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Posts from the ‘Film’ Category

Water, Southern Skies and Electronica

I’m in the throes of finally finishing my edits (more on that soon), but in the meantime, here are two amazing pieces of time lapse photography. The first comes via NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, and is by amateur astronomer and photographer Alex Cherney, who compiled twelve months of footage of the movement of stars and clouds across the southern coast of Australia into one very beautiful, and very haunting video. I have a personal affection for this video because I’ve actually been using one of Cherney’s images as the background on my computer for the last six months, but in a way what’s most striking is the way the video serves as a reminder of how different southern skies and landscapes are to those in the Northern Hemisphere. Be sure to embiggen for the full effect.

The second comes via io9, and features images of water in slow motion (set to music by electronica act, Team Ghost). It’s a thing of strange, almost alien beauty.

I’ll be back online properly next week. Catch you all then.


Manhattan in motion

Because I’m deep in the land of edits it’s likely to be another slow week around here, but in the meantime you might want to take a minute or two to watch this amazing time-lapse video created by New York photographer Josh Owens: it really is a thing of beauty.

If you like what you see you can check out more of Josh’s videos on Vimeo, follow him on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to The New Yorker for the original link. You might also want to take a moment to watch Tor Even Mathisen’s similarly breathtaking timelapse video of the Aurora Borealis.


When Genres Attack

Just a reminder that if you’re in Sydney over the weekend you might want to head over to Shearer’s Bookshop in Leichhardt for When Genres Attack, a pre-Sydney Writers’ Festival event exploring a series of hot-button issues to do with genre, literary status, women’s writing and the state of literary culture generally. It’s an event I’m really excited to be part of, not just because they’re a series of questions dear to my heart, but because I’ll be sharing the stage with the irrepressible Sophie Hamley and two of the smartest writers I know,  P.M. Newton (author of one of my favourite books of last year, The Old School) and Kirsten Tranter (whose debut novel, The Legacy, I’m in the middle of as we speak and am enjoying very much). If you’d like a taster of the evening Kirsten’s written a fascinating piece about the way setting up oppositions between genre fiction and “literature” impoverishes our understanding of both for the Shearer’s Bookshop Blog.

The event kicks off at 7:30 tomorrow night. Tickets are $7.00 and are available from Shearer’s Bookshop on (02) 9572 7766. It’d be great to see you there.

A couple of reviews and some links worth a few minutes of your valuable time

Apologies again for my somewhat sporadic posting: I’ve been in a bit of a work-hole for the last little bit. I think – I hope – I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but in the meantime I thought I’d link to a couple of reviews I’ve had in the papers recently (there have actually been a number more but exactly what gets posted online seems to be a bit arbitrary these days).

The first is my review of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, which was published in The Australian a few weeks back. I may have some more things to say about Rachman’s book in the not-too-distant future, but for now the review will have to do.

The second is also from The Australian, and is of John Ajvide Lindqvist’s follow-up to the truly unsettling Let The Right One In, Handling the Undead, a book which despite its subject matter (zombies in Sweden) and Lindqvist’s bizarrely unmodulated prose, is both oddly beautiful and more than a little upsetting.

(If you feel like hunting out the print versions I’ve also had pieces on Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow, Richard Powers’ entirely wonderful “enhancement” Generosity (one of the most exciting books I’ve read in ages), and Jim Crace’s All That Follows).

I’d also like to suggest three (or four, to be precise) things from elsewhere which are very definitely worth reading (assuming you haven’t already). The first is Anthony Lane’s breezy and entirely entertaining tour of the history of 3D (in the context of which I’d refer you to my post on Avatar a few weeks back). If you’re not completely over Avatar by now Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece on the film is also worth a look (though I have to confess I think anything by Mendelsohn is worth reading).

Also worth a look is Jason Epstein’s piece in The New York Review of Books on the future of publishing: I suspect I feel less wedded to the past than he does but it’s a pretty good summary of the situation at present.

And last (but very definitely not least) Jonah Lehrer’s fascinating piece from The New York Times Magazine about the controversial but tantalising studies suggesting depression may confer evolutionary advantage, a piece which is distinguished not just by being the only place I’ve ever seen the word “heterogeneity” used in a newspaper article, but by meshing suggestively with the desire of a wide range of writers (including myself) to try and understand depression in terms beyond the simplistically pathological.

