Flow Favorites: Avatar as Technological Tentpole
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University

Flow Favorites 2011

Every few years, Flow’s editors select our favorite columns from the last few volumes. We’ve added special introductions and included the original comments to the piece below. Enjoy!

Flow Marketing Editor Courtney Brannon Donoghue:
This timely column came out during the height of Avatar-mania when many industry professionals and scholars were swept away by the film’s “game-changing” impact. Charles Acland argues how the “revolutionary” discourse surrounding Cameron’s largest grossing film is in reality a persistent tactic within the business. As technological tentpole, Avatar introduces and promotes hardware and media systems through budget aggrandizement, 3-D exhibition, and transmedia platform capabilities. The film text itself promotes a similar idea of communication networks and synergy that extends into the idealized, albeit racially problematic, world of Pandora. Representing current media industry studies methods, Acland integrates industrial, technological, and textual methods to deconstruct the Avatar all-encompassing total media system within a larger historical framework.

Neytiri

James Cameron’s Avatar: game-changer, or business as usual?

The jokes describing Avatar (2009) have been almost as good as the movie: Pocahontas meets Halo, Dances with Wolves in Space, James Cameron’s Ferngully, and a recruiting vehicle for Blue Man Group. With the juggernaut roll-out of Cameron’s first fiction feature since the unsinkable Titanic (1997), such humorous spins are to be expected. But it is one thing to put the promotional engine in high gear and it is another to deliver a financially successful, audience-pleasing, and critically respected film to match the hype. By virtually every measure, Cameron has done exactly that with his body-swapping environmentalist space opera. Avatar enjoys an impressive cumulative score on the omnibus movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. And audience curiosity bulked up the film’s box office to $429 million domestic, and $1.33 billion worldwide, in less than four weeks, making it already the second highest grossing film of all time.

Avatar is a “tentpole” film, which means it is the centerpiece of distributor Twentieth Century Fox’s slate of recent releases. There is no stable definition for what counts, but tentpoles typically have large budgets, especially for promotion, and might be expected to launch or continue a film franchise. A major distributor may have a couple of tentpole films over the course of a year. Such films are often mentioned in the annual reports of media corporations, as distributors temporarily bank corporate fiscal health on the success of those particular releases. With tentpoles drawing the largest audiences, a distributor fills out its “tent” with films that might be directed toward genre or niche audiences. For exhibitors, a tentpole benefits simultaneously released films, as, say, parents drop off their kids to see Avatar and then take in It’s Complicated (2009) on the screen next door.

But Avatar is also something of a different order. Few media products have such elevated expectations as Avatar. And these expectations are not only for its own success, but for a number of other products and technologies it has bundled to share its revenue-generating glory. Remarkably, many believe that this film marks a revolutionary moment in the history of cinema, that it is a “game-changer.” Steven Soderbergh was one unlikely auteurist voice who sang the praises of Avatar before its release based on partial footage he had seen during the production process. He went so far as to describe it as a “benchmark” movie, comparable to The Godfather (1972) in its day. ((“Exclusive: Soderbergh gives Avatar high praise,” www.comingsoon.net, 30 April (2009). Cameron was a producer for Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), so it’s possible there is a closer relationship than is evident from their different filmmaking personas.)) Similarly, DreamWorks Animation head Jeffery Katzenberg asserted, “I think the day after Jim Cameron’s movie comes out, it’s a new world.” ((Quoted in Dana Goodyear, “Man of extremes: The Return of James Cameron,” New Yorker, October 26, 2009, 67.)) At the film’s premiere, director Michael Mann declared, “There’s before this movie and after this movie.” ((Bill Higgins, “All eyes on Avatar; fellow directors shower praise on Cameron,” Variety.com, 18 December (2009).))

Avatar's Na'vi of Pandora, one avatar and one not

Avatar‘s Na’vi of Pandora, one avatar and one not

The language of the “game-changing” impact of Avatar is illuminating. First, the film represents stupendous budget aggrandizement, and even more Byzantine accounting procedures than usual. The official budget from Fox and Cameron’s production company Lightstorm Entertainment was $230 million, up from the initial budget of “close to $200 million” when Fox’s participation was first announced in January 2007. ((Sharon Waxman, “Computers join actors in hybrids on screen,” New York Times, 9 January (2007): E7.)) So unrestrained was Cameron’s spending that that amount soon seemed like a bargain next to unofficial estimates. Once we add all international distribution and marketing expenses, and the personal financial commitment of individual investors, including Cameron, the figure is closer to $500 million. ((Michael Cieply, “Eyepopping, in many ways,” New York Times, 9 November (2009): B1, B6.)) That Avatar‘s grosses rapidly surpassed its record-breaking budget gives major industry investors confidence in the financial viability of the top end of the budget food chain. But take note that a parallel 2009 Hollywood success story is that of Paranormal Activity (2009), a $15,000 movie that made over $100 million in domestic release. These two films thus lay out two contrasting contemporary blockbuster economies.

Trade pundits and cultural commentators most frequently discuss Avatar‘s game-changer status in relation to 3-D exhibition. In fact, there is an industrial agreement that 3-D is the next revolution in cinema history, with, as Time put it, Avatar a vanguard example of the future of the format. ((Josh Quittner, “The Next dimension,” Time, 30 March (2009): 54-62.)) In a 60 Minutes feature on Cameron, Michael Lewis, head of the leading 3-D exhibition technology outfit RealD, said “Avatar is potentially the Citizen Kane of this medium.” 3-D exhibition, which has proven lucrative over the last few years, is being taken as a driving force for the acceleration of the conversion of theaters to digital exhibition, a conversion that affects both 3-D and 2-D films. In this respect, Avatar’s influence extends beyond 3-D, speeding up the obsolescence of celluloid projectors in mainstream theaters. ((Charlotte Huggins, “The Three dimensions of 3-D,” Produced By, Spring 2008: 25. It is curious that 3-D is being interpreted as a catalyst for digital exhibition because digital 3-D systems currently require screens that make their use for conventional 2-D projections darker, less sharp, and generally poorer in image quality.))

The spark to 3-D exhibition is but one of several other processes either developed or exploited by Cameron at the production end, including the Simulacam, which provides filmmakers and crew an immediate visual approximation of 3-D and CGI enhancements of shots. Cameron has also made 3-D shooting more director-friendly by developing, with cinematographer Vincent Pace, the patented Pace/Cameron Fusion System, which is light weight and allows for easier changes to the point of convergence between the two digital cameras required for shooting the 3-D effect. ((Matt Hurwitz, “Exposure: Vince Pace,” International Cinematographers Guild Magazine, April 2009: 30, 32, and 34.))

The “game-changing” hyperbole is manifest in other aspects of the Avatar commodity world. Game developer Ubisoft released a 3-D Avatar game just weeks ahead of the film, a move that prompted Variety to wonder whether or not this product was yet another “game changer,” pun intended. ((Chris Morris, “A Game changer?; Avatar looks to alter H’w’d vidgame push,” Variety, 15-21 June (2009): 4, 12. )) Ubisoft has been seeking involvement in the feature film business, acquiring prestige CGI company Hybride, based in St. Sauveur, Quebec. A further complication to the lines dividing entertainment industries, Cameron contracted Hybride to do effects for Avatar, the movie. Panasonic is using Avatar in an international cross-promotion deal to sell its own new HD 3-D Home Theater system. ((“Panasonic and Twentieth Century Fox team for global promotion of James Cameron’s Avatar,” Asia Corporate News Newswire, 21 August (2009); “Panasonic rolls with HD 3-D home theater truck tour,” Entertainment Close-Up, 5 September (2009).)) This push links to the gaming industry as Ubisoft’s Avatar: The Game requires a 3-D enabled television or monitor in order for the full 3-D design of the game to work. But it also looks ahead to 3-D television programming. Accordingly, following Avatar‘s apparent box-office success, several television channels announced plans for 3-D broadcasting.

