Friday, March 25, 2011

Avatar: The power of Editing

I loved the Avatar Theater release . I thought it was a perfect screenplay, in structure. It was the classic "Stanger comes to town" - or planet- story. Jake Sully, the main character, had a perfect character arc, emotionally and literally transformed from a wheel chair bound ex marine with "Born Loser" tattooed on his arm in the beginning to becoming the leader and savior of an entire race of people fighting an oppressive foe.

I have a thing for "going Native" stories- like THE LAST SAMARI starring Tom Cruise and DANCES WITH WOLVES, starring Kevin Costner, but Avatar, even apart from the high and new technology, was a well balanced structured story.

Then I got the deluxe DVD which had all that extra stuff - all the how it was made, deleted scenes and Director's cut and I think the story of AVATAR entirely changed, maybe the studios can give us "behind the scene" junkies too much information.

More often than not, Director cut's just illustrate why certain scenes do not have to be in the final movie. Overall time, not moving the story forward and repetitive information might be the main reasons why scenes end up on the cutting room floor, but reality is that film is, unlike novels, "an economy of words and images"- less is definitely more- more for the imagination and in film that is a good thing.

But I have never watched a Director's Cut that more drastically changed the whole flavor of a movie, in my opinion even the character's motivations, as James Cameron's Director's Cut of AVATAR.

The Director's cut, starts way back on planet Earth, an Earth not recognizable. A filthy city, "with no green" and mixes of East and West cultures, where people cannot breath and have to wear masks. There is too much information and I think it pushed AVATAR into pure Sci Fi, where a person could watch it guilt free, never thinking about what we are doing to our planet, cause we are no way near the Earth they depicted.

Jake being a "born loser" is played out on the screen, with nothing left up to the imagination. he is drunk in a bar, full of self loathing, but tries to save a girl and is thrown into an alley, wheelchair and all, where the agents find him and take him to see his dead brother.

I think just knowing Jake dreamed of flying while in the VA Hospital paralyzed , that his brother was killed for the money in his wallet and Jake could take his place on Pandora and had to watch his brother cremated in a cardboard box really is all the back story we need and keeps that "Stanger comes to Town," mystic. Truth is if we don't know so much about a character's background, we can more see ourselves in them and are that much more pulled in.

Much of the First Act that did get cut for the Theater release and then put back in for the Director's Cut, was explanation of back story - Neytiri's older sister being killed at Dr. Augustine's school and relationships- there was quite a hot and heavy thing between Norm and Trudy in the modular while they were waiting around with nothing to do. Might be interesting, but these extra tidbits can bog the story down. To quote the writers from another well packed DVD Extra Behind the Scenes multi-disc set- One must always "follow the Ring"

The biggest difference in the two version, I think is that Jake from the Director's cut, with all that back story, felt different than the Jake I had emotionally attached myself to in the movie theater- oh my- could that be taken wrong! I mean it felt like his motivations weren't quite right, where when I didn't have the knowledge of his back story- it didn't matter, I filled things in myself. It was kind of like reading a novel and creating the character in your head and then being sorely disappointed in the movie version of that said character, they never stand up do they?

For example there apparently was a rather involved scene of Jake's Vision Quest, before he was welcomed by the People, helped along the way by a biting scorpion-ish creature- where his connection to the Toruk is reveled for him- I like that I didn't know that when he dive bombed from his perch onto the great creature.

The only scene, I thought would of fit into the original version and was curious about was how Avatars make love, wondered if Cameron had to leave it out to keep the PG rating- would love to of heard that conversation behind the closed doors of the Ratings Board- about the nuisances of intertwined....well check out the new DVD set.

In ACT Three an even more disturbing revel in the Directors Cut is Cameron's exploration of mercy killing- apparently the fall from the bomber did not kill Tsu'tey and part of the passing from one leader to the other was for Jake to mercy kill "his brother."

I would of just thought that was an unnecessary and somewhat disturbing addition into an otherwise good story if not for the fact that earlier this year I humored my husband and went to see SANTUM, produced by Cameron.
The movie is set against a tropical wilderness that looks like the beginning reference footage for the animators of Avatar and is about stupid divers exploring an unmapped cave system, putting themselves in peril and with I think no less than three mercy killings- That would be four mercy killings for Cameron in a given year- hummmm? One can only help wondering- does he have an agenda- or being the hard realist that I think he is- was he tired of unrealistic, romantic ends in the wilderness and had something to say about that. Do I doubt what has been done on the side of Mt.Everest or deep in the Amazon when there is NO Search and Rescue nearby to end a companions suffering- No. Do I think we need to explore it in film like that- No.

Back to DVD set, the mock ups, rough animations included like the Vision Quest were interesting, including one at the end, that hinted at a baby Sully on the way. I love all that stuff, along with the more nuts and bolts of exactly how it was made. The costume and prop section was fascinating the detail they made the jewelry and weapons to be able to scan them and create them on a computer so realistically.

But I got to say if the theater version had been like the Director's cut- AVATAR would of been a different movie. Pushed farther to the Left, it would have alienated more people- wisely Cameron decided to keep the movie focused on One agenda- Global Warming- and leave out Mercy Killings and well how blue babies are exactly made.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

1976: The Start of Hollywood Blockbusters

I watched MORNING GLORY the other day. It stars Rachel McAdams as a young producer of a network morning news show who has to try and cage a iconic newsman, Harrison Ford, who thought he would be sailing through the rest of his contract.

