That term first came to my mind when, as a child, I’d try to say “stream of consciousness” and end up with “brainflow.” It seems to fit here.

Welcome to the ramblings of my mind. (For now, these ones revolve mostly around films.)

A Single Man & Avatar

Saturday, January 9th, 2010 3:42 pm—Film

A Single Man (USA 2009, Drama), Writer/Director: Tom Ford

Avatar (USA/UK 2009, Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi), Writer/Director: James Cameron

“Her dreams are more real than her waking, and they fly through her mind like white birds.”

I saw Avatar a few weeks ago for the first time, and I loved it but didn’t think I had enough to say about it to warrant a post. In short, I thought the visuals were amazing, the storyline touching albeit predictable. But I saw it again and, amazingly, the second viewing seemed to go by even faster than the first. Then last night I saw A Single Man, and although it’s profoundly different from Avatar, its opening draws an immediate parallel to the animated epic and compelled me to write about both films.

Each movie explores the idea of creating, or discovering, an altered state of consciousness, greater enlightenment. They begin with the protagonists waking up. But in both films, the characters have suffered great loses and are cut off from the world, sleepwalking through life even in their waking. What is interesting is that the films go in opposite directions to resolve their characters’ disconnect and unhappiness.

A Single Man is fashion designer Tom Ford’s directorial debut. Set in 1960s Los Angeles, it tells the story of George (Colin Firth), a man grieving the loss of his partner of 16 years, Jim (Matthew Goode), who died in a car accident some eight months prior. Waking up, George tells us, actually hurts. “My heart has been broken, and it is as if I’m sinking, drowning, and I can’t breathe.”

In the film’s opening moments, you really believe him. His pain is palpable, and as he stands frustrated at his kitchen counter, slamming a loaf of frozen bread down to break up the slices, you see how much he carries it with him. Getting used to being “George,” he says, takes time. It’s something he must prepare for each morning as he dresses to face the world. He feels as though he’s playing a part, going through the motions the world expects him to make. But he isn’t really there anymore; part of him died with Jim.

Ford’s direction is heavily stylized. George’s world is mostly shown in muted colours. When he observes others, or tries to interact, we see extreme close-ups of objects or body parts, lips that suddenly glow in full technicolour. But these forced moments of liveliness only serve to further highlight how disconnected George is from those around him. They feel just as empty as the bleak, frozen landscape George trudges through every day. They don’t feel real. It’s only when he gets to know a few strangers who start to bring him out of his grief that the shot and colour treatment takes on a lifelike, natural hue and carries an energy that feels like something alive, something you can connect to.

The problem is, A Single Man works so hard to convey George’s disconnect that I felt too detached to really be moved by it. With all of Ford’s extreme close-ups, hugging bodies, accentuating lips and torsos, he betrays his background in fashion and does himself a disservice as a filmmaker. A movie is more than just the series of shots that hold it together, and many of Ford’s choices felt too self-conscious to really engage me.

Avatar, on the other hand, does a fantastic job of drawing the viewer in. It engulfs you from the very beginning. The movie is James Cameron’s glorious return to feature filmmaking after 1997’s epic Titanic. Set in the 2100s, it follows paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to the moon Pandora where he has been assigned to take over the job his deceased twin brother began. Pandora is home to a valuable but elusive mineral called unobtanium (cute), which a wealthy corporation plans to mine for. The moon is also home to the Na’vi, a blue-skinned humanoid species that lives directly atop a massive unobtanium deposit and presents a problem to the greedy people who want to get their hands on the mineral—at any cost.

In an effort to improve relations with the Na’vi, scientists create Avatars, creatures that resemble the Na’vi but are made from both human and Na’vi DNA and can be controlled remotely by humans whose consciousness inhabit the Avatar bodies. Jake’s brother was one such Avatar operator, and because Jake shares his twin’s DNA, he alone is able to inhabit his brother’s Avatar. Jake accepts the mission and attempts to learn the Na’vi way on behalf of the corporation. But in the process, he falls in love with their lifestyle—and with the powerful Na’vi Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)—and, in the process of waking up to who he is destined to become, discovers what is really worth fighting for.

Avatar is 10 years in the making, and you could spend hours reading up on the technology behind it. A 3D marvel, Avatar was shot using an innovative motion-capture stage and dual-camera system that recorded the actors’ performances down to the minutest facial expressions, allowing their digital counterparts to appear to move in real-time. True to form, Cameron developed the technology he needed to bring his imagination to the screen.

While the technology is mind-blowing (and admittedly out of my realm of expertise after conducting only very rudimentary research), what I love most about Avatar is the Na’vi world and the concept it explores about energy—a concept that has fascinated me for years. Every action, every birth and death, every thought, involves an energy that binds us all together. The Na’vi have such a profound understanding of and respect for nature, and their exquisite world is brought to life so vividly by the animation, you can’t help but long to know that a place like that really does exist somewhere in the universe.

A Single Man and Avatar explore the danger of drifting through life without fully engaging with what’s going on around us, and introduce the empowerment and fulfillment that comes from truly waking up. Both feature men who are trapped in their current forms, by grief and—in Jake’s case—by physical barriers. It’s only when they enter a new form of consciousness that they are able to realize what they can truly become. Where A Single Man fails is by keeping the viewer at a distance and never letting you fully join George on his journey of awakening. Avatar, on the other, brings you right into Jake’s world, and hopefully opens people’s eyes to much more than just one person’s plight.

*            *            *

“She is waking to noises… And each of them beats in her ear like a drum as the dragons, the witches, the eagles, the mice, as the flowers and tigers and leopards and swans, as they all swim away through the rooms of her mind into darkness and seafoam and peace.”

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