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Other segments from the episode on December 18, 2009

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 18, 2009: Interview with Nellie McKay; Review of Norah Jones's album "The Fall"; Obituary for Larry Sultan; Review of the film "Avatar."

Transcript

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Nellie McKay: Sweet And Sour In Equal Measure

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli of tvworthwatching.com, sitting
in for Terry Gross. Nellie McKay is a young singer, songwriter and
performer whose career path, while still in its early stages, has been
defiantly non-traditional. Musically, her songs draw on everything from
jazz and pop to cabaret and hip-hop. Lyrically, she can be starkly
honest or playfully silly.

She appeared on Broadway in a revival of "The Threepenny Opera" opposite
Alan Cumming and Cyndi Lauper and once had dreams of being a jazz
singer. And her new album, a collection of standards sung by one of her
favorite singers, allows her to embrace her inner cabaret diva. It's
called "Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day." Here's a song
for that CD, written by George and Ira Gershwin. Doris Day sang it in
the film "Tea For Two." It's called "Do, Do, Do."

(Soundbite of song, "Do, Do, Do")

Ms. NELLIE McKAY (Musician): (Singing) Oh, do, do, do what you've done,
done, done before, baby. Do, do, do what I do, do, do adore, baby. Let's
try again, sigh again, fly again to heaven. Baby, see, it's A, B, C, I
love you, and you love me. I know, know, know, what a boy, boy, boy
should do, baby. So don't, don't, don't say it won't, won't, won't go
true, baby. My heart begins to hum, dum, dum, de dum, dum, dum. So do,
do, do what you done, done, done before.

BIANCULLI: Nellie McKay, from her Doris Day tribute CD, "Normal as
Blueberry Pie." Nellie McKay visited Terry Gross in the FRESH AIR
studios in 2007, when her third album, "Obligatory Villagers" was
released. She brought her ukulele and opened with a song from that
earlier CD.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Feminists don't have a sense of humor. Feminists
just want to be alone, boo-hoo-hoo-hoo. Feminists spread vicious lies
and rumor. They have a tumor on their funny bone.

They say child molestation isn't funny, ha-ha-ha-ha. Rape and
degradation's just a crime - lighten up, ladies. Rampant prostitution,
sex for money - What's wrong with that? Can't these chicks do anything
but whine? Dance break. Yeah, take it off.

They say cheap objectification isn't witty - it's hot. Equal work and
wages worth the fight - sing us a new one. On demand abortion, every
city - okay, but no gun control. Won't these women ever get a life?

Feminists don't have a sense of humor - poor Hillary. Feminists and
vegetarians – make mine a Big Mac. Feminists spread vicious lies and
rumor. They're far too sensitive to ever be a ham. That's why these
feminists just need to find a man.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Well bravo, that was great.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: That was really, really fun. That song kind of sums up just some
of the things I like about you. I mean, it's really funny and trenchant,
and you have a beautiful voice. And you're singing about a very
contemporary set of themes here, but the style of music that you're
playing, I mean, it was almost vaudevillian, like tap-dancing. So you're
bringing together these different eras musically and lyrically.

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, thank you. I think there are nice things about
every era. I wish we could just take the nice things.

GROSS: Now, now, in the song we just heard about feminism, I mean, do
you consider yourself a feminist?

Ms. McKAY: Well, yes, but I also know I'm a hypocrite but not just in
regards to feminism, in regards to everything. I think that's – you
know, it's unavoidable, but at the same time, you try your best to
reconcile your belief system with your actions.

GROSS: What makes you a hypochrist - hypocrite in terms of feminism?

Ms. McKAY: A hypochrist, I like a hypochrist.

GROSS: Yeah.

Ms. McKAY: Yeah, it's that political ideal and the personal reality. For
instance, even, you know, having a career, you know, and being ambitious
in that way is kind of, it's a capitalist ethos. It's not a, you know,
all-for-all mentality. There's a lot of me there, and maybe you want to
be big so then you can spread your communist message, but that in itself
is a contradiction.