So, while extraordinarily conventional in story and characterization, Avatar is celebrated and promoted to stand out as a flagship work beckoning the next wave of industrial and consumer technologies and entertainments. With Avatar, we have 3-D filming processes, 3-D exhibition, digital exhibition, and 3-D home entertainment all counting on the film’s appeal for their own advancement. And given that corporate participants in the making of Avatar span from Quebec’s Hybride to New Zealand’s Weta Digital, the film is a good example of a transnational economic entity. Avatar is a technological tentpole under which we find not only other movies and appended commodities, but media formats and processes that slide into our lives as supposedly essential. Technological tentpoles introduce and promote hardware and media systems; such entities advance the very notion of a reconstructed cinematic apparatus as well as that of a wider audiovisual environment.

Everywhere and everyway newspaper ad

Everywhere and everyway newspaper ad

Consider Avatar‘s newspaper advertising, which promises the routine geographical reach of a wide-release blockbuster (“everywhere”), but also format choice (“everyway”) between 2-D, digital 3-D, and Imax 3-D presentations, each with distinct appeal and pricing. A few years ago, David Denby claimed that the expansion of exhibition possibilities for film has produced “platform agnosticism,” such that people no longer care how and under what conditions they see films, resulting in a coup de grâce for traditional cinephilia. ((David Denby, “Big pictures,” The New Yorker, 8 January (2007), 54-63.)) Avatar‘s advertising shows just how erroneous Denby was. Instead, the multiplying formats have produced a heightened platform consciousness. In essence, the newspaper campaign sells film and formats at once.

The varieties of media materiality have ample representation in Cameron’s vision of the future. The film is replete with screens on screen: 3-D screens, topographical screens, video screens, computer screen, touch screens, hand-held digital tablets, and curved screens. Even the thematic center-point of the film–the conversion of our human characters into their respective avatars as giant blue extraterrestrial creatures, the Na’vi–appears as a form of transportation, with abstract blazing lights moving through a tube to some distant material body, like a cross between teleportation and long distance communication. Avatar is so embellished with interstellar cutting-edge media culture that one might be surprised to discover that it tells an anti-colonial tale of an indigenous population’s resistance to the exploitation of minerals on their home planet, Pandora, by invading Earthlings. As a political parable, it is a thinly veiled critique of imperial adventures by armed forces, ostensibly American in appearance and style (with at least one shot of “Old Glory” in the background). Bombastic dialogue about natives as terrorists and “shock and awe” tactics, take what might have been a John Milius film–for instance, Farewell to the King (1989)–and reframe it as a critique of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As influential as his work has been for non-conventional gender depictions, especially his muscularization of female action characters, the limits of Cameron’s imagination are apparent here in his racial politics. In Avatar, the species-specific divide presented on Pandora is recognizably driven by familiar earthbound notions of difference. Even as the drama directs audiences to cheer for the spiritually advanced and environmentally aware Na’vi, we confront stereotypical gestures and appearances of tribal peoples. Moreover, the actors behind the virtual costumes and make-up are suitably ethnicized to perform the “blueness” of the Na’vi. African-American actors CCH Pounder and Laz Alonso, and famous Cherokee actor Wes Studi, play lead Na’vi characters, and Dominican/Porto Rican-American actor Zoe Salanda plays hero Jake Sully’s love interest. Pointedly, only white folk, like our lead Sully, get to cross-over into specially cultivated Na’vi bodies. Sully’s story, then, is a “Na’vi like me” tale of passing. The core of the film is a “blueface” performance, which draws this film closer thematically to another “game-changing” film, the breakthrough talkie The Jazz Singer (1927), in which, in a way, Al Jolson’s stage persona is his racialized avatar.

The world of the noble savage offers ideologically safe contact with the natural and the archaic, that is, civilization’s Other. In Cameron’s case, the environmental ethos of the Na’vi, while reiterating the trope of nobility, is equally a way to present harmonious connections among all beings, using contemporary technological references to do so. Characters describe Pandora as a complex and complete data network, where even plant life has communicative capabilities. The Tree of Souls, the spiritual heart of the ecosystem, holds records of all feelings, expressions, and memories. It is, ostensibly, a colossal organic server. Flying into battle, individual Na’vi can communicate across distances by placing thumb and forefinger on either side of their throat, like a mimed handless mobile phone. Several scenes show the temporary intertwining of animal and humanoid as a kind of jacking-in of electrical filaments. Moments of this fusing are perhaps the most erotic renderings in the film, with abundant rolling eyes and pleasurable gasps.

Avatar's Tree of Souls server

Avatar‘s Tree of Souls “server”

As figured, the Na’vi are not merely figures of an ancient and superstitious worldview; like the technological tentpole commodity Avatar itself, the Na’vi offer an image of a superior technological system. Pandora is worth defending as an example of a natural data network and perfect synergy across beings and devices, with integration a racial, environmental, and technological concept simultaneously. The celebration of the peoples and creatures of Pandora is not a refusal of technological enhancement for some form of spiritual and environmental enlightenment, but a full acceptance of what might be called technological naturalism, that is an organic vision of an all-encompassing total media system.

The language of revolutionary change is a persistent feature in the film and media business. Never content with an existing apparatus, Hollywood has battled over formats, technologies, and processes as much as stars, directors, and movie franchises. Declarations of “game changes” and “revolution” are forms of competition at the level of hardware and software. In this way, an individual audio-visual commodity like Avatar, while working to entrench the dominance of key corporate participants, effectively continues a primary mode of investment in changing media materials and processes. The seizing of milestone moments is one way in which the very notion of technological change is made a comprehensible and vital part of our attention. At one level, even with all the local instances of innovation–and yes, to be sure, parts of the entertainment business are shifting dramatically–the language of “game changing” is another way to talk about business as usual.

Thanks to Zoë Constantinides for research assistance, and to Joseph Rosen and Haidee Wasson for inspiring conversation and commentary on the topic.

Image Credits:

1. James Cameron’s Avatar: Game-changer, or business as usual?
2. Publicity for Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox.
3. Newspaper advertising for Avatar.
4. Publicity for Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox.

Original comments:

Alex Cho said: 


Charles – Thanks for a thought-provoking piece. In all the clutter and buzz over the film’s politics and awards hype, it is refreshing to read an industrial angle.


One highlight for me was an implicit question in your bringing up The Jazz Singer — what is it about these sorts stories of white male displacement that *literally* paves way for the formal technological vanguard? In other words, what is the connection between race/Other fantasy and industrial innovation? I would love to read more from you on this — what an unexpected confluence.


I appreciate your term “blueface,” as well. I have wondered whether Avatar is the ultimate example of a white male guilt/redemption tale told with utmost allegiance to a contemporary “post-racial” politics — so much so that, even though all of the “natives” are indeed portrayed by actors of color, racial difference needs to be subsumed into a pleasantly universal “blueness.” We can’t talk about race explicitly, so let’s just make all the “others” blue and call it a day.


January 24th, 2010 at 10:19 pm

Eric Hoyt said: 


I love your conceptualization, Charles, of technological tentpoles that “introduce and promote hardware media systems.” What I think is important to emphasize is that technological tentpoles provide opportunities that extend far beyond a single studio, conglomerate, or industry. It’s fascinating to see the range of players trying to hitch their wagons to Avatar’s star. The 3D TV manufacturers at the CES show in Las Vegas point to Avatar as proof for the insatiable public appetite for 3D. Jeffrey Katzenberg of DreamWorks, a competitor of Fox, uses Avatar to validate his slate of 3D movies. If a traditional studio tentpole is intended to exploit synergies across a conglomerate, then a technological tentpole enables the film to extend beyond the conglomerate and allows other companies and industries to appropriate the film’s success for their own purposes. In other words, there are multiple “games” that can be changed by a technological tentpole.


