The doors opened by High Definition have provided Cameron and a host of other filmmakers with an opportunity to reformulate the ontological link between film and surrealism. Analysis and review of something closely resembling a collective obsession.
If it could be summed up as just one thing. Avatar would not be a science fiction work. It would not be a marvellous adventure film for children. Nor would it be a western, nor an animist fable influenced by Miyazaki. Nor would it be a great best of Japanese animation imagery, nor a war film, nor an environmental flyer, nor a virtual reality trip, nor a re-writing of the myth of Pocahontas and the American original sin, nor an anti-imperialist speech.
If could be summed up as just one thing, just one, it would be this: a poem on the power of the imagination, a sort of new Peter Ibbetson, a classic by Henry Hathaway hailed in its day (1935) by André Breton as a manifesto for the supremacy of dreams and a « triumph of surrealist thinking. »
The first image of Avatar: one of eyes opening (subjective view) inside a dream of flying up above the skies, beyond the clouds. Its last image: eyes opening (objective view) inside the « other world », in which a man chooses knowingly to wake up and be reincarnated, a parallel world created in detail through the power of film. Open your eyes. Abre los Ojos… A dream inside the dream. Opt for the imaginary world. Break on through to the other side.
Naturally, in the meantime, Cameron organises his story around the idea of travel, travels where Jake and the others project themselves into their Avatars. To go and come back, you need to sleep. Cameron films the hero’s eyes moving under his eyelids several times in close up, in deep "paradoxal sleep", a term which rarely to such an extent so merited its potential double meaning.
To be or not to be
Cameron tells us: « throughout the interminable film making process, the essential thing for me was to stay connected with my imaginary state, like the surrealist artists who tried to maintain their dream state ». This sentence, describing his method, in reality expresses his ambition: To recall the surrealist vocation of film itself, of this type of film in any case. The type which does not profess to be « real », but surreal. The detailed creation of a planet, an ecosystem, humanoid creatures capable of kissing, the very idea that they can kiss even though they are only an idea, is tantamount to a statement of intention. Film is thus reduced to its mission of creation (or re-creation, but isn’t this strictly the same thing?) of a complete world within the frame, the shot / countershot, the depth.
Much more than revolutionising 3D, HD or virtual reality, the film’s very mission is to define a new ground zero moment for Cinema, by betting on photo-realism – or rather tactile-realism –facilitated by the merging of CGI, HD filming and digital screening. To reproduce the miracle of primitive cinema. In short, its mission is to recreate in general audiences the original amazement faced with moving (in both senses) images. Avatar is first and foremost the arrival of a cargo plane at Pandora airport.
Faced with this challenge, Cameron is not alone. Most of film’s pioneering artists and leading edge technicians are looking with him in the same direction. Public Enemies by Michael Mann is based on a similar reflection on the blurring of reality, imagination and dreams. One can even argue that this is what has bothered the audiences, never sure where to stand in regards of the film. The paradox accompanying the meticulous, attention to detail, the director restraining himself to film in real locations using real accessories from the 1920s while laying bare certain artifices of cinema takes on its full dimension in the final reel. Mann shoots in HD his hero Depp/Dillinger in the process of watching the death of Clark Gable on screen, a premonition of his own end and his shift into eternal legend, when he will be killed a few minutes later in the « digital night » created by the Sony F23 camera. Dillinger, eyes wide open, agrees to switch to « another side », the side of cinema.
The Outer Limits
Beyond even obvious examples such as Alice, Up or other trip films such as Where the Wild Things are by Spike Jonze, which take us to a land of monstrous, non-domesticated emotions, where surrealism and psychoanalysis are one and the same, most films shot in HD for the past year are driven by the same intentions and questionings, as if filmmakers were rediscovering the profound nature of their medium. All David Fincher’s recent work points in this direction, making the texture of the image his subject (recreating a period, at the heart of the Zodiac project), even its theme, (Benjamin Button, another purely surrealistic film which, quite rightly, still contains 35 mm for its « naturalistic » scenes in the hospital). Inception by Christopher Nolan and it's « dreams inside dreams » where the two tragic lovers DiCaprio/Cotillard attempt endlessly to find one other, is another thematic Peter Ibbetson spin-off. Peter Jackson himself is already sharing with Cameron the ambition to « create worlds » and to lose himself in them (Skull Island in King Kong). He has the little heroine of his most recent film the Lovely Bones travel to the frontier of life and death, continuing his own fixation on Hathaway’s unknown classic, present since Heavenly Creatures.
It is this same frontier, or even the one which separates dream from reality, that Gaspar Noé negotiates in Enter the Void as if walking along a tightrope. Can they collide? Even if the answer is negative, the director causes the other world and the here and now to collide in a vertiginous trip under the effect of mind-altering substances. As stated, these preoccupations are not new. They are at the basis, the very foundation of film, an art in 2D (and now 3D) whose principle is precisely to invent another (it's own) dimension. This appear to be back with a vengeance, thanks to recent technological advances, after losing focus for a long time to concentrate on naturalistic temptations, real/fiction dialectic issues, and post modernism.
In Peter Ibbetson, the man hobbled, huddled in his cell, rediscovered his lady-love in his dreams and chose to take refuge there for eternity. In Jack’s eyes in his rebirth at the end of Avatar, in the melancholic gaze of Dillinger in Public Enemies hidden behind his dark gangster rock star shades, in the subjective visions of the falling teenager in Enter the Void or in the ambiguous vortex of Inception’s finale, we find the same idea of mythological transfer via film. The Outer Limits. Literally.