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Twilights

Warner Bros. head Alan Horn has announced that he plans to follow the Harry Potter movies with more comic book movies. “As we ease out of Harry Potter,” he said, “we hope to bring you the excitement of the DC [comics] Library!” He also announced these pictures will be released in 3D. All of them.

It’s only a matter of time before the other studios follow, and the already widened gap between tentpole films and whatever they call the dying breed – let’s say, sideshow films – is widened even further. In time, expensive technologies like 3D, no matter how beautifully employed, will invariably draw asunder the once-valued populist precepts of glamour, wit, and personality. The reason why is simple: 3D is as fit to convey these invisible qualities as 2D is to contain those of Avatar. To those of us who still had a dream of Hollywood quality, this is indeed unfortunate.

Of course many will be unfazed, or at least claim to be, but how will the creative people of vision and virtue justify their endeavors now? Last night, at Genghis Cohen, my favorite Chinese restaurant, friends of mine, quoting a friend of theirs, said, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusionally optimistic.” But that was last night. After this news, I would revise that statement to read, “To have hope for integrity in show business, one must become delusional.”

Soon studio pictures will be separated into two genres: boy and girl. Fires & Farts and Clothes & Crushes.

How will grown-up people spend their evenings? You would think Hollywood would be eager to answer that question, for as my field research has proven, there seem to be many older individuals out there wandering around in suede jackets. In fact, just yesterday I saw at least seven balding men at Genghis Cohen alone. Seven! Multiply that by the number of Chinese restaurants in town, or the country, then double it (for wives and girlfriends), and there you have just a sliver of the new paying audience. It may not account for the number of older people who stay home, or those at other restaurants unfriendly to shrimp in lobster sauce, but that’s no excuse. I saw them. They’re out there. I promise millions to the executive who thinks on their entertainment needs.

Unfortunately, as the recent Oscar ceremony confirmed, Hollywood’s interests are as far from producing grown-up product as they’ve ever been. Even Nancy Meyers, who has an ostensible claim to restoring adulthood to the screen, fails, time and again, when it comes to treating her characters as actual people in midlife. Her women cry and pout and moan and take baths; they are, in short, a longer-in-tooth product of genre two, Clothes & Crushes. So you see, even when Hollywood tries to “grow up,” it still must have two feet firmly planted in Dean & Deluca.

Let’s stay with Meryl for a moment. Consider Julie & Julia. Grown up fare? Well, yes and no. Yes: to see Meryl and Tucci, as Mrs. & Mr. Child, so completely revel in each other’s pleasure, culinary and otherwise, was absolutely a moment of hope for the Chinese restaurateurians among us. There we saw a relationship. It was stunning. No: Amy Adams.

We can read Meryl’s recent run of fluffier films since The Devil Wears Prada as sign of a major actress growing her palette, or, in light of the state of Hollywood film, as an if-you-can’t-beat-em-join-em play for the audience that really matters the most – the kids.

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How to Enjoy Your Sadomasochistic Oscar Romance

Quibbling over Oscar nominations is as futile as quibbling over who left the cap off the toothpaste. No matter what you say or how emphatically you protest, you know it’s going to happen again, so either give it up, or pack your things and get out. Fighting the tide isn’t just mundane, it’s exhausting.

And now that we have ten Best Picture nominations instead of five, there are more uncapped toothpastes (and a few raised toilet seats) than ever before. An EducationDistrict 9? What is this, The People’s Choice Awards?

Perhaps. We all know the Academy Awards have ceased to be about The Academy or the Awards, let alone the movies themselves. Now, like everything else, like The Biggest Loser and Fear Factor, they’re about the numbers. Thus the ten: with more movies in the running, you have – or so the logic goes – more viewers. But there I go again with the toothpaste.

And yet, like a spineless cuckold, I keep coming back. Call it ritual or call it cockeyed hope; call it an anthropological inquest or call it masochism, but there it is. I keep coming back.

