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Sat, 04 Jan 2003

A night at the movies

Yesterday, I went to the Filmhouse (one of Edinburgh's two alternative cinemas) to see Mamoru Oshii's Avalon.

I'm not a film critic. I am not very visually literate, and I don't have the critical vocabulary for tackling this kind of media. It's even worse when I try to describe an experience like watching "Avalon", which is positively elephantine, pregnant with hidden meaning and weird symbolism. So here's a bit of background ...

Mamoru Oshii is probably best known as one of Japan's top anime directors. His best-known film, Ghost in the Shell, pretty much redefined anime as a mature, thoughtful medium for exploring science fictional concepts relating to the nature of identity in an age where personality is reprogrammable and bodies fungible. It has been said, with some justification, that about 50% of "The Matrix" was ripped off from "Ghost in the Shell"; certainly "The Matrix" was a glossier, high-budget Hollywood take on some of the thematic material that Oshii's monumental cartoon dug its teeth into. Because Oshii had complete creative control -- he was working with the sort of budget associated with a feature length animation, rather than the megabuck budgets of a Hollywood blockbuster -- he was able to work without compromise; while "Ghost in the Shell" has more than enough action to keep the Nintendo generation happy, its slow, lingering landscape explorations -- showing the layered archaeology of a century that doesn't yet exist -- were just the most obvious symptoms of the preoccupations of the mind behind the camera.

Now we come to "Avalon". This isn't anime; it's a real movie, filmed using genuine old-fashioned film cameras and human actors (and some insanely brilliantly stunning CGI work to bulk up the special effects). Oshii filmed "Avalon" in Poland, using Polish actors, and he's clearly been trying to synergise the anime tradition and style with something Central European. Most of "Avalon" is shot in sepia tones; indeed, one way of looking at it is that it's a classic art-house middle-European subtitled art movie in which the characters spend the entire film angsting about the nature of reality between cigarettes. (And shooting things up with helicopter gunships, tanks, and giant robots -- for this is Mamoru Oshii, after all.)

The basic premise of "Avalon" is simple. In the near future, we have a combination of direct brain interfaces and massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games. One of these, "Avalon", is somewhat illegal -- some of the players, seeking to reach an unclassified (and possibly non-existent) high level, end up brain-dead. A few extremely skilled players play the game for money. One of these, Ash, goes on a quest for the restricted level -- and discovers more than she bargained for.

It's what Oshii does with this simple-sounding background that is so stunning. He's made a movie that would be literally incomprehensible to any audience, as little as 30 years ago. Concepts like mind uploading, sprite-based animation, RPG character classes, and the emergent economics of MMORPGs glide past in the background without explanation as Ash searches for her key to the highest level. Meanwhile, keep an eye open for the continuity errors -- that aren't. Parts of this movie are shot in gaming hell, and parts are shot in the real world; telling them apart is the tricky bit. There are any number of sly existential posers bound up in the structure of the cinematic narrative that only bit me on the ankle on the way out of the cinema, in discussion with a group of friends. About the only conclusions we could reach were (a) we needed to see the movie again, at least twice, and (b) Oshii fucks with your head.

(Final taunting note: "Avalon" is not on general release yet. Miramax have apparently acquired distribution rights to it, but don't look for it in a mainstream cinema. It'll probably be easiest to find on DVD, although the canonical 2-disk commemorative edition is out of production.)

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posted at: 12:45 | path: /misc | permanent link to this entry


Is SF About to Go Blind? -- Popular Science article by Greg Mone
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