Theo Jansen and Advanced “Avatar”

Caleb Crain, we learned yesterday, prefers movies that are true to nature, acoustic. He’s more interested in the Carny than the ride, while David Denby prefers the roller coaster, ignoring the Carny, and if he doesn’t have to leave the theatre for the ride, even better. Johnny Meah’s act wouldn’t make much of a movie for Denby. Yet it may not matter what the professional critics think because as their ranks dwindle thanks to the disappearance of newspapers we may find the neuroscientists filling the gap.

Jonah Lehrer, who writes from a neuroscience perspective and explains things like why we stop at red and go at green and why some of us slam the brakes at yellow while others hit the gas, suggests in his Avatar review that there might be something wrong with the prefrontal cortex that prefers the acoustic; for some reason, the brain responds negatively to the film drug. Not to worry, though, whatever your brain seems to prefer, for Jonah’s commenter number eleven, David Dobbs, also a scientist, rebuts Jonah’s scientific argument and calls Avatar “impoverished.” As it turns out, the neuroscientists, like the critics Crain and Denby, also find different values in the film and the brain.

I remember when the first Star Wars movie was released; I finally saw it a decade later. I’m sure there must be something wrong with my prefrontal cortex, judging from my taste in movies. In Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, television technology has evolved from the little toads sitting front and center of the mid-twentieth century living room to screens that fill entire walls, and the best TV for one’s home fills all four walls, and the viewer literally interacts with the TV characters, becomes part of the show. Avatar encourages viewers to imagine a time when the film technology of Avatar seems as dated as the first Star Wars movie, and to imagine that that time is now – the fix must be for increased immersion, guaranteeing a string of sequels.

In the 1960’s, during the height of the psychedelic craze, someone asked Salvador Dali if he took drugs when he painted. No, he said. Why would I take the drug; I am the drug. And when the scare was that rockers were putting secret messages in their recordings, some of which could be understood by playing the record backwards, someone asked Alice Cooper if he spiked his records with secret messages. No, he said, I don’t know how to do that, but if I did, the message would be to buy more records.

If we are to be controlled by technology, what’s the point? We still have to contend with nature, our nature, the nature of others, and mother nature. Jonah, in his “review,” argues “why the Avatar plot is so effective: it’s really a metaphor for the act of movie-watching.” Exactly, it’s consumerism about consuming, about being eaten alive by technology, and it’s yummy.

And what of acoustic technology? Is there anyone out there creating creatures more fantastic than those virtually real ones we see via 3D in Avatar? There is. Check out this video. It’s Dutch artist Theo Jansen with his creatures, and they are more fascinating than anything you will experience in Avatar because while they are virtually non-tech, they are real; they have become part of nature, and you don’t need special glasses to view them.

Crain, Denby, Dylan and the Avatar of Health Care

“Now there’s nothing wrong with technology per se, and there’s nothing wrong with fantasy, either,” Caleb Crain offers at the end of his Avatar movie review (posted both on his blog and at n+1). And there’s nothing wrong with corporations, per se, either, he might have added, for, in any case, are not many of the “smug anti-corporate” critics, plotted or plotless, plugged in via their 401K’s, or their public employee pension funds? Caleb more than disliked Avatar; it gave him a migraine, attributed to “the movie’s moral corruptness.”

While Caleb was nursing his headache, over at the New Yorker David Denby must have seen a different Avatar. For Denby, “James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.”

It’s a classic case of compare and contrast.

Crain: “The audacity of Cameron’s movie is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned. All you need is a big heart, like Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the movie’s war-veteran hero, and the luck of being given a chance to fall in love.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Denby: “Amid the hoopla over the new power of 3-D as a narrative form, and the excitement about the complicated mix of digital animation and live action that made the movie possible, no one should ignore how lovely ‘Avatar’ looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.”

Sounds like vintage Hollywood.

Avatar cost, according to Denby, “nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce,” but he advises that “there’s not much point in lingering over the irony,” for “the movie is striking enough to make [claims of alternative values] irrelevant.”

Movie making has become like health care: hypercosts, waste, unnecessary tricks, and expensive tickets – but no one’s any healthier, but one’s health is irrelevant; the show must go on.

Crain: “Once you upload yourself, you don’t really have to worry about crashing your hard drive. Your soul is safe in Google Docs. In a climactic scene, rings of natives chant and sway, ecstatically connected, while the protagonists in the center plug into the glowing tree, and I muttered silently to myself, The church of Facebook. You too can be reborn there.”

Last night we were watching “Inglorious Bastards” at home on DVD and there was a brief power outage. A power outage is when the city suffers a stroke. We’ve made doctors and directors our new gods, but like the old gods, they make mistakes. Nothing like a power outage to remind us that, as Bob Dylan said, “You shouldn’t let other people get your kicks for you” (“Like A Rolling Stone,” Highway 61 Revisited, 1965).