Thursday, March 19, 2009

Under the Sea at Fernbank: more theory than you thought anybody could ever wrest from just one Imax movie

A couple of self-ironizing lifetimes later, André Gregory’s remark to Wallace Shawn in My Dinner With Andre that the theater is in trouble, and that it is in trouble mostly because everyone is doing such a good job of performing roles themselves that they don’t need to go see a play, seems both obvious and naively simplistic. But then, so does everything else from more than fifteen minutes ago.

Like the proverbial fish paying no attention to the pervasive medium in which they exist (until it suddenly isn’t there anymore), people these days use the digital media for performative purposes. And when you are earnestly performing in public at every moment (whether tweeting or constructing visual narratives of your day or what you had for lunch, often included in visual narratives of your day), your entertainment is likely to be non-narrative, or so incorporated into the taken-for-granteds of narrative that you pay no attention to the new normal of narrative structure.

Or else you pay reflexive attention to it: the different fascinations with the Watchmen film from those who revere Dylan and Cohen and appreciate the ironizations of an alternative 1985 seem to be different from those who primarily appreciate the ironizations or outright send-ups of the film's and the graphic novel’s narrative precursors. (The film further ironizes the music, which beginning with songs that were meant to be ironic to start with, means that irony piled upon generational irony becomes too irony-clad to be anything but unintentionally sincere.)

This is a rather strange way to segue into a discussion of the Imax film Under the Sea narrated by Jim Carrey and playing soon at Fernbank Museum of Natural History (and at many, many theaters near you, I’m sure). But the film had me thinking about art history, and that means thinking about narrative structure as well as visual structure. And everyone over the age of sixty seems to be talking about the Watchmen movie, usually in conjunction with Ludwig Wittgenstein. (Ludwig would have loved the film, I’m sure.)

Anyway, Under the Sea wrestles with the problem (without letting on that it is wrestling with the problem) of how to make the real world entertaining to audiences accustomed from infancy to special effects that make everyday reality seem the dull affair that it in fact usually is. Art has been wrestling with the same problems, and the Imax natural history film is a special case of popular art in which (unless you are dramatizing, say, the age of the Pharaohs) SFX have to be limited to soundtrack, lighting, editing, and camera angles.

So as we watch the film we focus, often, on the sheer profligacy of nature, which disturbed Annie Dillard no end in her lyrically philosophical nature writings, but here is used mostly for the “O, wow” impact of immense schools of colorful fish or immensely tiny shrimp. And the spectacle value neutralizes the sense of sheer excess pursued for the sake of survival; as Dillard wrote (I think it was Dillard, anyway), nobody feels disturbed at the sight of a field of wildflowers, and the fish of the tropics count as the wildflowers of the sea.

For Under the Sea is a delectably edited O-wow look at the life of the Coral Triangle of Papua New Guinea and adjacent islands of Indonesia (let’s leave the West Papua political problem out of this), followed by the Great Barrier Reef and on down to the colder waters of South Australia. (The South Australian waters are becoming less cold than they once were, and that’s the point of Under the Sea's understated environmental message about the unpleasant effects of global warming—but let’s stick with art history for the moment.)

The world revealed in Under the Sea is considerably more visually interesting than the murky tones of blue and black and beige to which generations of whale- and shark-watching viewers have become accustomed. It’s also more various than your standard view of a colorful coral reef, and the narrative pace of the visual improbabilities is worth considering.

Carrey’s narration keeps things moving without cutesifying the action overmuch. Viewers are all too ready to go “Yeah, yeah, yeah” at the slightest hint of anthropomorphized animals, unless the ascription of humanoid touches brings out our own animality. And Carrey’s delicately anomalous narration makes, for example, cuttlefish sex seem both utterly alien and painfully familiar.

But mostly it is the utterly alien that this film sticks close to, and this continuous immersion in the unfamiliar is what brought art history most insistently to mind.

The Surrealists made much of the curiously disturbing qualities of coral and of anomalous-looking undersea creatures, but they were limited to the exigencies of black-and-white reproductions and specimens in museum collections. Their approach had more in common with the sixteenth and seventeenth century’s Cabinets of Curiosities than with the Surrealism in Other Creatures’ Everyday Life revealed or framed in this Imax film.