GROSS: There's something, like, so sweet about some of the standards
from, say, like, the '20s and '30s, and you wrote a song that was on
your first album that's kind of in the manner of those songs, about, you
know, getting married, having a little white house at the end of
Honeymoon Lane, that kind of song. But your version of it is all of the
things that have become cliches and, for you, probably undesirable in
some way, or at least that version of it is undesirable. And the song
I'm thinking of – I think I've not done a very good job of describing
it, but the song I'm thinking of is "I Want to Get Married," which it
just seems to me like your take on a certain kind of standard that you
don't feel like you could really sing honestly.

Ms. McKAY: Oh no, well, I'm sure I will fall again and be able to sing
them honestly again, but at this moment, there's a certain breeziness
that preempts a maudlin rendition. I've been doing very maudlin
renditions, but now I'm breezy. I'm like Ellen DeGeneres when she talks
about walking around in a hospital gown. I'm flap-flap-flapping in the
breeze.

GROSS: Do you want to do a few bars of "I Want to Get Married"?

(Soundbite of song, "I Want to Get Married")

Ms. McKAY: Yes.

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) I want to get married. Yes, I need a spouse. I want
a nice Leave-It-To-Beaver-ish golden retriever and a little white house.
I want to get married. I need to cook meals. I want to pack cute little
lunches for my Brady bunches then read Danielle Steel.

I want to escape this rat race I've created. I'm feeling innovative. I
don't care if I make it. I just want to bake a sugar cake for you to
take to work in the morning, and I'll stay home cleaning the dishes and
keeping your wishes all warm. I want to get married. That's why I was
born.

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay. What were you thinking when you wrote the
song? What were you thinking about?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, well, it was lament. You know, I wanted to get married,
and so I – but I, you know, I realize no matter what you want, it's kind
of a fantasy.

GROSS: So my take on it was all wrong? It wasn't your shout-out and
critique of standards from the '20s and '30s?

Ms. McKAY: No, no, but I mean, you can criticize something you strive
for, and you can avoid something you dream about.

BIANCULLI: Nellie McKay, visiting Terry Gross in 2007. More after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2007 interview with songwriter,
singer and pianist Nellie McKay. Her new CD, a collection of standards,
is called "Normal As Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day." Here's
another song from that new CD.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) You're mean to me. Why must you be mean to me? Gee,
honey, it seems to me you love to see me crying. I don't know why I stay
home each night when you say you'll phone. You don't, and I'm left
alone, singing the blues inside.

You treat me coldly each day of the year. You always scold me whenever
somebody is near, dear. It must be great fun to be mean to me. You
shouldn't, for can't you see what you mean to me?

GROSS: Now, you were born in London, moved to New York when you were two
with your mother, after your parents separated, but you spent your high
school years in the Poconos, and there's a really interesting jazz scene
there. Phil Woods lives there, Bob Dorough, the singer, songwriter and
pianist and, you know, a whole bunch of other musicians. And Bob Dorough
is on your new CD. Were you – as a teenager, did you know the people in
that scene from there?

Ms. McKAY: I did. I used to bug them when I was in high school, and now
I've come back to under-pay them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKAY: So I think they're all grateful to have made my acquaintance,
and they're a bunch of – they're just a bunch of pussycats there.

GROSS: So when you were in high school, and you knew Phil Woods, and you
knew Bob Dorough, were you thinking then that you would be a jazz
singer? Were you thinking then that you would be writing your own songs?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, no, I've always looked for the easy way out, and singing
other people's songs seems easier. But it just didn't happen for me. So
you know, we're stuck here in this cesspool of bad poetry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: It seems to me you have, like, a really pretty voice, but in your
songs, you usually don't want to be pretty. I mean, you're often saying
pretty cutting things in your lyrics. And I think it's just a really
interesting paradox of who you are as a performer that there's this,
like, beauty in what you're capable of doing, which you sometimes
intentionally undercut by what you sing about.

I'm going to ask you to do a few bars of a song called "Manhattan
Avenue." This is also from your first album, and this is an example of
what I mean. I mean, it sounds, like, really pretty, but if you listen
to the lyrics, you know, it's not so pretty. Can you tell a story behind
the song before you play it?

Ms. McKAY: Yeah, well, yeah, but I mean, I had a lovely childhood, but
you still see a lot of things, you know.

GROSS: And this is a period when you were living in New York City, I
think in Harlem.