Since failures can be just as interesting as successes, I think it is useful to revisit DreamWorks’ Monsters vs. Aliens—a film that, while not a bomb, certainly failed to become the technological tentpole that its producers hoped. Back in 2006 and 2007, the entertainment press positioned the DreamWorks animated film as competing against Avatar for the bragging rights of which film would be the first 3D mega-blockbuster. (If you’ll remember, both Fox and DreamWorks had announced the same release date—Memorial Day weekend 2009—which neither studio ultimately wound up using for these films). When Monsters vs. Aliens opened in March 2009 to $58.2 million at the domestic weekend box office, the DreamWorks publicists worked hard to convince us that we had witnessed the game changer. Consider this Los Angeles Times article, “‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ is a hit in three dimensions”:
http://articles.latimes.com/20…..oxoffice30“


In the article, a DreamWorks exec said the Monsters opening “really proves the viability of the platform,” and a box office tracking executive commented that “this shows that 3-D is here to stay.” The hyperbole became painfully evident when just days later the less expensive and decidedly 2D Fast & Furious opened to over $72 million at the domestic box office. According to Weekly Variety, both pictures wound up grossing around $370 million in combined domestic-international box office, placing them outside of the ten highest grossing films of the year.

These numbers are less important than the overall point: that the technological tentpoles depend on both a primed publicity machine and the eventual appropriation of the work by a series of other filmmakers, companies, and industries. If Avatar had bombed, I am sure that Tintin or another 3D wonder would have allowed the studios, electronics industries, and other savvy businesses with a chance to identify and celebrate the technological game changer that promises to make them more profitable.


January 24th, 2010 at 11:02 pm

Please feel free to comment.




You Haven’t Seen Avatar Yet
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University

avatar1

Extended collector’s edition of Avatar, with extended collector’s packaging

“Extend the journey.” That’s one of the taglines for Avatar’s second DVD/Blu-ray release (November 16, 2010). This journey isn’t just a reference to James Cameron’s sci-fi blockbuster. It describes the layers of packaging one must deal with to get to the actual DVDs inside: plastic wrapping, cardboard sleeve, hard cardboard cover, book-like bound folder, and finally pull-out tabs for each of the three discs. This object, with its luminescent blue color scheme and images of the film’s Na’vi creatures of Pandora—no live-action scenes here—is a jewel box designed to instil a sense of preciousness to an already amply familiar movie. For all the technological sophistication of compressed digital storage to be read by lasers, let’s remember the importance of folded cardboard in the augmentation of value.

The DVD release is one of many predictable stops on a journey through the iterative world of moving image commodities. Considering the most recent DVD edition of Avatar, “extend the journey” can also be seen as a description of the core business plan for a nascent film franchise, which requires additional films (with more Avatar installments reportedly coming December 2014 and December 2015) and exploitation of multiple merchandising opportunities. But a new film episode is only one way to expand a film saga; with this particular DVD release, we see that the movie itself is elastic. New chapters supplement the original work, such that what we think of as Avatar is in fact a mutable and varying entity, a work-in-progress.

Avatar is not a single finished film with defined boundaries. Though not officially the title, much advertising material refers to the movie as James Cameron’s Avatar, an auteurist conceit that carries the stamp of brand predictability. His name is a guarantor of a set of generic and technological expectations. Moreover, the titular presence of Cameron highlights the ongoing involvement of his creative hand. This is his film, and he will do with it what he wishes. Notably on the November 2010 DVD/Blu-ray release, the phrase “director’s cut” does not appear. Instead, this set is the “extended collector’s edition.” One can confidently assume that there will be a “director’s cut” at some point, meaning the textual variations are not yet finished. Most obviously, the currently available Avatar DVDs and Blu-rays do not offer the primary feature of the theatrical releases—3D—meaning more home viewing options are sure to follow.

avatar 2

“Journey deeper into Avatar

The packaging promises that with the DVD we “journey deeper into Avatar”—not Cameron’s fictional universe but Avatar the film. In this way, the line hails us to engage more fully with the film as an industrial product rather than directly inviting us back to Pandora with the colonizing Earthlings. Similarly, the outermost sleeve asks us to “experience the complete filmmaker’s journey with 3 discs and 3 versions of the film!” This ambiguous statement presents the entire package as a making-of documentary, which it isn’t. Nonetheless, with three versions of the film included, among other offerings, this DVD set provides a highly selective window into an ongoing production process.

What are the three versions included in this edition? One is the original theatrical release from December 18, 2009 (162 minutes), and which had previously appeared as an unadorned DVD on Earth Day April 22, 2010 to capitalize on the film’s environmental ethos. In a perplexing marketing decision, indicative of the transition period between DVD and Blu-ray, a two-disc package of both formats was also released at that time, which was the only way one could purchase a Blu-ray version. The other two versions are the “special edition re-release,” in theatres on August 27, 2010 (170 minutes), and, exclusive to this set, the “collector’s extended cut” (178 minutes). So, by the third version, the film is now sixteen minutes longer than the original release. Considering the preference options we expect of DVDs, there are other demographically sensitive kinds of adaptability, too: Spanish and French audio tracks in addition to the original English, English and Spanish subtitles, closed captioning, and a family audio option that removes “objectionable language.”

avatar 3

James Cameron in Capturing Avatar, DVD menu for the making-of documentary

The three versions of Avatar are split across two discs. The second disc also includes A Message from Pandora (20 minutes), a documentary short that chronicles Cameron’s involvement with the environmentalist organization Amazon Watch, depicting actions taken against a massive Brazilian dam project, but which does so by establishing parallels between indigenous people of the Amazon and Pandora’s Na’vi. The third disc, called “Filmmakers’ Journey”—note the possessive generously acknowledging the collaborative nature of the enterprise—includes a making-of documentary, Capturing Avatar (98 minutes), as well as forty-five minutes of deleted scenes, that is, additional additional footage. These are not bloopers. They are scenes that are “never-before-seen” with “unfinished footage” in various stages of completion. In viewing, one can extrapolate the extra layers of construction needed to polish each clip—green screens filled in, performance capture footage fully rendered, and soundtrack finished. Still, the term “scene” suggests a degree of completeness, making these oddly legitimate parts of the film, or at least the filmmaking process, despite their lowly extra-narrative status. What will it take to move these from the hierarchically subordinate third disc to the body of the text? Or are they only ever to appear as adornment to the main feature, no matter how mutating and expansive it may be? Certainly, the status of a clip as “never-before-seen” ends the moment of release. The third disc also conveniently offers in a single location the sixteen minutes of additional scenes added to the main features. No need to wade through each entire version of the film in order to spot what’s new.

avatar 4

Introducing a “never-before-seen” scene with “unfinished footage”

These clips amount to three hours of additional material in this DVD set. That’s nothing. The simultaneously-released Blu-ray format boasts eight hours of extras, including extensive behind-the-scenes production footage, an archive of production material, and interactive production information, some of which was live for a limited time.

What is this material we call “extra footage” and “deleted scenes” that have become conventional options on DVD/Blu-ray menus? They differ from other forms of extras in that they are explicitly supplements to the world of the film. If they appear with authorial validation, and are inserted into a film, the new and improved version supposedly becomes the more fully realized cinematic vision. Examples include such key moments in contemporary Hollywood as Steven Spielberg’s 1980 re-release of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), which includes footage inside the alien mothership at the end that did not appear in the first release, or of Ridley Scott’s 1992 re-release of Blade Runner (1982) as the director’s cut. A less successful effort, but one that marked the coming provisionality of digital cinema, was George Lucas’s digital insertion of creatures and scenes into the 1997 re-release of Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (1977), which, obvious and distracting as they are, look like free rub-on transfers of dinosaurs from the bottom of a box of Sugar Crisps.

While these were all initially theatrical re-releases, as was Cameron’s first lengthened special edition of Avatar, the storage capacity of DVD and Blu-ray prompts even more ambitious expansions. DVD and Blu-ray allow us to buy footage in bulk. Fill the bucket to the brim, and whether you fill it with vinegar or wine is not as important as the sheer volume. The measure of this volume is minutes, and more minutes equal more value.

One template for DVD extras is Criterion’s cinephilic material of historical relevance to the artistic value of the main feature. Their edition of Breathless (1960) includes a booklet with the film’s original treatments, video essays, the original trailer, interviews with Godard and lead actors, and a making-of documentary. All these extras bolster the unique and stable work of Godard’s masterpiece, presenting it all the more assuredly as timeless. Even the transfer is approved by the film’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard, lest cinephiles worry about the digitization of a beloved classic.