Enjoy – I’ll be back online later this week.

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Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

Donald Sutherland as Matthew in Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Bodysnatchers

I was reminded this morning (during a Twitter exchange about the iPad) of Philip Kaufman’s fantastic 1978 version of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, a film which must rank as one of my all-time faves.

Kaufman’s wasn’t the first film based on Jack Finney’s 1955 novel, The Body Snatchers, nor was it the last. In fact there have now been four big-screen versions, beginning with Don Siegel’s classic 1956 version and ending with the lugubrious 2007 Nicole Kidman/Daniel Craig vehicle, The Invasion (if you’re interested in watching the set there’s also Abel Ferrara’s charmless 1993 version, a film whose chief distinction is that it’s mercifully short). But I think there’s little doubt it’s the best (with the original 1956 version running a close second).

While Kaufman would quickly go on to make his name as a director with films such as The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, at the time of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ release he was mostly known for his low budget 1972 Jesse James film, The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid. Yet he nonetheless attracted a remarkable cast, headed up by Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as Matthew Bennell and Elizabeth Driscoll, Leonard Nimoy as self-help guru Dr David Kibner, and a then relatively unknown Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it’s devastatingly simple. Alien pods drift to earth, bringing plants which grow into copies of human beings, latching onto people as they sleep and absorbing their memories and appearance but none of their humanity. Gradually, but inexorably, they begin to infiltrate the population, replacing them, until the last vestiges of human individuality are wiped away.

A lot of the film’s pleasure lies in its understatedness. Set in a wintry San Francisco, amidst the already alien-looking buds of cropped plane trees and shot in a muted palette of browns and greys, it takes the anonymity of urban life and uses it to unsettling effect. As the characters go about their lives people push past them in the streets, their relentless movement and anonymity becoming increasingly disturbing; occasionally the steady, and increasingly deliberate movement of the passers-by is disturbed by a figure breaking and running, but for a long time the city might be any city, anywhere.

Pulling against this ordinariness Kaufman injects one horrible detail, which is the scream the replicants use to identify ordinary, unaffected humans, and which makes the film’s final, terrible denouement so chilling. I had hoped to provide a video of one of the characters screaming, but sadly the only one I could find is cut from close to the film’s end, and so I was reluctant to use it for fear of spoiling what is, surely, one of the great cinematic moments.

But there are other, wonderful details as well, not least the omnipresent garbage trucks, little emblems of ordinariness which take on a quite different meaning as the film progresses, and it becomes clear they are being used to dispose of the bodies of the replicated, or the bizarre use of bagpipes playing ‘Amazing Grace’.

Like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, which I’ve written about on this site before, part of what makes Invasion of the Bodysnatchers so chilling is the inexorability of it all. There is no plan, no strategy, there is just arrival and assimilation. Like the Borg in Star Trek, the pods seem to have no purpose but to absorb humanity, to make us like them.

But I suspect the real horror of the story in all its incarnations lies in the way it plays upon deepseated anxieties about absorption and loss of individuality. It’s not just that there’s something horrible and uncanny (in the full, Freudian sense of the word) about these emotionless copies, it’s that our anxieties about the erasure of individuality are so deep that any vehicle which triggers them can be redeployed over and over again in different contexts, bouncing off whatever fears are circulating in the culture. In the 1950s it was Communism (or its dark passenger, McCarthyism), the 1970s blank-faced hippies and Moonies, in the 2000s it was the notion of surveillance, of revealing oneself (a theme taken up to similar, but much more powerful effect in Richard Powers’ brilliant 2007 novel about brain damage and individuality in post-9/11 America, The Echo Maker): as a man advises the increasingly terrified and desperate Nicole Kidman on a train in The Invasion, “Don’t show any emotion, just look ahead. They can’t tell who you are if you don’t show any emotion”.

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Some thoughts about Avatar Part 1: 3D and reality

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and Sully (Sam Worthington)

Given the sheer volume of discussion of Avatar online, and the fact that it’s now a month since the film was released, I’ve been a little reluctant to chip in with my two cents worth. But while the time for anything like a straight review is long past, I feel like there are some things worth saying about it that don’t seem to have been said to date.