Ms. McKAY: That's right, that's right, in Harlem, and you know, there
was a lot of beauty there. The older people in the building, well, even
they had some problems. I mean, Lionel(ph), there's a man named Lionel
in the song. He did kind of guard over the building, but he also
eventually got evicted for having too many prostitutes in his apartment.

We had some good friends in the building that we kept in touch with a
while and not much education, you know. I mean - and you can see that in
the Christmas cards, but that makes them all the more poignant just in –
when it's harder for them to do something and yet they do a more
beautiful job than people who have all the privilege in the world.

We got a lot of our cats from the lady next door, and the older women,
especially, in the neighborhood, would put out food for the cats and for
the pigeons. And yet largely the young men would sic their pit bulls on
them, and my mother once saw a cat's throat torn out in front of her by
a pit bull, and this was a cat we had – we were probably going to adopt.
So a lot of mixed messages.

GROSS: And you mention the pit bulls in this lovely melody.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKAY: Yeah.

GROSS: And this is "Manhattan Avenue." Why don't you play it for us?

(Soundbite of song, "Manhattan Avenue")

Ms. McKAY: (Singing) Send a breeze, a pit bull's yelp, a tender squeeze,
a cry for help. Make it now, and make it fast. Such memories can never
last. I long for the days, music and mayhem, mama's a smilin' friend in
the scuzzy hue of the sunlight, Manhattan Avenue.

Lionel please watch o'er our door. The children tease. I beg for more.
Chipping paint, the ceiling's spent, aw ain't it great? Can't make the
rent. I long for the days, kittens are meowling, junkies are prowling
deep in the jazzy hue of the streetlight, Manhattan Avenue.

How wild it is, what strange a vice, that a mugger and a child should
share the same paradise. Oh but dreams come true on Manhattan Avenue.

GROSS: That's Nellie McKay, performing her song "Manhattan Avenue." You
mention a mugger in that last line. Is there a specific mugger that
you're thinking of in that line?

Ms. McKAY: Oh, I am. I am. I want to say hi to my mugger if he's
listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKAY: I'm sorry. I want to say hello. I want to give a shout-out
because he only spent about, I think, a year in the joint, and then he
got. And he was looking for us, but we were breaking down somewhere in
South Dakota. So he couldn't get us again.

Yeah, he came by, and he said give us the beeping money or I'm beep the
kid up, and we just laughed. We thought he was a friend of ours. And
then he kept saying it, and then we figured out oh, he wasn't a friend
of ours. But then my mother being as swift and ruthless as she is, she
didn't even toss him her real wallet. She tossed him her dummy wallet,
and so all he got was two bucks and a couple of bad credit cards that
had no money on them anyway.

And then he took off sauntering down the street, and my mom was yelling
after him: Yeah, you better run, you better run. I don't know if he did
start to run. And then we got him in a lineup. And then we were
beginning to think maybe it's time to leave New York.

GROSS: Your mother carried around a dummy wallet for muggers?

Ms. McKAY: Oh yeah, but I think for those listening, it's probably gone
up from two dollars now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McKAY: You should always account for inflation.

BIANCULLI: Nellie McKay, visiting the FRESH AIR studios in 2007. Her new
CD, a collection of standards, is called "Normal as Blueberry Pie: A
Tribute to Doris Day." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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The 'Fall' Experiment: Breaking Old Habits

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.

Norah Jones became an immediate star after the release of her 2002
album, "Come Away With Me." Having sold over 36 million albums, Jones
decided to move in a different direction with her fourth CD, called "The
Fall." Rock critic Ken Tucker wonders whether that change is good.

(Soundbite of song, "I Wouldn't Need You")

Ms. NORAH JONES (Singer): (Singing) If I touched myself, the way you
touch me, if I could hold myself, the way you held me, then I wouldn't
need you, I wouldn't need you, no, I wouldn't need you, to love me.

KEN TUCKER: Norah Jones' voice is refrigerator-cool — never icy or
frosty or drop-dead cold, which tends to make any song she sings seem
both brisk and a little chilly. This is good for your average singer-
songwriter, for whom the tendency to spill the warm blood of emotion
needs a little contrast to keep from becoming humid and overwrought. But
for Jones, cool distance was becoming a mannerism, a fetish. It was as
though she was starting to take pride in seeming not engaged. On her new
collection, "The Fall," Jones sounds like someone who's decided to snap
out of it, to approach new songs with more eagerness and alacrity.