But the Avatar model puts less stock in the singular prestige of the film. Instead, Cameron’s endlessly expanding imagination, as represented by the seemingly bottomless archive of filmed material and iterations, is the focus. And both home entertainment formats sell a peek into the production of the film that has resulted in this deep catalogue of footage, a peek that is largely attentive to the newest forms of cinema technology involved, including 3D shooting and performance capture. In this way, the expandable text is a romance with a particular mode of cultural production defined by an engagement with new technological materials and processes.

avatar 5

Environmentalist Oscar campaign for Avatar in Variety

An activist spirit slips out of the film. For all of utterly conventional racial motifs, and its ideological limitations on other counts, Avatar is unambiguously a fable of exploitation and an explicit critique of colonial adventure. And as such, it has been mobilized by Palestinians to protest an Israeli barrier, who dressed, and inhaled tear gas, as the fictional Na’vi. Canadian and First Nations environmentalists used the popular tale to draw attention to the developing catastrophe of the Alberta oil sands projects, even placing a notice in Variety to voice support for Avatar’s best picture Oscar campaign. In response, Cameron subsequently toured the Northern Alberta site. He met with politicians and business leaders who themselves hoped to win Hollywood blessing for their enterprise. But Cameron did not disappoint the activists, and he has, to date, steadfastly condemned the energy project.

avatar 6

“Revolution”

As a dominant theme in Avatar, and as evident in A Message from Pandora, political engagement has also served as a way to promote the film. Accordingly, newspaper advertising called the “extended collector’s edition” as a “revolution,” a term that simultaneously referred to the uprising depicted in the film, referenced earlier descriptions of Avatar’s innovative 3D filming processes, and described the work that went into the DVD/Blu-ray sets. Part of the November 2010 DVD re-release is a flyer for “an activist survival guide” book tie-in, which is “a confidential report on the biological and social history of Pandora.”

As energizing as the dream of revolution may be, what is actually at issue is a set of expectations about the importance of technological innovation in moving image industries. Avatar, with an ongoing re-release schedule that alternates between platforms and an expandable text and paratext, represents a refinement of franchise operations in the context of digital production and distribution. And the value of the new scenes added to a new Avatar iteration is beyond narrative extension, character elaboration, or thematic depth. Amassing more material to cram into the film, or to file away as a sidebar, marks a salient difference from previously available versions, thus warranting the additional release. But it is also evidence of the epic proportions of the production and the capability of digital manipulations of a text. In this way, the dominant topic of each re-release is a celebration of new technological processes and the expansiveness of the blockbuster economy itself.

Image Credits:
1. Detail, New York Times print advertisement, November 14, 2010.
2. DVD insert, Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition, Twentieth-Century Fox, 2010.
3. Screen capture of DVD menu, Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition, Twentieth-Century Fox, 2010.
4. Screen capture of DVD chapter, Avatar Extended Collector’s Edition, Twentieth-Century Fox, 2010.
5. www.dirtyoilsands.org
6. Detail, New York Times print advertisement, November 14, 2010.

Please feel free to comment.




Everybody Knows
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University


everybody knows1

Daily Variety headline image introducing the
“Nobody knows anything” segment of
Boffo!: Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters (( Bill Couturié, 2004 ))

There it is again. Like the Wilhelm Scream (“ah-AAA-ah”) sound effect, used so frequently that it has become an inside joke among sound designers and movie buffs. Or like that stock footage of a monkey washing a cat, played regularly by David Letterman and Jon Stewart on their shows, footage that is familiar and inconsequential, and references little other than its own apparent inconsequential familiarity. There it is, the most reflexively invoked aphorism about Hollywood: “Nobody knows anything.”

My most recent sighting was in the lead film article of a recent issue of Variety (September 6-12, 2010), but one doesn’t have to root around trade and entertainment news very long before you bump into this statement. More than journalistic shorthand—though it is that—it is equally likely to be uttered by producers, directors, actors, and critics. The HBO documentary, Boffo!: Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters, based on a book by Variety editor Peter Bart, devotes an entire segment of its short 75 minute running time to various celebrity insiders—among them Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, and Sydney Pollack—commenting on the accepted truth that nobody knows anything in Hollywood. In a virtually Rumsfeldian way, people in Hollywood may not know anything, but they know they know nothing.

boffo

Yup. Confirmation headline from Boffo!

Those repeating the “nobody knows anything” line tend to acknowledge that it is legendary screenwriter William Goldman’s acerbic assessment of Hollywood decision-making. So its repetition and attribution are a sliver of an industrial culture of citation, which, in and of itself, is intriguing. Respect for authorship and its particular creative labors, let alone the tribute of quotation, are hardly prominent features of our time. The routine incantation of Goldman’s bottom-line slogan as his slogan is recognition that it comes from an experienced and perceptive wit, and perhaps most importantly, from someone who is a critical and financial winner in the Hollywood game. Pierre Bourdieu tells us that there is no more powerful marker of cultural capital than the ability to bestow value where there is perceived to be none. Similarly, there is no more extreme exercising of meritorious status than to reveal the lie of meritorious status. Goldman’s career has earned him a position in which he can legitimately say there is nothing to earn, and still get work at good pay when he wants it.

“Nobody knows anything” is Goldman’s conclusion after years of witnessing haphazard decisions made by studio executives, who seem to be guided by sheer luck and blind impulsiveness. The line appears in his 1983 book Adventures in the Screen Trade, in which Goldman rehearses amusing behind-the-scenes stories about productions of his scripts, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men. In his low estimation, studio executives simply have no idea what will work in a film and what will click with audiences. To demonstrate this he recites examples of people making good decisions against their better judgment (e.g. after a preview for Butch Cassidy, B.J. Thomas’s representatives complained that the singer had set back his career by doing “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” for the film), people predicting success for weak properties (e.g. Richard Zanuck thought he would have a bigger hit than The Sound of Music with Star!), and people making risk-adverse decisions about movies that will prove to be lucrative for someone else (e.g. every studio except Paramount turned down Raiders of the Lost Ark, even with hit-makers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas attached to the project).

screenplay

Screenplays are Structure

In its debut, Goldman builds up his one-liner as a core axiom of the Hollywood business scene. In fact, so no reader can misunderstand how fundamental this claim is, it actually appears on its own in the middle of the page as “NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING,” which he then repeats in the same format a few lines later. It’s like Goldman is shouting it at you. The phrase has since traveled far since its first appearance, leaving behind Goldman’s book, crammed as it is with amusing anecdotes. One almost never hears, for instance, that “nobody knows anything” was one of two core axioms suggested by Goldman in that book, the other being “SCREENPLAYS ARE STRUCTURE,” which he introduces with the same format and repetition as the first more famous one. No surprise that screenwriter Goldman places his craft at the heart of the movie-making enterprise, nor that, in the context of the hegemony of scriptwriting authority Syd Field and now of Movie Magic Screenwriter software, the logical segmentation and organization of events and tasks is taken as a primary function of scripts. What is striking is that as a key to the secrets of Hollywood, “screenplays are structure” has been left aside for the more generalizing claim that “nobody knows anything.”

Surely, part of the appeal of that oft-repeated line is its irreverence. It conveys the impression that one doesn’t take one’s profession too seriously. It is self-effacing and blasé, and in this way, it express a sense of cool. Giving credit to chance, the statement humbles. Importantly, it turns the reins over to the audience, whose wild nature makes them unpredictable and unknowable to industrial agents. “Nobody knows anything” flatters the popular movie-goer as a dignified and mystical energy that can never be captured by the mere ambitions of showman, unless, of course, we want to be captured.

audience

Turning the reins over to the audience?

This, of course, is classic mythmaking. These are stories one segment of the media industries tells in order to smooth over obvious and material contradictions, like why some marginally inventive people have long and illustrious careers and other more talented folks languish on the sidelines. The “nobody knows anything” catch-phrase is smokescreen, pure and simple, for an extensive and concentrated organization of advantage in the arena of commercial cultural enterprise. This advantage is evident in terms of access to capital, the ability to act on the rising and falling value of talent, the existence of deep-pockets for industrial-size audience research, the ownership of prized intellectual property, and a corporate structure that facilitates cross-media launches of new franchises. In other words, a good deal of time, resources, and effort are devoted to the accumulation of knowledge useful to the cultural industrial operations and to the protection of the ability to capitalize on that knowledge.