Because what I want to say is reasonably extended, I’ve decided to break it up into two (or just possibly three) posts. The first – this one – is about the 3D technology of the film; later in the week I want to say a few things about the film’s broader message, and perhaps about what it is that seems to work (and not work) in it.

To begin with, I think it’s worth observing just how overwhelming the response to the film has been. I can’t think of another film in recent years which has generated anything like as much commentary as Avatar, or (perhaps more interestingly) which has managed to chew up so much bandwidth across so many channels. You’d expect a genre film, especially a genre film as expensive and technically striking as Avatar to be generating a lot of commentary on sites which cater to fanboys, but it’s a lot less usual for a genre film (or indeed any film) to be generating continuing commentary on the opinion pages of the major international broadsheets.

At least part of this can be attributed to the film’s politics, which have enraged right-wing commentators around the world (or at least inspired the sorts of absurd posturing that passes for outrage in right-wing circles). I’m not going to rehash their arguments here, which mostly turn on the mawkishness of the film’s ecological and political subtexts, but I would observe that there’s something telling about the sheer ferocity of the Right’s hostility to messages which are, at one level, so unexceptional (after all, as Elvis Costello almost asked, what’s so threatening about peace, love and understanding?).

But I’m not sure the somewhat confected political debate about the film’s politics really explains its transformation into a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Certainly it’s difficult to imagine the armies of people who’ve trooped off to see the film having a Road to Damascus moment as they head home to their houses filled with the sort of consumer technologies that made the film possible and deciding to give it all away for a simpler life (nor, I suspect, would the many corporations with a stake in its success be impressed if they thought its anti-consumerist message was actually hitting home).

Instead the film’s impact seems to be a result of the technologies that make it so striking, in particular Cameron’s extremely sophisticated fusion of 3D and digital special effects.

In itself this is hardly a remarkable observation, but stay with me for a moment. 3D isn’t new, but after the success of Avatar I think we can assume it’s here to stay. There have already been announcements that films ranging from the new Bond film to 2012’s Star Trek 2 and the now-Sam Raimi-less Spiderman 4 will be shot in 3D, and while the technology will presumably take a while to trickle down into smaller, less spectacle-driven productions, I think there’s little doubt it will.

To my mind the interesting question isn’t whether 3D will gradually displace older, 2D technologies, but what that will mean for the way we see and experience film (or indeed whether it is fair to continue to describe the future of visual storytelling as “film”). As anyone who’s seen it knows, what’s really exciting about Avatar isn’t the story (though to tell the truth, I found it completely absorbing, all my caveats about the woodenness of its storytelling notwithstanding) or even the effects (which are, quite simply, extraordinary) but the sense of immersion. As many before me have observed, the film largely declines to employ the sort of cheesy things-shooting-out-of-the-screen-at-you gimmicks 3D films have usually confined themselves to, and instead concentrates on creating a world you enter as if it were real.

Interestingly, I think the sheer novelty of the experience rather overwhelms the fact that as a simulation of real space the film is actually rather crude. There’s depth, but objects and figures often seem more like planes moving in space than actual three-dimensional things (rather like a $300 million Captain Pugwash cartoon, I suppose). That’s not to say it isn’t amazing, and – as the film’s publicity reminds us – unlike anything we’ve seen before, but it is to be reminded that for all its wonder to an audience in 2010, within a decade Avatar is likely to look as crude as the original Star Wars does now. Likewise I suspect it’s fair to assume that 3D film and television are probably only transitional technologies, and that the future lies in holographic projection or some similar technology.

But crude or not, I think there’s little doubt Avatar is the embodiment of Cameron’s recognition that cultural forms are, in a very deep sense, artefacts of the technology that create them. Novels take the form they do because of the codex book, movies the cinema (and increasingly, television) screen, video games the computer screen. So moving from 2D to 3D isn’t just about adding depth to films, it’s about creating something new, something unlike anything we’ve had before.