(Soundbite of song, "Young Blood")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) I'll pretend my heart's not on fire, if you steal
my true love's name, broke down subway in the city spires, tape your
picture over hidden frame. We'll imagine we're sleeping revolver,
shotgun wedding in a strange SoHo, our chambers hold silver collars, gun
down werewolves wherever we go, we gun down werewolves wherever we go,
midnight phone calls.

TUCKER: That song "Young Blood," is clearly not the 1957 Leiber &
Stoller hit for the Coasters. Norah Jones is likely never to loosen up
that much. But this new "Young Blood," which she's co-written with Mike
Martin, contains a few departures typical of her new album. Jones, who
has spent most of her recording career behind a piano, plays the guitar
here and throughout this collection. And she's poking around for new
metaphors for love and heartbreak, here imagining herself shooting a gun
at werewolves and setting New York City aflame. No one's going to
mistake Norah Jones for a rebel but it's helped revitalize her gift for
fashioning a sharp musical hook, as on the album's first single "Chasing
Pirates."

(Soundbite of song, "Chasing Pirates")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) In your message you said, you were going to bed but
I'm not done with the night. So I stayed up and read but your words in
my head got me mixed up, so I turned out the light. And I don't know how
to slow it down, my mind's racing from chasing pirates, now I'm...

TUCKER: The sound of this new album "The Fall" is both stark and
spacious. Jones is working for the first time with the producer and
engineer Jacquire King, who has also collaborated with Tom Waits and
Kings of Leon, musicians who favor a louder, rougher sound than we
associate with Norah Jones. King has designed an echoing sonic
landscape, where electric guitars and various drummers reverberate
alongside Jones' voice. The freedom of these arrangements has freed
Jones up to rock out — or at least come as close as Norah Jones will to
rocking out.

(Soundbite of song, "It's Gonna Be")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) If all we talk about is money, nothing will be
funny, honey. And now that everyone's a critic, it's makin' my mascara
runny. If we only talk about the heavens, makin' it together is crazy.
If we don't get a new situation for our destination we're lazy, but it's
gonna be, it's gonna be, please make it be, it's gonna be...

TUCKER: The new Norah Jones is also something of a rueful joker, as when
she salutes the "Man of the Hour," in a song of the same name. The song
suggests that after too many rocky romances, she's found a perfect
companion: a dog.

(Soundbite of song, "Man of the Hour")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) It's him or me, that's what he said, but I can't
choose between a vegan and a pothead, so I chose you, because you're
sweet and you give me lots of lovin' and you eat meat. And that's how
you became my only man of the hour. You never lie...

TUCKER: If, in the end, "The Fall" is not quite as jaunty as the top hat
Jones wears on the cover of this album, it's certainly an improvement
over the dolorous self-regard of her last couple of albums. She's
referred to this collection as an experiment. I don't think even the
most conservative Norah Jones fan is going to find this experiment all
that jarring. But it's certainly opened up her voice to a new
expressiveness that's not tidy or merely pretty.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly. He
reviewed "The Fall," the latest album from Norah Jones.

(Soundbite of song, "December")

Ms. JONES: (Singing) December, come to me, I hope I can see, you're not
just in dreams, I will let you be, why can't you believe, how much you
really mean?

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR.
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Looking Back On Larry Sultan's 'Pictures From Home'

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Larry Sultan, a photographer from California who achieved fame both with
his camera and as a conceptual collector of existing photos, died of
cancer last Sunday. He was 63 years old. Sultan, working with Mike
Mandel in the '70s, persuaded several giant corporations to allow access
to their documentary photo files. Fifty-nine photos were selected,
showing everything from a flaming car to a shaved monkey. They were
published without captions or other explanatory material as found photos
in a highly influential 1977 collection called "Evidence."

Sultan took pictures as well as hunted for them. For about a decade, he
photographed his parents in various poses and combined those pictures
with old family snapshots, reproduced stills from home movies and
memorabilia from his father's career. All of these images were collected
in his book called "Pictures from Home." Larry Sultan was working on
that book and a related exhibition when Terry spoke with him in 1989,
and asked him about the project.

