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ON THE SHELF SPECIAL
Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about digital and print publications. With book shops struggling to survive (and only Waterstones left over here as the only national book shop chain) it does seem that the writing is on the wall for them. Digital does provide a more convenient experience for a lot of people. But there are specific books that, as of current technology, can only be properly consumed and enjoyed in print. I am talking about photographic and art books. Those lush hardcovers put together with extreme care and attention that showcase some of the finest work in a number of different fields.
New York based publisher Abrams has a list of great coffee table books and they were kind enough to furnish me with a few review copies of four of their recent titles.
First up is Hitchcock Piece by Piece by Laurent Bouzereau. A hardcover which is a little bit like the DC and Marvel Vault titles in that it includes pouches with detachable facsimiles of things like snippets of Hitchcock script, photos from the director’s family album and even a letter from the Motion Picture Association of America, querying whether Hitch’s The Birds was suitable for theatrical release with some of its contents making them feel uncomfortable. Apart from the detachable pieces, Hitchcock Piece by Piece features a selection of wonderful photos taken from various stages of his career of the director and many of his on-screen collaborators. Bouzereau’s writing is informative but never dry and he manages to pack a lot of his research onto the page. The reproduction here is very good and it is quote obviously a book that its editors, as well as its writer, have taken a lot of care and consideration as to how it should be approached and assembled. Even though Alfred Hitchcock is a subject that has fascinated writers and journalists for many decades, Hitchcock Piece by Piece is an intriguing historical document of the life and career of perhaps arguably 20th Century Hollywood’s most influential behind-the-camera figure…

Telling Stories: Norman Rockwell From The Collections of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg by Virginia M. Mecklenburg is another Abrams book but quite different to Hitchcock Piece by Piece. Put together in association with the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Telling Stories is a book that features two extended essays looking at the cultural impact that Rockwell made on American society. Illustrated partly by posters from the collections of Lucas and Spielberg, Mecklenburg, and Todd McCarthy in the second essay, Norman Rockwell’s Camera Eye, examine Rockwell’s distinguished career and take a look at the cinematic techniques that he utilised in his work. Despite the familiarity that audiences have with his work, it would have been nice if some of the images here had a little more room to breathe as the illos that are run on full pages remind you of the impact that Rockwell had on modern popular culture. Interestingly, McCarthy is a more accessible writer than Mecklenburg and his essay, buried at the back, feels fresher and more interesting to the reader. But it is still evident that Mecklenburg knows her stuff about the subject and she does manage to hold the reader’s attention, accompanied by the cream of Rockwell’s art. It seems timely that this book was released this year when a major Rockwell exhibition took place at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London…

The Making of Avatar by Jody Duncan and Lisa Fitzpatrick, was released to capitalize on the huge worldwide success of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie that dominated the world’s box office back in 2010. It’s not a bad book although it does seem quite light on concept art and storyboards. The writing strikes the right balance between dense techy prose and the sort of more general text that would appeal to the casual reader. Since Duncan is the editor of Cinefex, the magazine devoted to film special effects, her expertise in this field is clear to see here. But there should have been more images as the significance of Avatar was the groundbreaking visual work that Cameron, Weta and Co carried out. However this is the Making of Avatar rather than the Art of Avatar and so perhaps I am being overly critical. The Making of Avatar does provide a perceptive look at the genesis and production of this important film…

And last but not least, there’s Egypt: A View From Above, photographs by Philip Plisson with text by Christian Jacq. A wonderful oversized hardback, this book contains some of the most staggering aerial photos of Egypt including a number of places that are amongst the most recognisable architectural and historical icons anywhere in the world but Plisson succeeds in investing them with a newfound power and majesty. Jacq’s text is well written but it is the photographs here that are the stars of the show. Travel photography books have become so hackneyed and overly familiar but Plisson has a great eye for the unusual, finding colour and drama in what seems like the most mundane subjects. For anyone intrigued by this ancient place, Egpyt: A View From Above is a must-buy book as it is for anyone who admires great photography. And it’s an experience you definitely couldn’t replicate on an iPad or a tablet…

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SPECIAL AFFECTS
Avatar is a film that’s been about a dozen years in the making. James Cameron hasn’t made a movie since the monster hit Titanic back in 1997 and so there has been so much expectation for this picture that if it wasn’t the greatest film ever made, then people would be whingeing constantly. I went to see Avatar at a press screening at the IMAX cinema in Waterloo on Monday night. I only managed to get the press tickets that morning so I wasn’t even sure if I was going. My expectations were mixed too as the couple of trailers I saw didn’t necessarily fill me with optimism about its quality. But I have to say that from the opening sequence where we are introduced to Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), it did have me hooked. In a near future, Scully is a US marine whose brother was killed and so he is sent to replace him in a programme on a fictional far-flung planet Pandora, where the US have developed sentient artificial versions of the native Na’avi, bodies that can be linked to the minds of humans via technology that projects the subject into the body. So Scully is projected into one of these Avatars with the aim of learning more about the culture of the native Na’avi. But Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) has an ulterior motive: the humans want to drive the natives away so they can access a valuable source of energy. Scully makes a number of trips to the interior of the planet and falls in with the Na’avi, initially thanks to an encounter with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana from Star Trek), who saves him from peril at the claws of one of the planet’s many deadly animal occupants. Scully is joined by the avatar of Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist whose interest in the natives is benign. But impatient to extract the material, the corporation and Colonel Quaritch accelerate their programme to destroy the Na’avi’s most sacred spot and grab the valuable Unobtainium (a reference to an engineering term for an element in a design that is impossible). So Scully is trapped between his own people and the natives, who he has become very attached to. In a wheelchair, in his avatar body, Scully is able to live an active life and that is partly what makes it so appealing. Some critics have accused Avatar of having an overly simplistic and unsubtle eco-friendly plot and while its plot and occasionally its script have flaws, they are decent enough that they carry you along for the duration of the film. Visually though it does take cinema to a whole other level: I’ve never been to such an immersive film before and there were moments when you are such an engrossed observer that you forget you’re watching a movie. There are also occasions which make you feel a little bit wobbly, as if you were actually there. The flora and fauna of Pandora look alien but mostly credible and Scully’s integration into Na’avi society, while hugely conventional and pretty predictable, is enjoyable with some spectacular set pieces. The animation of the indigenous peoples is nothing short of incredible and they should be applauded. You really do have to slap yourself sometimes to remember that the Na’avi bodies are nothing more than extremely sophisticated motion capture CGI and the planet itself also looks like literally nothing on Earth, yet it obeys the laws that Cameron have set for himself. After over a decade away, James Cameron has created the ultimate cinematic event, directed and orchestrated with the deftness of touch that his previous best efforts (Aliens, Terminator 2) have also displayed. The efforts of people like Weta, Framestore, Gentle Giant and the rest have elevated what can be achieved on the big screen and everyone else has to follow their lead. Avatar is astounding and shows that James Cameron is one of the most impressive directors currently working in big-budget Hollywood today. It is a film that will be talked about for decades to come…