Looking for that paradise zone.

*Glorious Home Cinema Dept: I don’t have a lot of time for much of anything anymore - I think I’ve seen five or so total films in theaters, I’m still only up to opponent #3 in Shadow of the Colossus, and my dvd time is sorely limited. Which I suppose is why I dearly like what few chances I have to sit down and watch something (whether pressing buttons or not) to be fairly close to optimal. I just don’t have many second chances anymore.

And yet I still find myself occasionally slamming into a wall. For example, the other day I finally found time to watch the R1 Miramax dvd of Avalon, anime personality Mamoru Oshii’s fourth and (thus far) final live-action film. I always find it compelling to watch dedicated animation directors weather the requirements of live-action, especially when it’s as stubbornly individualistic a talent as Oshii, who’s managed to reconfigure a certain segment of ‘serious’ anime filmmaking around his personal interests in dense atmosphere, slow contemplation, and man-machine chilliness (most famous film: Ghost in the Shell). Accordingly, his live-action work has been weird, experimental, and oddly diverse considering that two out of the four features he’s completed have involved his Panzer Corps. Universe (also seen in the old Dark Horse-released manga Hellhounds and the anime Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade, both of which Oshii wrote).

Avalon doesn’t have anything to do with the Panzer Corps. Completed in 2001, it’s obviously intended to some degree as a ‘response’ film to 1999’s The Matrix, which took some inspiration from anime sources, but also acts (to my mind) as something of an extended homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 religio-allegorical high art sci-fi thingy Stalker. And mixing Tarkovsky and Wachowski turns out to be a pretty interesting endeavor - the movie (which, by the way, was shot in Warsaw entirely in the Polish language), concerns a young woman who’s one of the world’s most talented players at a sprawling virtual reality MMOG that’s all but taken over the lives of huge groups of young people and has a tendency to make some players rich in underground markets and leave others literally brain-dead. It’s probably a more believable plot today than it was half a decade ago. Anyway, our heroine is haunted by the calamity that destroyed her awesome party of players back in the day, and obsessed with finding a secret Easter Egg zone called Avalon, where she believes she’ll be able to confront one of her beloved teammates that’s gone missing.

This means plenty of walking around and thinking about stuff, punctuated with bursts of action. Fittingly, the ‘real’ world is shot in ruinous sepia tones while the game appears in faded yet fuller colors. Just like in Stalker, a mystery bald man appears to guide people through a color world of strangeness, instructing them on odd, seemingly nonsensical moves to make and things to accomplish for the purposes of finding the secret room that they seek - Oshii happily replaces the realm of the soul’s isolation with video games, while extending Tarkovsky’s motif of helpless humankind relying on irrationality to sort through unknowable mysteries of living and dying. I’ll be frank: Oshii’s no Tarkovsky, and while the latter could make gross financial limitations sing, the former leaves many frayed edges showing, to the point of recycling shots we’ve already seen no more than fifteen minutes into the picture. Tacky!

Yet, Oshii is at least a resourceful director, and longtime scripting partner Kazunori Itô is a smart writer, and some interesting tricks play out. The film’s slightly dodgy special effects are relegated mostly to the gaming portions, where they suddenly look perfectly fitting as the product of a highly advanced game that nonetheless has room for improvement in the next generation’s sequel. The last fifteen or so minutes are exceedingly clever, approaching virtually (ha ha) the same core conflicts of the Matrix from an expansive, arguably more spiritual viewpoint. It’s the sort of film that, for all its faults, you’re glad you stuck it out with.

But that Miramax dvd, man - it’s the first dvd in a while that actually made me feel insulted through its presentation. I don’t really care that the package tries to sell the movie as an action film; hey, it’s gotta move some copies, and Miramax clearly felt that they’d do better playing obfuscation games than catering to the Mamoru Oshii live-action filmmaking fanbase in the US (membership: probably triple digits). Except… they fooled around with the movie itself, deciding that obviously American audiences would have no idea what was going on in the movie and that extra expository voiceover material during several of Oshii‘s 10,000 ‘wandering around the city’ sequences would be needed for the English dub. Except -- oops! -- I didn’t think the movie’s plot was all that hard to figure out at all, and the added voiceovers never accomplish anything except repeating information that the viewer is almost always given through dialogue anyway. Also, apparently the translation intentionally omits much of Itô's Arthurian myth-play in the script, since I guess Americans don’t read either.

So, why didn’t I just listen to the original Polish? Oh, I did. But joy of joys: the English subtitles are nothing more than a transcription of the English dub script, which means that all that extra exposition winds up appearing at the bottom of the screen anyway, even while nobody is saying anything onscreen!! Wow, Miramax sure covered their bases there! I know the company had a longstanding reputation with playing slice-'n-dice with their Asian acquisitions, but I can't recall any particular point where they expressed quite so much open contempt for the intelligence of their audience. It's really sort of sad, and it probably distracted me from the film.

Ah well. I think the UK dvd release of the film (not from Miramax) is a proper 'big kid' version, so maybe interested parties can import that or something. It's a nice movie, but I hate having my rare viewing experiences soiled.