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3D in the 21st Century. Come Into My World: The Dimensions of "Avatar"

Cinema's boundless ground for producing a world through artifice and animation.
One way of telling the history of photographic arts is to describe a linear progression of more and more realistic picture-making, as if painter's brushes and pencils aimed mainly to approximate the human eye until, finally, photography emerged. (This is the premise André Bazin famously explored in “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.”) Given photography's automatic reproduction, painting could move on to express more boldly, more experimentally, more abstractly. Realism was no longer necessary. Incidentally, a lot of the most visible and most discussed uses of CGI and SFX in contemporary cinema have embodied images, actions, and temporalities that are far from realistic. These digital platforms enable visions of worlds that alter our own sufficiently so as to provide something—escape? Improvement? Color? It doesn't ultimately matter. The point is that the pixel has often been directed towards ends that seem to go against photography (and cinematography's) automatic capture of the world.
Similarly, 3D feature films have tended toward artifice and hyperrealism. It is a system hosting a grab bag of tricks. A sense of gimmickry has often accompanied this spectacle. Since the paddleball in House of Wax (André De Toth, 1953), the sheer spectacle of implied depth has allowed filmmakers to make their tentative steps into a slightly different kind of moving image. It would be easier to imagine the movie industry to retrofit fast, bold, plastic extravaganzas like Moulin Rouge (Baz Luhrmann, 2001) or Domino (Tony Scott, 2005) for 3D versions than most “realistic” films, such as the latest Dardenne brothers effort or a microbudget American indie. Outside of boldly experimental work (e.g., recent Godard or Ken Jacobs) three-dimensionality has acquired connotations of the most commercial and the most disposable multiplex fare.
Still, 3D at least attempts to mobilize more information and perception than 2D images do. Sometimes the mise en scène remains crude. (Where is contemporary commercial cinema's version of Ophüls or Sirk for 3D?) Building volumetric space rather than a finite number of flat planes is still something the technologists have not perfected and tentpoles have not offered, either. Even so, there are usually fascinating dynamics even in the worst assembly line 3D blockbuster because of the particular conjuncture of problems that these movies have at this moment: the intention to be more real, or more intensely perceived, on one hand, and the tendency to project a world of something fantastic, something ideal and unreal, something … painterly in the image.
The automatic feature of world-projection poses a complex question for a film like Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), which is all-digital, somewhat indexical, but also animated. The lines between what is real and what is fabricated blur. An image like this one …
… may be entirely “digital,” but motion capture ensures that a trace even remains of that automatic reproduction of our world. There is still something of the reality principle in Avatar. And this is how the image can compel us. In a manner reminiscent of the grand tradition of exploitation hucksterism, news stories circulated upon Avatar's release that some audience members reported emotional withdrawal upon exiting theaters after finding that the real world does not live up to the planet of Pandora. In other words, people claimed to want to inhabit this other world. The scenario was real enough to be imagined, but different enough to be preferable to reality.
And in Avatar, Pandora is the star of the show. This agglomeration of neons, flora, fauna, fog, lights, and rock, is a remarkable visual fantasia. If Cameron had dropped the Dances with Wolves/FernGully narrative, and pushed the project in the direction of a Planet Earth-style documentary, only digitally animated, it could have been some bizarre masterpiece. The three-dimensional imagery speaks to a deeper and more abstract desire for a depth of world. “We,” the audience, ride dragons down steep cliff faces and stroll nocturnally in forest floors brightened by bioluminescence. Crossing space is easy, fun. One doesn't have a sense of real interactivity with the film (as opposed to a video game), but that is where the characters operate as surrogates—avatars for us, perhaps. Avatar projects relatively blank characters into a thick pictorial space. “Pandora” names not simply the iconography but the sense of spatial freedom Cameron and his collaborators have aimed to impart.
Iconographic originality itself is somewhat beside the point. Roger Dean, the artist behind the covers of several prog rock albums, unsuccessfully sued Cameron, et al., for copying his concepts. Even if the legal case proved too weak, it's difficult to deny the visual overlap. Avatar's resemblances to the Warcraft games make for another chin-stroking comparison. Science fiction and fantasy works have been especially fruitful realizations of otherworldly artistic visions—H.R. Giger's fingerprints on Alien (Ridly Scott, 1979) come to mind, as does the example of Frank Frazetta in the animated Fire and Ice (Ralph Bakshi, 1983). The visualization of Pandora taps into a contemporary bank of visual patterns, colors, gestures, postures, etc., and arranges them in such a way that the image isn't simply deep, its world also is too. Pandora can substitute for our own world, but it isn't meant to substitute too much. Instead it invites some kind of imagination. Its gaze obeys laws of gravity and physics and biology even while stretching and idealizing them. Cinema has the capacity to render a world through its automatic reproduction of the profilmic. Every shot, even when altered, might still retain something of the world before. It can extend our imaginative capacities toward life and death.
Cinema can also produce a world through artifice and animation. It is a boundless ground for fantasy. Avatar exploits or explores this potential without abandoning some basic commitments to the profilmic or the indexical. It's not even a good film. Its narrative and thematic content borrow even more than its imagery. Yet there is something there, some faint promise of a better world remains. It may have everything to do with the sensations of depth, line, and color. “I see you,” say the Na'vi, a greeting that can be given to all the living things that make up Pandora. Avatar's wealth of appearances, something new to see behind every facade, embodies this sentiment.

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Part of the Notebook's critical supplement to BAMcinématek's "3D in the 21st Century" series, running May 1 - 17, 2015. Avatar will play on May 2.

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