The following discusses Avatar (with spoilers) and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (allusion to one non-pivotal scene)
The thought occurred to me years ago while I was washing dishes or driving or something and a chill ran down my spine. Two cinema-related yet disparate notions collided in my head. One was CGI. The other was Terry Gilliam.
We'll come back to both of them soon.
So there I was, years later after my chilling thought, watching Avatar in IMAX and telling myself. Yes, this is beautiful, this is imaginative, I should be spellbound. Somehow, I wasn't spellbound and since the plot of Avatar is more predictable than the unfolding of Titanic, I sat in the theatre, thinking it over. I was surrounded by Roy Orbisoned kids (IMAX) who wowed and ooohed, kids who've lived and grown up with Xbox and Playstation. They should be the jagged ones. Then, I began to wonder, because my wonderment always turns to the self-serving, whether this was an "emperor's new clothes" situation. After all kids go out of their to pretend that what they think should be cool they find actually cool. I soon had to demote myself again however, after listening to comments as I walked out of the theatre and talking it over with family and friends, and admit that most who saw Avatar were visually dazzled.
I have other problems with Avatar, pre-ordained script, a transparent historical metaphor with a phoney ending that belies history, white people bad yet complex/tribal people good and simple, and yet another white man who leads the way to freedom. Only my Anthony Lane (film critic for the New Yorker) has come close to expressing the core of my discomfort with Avatar, but he didn't do it whilst review Avatar, he did it in a review of Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus.
In "The Current Cinema" of 21 December 2009, Lane writes:
"I have no idea, any more than I can decide whether C.G.I. was the best or the worst thing that could have happened to Terry Gilliam. His gifts of invention were already so fecund, and so prolix, that this newfound ability to construct anything that drifts into his mind’s eye—as opposed to the ramshackle, hand-drawn delight of his earlier animation—spells both enchantment and chaos."
And that is almost the thought I'd had years ago. Now that CGI can demonstrate whatever Gilliam's imagination can conjure up, what nightmare would it be if he got the money to do it. In The Imaginarium, Gilliam sporadically bends the technology to his will and doesn't allow it to smother his flair for rendering artificiality, the cardboard trees, the Doctor's van and set. Yet there were disappointments. Within a second of seeing the Buddhist temple, I somehow knew Gilliam's imagination enough to know exactly what the temple (half falling apart, of course) would look like as the camera panned upwards and as we entered the temple itself. Nothing in it surprised me (except for Parnassus and Nick playing the Royal Game of Ur) and to see Gilliam's imagination fully rendered before me hindered me from imagining anything else.
And there lies the rub. First, we have a screenplay, words on a page and actors to interpret them. With a film like Avatar, everything is spelled out. Over and over for three hours. And then, there is sound. Such natural and simultaneously fantastic sound to make you feel the adventure as the sound system rattled your bones inside your body. Finally, the images and the ability to show anything conceivable mental conjuring.
Is this the price to pay for having been a reader or a (live) theatre goer all my life? Perhaps I am a pretentious bore for needing to add to an artistic/entertainment experience in order to find fulfilment in it, but I do suspect that's what makes those experiences enjoyable. How books and films allow my imagination to fill the gaps and how with a film like Avatar there are no gaps to be filled. The audience should participate in breathing life into a film. We each see a different film and that's why we can talk about it afterwards.
The Japanese versions of Godzilla will always be more real to me than the people of Pandora and so will the original King Kong. Paranormal Activity is a film that's frightened the public to death without the help of CGI but it's also not a studio film. My fear is that as Hollywood keeps pursuing CGI as its ticket to putting butts in movie theatre seats, this eroding at the imagination could get much worse.
It is entirely possible that this "imagination issue" is purely a generational problem. The Xbox kids sure loved the graphics.