Garden eels undulating in tandem like oversized cilia or like, as the name implies, plants in an undersea garden; sea dragons whose bodies imitate the leaves of undersea plants; all in a ludicrously overstated palette that is more reminiscent of the design world of Karim Rashid than the almost colorless Bauhaus and constructivist world of contention beloved of earlier generations of undersea filmmakers.

In other words, this is a real world in which the dreams of earlier generations of artists are shown to be no more than unimaginative imitations of what an endlessly inventive planet has to show us, once we have the technology to go down and make movies about it.

Gorgeousness, though, is fragile; just as Karim Rashid’s reinventions of function depend on an economic and emotional substructure that makes his superstructure plausible, the ecosystems of the tropic seas depend on a planetary substructure that is currently sliding towards grimly colorless versions of extinction and survival.

It’s worth noticing what slices of the real our films choose to show to us in different moments of imaginative history; masters-of-the-universe moments have always focused on the big, the bad, the klutzy contending for supremacy, and this film shows us giant male cuttlefish facing off obstreperously while the smaller fry disguise themselves and slip by unnoticed; but in this film we are still in a historical moment in which we can focus on difference and revel in the fact that Darwinian struggle has made possible a diversity so dazzling that our most surrealist moments failed to catch up with what real life had to show us, out in the threatened shallows of the world’s tropic waters.

What’s odd is that so much of what Under the Sea has to show us is the stuff of standard tourist photography. The lusciously colored corals and swarms of reef fish have been documented by so many divers that they might be one of the sources of the nursery colors that began to dominate design about the time that global prosperity and good-quality waterproof cameras made snapshots from beneath the waves a de rigueur aspect of the upscale tropical vacation.

But editing and pacing and elegantly sequenced close-ups produce a hallucinatory effect that de-exoticizes these environments and makes them into the real world that they in fact are. Rather than souvenirs of a human being sticking his head into one more gigantic amusement park, the territories that Under the Sea shows us are the genuine spawn of an evolutionary process that human beings have perhaps irremediably put in danger. The hallucinatory quality is in ourselves, finding a real-world strangeness that is all the more unsettling (rather than comfortably “exotic”) because it is real, and a nature not at all inflected by culture.

And our Imax filmmakers can show us the real lives of creatures that seem so incredibly strange because we’ve gotten so good at dramatizing ourselves and manipulating the technology with which to do it. (So culture does determine what we can see of nature.)

Once we have gotten up close and pseudo-personal with the world’s real diversity, we may wonder how anyone ever was satisfied with the seahorses and scorpions of the nature movies of half a century ago, much less with the elaborations of them that still populate too much of the world’s animation. It’s the real-life elaborations of biomorphic geometry in films of the Under the Sea generation that lie behind the exuberance of the best and most optimistic of twenty-first century design, and it is comforting to know that reality outpaced human fantasies in terms of aesthetics a good many millennia ago.

We just didn’t know that it had until we had the tools to go look at it properly.

The problem, as began to be observed thirty years ago during the first convulsions of world economic and environmental dislocation, is that a sufficiently disordered planet ends up being dominated by adaptive but boring survivors—by English sparrows and city pigeons rather than the more environmentally specialized avian species.

And when it comes to the world’s oceans, thanks to overfishing and the increase in overall water temperature, the seas end up dominated not so much by boring but adaptive species as by…as by, increasingly, nothing much at all. Stretches of desolation and dead corals are becoming less and less the exception. We are in hot water.

So in spite of the Surrealist attraction of Under the Sea, it communicates the message that somehow we got to get our heads out our own internal organs and look at the threat that confronts us. But until we’ve seen what the reality is that we’re losing, we can’t begin to imagine what we ought to be doing about it.

And it would be more than merely a shame if a couple of generations down the road, this flamboyantly extravagant real-world stuff were to become only a well-documented memory, raw material for the imaginations of designers and makers of fantasy art.

But the need for future action is no reason not to immerse one’s own visuality in the O-wow qualities of the Imax production. It’s just that action ought to follow contemplation, at least in terms of voting for the practical acts that will help. (Environmental activists so often take on a puritanical tone that a little reminder of the sensuousness of our threatened ecosystems is downright helpful in this regard. Nature is intrinsically hipper than thou, for it brought forth thine own claims to hipness.)

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