The “nobody knows anything” thesis is a bid to present the corridors of cultural finance and industry as an art world, ruled by passion and inspiration. There is something appealing, if disingenuous, about our treasured artists—Morgan Freeman, George Clooney, and Sydney Pollack—as hapless creatures of whim. Still, contra the protestations of ignorance, as Leonard Cohen sings it, “Everybody knows the dice are loaded.”

Image Credits:
1. Frame grab from Boffo!: Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters (HBO, 2004)
2. Frame grab from Boffo!: Tinseltown’s Bombs and Blockbusters (HBO, 2004)
3. Screenplay
4. Audience

Please feel free to comment.




Marshall’s Children
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University


McLuhan detail

Back to the future?

Who are Marshall’s children?

You may have read that title and assumed the article was going to be about Eminem.

An older generation would have reflexively connected “Marshall” with “Tito.”

Okay, how many are now thinking about the Jackson 5?

McLuhan is the Marshall in question, a name all media scholars know as either essential or essential-to-avoid reading. And we are all Marshall’s children. Though we can trace several lines of ancestry for communication and media studies–for instance, to the mass communication research programs of the Rockefeller Foundation of the 1930s–we must acknowledge the bump in department formation during the expansion-driven university economy of the 1960s, a bump coinciding with the extraordinary luminescence of McLuhan’s popularity. This is not to say that McLuhan sparked this bump (though his foundational influence in my institutional home, the first degree-granting communication studies department in Canada, is indisputable), nor that his writings had a unanimous seal of scholarly approval, which they did not. Even at the height of his fame, some denounced him as a charlatan, establishing a Manichean dynamic that continues to this day. He survives as both patron saint of Wired magazine and as a thinker who tends to be left in the bottom drawer when it comes to media studies course reading lists. His ideas exist in the balance between fashionable–or fashionably retro–and just plain out of touch.

McLuhan’s influence upon the 1960s and subsequent decades has been such that he, in the very least, articulated an agenda for what we expected of the information society, and, as a result, an agenda for what came to be expected of communication studies departments, which was, to be reductive, the preparation of students for a new economy of changing media technology. This agenda has an uneven intellectual legacy. I’ve seen smart people led astray by Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) and The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographical Man (1962), taking far too seriously their prognostications. I’ve seen how McLuhan’s ideas can mystify and seduce students into unproductively deterministic and evolutionary thinking about media. And I’ve seen arguments about technological change get bogged down in McLuhanesque ahistorical claims that rule out resolutely engaged questions about material conditions. McLuhan might help some people think about the long view of human civilization–or better yet, eternity–but he’s slippery at best when it comes to the specificities and complexities of the lived time horizon we actually inhabit.

Having laid my cards on the table, I still read him and read about him, in part because in his work and life one encounters the formation of some major priorities of our time. Depending how you count, I’ve just finished my third or fourth biography of him, this one by the key organic intellectual of Generation X, Douglas Coupland, who is, in his own way, an agenda-setting voice.

Marshall McLuhan (2009) is part of John Ralston Saul’s “Extraordinary Canadians” book series, which assigns historically prominent Canadians to contemporary celebrity writers who compose short accessible biographies. The famous subjects selected for the series betray a left-leaning progressivism, including such north-of-the-49th household names as Louis Riel, Emily Carr, and Tommy Douglas. This progressivism matches one strong, and frankly appealing, strain of national self-mythologization, but it also suppresses the brutal and stultifying aspects of what is as exploitive an advanced industrial society as has ever existed. The apolitical McLuhan stands out, then, from the generally progressive figures in Saul’s book series as a by-standing grandstander among engaged intellectuals, artists, and politicians. For this reason, McLuhan is a fine representative of the self-interestedness of Canadian cosmopolitanism.

Coupland's Marshall McLuhan

Coupland does McLuhan

To accomplish the assignment Saul gave him, Coupland takes on the language of ephemerality and randomness. He treats McLuhan’s books as collectible commodities for sale online at Abe Books, reprinting listings including the price and condition of each item. He offers pages of anagrams of the most famous McLuhanism–“global village,” “the medium is the message”–which become brief lessons in pattern recognition. And he displays uncertainty about the status of the biography and its presumption of a unified subject. So concerned is he about this status that no biography in publishing history, I’d wager, has displayed such deference to anonymous or unedited web-postings about the individual being researched. For example, behind a cover boasting an artfully impressionistic portrait of McLuhan and on crisp 30% recycled paper stock, Coupland refers the reader to the Wikipedia entry for Understanding Media rather than elaborating on that book himself.

Coupland employs these tactics to explore the border between the print culture of the book and the digital culture of the Internet. Marshall McLuhan becomes an exercise in how one goes about a literary task in McLuhan’s post-literate era. Coupland’s poetic rendering begins with McLuhan in his final days, ravaged by a stroke that left him without speech, freeing a bee trapped in his office while muttering “boy oh boy oh boy.” Bees are the topic of Coupland’s most recent novel Generation A (2009), excerpts of which he includes here in short stories that, as readable as they are, leave you with the impression he needed more pages to fulfill the contract. These are among the more pedestrian turns in Coupland’s standard issue self-reflexivity. More evocative is the closing segment, in which he stretches from McLuhan’s early days in Alberta and Manitoba to Coupland’s own grandfather, traveling great distances across the limitless horizon of the Prairies to sell concrete during which, as Coupland imagines, he contemplates the very nature of space and modernity.

The sweep of the narrative of McLuhan’s life remains fascinatingly specific to the post-WWII context, and the story of the transformation of the Cambridge trained literary critic into an oracle of our information society is a wonder to re-visit. As Coupland captures, through a decade-long rehearsal and distilment of the works of Harold Innis, Ted Carpenter, and Siegfried Giedion, to name but three of his major influences, McLuhan arrived at an intellectual strategy that condensed complex observations into alternately pithy and baffling aphorisms. By the beginning of the 1960s, he had a large inventory of such statements, which he then spun out and re-combined for the next two decades hampered only by health issues and, in my view, his virtual inability to write substantive works on his own after 1964.

But consider this: one million copies. That’s the sales figure for The Medium is the Massage: An Inventory of Effects (1967), the short photo essay consisting of statements from McLuhan with counterpoint images, curated and designed by Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore. One million copies. Has any other media theorist been able to have this kind of popular reach, as measured by book sales? In the futurist camp, one might include a figure like Alvin Toffler and his book Future Shock (1972). But for media theorists specifically, this must be a unique achievement. McLuhan’s Understanding Media was a 1964 must-read, topping 100,000 copies. But one million!

McLuhan's in the machine

McLuhan: Ghost in the machine?

It is here that we find the value of this biography and of re-considering McLuhan in general. Coupland elegantly draws out how foundational McLuhan was to the way we think, talk, and aspire to live in a mass-mediated world. McLuhan’s work, and importantly its popularity, set in place core qualities of the electronic age and he made the orientation of our world toward new media seem inevitable. In this way, McLuhan bears considerable responsibility for easing our entry into the digital era. Obviously, this was not his responsibility alone, and, as I mentioned, his ideas and concepts find their origins with other writers. But his influence was so great that he functioned to establish an everyday understanding of, and set of priorities about, the upheaval of contemporary society. McLuhan is part of the vernacular of our media environment.

For this reason, you still hear people claiming he “predicted” later technological developments, in particular the Internet. Coupland tempers this tendency, though he can’t entirely help himself and settles on the slightly less psychically inflected “foresaw.” Instead, I would suggest, McLuhan made sure we would be talking about something that we later ended up calling the Internet. He put an idea about the instant and abundant global movement of media messages on our collective agendas as though it was specific to the latter half of the 20th century (which most media historians will quickly point out it was not). Whether he was right or wrong in his statements about media strikes me as beside the point. An obsession with a new sensorium associated with global universalism, immediacy, mobility, individuality, immateriality, and technological change defined the coming decades, domesticating an economic and industrial regime as inevitable and natural.

