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Wednesday, January 06, 2010


Posted by Bill Benzon on 01/06/10 at 05:18 PM

The current round of discussion of Avatar brings up an issue I think about from time to time: opsis, aka spectacle. In the Poetics Aristotle laid out six categories under which to examine drama: mythos (plot), ethos (character), lexis (diction), dianoia (theme/idea), melos (song), and opsis. He thought of opsis as a secondary matter, not so important as mythos or ethos. Fair enough. However, that was then, and now is now and movies aren’t plays.

Just how important is the look of a film in its overall impact? The story is the story regardless of whether the film is live action color, live action B & W, animated full (e.g. traditional Disney style), animated limited (most anime), CGI, etc. Character is not so independent of visual medium and at least some of the discussion about animation as a medium, hand-drawn vs. CGI (I’m thinking of Mike Barrier in particular), has to do with the presentation of character.

Avatar is scoring points – at least in some quarters – for its technical sophistication: CGI, motion-capture, 3D. And there are some in Hollywood who say that 3D in particular is the future (Jeffrey Katzenberg for one). Yes, much of Avatar certainly looks good. But I can’t say that the forest mysticism scenes look any better than similar scenes in Miyazaki (e.g. Princess Mononoki or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind) and that’s mostly traditional hand-drawn cel animation. For that matter, Sita Sings the Blues looks as good as any film I’ve seen recently, and it’s all Flash animation. There are many ways of looking good.

But would Avatar be doing this well at the box office if it had been done as a superbly crafted work of hand-drawn cel animation (with the same cast doing the voice work)? I doubt it. But why not? Is the film’s look so tightly integrated with the story and character that the latter demand the former?

Of course, Avatar is but an example. I’ve just been re-watching Apocalypse Now, a live action film in shot in color. It’s a good-looking film, and a better one than Avatar. How much of that film is tied-up in the look?



I think spectacle plays big during a film’s first-run, then not so much afterwards.  Titanic was full of spectacle, too, but when people talk about it now it’s mostly to make fun of it and mock Celine Dion.  I have a feeling that Avatar might also age poorly.  Have you seen Ben-Hur lately?  Anything by Cecile B. DeMille?  Not very good films, in the end, and remembered for being spectacles and not much more.

Now, some films have spectacle (2001: A Space Odyssey comes to mind) but are ultimately more concerned with Aristotle’s other categories.  2001 isn’t really about the spaceships, after all.

By on 01/06/10 at 11:09 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Bring Sita home with a DVD of

Buy on Amazon: http://amzn.com/B002G50002
Rent on Netflix: http://tinyurl.com/ybbqd7b

Sita is a goddess separated from her beloved Lord and husband Rama. Nina is an animator whose husband moves to India, then dumps her by email. Three hilarious shadow puppets narrate both ancient tragedy and modern comedy in this beautifully animated interpretation of the Indian epic Ramayana. Set to the 1920’s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw, Sita Sings the Blues earns its tagline as “the Greatest Break-Up Story Ever Told.”

Need another reason why? Check out Roger Eberts Review!  http://tinyurl.com/ebert-on-sita

By FilmKaravan on 01/07/10 at 12:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I don’t think I’d really feel the need to see Princess Mononoki, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind or Sita Sings the Blues in the cinema instead of at home. But if I did want to see Avatar I’d consider myself crazy to watch it first on DVD. It may be that part of what makes Avatar spectacular - and what makes critics recommend it despite all the flaws - is that it’s a film that makes best use of the big screen and the atmosphere of the movie house.

By on 01/07/10 at 02:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Just how important is the look of a film in its overall impact?

Well, some obvious examples suggesting “very” are technical choices made by Stanley Kubrick regarding his cinematography.

George Lucas presents the musical contribution of John Williams with astonishing skill. I learned to love “The Phantom Menace” when I started to think of it as a transcendent 2+ hour John Williams video.

In theory there is no component of an art work that couldn’t be called essential. If an element is dis-emphasized for obvious technical reasons, like the limited possibilities for varied “opsis” of the Classical Greek Drama (compared to the CGI blockbuster), that’s one thing. But if it’s simply critical laziness, that’s another.

I found the recent Norton critical edition of L’Morte D’Arthur, in original spelling, to be an entirely different book than my previous edition which modernized the spelling but made no other changes to the text. In some moods I would accuse anyone, who is not equally sensitive to such things, of having unfortunately trained themselves to regard everything as a “text”—as if the phenomenal appearance of all works of art is arbitrary, as if they “really” consist of “meanings” coded somewhere in the heavenly world.

By on 01/09/10 at 05:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

First of all: I have seen Ben-Hur pretty recently (we’re talking about the Charlton Heston one, yes?), and it’s one of the greatest films ever. I will fight to the death to defend this claim. Ray Harryhausen films (Clash of the Titans, Jason and the Argonauts)* hold up remarkably well, too, as does King Kong; somehow, I find (and I don’t think I’m alone in this), effects can be great even when they’ve become primitive.

Second, I want to defend Avatar on precisely the grounds it’s attacked on in this post. The thing about the special effects is that they ARE integrated with the story and character. Note that the title technology—the “avatar” Na’vi bodies controlled by human minds—is doubled by those robot-armors that mirror their pilots’ movements, and again by the dragons that respond to mental commands. And that mechanic itself mirrors a real aspect of the special-effects technology: applying actors’ movements to CGI images. Similarly, the 3D is cool because it lets viewers explore Avatar’s amazing world; and that connects them to the main character, who runs around being delighted by the weird plants and animals, and at his newly recovered ability to walk and run among them. Our wonder is his wonder. If the technical sophistication were totally separate from the story, it would have been wasted; I thought the movie was great precisely because the effects were put to such good use.

*Yes, all right, I’m biased towards movies set in ancient Greece and Rome. But I’m not totally undiscriminating: e.g., Spartacus and 300 were both absolutely awful.

By on 01/11/10 at 03:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If one inverts Aristotle’s elements of Tragedy so that Opsis, then melos, then dianoia, et cetera are the hierarchy of importance you wind up with a formula for thinking about non-narrative work in an Aristotelian way.

The films of Brakhage, Breer, Deren and others prioritize “story” through the visuals first, sound second (usually), so at the end of the day mythos is the redheaded stepchild.

I’m at the disadvantage of not having seen “Avatar”, but perhaps, it’s an art film in disguise.  The billion dollar Cremaster.

By roconnor on 01/18/10 at 07:38 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Rosencratz and Guidenstien are dead makes a few interesting points with regard to opsis. Not seen Avatar

By on 03/03/10 at 10:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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