(Soundbite of interview with Larry Sultan)

GROSS: Can you tell me about the range of emotions that you experienced
looking back at pictures of your parents when they were young?

Mr. LARRY SULTAN (Photographer): Boy, that's interesting because there's
this phenomenon where there's a double vision. All photographs in the
sense are historical because the moment is gone. And so here I am
looking out peoples who are actually younger than me. And seeing that
they had a life outside of me, you know, they're not only my parents,
they had this independent existence, which is a fairly frightening
notion. And it leads to all kinds of speculation that one doesn't want
to get into, you know, about their intimate life.

And so that was an interesting thing to see them independently. And then
to also see, I think, the melancholy I felt around the aging process.
How certainly the vitality of my parents and, I mean, it's inevitable
the body changes. And it's not a sad phenomena as much as it is an
opportunity to watch this transformation of the body through time.

GROSS: In addition to old photographs you also have some old documents
in your piece, letters, for instance, welcoming your father into the
Eversharp family when he started to sell razor blades. Why did you
include some of these old documents, old business letters and things
like that, and where did you find them?

Mr. SULTAN: Well, it was very important to include those because what I
felt I was doing and I think what I've done is try to create a pattern
of public life and private life, of family and business, of success and
perhaps conflict within the family. And so, my father's business
documents to me, they not only document his career, I think they really
in a way indicate a time. I mean, welcome to the Eversharp family...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. SULTAN: ...and you're team player. And, I mean, it was this sense of
'50s that was so full of that optimism and so full of that hope that one
would enter a family and be taken care and be part of a team and be a
team player and believe in the product and blah, blah, blah, you know,
it goes on. And it's a phenomenal record not only of that specific event
in his life but I think of a time that's no longer available to us. So
that's interesting to me about how you can document a time through a
very biographical personal point of departure.

GROSS: Now you've had to take a lot of new photos of your parents for
your project. Your parents, I'm sure, are used to smiling for
photographs and you tried to get candid shots. I think you in fact you
told them not to smile...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...what were their reactions to the kinds of photographs you
wanted?

Mr. SULTAN: Well, you know, I became at real pain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULTAN: I worked on this for seven years and I really strained my
parent's generosity. In the beginning I think it was, you know, I would
follow them around. In fact, I went on vacation with them to Hawaii and
photographed them and then as they got more and more accustomed to me
being around, I followed them into their bedroom.

And after a while, they, in terms of the daily photographs in which they
weren't necessarily conscious or posing, although there's always
something to propose, that was fine. I think the problem really occurred
when - we would set up a photograph and some of the photographs were
staged. And there was always this dilemma. My father has a standard, I
think, successful businessman pose that he's been practicing for years,
you know, this kind of steely look...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULTAN: ...steely look and, you know, look them in the eye and rigid
body, and in fact, I think he'd cock his head looking off to the left
and to the future. And that's not what I wanted. And there was quite a
disagreement about that. And in fact, part of the book is his response
to my photographs and his response to the way I photograph and the way I
represent him, which I think is a real crucial part of this work because
I have no – I wouldn't presume that I'm telling the truth. I'm telling
my version of the truth but it's not the objective version. There is no
objective version.

GROSS: Your father said to you that he doesn't like what you call
introspection. When he sees one of those photos he says, for the most
part, that's not me I recognize in those photos.

Mr. SULTAN: Yeah, well, the side of my father that interests me the most
is that vulnerable introspective side. Now that's not a side that comes
out very often and it's certainly not a side that one shows to the
public. And perhaps to be fair there is somewhat of a lost look in one
of those photographs and that was important to me. And maybe I'm being
accurate to my point of view and not so accurate to him. So he could be
right. Maybe that isn't him he recognizes, maybe that's more me.

GROSS: Did you say a lost look?

Mr. SULTAN: Yes, a look that has a taste of melancholy to it.

GROSS: Let me describe a photo that I think is exactly that, or at least
that's how I read it. And it's a photo of your father all dressed up in
a dinner jacket, and it looks like he's probably on the way out. But
he's sitting on the bed, just kind of looking off in his dinner jacket.
And to me, it reads all dressed up for a kind of let down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SULTAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: I really like that photo a lot.