And this is the heart of McLuhan’s political legacy, not the actual claims about different media, but McLuhan’s vision of imminent change, that there were such changes written into the deep code of media, and that the changes were preordained and unstoppable. Refusal was no longer an option. It may seem odd to suggest, but the confusing and logically shaky claims of McLuhan became a kind of commonsense in the context of the first era of computers. His dominant, pervasive, and contradictory ideas made it that much more challenging to account for the full cost this global transformation has exacted on our environment, economy, and civil society. So by returning to McLuhan, you return to a point of consolidation, and popularization, of the technological imperative of global change, an imperative that we have recklessly allowed to occupy our imagination of what society and culture might be. Yes, McLuhan is alive and well and writing ad copy for Cisco Systems, apps for iPhone, and artist grants for new media installations.

Further Reading:
Cavell, Richard. McLuhan in Space: A Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002.
Coupland, Douglas. Marshall McLuhan. Toronto: Penguin, 2009.
Marchessault, Janine. Marshall McLuhan: Cosmic Media. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2005.

Author’s note: Thanks to Haidee Wasson for commentary.

Image Credits:
1. Close-up of the Marshall McLuhan book by Douglas Coupland.
2. Cover of the Marshall McLuhan book by Douglas Coupland.
3. Author screen capture.

Please feel free to comment.




Avatar as Technological Tentpole
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University

Neytiri

James Cameron’s Avatar: game-changer, or business as usual?

The jokes describing Avatar (2009) have been almost as good as the movie: Pocahontas meets Halo, Dances with Wolves in Space, James Cameron’s Ferngully, and a recruiting vehicle for Blue Man Group. With the juggernaut roll-out of Cameron’s first fiction feature since the unsinkable Titanic (1997), such humorous spins are to be expected. But it is one thing to put the promotional engine in high gear and it is another to deliver a financially successful, audience-pleasing, and critically respected film to match the hype. By virtually every measure, Cameron has done exactly that with his body-swapping environmentalist space opera. Avatar enjoys an impressive cumulative score on the omnibus movie review website Rotten Tomatoes. And audience curiosity bulked up the film’s box office to $429 million domestic, and $1.33 billion worldwide, in less than four weeks, making it already the second highest grossing film of all time.

Avatar is a “tentpole” film, which means it is the centerpiece of distributor Twentieth Century Fox’s slate of recent releases. There is no stable definition for what counts, but tentpoles typically have large budgets, especially for promotion, and might be expected to launch or continue a film franchise. A major distributor may have a couple of tentpole films over the course of a year. Such films are often mentioned in the annual reports of media corporations, as distributors temporarily bank corporate fiscal health on the success of those particular releases. With tentpoles drawing the largest audiences, a distributor fills out its “tent” with films that might be directed toward genre or niche audiences. For exhibitors, a tentpole benefits simultaneously released films, as, say, parents drop off their kids to see Avatar and then take in It’s Complicated (2009) on the screen next door.

But Avatar is also something of a different order. Few media products have such elevated expectations as Avatar. And these expectations are not only for its own success, but for a number of other products and technologies it has bundled to share its revenue-generating glory. Remarkably, many believe that this film marks a revolutionary moment in the history of cinema, that it is a “game-changer.” Steven Soderbergh was one unlikely auteurist voice who sang the praises of Avatar before its release based on partial footage he had seen during the production process. He went so far as to describe it as a “benchmark” movie, comparable to The Godfather (1972) in its day. ((“Exclusive: Soderbergh gives Avatar high praise,” www.comingsoon.net, 30 April (2009). Cameron was a producer for Soderbergh’s Solaris (2002), so it’s possible there is a closer relationship than is evident from their different filmmaking personas.)) Similarly, DreamWorks Animation head Jeffery Katzenberg asserted, “I think the day after Jim Cameron’s movie comes out, it’s a new world.” ((Quoted in Dana Goodyear, “Man of extremes: The Return of James Cameron,” New Yorker, October 26, 2009, 67.)) At the film’s premiere, director Michael Mann declared, “There’s before this movie and after this movie.” ((Bill Higgins, “All eyes on Avatar; fellow directors shower praise on Cameron,” Variety.com, 18 December (2009).))

Avatar's Na'vi of Pandora, one avatar and one not

Avatar‘s Na’vi of Pandora, one avatar and one not

The language of the “game-changing” impact of Avatar is illuminating. First, the film represents stupendous budget aggrandizement, and even more Byzantine accounting procedures than usual. The official budget from Fox and Cameron’s production company Lightstorm Entertainment was $230 million, up from the initial budget of “close to $200 million” when Fox’s participation was first announced in January 2007. ((Sharon Waxman, “Computers join actors in hybrids on screen,” New York Times, 9 January (2007): E7.)) So unrestrained was Cameron’s spending that that amount soon seemed like a bargain next to unofficial estimates. Once we add all international distribution and marketing expenses, and the personal financial commitment of individual investors, including Cameron, the figure is closer to $500 million. ((Michael Cieply, “Eyepopping, in many ways,” New York Times, 9 November (2009): B1, B6.)) That Avatar‘s grosses rapidly surpassed its record-breaking budget gives major industry investors confidence in the financial viability of the top end of the budget food chain. But take note that a parallel 2009 Hollywood success story is that of Paranormal Activity (2009), a $15,000 movie that made over $100 million in domestic release. These two films thus lay out two contrasting contemporary blockbuster economies.

Trade pundits and cultural commentators most frequently discuss Avatar‘s game-changer status in relation to 3-D exhibition. In fact, there is an industrial agreement that 3-D is the next revolution in cinema history, with, as Time put it, Avatar a vanguard example of the future of the format. ((Josh Quittner, “The Next dimension,” Time, 30 March (2009): 54-62.)) In a 60 Minutes feature on Cameron, Michael Lewis, head of the leading 3-D exhibition technology outfit RealD, said “Avatar is potentially the Citizen Kane of this medium.” 3-D exhibition, which has proven lucrative over the last few years, is being taken as a driving force for the acceleration of the conversion of theaters to digital exhibition, a conversion that affects both 3-D and 2-D films. In this respect, Avatar’s influence extends beyond 3-D, speeding up the obsolescence of celluloid projectors in mainstream theaters. ((Charlotte Huggins, “The Three dimensions of 3-D,” Produced By, Spring 2008: 25. It is curious that 3-D is being interpreted as a catalyst for digital exhibition because digital 3-D systems currently require screens that make their use for conventional 2-D projections darker, less sharp, and generally poorer in image quality.))

The spark to 3-D exhibition is but one of several other processes either developed or exploited by Cameron at the production end, including the Simulacam, which provides filmmakers and crew an immediate visual approximation of 3-D and CGI enhancements of shots. Cameron has also made 3-D shooting more director-friendly by developing, with cinematographer Vincent Pace, the patented Pace/Cameron Fusion System, which is light weight and allows for easier changes to the point of convergence between the two digital cameras required for shooting the 3-D effect. ((Matt Hurwitz, “Exposure: Vince Pace,” International Cinematographers Guild Magazine, April 2009: 30, 32, and 34.))

The “game-changing” hyperbole is manifest in other aspects of the Avatar commodity world. Game developer Ubisoft released a 3-D Avatar game just weeks ahead of the film, a move that prompted Variety to wonder whether or not this product was yet another “game changer,” pun intended. ((Chris Morris, “A Game changer?; Avatar looks to alter H’w’d vidgame push,” Variety, 15-21 June (2009): 4, 12. )) Ubisoft has been seeking involvement in the feature film business, acquiring prestige CGI company Hybride, based in St. Sauveur, Quebec. A further complication to the lines dividing entertainment industries, Cameron contracted Hybride to do effects for Avatar, the movie. Panasonic is using Avatar in an international cross-promotion deal to sell its own new HD 3-D Home Theater system. ((“Panasonic and Twentieth Century Fox team for global promotion of James Cameron’s Avatar,” Asia Corporate News Newswire, 21 August (2009); “Panasonic rolls with HD 3-D home theater truck tour,” Entertainment Close-Up, 5 September (2009).)) This push links to the gaming industry as Ubisoft’s Avatar: The Game requires a 3-D enabled television or monitor in order for the full 3-D design of the game to work. But it also looks ahead to 3-D television programming. Accordingly, following Avatar‘s apparent box-office success, several television channels announced plans for 3-D broadcasting.

