film. But, in making it, he has -- inadvertently, perhaps -- tested the limits of turning graphic novels into films.
Hex looks exactly like what it is, a first film by a director who knows absolutely nothing about the way real people move through real space. It ends up being a jumble of disconnected portraits, shots -- panels, if you will -- and, in memory, exists as an exact replica of a comic book. Watching Jonah Hex is like spending 90 minutes reading a graphic novel. No one will come closer to literally translating a graphic novel into film than Jimmy Hayward has.
But will anyone want to? Is thumbing through a graphic novel what most of us go to the movies to do?
Genre films, especially action-adventure films, require a compelling narrative and fast action. Action that is suggested by the static panels of a comic book must be realized in film. If you want to see what happens when a director ignores that basic truth, go see Jonah Hex. If not, save your money and catch Watchmen on cable TV.