In a minor way this is visible in the textures of the film itself. Despite the immersiveness of the 3D Avatar often seems curiously flat texturally. Given the riot of colour that is Pandorum, it would be impossible to describe it as washed-out, but more than once I found myself nostalgic for the vivid density of colour digital images and digital film have made us familiar with. There are a few moments that have it – most memorably the early scenes in space, which draw upon NASA’s photographs of the ISS and shuttle missions – but for the most part Pandorum (and by extension the film itself) doesn’t look dense or vivid enough to be “real”.

Arrival at Pandorum

But this density of colour is itself new, a consequence of the shift to digital imaging, and the increasingly blurry line between reality and representations of reality, a line films like Avatar are making even blurrier. What looked “real” to an audience familiar with Technicolor looks strange to us, just as the more liquid surfaces of analog photography seem increasingly other-worldly to a culture more accustomed to digital reproduction.

This is doubly true of Avatar’s use of 3D, which breaks the fourth wall in a truly revolutionary manner. Instead of watching the film, the audience are in the film. I’ve not read everything that’s been written about the film, but it seems odd to me that people haven’t made more of the fact that Cameron quite deliberately situates a second, imaginary immersive technology at the centre of the film, as if to suggest the film is, in some small way, a very crude version of what Sully and the others experience “dreamwalking” in the avatars themselves.

Sully (Sam Worthington) and his avatar

But the avatar technology also – and importantly to my mind – invokes the computer game. I don’t mean by this that the film is intended to celebrate gaming or leverage a computer game (though it’s certainly not too cynical to suggest there’s nothing accidental about the very obvious continuity between the textures of the film and the textures of Avatar: The Game). Instead I think Cameron invokes gaming because he understands – whether consciously or not – the synergies between the immersiveness of 3D moviemaking and the computer game.

In a very crude sense, computer games and film have been converging for some time. In the gaming world it’s long since ceased to be surprising for a game to be “cinematic”, and, conversely, I think it’s fair to say the largely digital textures of a lot of action and science fiction films often seem to resemble those of the more sophisticated games.

Critics of games and gaming usually point to the crudeness of the interactions, or the lack of interiority in games as a sign of their inferiority to older forms such as fiction and film. But that seems to me to miss the point. Games aren’t about interiority, they’re about agency, and often, the creativity of the player. They are an experience, a means of entering another world.

Of course this is precisely what Sully does in the film when he steps into his avatar’s body (and again when he leaves the control of the mission and becomes one of the Na’vi), and what, in a cruder sense, the film allows the viewer to do. And while the agency enjoyed by a player is absent, the sense of immersion moves the experience beyond that of passive consumption, suggesting something more like possibility, or even escape. Indeed the film very deliberately suggests this longing for freedom, and for escape through its early concentration on Sully and his ruined body, and the sense he only becomes fully alive, and fully real in the moment he steps into the avatar.

Which brings us back, I think, to the question of what 3D will do to film, and perhaps more profoundly, film’s storytelling. All forms of fictional narrative – novels, films, television series, even fairy tales and folk stories – create worlds. But the shift to 3D makes this process central, emphasising the viewer’s immersion in the world of the film, just as computer games emphasise the player’s immersion in the world of the game. It also, in the longer term, suggests new forms of interactivity, and, I suspect, narrative possibilities (at the very least POV pornography is unlikely to ever be quite the same). And, more deeply, it hastens our transition into a world where the virtual and the real are essentially indistinguishable, and where our sense of what is real is hopelessly enmeshed in the technologies we use to reproduce it. As filmmakers like Cocteau understood long ago, 2D film has always, at some deep level, been about a kind of dreaming, a way of projecting our fantasies onto the screen (it’s not accidental we watch movies in the dark, or that film is essentially insubstantial, a play of light upon a screen); with 3D those dreams cease to be insubstantial, and begin to populate the world around us.

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The Day of the Triffids, 28 Days Later and the end of the world

In his novel, The Day of the Triffids and its vision of a world struck blind and menaced by carnivorous plants, John Wyndham created one of the most enduring nightmares of the Atomic Age. Nearly 60 years later, his vision might equally serve not just as a warning of the perils of genetic engineering, but as a powerful reminder of the very different ways British and American writers imagine the end of the world.

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