So, while extraordinarily conventional in story and characterization, Avatar is celebrated and promoted to stand out as a flagship work beckoning the next wave of industrial and consumer technologies and entertainments. With Avatar, we have 3-D filming processes, 3-D exhibition, digital exhibition, and 3-D home entertainment all counting on the film’s appeal for their own advancement. And given that corporate participants in the making of Avatar span from Quebec’s Hybride to New Zealand’s Weta Digital, the film is a good example of a transnational economic entity. Avatar is a technological tentpole under which we find not only other movies and appended commodities, but media formats and processes that slide into our lives as supposedly essential. Technological tentpoles introduce and promote hardware and media systems; such entities advance the very notion of a reconstructed cinematic apparatus as well as that of a wider audiovisual environment.

Everywhere and everyway newspaper ad

Everywhere and everyway newspaper ad

Consider Avatar‘s newspaper advertising, which promises the routine geographical reach of a wide-release blockbuster (“everywhere”), but also format choice (“everyway”) between 2-D, digital 3-D, and Imax 3-D presentations, each with distinct appeal and pricing. A few years ago, David Denby claimed that the expansion of exhibition possibilities for film has produced “platform agnosticism,” such that people no longer care how and under what conditions they see films, resulting in a coup de grâce for traditional cinephilia. ((David Denby, “Big pictures,” The New Yorker, 8 January (2007), 54-63.)) Avatar‘s advertising shows just how erroneous Denby was. Instead, the multiplying formats have produced a heightened platform consciousness. In essence, the newspaper campaign sells film and formats at once.

The varieties of media materiality have ample representation in Cameron’s vision of the future. The film is replete with screens on screen: 3-D screens, topographical screens, video screens, computer screen, touch screens, hand-held digital tablets, and curved screens. Even the thematic center-point of the film–the conversion of our human characters into their respective avatars as giant blue extraterrestrial creatures, the Na’vi–appears as a form of transportation, with abstract blazing lights moving through a tube to some distant material body, like a cross between teleportation and long distance communication. Avatar is so embellished with interstellar cutting-edge media culture that one might be surprised to discover that it tells an anti-colonial tale of an indigenous population’s resistance to the exploitation of minerals on their home planet, Pandora, by invading Earthlings. As a political parable, it is a thinly veiled critique of imperial adventures by armed forces, ostensibly American in appearance and style (with at least one shot of “Old Glory” in the background). Bombastic dialogue about natives as terrorists and “shock and awe” tactics, take what might have been a John Milius film–for instance, Farewell to the King (1989)–and reframe it as a critique of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

As influential as his work has been for non-conventional gender depictions, especially his muscularization of female action characters, the limits of Cameron’s imagination are apparent here in his racial politics. In Avatar, the species-specific divide presented on Pandora is recognizably driven by familiar earthbound notions of difference. Even as the drama directs audiences to cheer for the spiritually advanced and environmentally aware Na’vi, we confront stereotypical gestures and appearances of tribal peoples. Moreover, the actors behind the virtual costumes and make-up are suitably ethnicized to perform the “blueness” of the Na’vi. African-American actors CCH Pounder and Laz Alonso, and famous Cherokee actor Wes Studi, play lead Na’vi characters, and Dominican/Porto Rican-American actor Zoe Salanda plays hero Jake Sully’s love interest. Pointedly, only white folk, like our lead Sully, get to cross-over into specially cultivated Na’vi bodies. Sully’s story, then, is a “Na’vi like me” tale of passing. The core of the film is a “blueface” performance, which draws this film closer thematically to another “game-changing” film, the breakthrough talkie The Jazz Singer (1927), in which, in a way, Al Jolson’s stage persona is his racialized avatar.

The world of the noble savage offers ideologically safe contact with the natural and the archaic, that is, civilization’s Other. In Cameron’s case, the environmental ethos of the Na’vi, while reiterating the trope of nobility, is equally a way to present harmonious connections among all beings, using contemporary technological references to do so. Characters describe Pandora as a complex and complete data network, where even plant life has communicative capabilities. The Tree of Souls, the spiritual heart of the ecosystem, holds records of all feelings, expressions, and memories. It is, ostensibly, a colossal organic server. Flying into battle, individual Na’vi can communicate across distances by placing thumb and forefinger on either side of their throat, like a mimed handless mobile phone. Several scenes show the temporary intertwining of animal and humanoid as a kind of jacking-in of electrical filaments. Moments of this fusing are perhaps the most erotic renderings in the film, with abundant rolling eyes and pleasurable gasps.

Avatar's Tree of Souls server

Avatar‘s Tree of Souls “server”

As figured, the Na’vi are not merely figures of an ancient and superstitious worldview; like the technological tentpole commodity Avatar itself, the Na’vi offer an image of a superior technological system. Pandora is worth defending as an example of a natural data network and perfect synergy across beings and devices, with integration a racial, environmental, and technological concept simultaneously. The celebration of the peoples and creatures of Pandora is not a refusal of technological enhancement for some form of spiritual and environmental enlightenment, but a full acceptance of what might be called technological naturalism, that is an organic vision of an all-encompassing total media system.

The language of revolutionary change is a persistent feature in the film and media business. Never content with an existing apparatus, Hollywood has battled over formats, technologies, and processes as much as stars, directors, and movie franchises. Declarations of “game changes” and “revolution” are forms of competition at the level of hardware and software. In this way, an individual audio-visual commodity like Avatar, while working to entrench the dominance of key corporate participants, effectively continues a primary mode of investment in changing media materials and processes. The seizing of milestone moments is one way in which the very notion of technological change is made a comprehensible and vital part of our attention. At one level, even with all the local instances of innovation–and yes, to be sure, parts of the entertainment business are shifting dramatically–the language of “game changing” is another way to talk about business as usual.

Thanks to Zoë Constantinides for research assistance, and to Joseph Rosen and Haidee Wasson for inspiring conversation and commentary on the topic.

Image Credits:

1. James Cameron’s Avatar: Game-changer, or business as usual?
2. Publicity for Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox.
3. Newspaper advertising for Avatar.
4. Publicity for Avatar from Twentieth Century Fox.

Please feel free to comment.




The Last Days of Videotape
Charles R. Acland / Concordia University


pirate vhs

Remember the three-minute whirl of a rewinding videotape or the dry mechanical clunk of it being ejected? Of course you do. These were part of the domestic soundtrack of film and television recording and viewing for the last couple of decades.

Unlike the lag in the introduction of recordable DVD players to the North American market, VCRs arrived as a medium for recording as well as for playback. True, the minor skills required to program VCRs to record TV broadcasts were fussy enough to dissuade many from regularly using that function. As a result, contra industry expectations in the 1970s, videotape rental eventually upstaged time-shifting as the dominant use, and revenue center, for the home video business. By the mid-1980s, jokes about VCRs flashing “12:00” – the tell-tale sign of a machine not set-up for programmed recording – were as pervasive as those about airline food.

Yet, people did record shows and build, and in some cases obsessively, videotape libraries. ((For an insightful study of this, see Kim Bjarkman, “To have and to hold: The Video collector’s relationship to an ethereal medium,” Television and New Media, vol. 5 no. 3, August 2004: 217-246.)) Neatly arranged on shelves or tossed randomly into cabinets, one would find late-night movie features, sporting events and awards shows, prime-time sit-coms, and miniseries. Collections might include some used VHS films and an archive of family home video. But apart from children’s titles and exercise videos, which became leading genres for the purchase of new video releases, people built these domestic libraries by taking time to consider what to include, what speed to record at, how to label and organize recordings, and what to duplicate and exchange through informal networks. So distant from our current expectation of the limitlessness of data storage space, for a while, videotape was just expensive enough to encourage VCR users to conserve tape: to pause when recording live to avoid wasting precious tape on commercial breaks, to squeeze as much onto a tape as the time-length would permit, and to re-use tape by recording over less valued material. Imperfections resulted from such experiments in home editing, and truncated programs were a familiarly frustrating consequence. ((The Digital Video Recorder is a curious exception to the limitlessness of storage; it requires a prioritization in one’s list, and an additional step to dump more precious recordings to a recordable DVD for longer-term storage. Currently, the DVR is, in the end, a mechanism designed for temporary capture and storage. Even the evident inaccuracy of programming grids assures we have a new era of incomplete recordings and amputated endings. The imperfectly recorded world of the VCR persists.))

