Sunday, December 27, 2009

Is 'Avatar' Our 'Titanic'?

Is the little handmade film with real people finally a thing of the past?

By Lars Trodson

The question about whether James Cameron's "Avatar" is the future of movies shouldn't be framed in terms of its technical achievements but in terms of what audiences will now expect in order to be entertained.

Are the only movies that will truly transport an audience are those made by thousands of people with a $300 million pricetag?

Critics are hailing "Avatar" as not only a great entertainment but the very future of the medium. The idea behind this prophesy is a little demented. They're all saying that with enough money, time and computer technicians, you can create a similar movie. No, no -- you NEED to create a similar movie. Otherwise you'll just have made a little talky thing with people moping about. And no one will care.

Which means that the technicians may finally have won.

My worry isn't really with the Hollywood people. They'll have enough time and energy and computer programs to create whatever kind of entertainment they want and think we need.

But I wonder how this will challenge the other end of the filmmaking spectrum; that is, us little guys on the bottom of the food chain who still think the story is the most important thing and that drama ought to be created between people trying to work their way through regular life.

That idiom now seems so unimaginably quaint -- as far as the movies are concerned.

How do filmmakers with no money or no interest in special effects approach our craft? Do we give in, and try to make a little four-minute extravaganza for the next film festival in order to get noticed?

Our little company recently submitted a short film called "Tuesday Morning" to the Sundance Film Festival. This film takes place on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 and the only special effect in it is the beauty of the two performances in the movie. We recently showed the film in Portsmouth, and after two showings the small crowds stuck around to talk about the film for more almost an hour. Other people who have seen it have also thought it was a truly remarkable little movie.

We did not make it into Sundance, but a short film called "TUB" did, and that's about a guy who masturbates in his bathtub and impregnates it. I'm never going to write a film like that, and I don't think I ever wanted to write a film like that.

Am I jealous? Sure, of course I am. I'm also frustrated, and perhaps I'm a little melancholy. I'm beginning to think that I'm too old fashioned, my sensibilities too out of date to try to cut through the CGI glitter.

And maybe the folks who are in charge of the film festivals will think so, too, and I guess that is what causing me this angst. Maybe the one place that I thought filmmakers such as myself always have a home, the film festival, aren't going to be so hospitable any longer.

It could also be they won't get the kind of film I make much longer anyway. Now that Roger Ebert and almost every other critic have defined "Avatar" as the benchmark against all other cinematic entertainment, then that assessment is almost certainly going to filter down to the films that young artists decide to make. If I was younger, and just thinking about starting to write and direct my first film, I'm not sure my model would be Orson Welles. It would be Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Robert Zemeckis and Michael Bay.

After all, everytime there is a small, character driven film released to theaters, it almost invariably has attached to it the story about how hard it was to get financed, how the actors had to work for nothing, and how it was released in a few theaters at awards time only to go straight to DVD. What fun is that?

I don't want to give up hope -- and maybe I shouldn't. After all, it's not even as though I dislike Cameron. I don't. I think he's amazingly talented. But I do, quite suddenly and with more finality than I ever have ever felt before, feel like the story ideas I have are the dramatic equivalent of the buggy whip -- do we need them? Why would anybody want one?

I suppose we will keep trying -- those of us who, even though we use a computer, save successive drafts of a script or a story because that's what we used to do when we typed on paper.

We'll keep trying because that is what we do. There is always the possibility that those of us who ride bicycles on the digital highway can still make a showing.