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Avalon

Last night, I watched a Japanese/Polish-made SFD film directed by Mamoru Oshii called Avalon. A bit dated, the film was made in 2001, but anyway, it was new to me.

I don’t know quite what I think of it: it certainly doesn’t live up to anything like The Matrix in terms of SF-action, but then I don’t think it was supposed to be that kind of a film. As some of the commenters on the IMDB message boards have noted, it’s very Tarkovskian, slow and full of empty silences, beautiful mundanities, and a kind of weaving of “mythic” materials with the modern-science-fictional. That last one I’m not so crazy about: I usually think that using King Arthur references or falling back on Messianic themes in SF is a problem of weak imaginations, or underestimation of the viewer, and not artistry.

Somehow, though, in Oshii’s film, I wasn’t much bothered by the idea of Avalon, perhaps because it was so tightly woven into the story, so omnipresent, so much so that it was even integral to the beautiful soundtrack (by Kenji Kawai). I’m not a major fan of Virtual-Reality, especially not of VRs that are nothing but game environments (as opposed to, psychescapes like in the movie The Cell, and in a couple of Greg Bear’s best books from which a great deal of The Cell seems to have been taken). And the game in Avalon is fleshed out in a bit of a silly way: it’s basically a Dungeons&Dragons setup, with characters having experience points, all the same stats as D&D characters (as you can see in stat listings that flash across the screen from time to time when certain people access their game identities), and even the character classes: thieves, warriors, bishops, who advance along a level-gradation system by attaining experience points. Except of course they are in some kind of modern-war environment, and the difference between the classes is weakly explained—thieves seem more like scouts, and bishops seem more like generals.

Anyway… that aside, the thing about this movie is that it manages to be something it shouldn’t be. It should just be a weird cinematic artifact, a kind of almost-good SF movie, and yet for me, it turned out to be more than that. The detritus of the Warsaw Pact world that it takes place in—old communist weapons, old communist money, old communist buildings—feel more like the detritus of the 20th century, of our own world as it will look once we’ve left it behind. The long silences and shadowy spaces look like the real world will to us if we ever begin to stray too long into immersive virtual worlds. The world, according to what I see in this movie, will look more beautiful, and yet it will also fill us with fear and discomfort and a strange kind of longing to see it. That, in fact, was what I felt watching it unfold slowly towards its conclusion, which isn’t in fact a closing but another kind of opening-up.

And yet, I won’t recommend the film too highly, because unless the words above really make you want to see it, you probably wouldn’t find it very interesting at all. I think that, like with Tarkovsky films, this sort of thing just is not for everyone. But it surely is for me, and at times it even felt as if it had been made for me alone. Now that is a hell of a directoral trick.

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