I’ve tried/am trying to make peace with the nauseating glory of it all. This morning, for instance, I hurried through the top portion of the nominees and scanned down to the bottom of the list. I saw there certain names that made my heart flutter. There was Inglourious Basterd‘s cinematographer, Robert Richardson; Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, directors of the Oscar nominated documentary, Burma VJ; and miracle-workers Stephen Rivkin and John Refoua (and James Cameron), editors of Avatar. Seeing in print these formidable figures of the movies, whose TV presence has no bearing on ratings, and whose work should win them the boost of Oscar recognition, I felt again that feeling of wholesome movie-love only the Academy Awards could ignite.

It was swell to see deserving people like Bigelow and Bridges on the list, but they were locks, and as widely recognized above-the-liners, they’ve already received their chunk of national attention. But it’s an entirely different opportunity for Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, and Tony Roche, who have been nominated for their In the Loop screenplay. Moment to moment, and line to line, here was a script that never quit, a script so ornately verbal, and so in love with language, that watching the movie, it was difficult not to imagine its writers hunched over a dozen volumes of the OED, debating every word down to its every syllable. And I do mean syllable: rhythmically, In the Loop is an astounding, almost musical feat of film comedy – one of the best in quite a while – and to see the picture gain Oscar visibility, even if it doesn’t go on to win, felt like some kind of personal vindication.

In the midst of an undertaking that invites so much cynicism, these names (and many others) are a reminder of why we care so much in the first place. So hold your heads high, Oscar lovers, because where careers are made, lives can change. And that has nothing to do with toothpaste.

$1.84 billion

It happened! James Cameron’s Avatar has defeated James Cameron’s Titanic in the battle to be the Highest Grossing Film of All Time.

Consult The New York Times for details. But here are the numbers you need to know: Titanic stopped at $1.84 billion, and on Monday, Avatar hit $1.86 billion – and it will keep going.

Naturally, the news of Cameron beating his own record is bound to draw a little dissent. Cynics – or to use the technical term, “screenwriters” – will invariably complain that these pictures amount to little more than a string of exploding set pieces, that Cameron’s people ring hollow, and that the lines they grunt sound as if they were coming from sixteen year old boys in states of shocked-out, pre-orgasmic, video-game ecstasy. “Awesome!”

Of course, they’re right. But they’re missing the bigger picture.

For every one of Titanic’s embarrassingly false moments (i.e. “king of the world,” “I want to draw you, Rose,” “You jump, I jump, right?” and that suggestive hand throbbing against the fogged up carriage window etc.), there is an equally impressive cinematic decision, and one that had to be made in the middle of an absolute meltdown.

Think about it: you are James Cameron. You have an enormous ocean liner going down, thousands of passengers aboard, several narratives to maintain, two major studios already way over budget, special effects not yet completed, dozens of dangerous stunts happening all around you, journalists already calling the film a flop and personally insulting you, stars growing tired, Kathy Bates – and where do you put the camera?

Where do you put the camera? With the clock ticking, you only get one, or maybe two takes. Three at the absolute outside. Where do you put the camera? Too many wide shots and you’ll lose your intimacy; too many close-ups and you’ll lose the sense of annihilating disaster. So you’ll do both. But how will you intercut them? Decide now.

And be warned: After a while, those regular old wide-shots will lose their impact. How many times can we be startled by the same shot of The Titanic going down? How many people can we see flip over the port bow before we lose interest and start to think about how we’re going to try to hold the hand of Sarah Goldberg, the girl whose mom dropped us off and paid for our tickets? You’re going to have to mix it up, Mr. Cameron, and you’re going to have to do it for hours and hours of screen time, because Sarah is really cute and I heard she gave Alex Horwitz a handjob.