Mr. SULTAN: Yeah. He hates it.

GROSS: Oh, really? No, okay. How come?

Mr. SULTAN: Well, because he says that he created the analogy that it
was like having - doing a film, and the actors are taking a break and
that's when you photograph them. And we were actually - I asked him to
get dressed up, and we were doing a – he was riding on the wall for me,
kind of a mock Dale Carnegie program, and he sat down on the bed just to
rest. And you're right. It is all dressed up with nowhere to go, in my
mind. And that's an ideological photograph. It relates, in my point of
view, to, I think, memory and one looking back on their life. Maybe most
of the challenges have been in the past, at least in terms of one's
business life. And so, yeah, it's taken out of context. It's a fiction.

GROSS: Another photo I have to ask you about. There is a picture at the
kitchen table in your parent's house. You father's seated at the kitchen
table. His eyeglasses are on the table. And I think he's entering
something onto his calendar. And your mother has just come in, the
grocery bag is on the table, and she's unpacking it. I recognize this
photo.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: You know what I mean? And I could say that a lot of the photos
that you've taken. This seems to me the kind of shot that is almost a
daily ritual, but it's not the kind of ritual we think of photographing.

Mr. SULTAN: Yeah. I mean, it is – it's the daily thing that interests
me. It's the familiar that I think is so phenomenally rich with
innuendo, and, I guess, the aroma of daily life. I think that that's
where we live our life, right? We don't go out to these great, huge
events. We live our life, you know, walking up the street and coming in
the house and setting down our coat and unpacking groceries. And that's
the sight that I'm most interested in.

GROSS: I want to quote something that you write toward the end here. You
say: Behind all the peering, the good pictures, the rolls of film and
the anxiety of my project is the wish to take photography, literally, to
stop time. I want my parents to live forever. I think that's beautiful.

Mr. SULTAN: Thank you. Thank you. There was something that happened to
me in the middle of this project that I think was very significant. And,
you know, when I begin work, I have, really, no idea where I'm going to
go. But I need to think that I know where I'm going to go. And so I
invent all these notions that what I'm doing is sociological or
whatever. And in the middle of this project, I had a photograph that I
had made that was particularly moving to me. It was a close-up of my
father as he was sleeping on a couch, taking a nap on Palm Springs. And
I looked at the picture on my desk, and it struck me that there's a
chance that this picture will outlive my father, that I'll be looking at
this picture one day, when, perhaps, he is not here.

And it really changed my whole notion of what I was doing. I moved from
the sociological drop way down to the sense that I was making pictures
that came from, I think, a need to not only understand parents, but to
let them go in a certain fashion, almost like an adolescent lets things
go. I'm a late bloomer in that sense. So, from that, of course, you
know, photography does stop time, and it's a very – it's an exterior
form of memory. This existed. I mean, that's its greatest truth, is to
leave a trace of what has been.

BIANCULLI: Larry Sultan, speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. The California
photographer died Sunday at age 63.

You can see three photographs Larry Sultan took of his parents at our
Web site, freshair.npr.org.

Coming up, Film Critic David Edelstein reviews the long-awaited James
Cameron fantasy epic, "Avatar."

This is FRESH AIR.
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'Avatar': Cameron's Dizzying, Immersive Parable

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

The most anticipated movie of the year, may be "Avatar," the nearly $300
million epic from writer and director James Cameron. The director of
"Titanic" and "The Terminator" spent years helping to develop digital 3-
D camera systems, and has used them to create an entirely computer-
generated world: Pandora, a lush moon in a nearby solar system.

Film critic David Edelstein has returned from Pandora with this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: As the budget of "Avatar" grew otherworldly and few saw
footage, Hollywood watchers began to speculate that the new, largely
computer-generated James Cameron movie would be a Titanic disaster. But
they shouldn't have doubted him. That trademark Cameron blend of jaw-
dropping technology, grandiosity and cornball populism is back and
mightier than ever. The film is dizzying, enveloping, vertigo-inducing.
I ran out of celebratory adjectives an hour into its 161 minutes.