In pointing to the VCR era of the vernacular moving image library, I’m not suggesting that aspects do not also describe DVDs and digital file-sharing as well. Home DIY recording culture confronts a dizzying array of available uploaded and downloaded material from corporate and more illicit sources. Though retail has driven the DVD market, we still find all manners of the everyday capture, manipulation, display, and circulation of desirable ripped and burned content.

vhs

So, why bother putting videotape and the VCR on our research agenda? After all, are we not so far beyond the death of videotape that we’ve actually entered the twilight years of the DVD?

First, the VCR was of critical historical importance in the way we understand and interact with the materials of moving images. Of course, there were precursors, but never so malleable, so inexpensive, and so available. The VCR was part of a cultural shift toward the cheapening of moving images, and toward a now-dominant sensibility of informality in the way we live with recorded motion. Moreover, this re-orientation of moving image culture and practice was significant for the operations of the entertainment business, and the VCR eventually tipped the revenue centre for film distributors away from theatrical exhibition, thus establishing patterns for ancillary markets that continue to be exploited.

Second, buried in the shallow grave of those vernacular archives of video recordings are an extraordinarily rich, if haphazard and idiosyncratic, assembly of broadcasting oddities. One-time broadcasting events and anomalies, rare local commercials, station identifications, and sign-off notices. Bumpers, news inserts, and weather alerts announce that one is not just watching, for instance, Force of Evil (1948), but a specific late-night broadcast by a particular station of that classic noir. And one cannot help but notice the temporal specificity of the broadcast-journalism-school-approved hair and teeth of local anchors preceding the credits to, say, a recording of The Arsenio Hall Show. While YouTube gives the impression of having gobbled up every last drop of moving image ephemera – which is not true by any stretch of the imagination – television broadcast recordings offer contextual material, blocks of ads, sequences of television segments, and programming line-ups. Contrast this with the hermetic feel of DVD box sets of television seasons, which, despite their supposedly prestige-enhancing extras, have been stripped of the sullying elements of their broadcast incarnation. ((Charlotte Brunsdon discussed a similar point in a keynote presentation on DVDs and television criticism at the “Medium to Medium” symposium, Northwestern University (April 2009), referencing a phrase from Derek Kompare that “DVD box sets provide the content without the noise.” Derek Kompare, “Publishing flow: DVD box sets and the reconception of television,” Television and New Media, vol. 7 no. 4, November 2006: 352.))

Third, VCRs and VHS cassettes are not really the “dead media” industry pundits would have us believe they are. In 1993, Video Store published a death-bed announcement, along with a tombstone graphic, saying the “demise of VHS is imminent.” ((Thomas K. Arnold, “Many say market demise of VHS is imminent; Few see the format lasting much longer, but cassette could become a niche,” Video Store, December 21-27 (2003): 1, 24.)) It was three additional years before there were more DVD households in the world than VCR. ((“DVD hardware overtakes the VCR,” Screen Digest, November 2007: 333-340.)) Into 2006, some American films still appeared on VHS, with A History of Violence (2005) claiming the ignominious last spot. The final VCR unit went to retailers in 2008, though dual DVD-VHS units remain available. All of this is still very recent history, and the cassettes and machines will remain with us for a while longer. People did not simultaneously free themselves of a format, wiping clean their previous technological investments. Instead, there is a longer, slower, transition, often with people waiting out the mechanical life of devices, and in this way producing extended periods of overlap between the old and the new. Take note that even today, the most recent edition of Leonard Maltin’s popular video guide contains more VHS titles than DVD (13,000 vs. 11,000). ((Leonard Maltin, Leonard Maltin’s 2010 Movie Guide, New York: Signet, 2009.))

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A novel way to move videotape

Even with all the industry talk about the coming expiration of videotape in the early 2000s, and while major rental and retail chains were divesting themselves of VHS, smaller operations continued, and can still be found, carrying tape. Single-outlet stores proved to be reluctant to get rid of an inventory they’d already paid for, despite the lure of more shelf space afforded by the trim DVD, and concerned about alienating existing clientele, especially older and lower-income patrons. ((Melinda Saccone, “Smaller video specialty retailers slower to abandon VHS,” Video Store, May 9-15 (2004): 25.)) They chose to sell off gradually their previously-viewed titles, doing so at such cheap prices and sparking one more stage of life for VHS. Though the primary market for VHS has flatlined, secondary markets continue, with eBay and garage sales keeping titles in circulation.

The cultural life of “out-moded” materials, and the transition between formats, is active enough to bear special attention. Of the many examples of unevenness in media transition, consider the case of Swank Motion Pictures, which has been providing US correctional institutions – public and private, federal and state – with filmed entertainment since 1937. They have exclusive licensing from Hollywood majors, as well as numerous independent outfits, to distribute films to prisons and to arrange for the necessary performance rights. While DVD is now their dominant format, their catalogue includes VHS material that was specially edited for an incarcerated audience. Thus, in this instance, specialized material for a specialized audience guarantees an extension of use for the older format.

The full life cycle of any media – including VCRs and cassettes- equally involves its environmental impact, and contributions to e-waste remain in our midst well past the expiry date of exchange and use value. For all the end-of-life programs for electronics offered by the likes of Sony and Toshiba, US consumers recycle only about 18% of e-waste, and, according to the Basel Action Network’s Jim Puckett, 90% of this ends up in China and Nigeria, where unconscionable working conditions for the stripping of those discarded materials has created localized environmental disasters. ((US Environmental Protection Agency, “Statistics on the management of used and end-of-life electronics,” http://www.epa.gov/waste/conserve/materials/ecycling/manage.htm; and Shelagh McNally, “Stemming the tide of e-waste,” Vancouver Sun, May 30 (2009): J7. For an evocative statement on this topic, see Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, “E-Waste: The Elephant in the room,” Flow, 9.3 (2008).))

By drawing attention to that dust-covered box and to those under-utilized black plastic rectangles, whose contents may be marked for DVD transfer or junk, I am advocating for scholarship that addresses fading media machines. If we took industry trades publications seriously, videotape died years ago, and we would ignore it in favor of whatever has been deemed the economic golden goose of the moment. Media scholars need to be cautious about industrial cheerleading, lest our field becomes a bastion for studies of earlier adopters of new technology. As it is, too often it seems that communication and media departments exist as the go-to place for sound-bites on interactive this and touch-screen that. The prioritization of the “new” on our research agendas draws us more in synch with the priorities of the consumer electronics business. We become “incubators” for products and markets. A counter-veiling force in scholarship must meet this, one that situates the gleaming promises of ethereal media with a critical orientation toward the materiality of existing cultural life – dominant, emergent, and residual, as Raymond Williams so perfectly insisted.

Further Reading:
On the history of the VCR, the definitive work remains Frederick Wasser, Veni, Vidi, Video: The Hollywood Empire and the VCR, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001. Examples of the scholarly potential for re-visiting videotape culture are Lucas Hilderbrand, Inherent Vice : Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright, Durham: Duke University Press, 2009; Joshua M. Greenberg, From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video, Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2008; Will Straw, “Embedded memories” and Kate Egan, “The Celebration of a ‘proper product’: Exploring the residual collectible through the ‘video nasty’,” in Residual Media, ed. Charles R. Acland, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, 3-15 and 200-221; and Barbara Klinger, Beyond the Multiplex: Cinema, New Technologies, and the Home, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Notes:
Thanks to Brian Fauteux for research assistance.

Photo Credits:
1. http://www.ieee-jp.org/japancouncil/jchc/adm/vhs.jpg
2. http://media.obsessable.com/media/2008/11/10/zz7beb3583.jpg
3. Author’s picture

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