We know the boat is going to tank (we knew that before we got the ticket), so how are you going to surprise us? You’ll have to visualize something more frightening, and more grandly ruinous than we could have imagined. So as you’re setting up that shot, make sure that what you’re shooting is as impressive as how you shoot it. And don’t be merely descriptive. Don’t give us what we’ve read about in history books. Imagine something bigger. Imagine dozens of somethings. And then be prepared – if your crew is sick, the set is falling apart, or if the suits get words that you’re not shooting what you said – to throw that away and imagine something else. And imagine it now.

Mr. Cameron, if you did all that, I’d pay $10 to see what you came up with. Or at least Sarah’s mom would.

The Avatardation of Hollywood

First, the good news.

A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.

At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.

I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.

Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.

Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”

However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.

You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.

To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.

I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.

These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.

Avatar (2009)

Wait, let’s go back.

Way back.

People don’t yet go to movie theaters, they go to Nickelodeons, chamber-sized screening rooms, where, for the price of a nickel, they can watch a variety of short subject films, ranging from vaudeville-inspired comedy sketches to documentary scenes of real-life (or “actualities” as they’re called). The shorts are shot simply, with as few takes as possible, from as few angles as possible, and the camera doesn’t move – it’s too heavy.

Then, in 1903, comes The Great Train Robbery. With this film, predating The Birth of a Nation by twelve years, director Edwin S. Porter introduces the world to the concept of film editing. Now, thanks to the advent of the cut, Porter can enhance both the narrative complexity of his movies (cross-cutting, for instance, allowed for temporal continuity between multiple storylines), as well as deepen the audience’s emotional response (through, say, a reaction shot). Suddenly, audiences aren’t merely outside of the action, they seem to be in the very midst of it.

One shot in particular, in which one of the bad guys fires his gun directly into the camera, caused a stir unprecedented in the history of motion pictures. Legend has it that audiences were so terrified by what they were seeing, that they shot up from their folding chairs and fled screaming from the theaters.

Of course, they weren’t in any kind of danger. They were in a small, boxy theater, surrounded by about a hundred other people. But somehow they believed it. Somehow, these presumably rational citizens forgot their rationality, and responded to what was happening on screen as if it were happening in reality.

Flash forward sixty years. During an early showing of Psycho in 1961, a healthy, middle-aged man, is so frightened by what he sees, he actually manages to upstage the shower scene by keeling over into the aisle, and going into cardiac arrest.

A year later, theater managers are getting complaints from ticket buyers that their cinemas are too hot. Will someone please open a window? How could they be expected to sit so uncomfortably through three and half hours of Peter O’Toole?

In 1997, like every other person, I went to see the Star Warsrerelease. In the middle of some sky battle, with spaceships zooming around overhead, the very attractive girl I took as my date, ducked. (We spoke once or twice on the phone after that.)

Well, now there’s Avatar, it’s 2009, and I’m certain we’ve been initiated into the next phase of believing the unbelievable. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, it will be the closest we’ve ever come to visiting another world. In the future, virtual reality technology will certainly outclass the technology at hand, but until then, James Cameron’s latest super-movie, will be the last word in illusion immersion.

Just take a look around you. Cameron’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear at any moment to explain to us, the believing audience, about the blooming patterns of this or that flora or fauna. (If the Avatar Encyclopedia hasn’t already been written, surely someone is hard at work, writing it right now.)

That said, when you see the picture, do yourself the favor of trying not to think too hard about it. In story, Cameron has situated us somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Blue Man Group, and if you’ve seen over six films in your life, chances are you’ll see the turns, as I did, coming miles away. It’s videogame logic; the characters are not individuals so much as targets, and the scenes aren’t so much dramatic as they are levels 1 though 10, and finally, the boss. But try not to think about it.

Try not to think about, as I did, the sad, almost poignant irony that, for all of the hundreds of millions of dollars Cameron spent on technology, trying to make Avatar the most dazzling cinematic experience possible, not three dollars of it was spent on the latte that might have helped him stay up just a little bit later to work on the rewrite.