The movie was okay for a weekend rental, but it was no DEVIL WEARS PRADA,

 a similar- assistant to a monster of a boss coming of age story starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. There was not enough "at risk" , everyone kind of just did their "thing" and there was not enough build up of a crisis in my humble opinion, but that is not really what this post is about is how OLD, Harrison Ford looked, Mr. Ford if you are reading this I do apologies.

But this weekend, I was also enjoying reading about every page of Vanity Fair's Hollywood issue.

If you don't subscribe to it, I highly recomand getting it at the newstand. It has a great article on a ritzy trailer park in Malibu called Paradise Cove, an interesting article on Lauren Becall and a lot of pre Oscar coverage.

It also has a very interesting article on the making of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN,

starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman- I really am getting to Harrison Ford, promise. I won't paraphrase the article in Vanity Fair-it is worth a read, but one interesting thing it pointed out was that era when ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, 1975-1977 also saw JAWS

considered to be the first blockbuster movie with a wide release followed by ALL THE PRESIDNET'S MEN, followed the next year by.. here is Harrison Ford, STAR WARS.

I was nine years old when riding on my bike to the Orchard Shopping center, I saw the title STAR WARS on the marquee and remember thinking to myself, "What does that mean, how do stars fight?"

The year before was the Bicentennial and Washington was just settling down from the scandal of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein's book just out as was Redford and Hoffman's movie,

well being nine I didn't pay much attention to all that but was in Washington DC that summer for the July 4th festivities, because my father was doing his two year Forest Service stint in Washington.

We did the Smithsonian, many, many civil war battle fields, saw the Capitol and of course the fireworks were pretty amazing. I skipped around the nation's capitol with no concern or any memory of having the knowledge that a scandal just a little while before had rocked Washington to its core.

And because my dad lived back to back with a Secret Service agent, one night, riding in his Porsche, don't know if that is a favored car of the Secret Service, we got to go literally snoop around the White House. President Ford was out for the night at the theater I think, but we got to wander the halls, see the dishes in the china room, cant' remember which one, and even walk into the Oval Office and run around the circle rug, I think the tours at the time only got to look in the Oval Office. At the time, I thought the bathrooms were the coolest, with real towels instead of paper towels and the bathroom had two doors and I went out the wrong one and found myself in a long corridor with no one around, I wasn't brave enough to keep going and rushed back through to find everyone else.

Ohhh, what you don't worry about when you are nine. Nation's can fall and as long as there is things to entertain you, you are happy and oblivious and your heroes, like Han Solo don't grow old.......

 oh yeah they do!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Possession: Disturbing the Past

I watched POSSESSION this morning. It stars Aaron Eckhart (ERIN BROCKOVICH and BATTLE: LOS ANGELES) as an American research assistant in London, who stumbles across an unsent romantic letter from one of the country's most beloved Victorian poets who has been known as a faithful husband to his ailing wife.

Since the object of his desire appears to be another famous femininist poet who has been known as swearing off men all together- such a find appears monumental but needs more documentation to be taken seriously, so Eckhart enlists Gwyneth Paltrow , ( SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and COUNTRY STRONG), a professor at the university which holds the letters and diaries of said feminist poet.

While Paltrow and Eckhart retrace the poets affair through research archives, ancestral homes and sea side retreats, the story if played out in flashbacks on the screen, with Randolph Henry Ash played by Jeremy Northam, (TUDORS and THE NET) and his love interest Christabel LaMotte played by Jennifer Ehle ( PBS's PRIDE AND PREJUDICE). Of course a modern day romance is ignited by Eckhart and Paltrow and there are twist and turns to the scholarly adventure.

I have always had "a thing" for the stories of old, so loved this movie, piecing together the truth of the past with diaries and letters and notes scribbled on bits of paper, archived in dusty basements. The sophisticated stories of England past, even if made up, always intrigues me but even here in the deep West of the US, there are truths to discover and I have the privilege of being surrounded by several research libraries, that I absolutely love to frequent.

The key to good research is to make friends with the research archivist who will take you down in the basements where all the good stuff is. Last year I spent a few hours in the basement of the Anasazi Heritage Center in SW Colorado that houses the archives of the Wetherill Family, the cowboy/archeologist that brought the discovery of the ruins of Mesa Verde to the world and secondary characters in a screenplay I wrote for the Nicholl Fellowship contest last year.

I have to say it is surreal and feels a little voyeristic to be rooting through other people's ( even if long dead) possessions. Sitting there, holding ledger books and photo albums, deciphering scribble notes I also felt like I could feel them, the brothers, and their scientific partner, Gustaf Nordenskiold, who after the summer of 1891 excavating the ruins together and doing the first scientific documentations of Mesa Verde, sent the brother a photo album of his snap shots which I now held in my hands.

I also often feel like I am intruding. I wonder if they would want me snooping. The fact that the Wetherill decedents dusted all of the brother's papers with paprika to ward of insects, which was now stinging my eyes and making me sneeze could be taken as retaliation.

Ironically, the Wetherill and Nordenskiold also were intruding on the ghost of the past, when they excavated the ruins, which were far from the pristine state they are now, sometimes the cowboys were digging through five feet of dirt to get to the floor and at times literally breathing in the dust of the mummies they were finding sealed in the deep alcoves of Mesa Verde.

Do these feeling stop me, I confess, no. Do I feel a great responsibility in including real people and events in my writing, yes. Do I say a little prayer, hoping I will remain true to who they truly were as people, most definitely, yes.