Now, it's also, on one level, a crock - predictable, sentimental and
tin-eared. Cameron has given us a parable that's a barely disguised
rewrite of American history. Native Americans, in the form of the blue,
10-foot Na'vi people of Pandora, a moon of the vast gas planet
Polyphemus, battle expertly against white capitalist imperialists who
want to drive them from their ancestral lands.

The year is 2154, and a Marine named Jake Sully, played by the
personable Sam Worthington, works for a military-industrial behemoth
that's mining Pandora for a rare mineral called - get this -
Unobtainium. Jake has his nervous system projected into a remotely
controlled Na'vi body called an Avatar for the purposes of mingling with
the natives. And it's when he's tall and blue that the film goes into
full-scale computer mode.

Back in the world of flesh-and-blood actors, a prickly scientist, played
by Sigourney Weaver - who totally holds her own against the 10-foot tall
blue thingies - wants Jake to study Na'vi rituals. She's funded by the
company, but has a humanist agenda. But a selfish executive, played by
Giovanni Ribisi, calls the Na'vi blue monkeys. And since their sacred
land sits over a vast supply of Unobtainium, he wants Jake to convince
the tribe to decamp.

Jake has to keep a video diary of his life as an Avatar. And as he
speaks about trying to learn the Na'vi language, Cameron cuts to his
lessons with the fiery female warrior Neytiri, who, under all the
computer imagery, is modeled on actress Zoe Saldana.

(Soundbite of movie, "Avatar")

Mr. SAM WORTHINGTON (Actor): (as Jake Sully) This is a video log 12,
times 21 and 32. Do I have to do this now? It's, like, I really need to
get some rack.

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (Actress): (as Dr. Grace Augustine) No, now. When
it's fresh.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) OK. Location: shack, and the days are
starting to blur together.

Ms. SALDANA: (as Neytiri) (Na'vi spoken)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) (Na'vi spoken)

The language is a pain, but, you know, I figure it's like field-
stripping a weapon - just repetition, repetition.

Na'vi.

Ms. SALDANA: (as Neytiri) (Na'vi spoken)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) (Na'vi spoken)

Ms. SALDANA: (as Neytiri) (Na'vi spoken)

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) (Na'vi spoken)

Ms. SALDANA: (as Neytiri) Tune up(ph) the words, stronger.

Mr. WORTHINGTON: (as Jake Sully) Neytiri, calls me skxawng. It means
moron.

EDELSTEIN: It's obvious that under the spell of this mystical culture,
Jake will go native, and that "Avatar" will become a fantasy-land
"Dances with Wolves" - actually, Dances with Thanators and Banshees and
Direhorses and Leonopteryxs. But the story would be ho-hum without the
spectacle. The problem with computer generated imagery is that it
usually doesn't make the final perceptual leap. It's impressive rather
than immersive. But Cameron has moved the boundary posts. My press kit
mentions, among other inventions, a new image-based facial performance
capture, more intricate head-rig systems, a SimulCam and an amplified
mobility platform suit, or AMP.

But Cameron also has old-fashioned compositional savvy. He puts enormous
things in the foreground - trees, waterfalls, creatures - and adds
layers of texture and movement reaching back into the frame. He creates
a living ecosystem, and you and your 3-D glasses are there. The
technology helps put over the movie's central idea that this world
Pandora, with its bioluminescent ground and foliage, is alive and
infused with sacred energy.

The Na'vi have long waists, reptilian tails, golden eyes and wide noses.
At first, I found them an eyesore. But about halfway through, the humans
began to seem puny and pallid by comparison. Jake becomes more attracted
to them, too, especially, toward the Amazonian Neytiri. He says, as an
Avatar, he's in the true world. It's his human world that's the dream.
He says, I don't know who I am.

Who he is, of course, is a born-again Indian fighting for the pure and
primitive against the poisonous forces of technology - with the help, of
course, of state-of-the-art cinematic technology. Clods of dirt fly into
our faces. Colors are more colorful, big beasts bigger and more bestial,
warplanes more terrifyingly warlike. Cameron is said to be an obsessive,
even a megalomaniac, but I bow to his Titanic will. Now, he's king of a
world he made from scratch.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. You can
download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org, and you can follow us
on Twitter @nprfreshair.
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Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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