Philip Hensher: It looks this cheap because it cost so much

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The Independent Online

Misguidedly, I took a seat in the front row of the preview theatre to see Where the Wild Things Are. Wittgenstein, who had a taste for the brash musical offerings of Carmen Miranda, always did the same thing on his regular outings at the Cambridge cinema. He liked, I believe, to be completely swallowed up by a film. Wittgenstein, however, lived before the age of the affected wobble and the pretence of well-meaning but incompetent cameramen. After 15 minutes, I started to feel a little bit sick.

Where the Wild Things Are, Spike Jonze's movie of the Maurice Sendak classic, looks for most of its length as if it was shot for nothing. The camera wobbles around as if it had been shot on a mobile phone. Long stretches are shot directly into the sun, giving that favoured casual glare of movies with a hippyish theme.

The film, however, cost a reported $80m to make. When you look at Wild Things, an evident combination of animatronics, elaborate giant puppetry and digital manipulation in the editing suite, it seems odd that they couldn't finish off their expenditure by investing in a camera which would keep still, film stock which would register colours, or cameramen experienced enough to keep the direct glare of the sun out of the eyes of the audience.

Of course, it's all intentional. The tens of millions of dollars have gone on a major studio production, which has laboured to give the surface impression of graininess, of a certain hand-made quality, of an amateurish humanity which used to be characteristic of the small-scale production. Studios have for some time been aware of the "cool" potential of the indie look, and been labouring to reproduce it in a commercial setting. Some viewers genuinely believed a film like Little Miss Sunshine, a product of Fox's Searchlight Pictures division, had an authentic independent quirkiness, despite its array of international stars. It was the look of the film that did it.

We are shortly to be given an alternative vision of the future of film-making with James Cameron's Avatar. The New York Times has claimed the budget for Cameron's move, including production and marketing, approaches $500m. Half a billion has gone on making Cameron's 12-foot blue aliens, woodland planet and action sequences as convincing as they possibly can be. Talk of the appeal of a handmade aesthetic would gather, from anybody involved in Avatar, a short and impatient look. On the other hand, if Cameron is pursuing the furthest boundaries of technology in his film-making, he is, like Jonze, assuming a love of limitation in his chosen audience. Nobody could say that Cameron's previous films have tried to stretch the intelligence of his audience, or to do anything very interesting with the conventions of story-telling.

Neither approach to film-making holds much appeal to me. Jonze's simulation of the hand-made seems hardly more authentic than Cameron's faith in technical wizardry. His imitation of the low-budget look is decidedly perverse, if not actually dishonest.

I like a film-maker who approaches his craft scrupulously, with a respect for its natural limitations, like the Japanese master of 2-D animation Hiyao Miyazaki, or the fastidious Austrian observer of interiors Michael Haneke. These are not people who are consciously reducing their style, or their narrative approach, to serve an audience's conventional taste. Jonze's wobbling camera, and Cameron's reliance on the three-act structure and the cross-boundaries love affair, seem to belong to concepts of cinema which are outdated the moment they reach the screen.

Little appeal? Give me Palin over Fry any day

A leaked list from the BBC, thought to emanate from their Knowledge division, has rated 54 presenters according to their audience appeal. The corporation has denied any official status for the list, but it makes fascinating reading. Alan Yentob, who turned from BBC management to presenting five years ago, heads the list, naturally. All three of the Top Gear presenters are in the highest category; a pig farmer called Jimmy Doherty; Stephen Fry, God help us; and those extraordinarily irritating Hairy Bikers.

Bafflingly, Michael Palin is down there in Limited Appeal Hell with people no one has ever heard of. Michael Palin's travel programmes radiate interest in the world and in the people he meets. The highly rated Stephen Fry's programmes about most subjects, insofar as one can bear to watch them, radiate a dismal interest in going on about himself.

If the BBC really rates the one so far below the other, that would explain a lot about the sheer horror of much of its factual output. The reliance on "likeability" in presenters, no matter what the subject, has led to Alan Titchmarsh discoursing indifferently on historic churches, Proms concerts and the Nature of Britain. The trouble is, I can't remember ever being asked whether one actually likes any of these people.

If anyone tries to flog you a used dinosaur...

A theme park devoted to dinosaurs opened the other day in Guadalajara in Mexico. Rather impressively, a visitor managed to steal a remote-controlled dinosaur five feet high on the opening day. No one has the slightest idea how the dinosaur, worth some £55,000, was sneaked out, and even less how they might go about tracking the thing down.

I'm impressed. I don't think I've ever stolen anything larger than a pen, and that hardly counted as stealing, since it was out of the staff stationery cupboard when I was at school. The temptation of stealing a whole robot dinosaur has rarely, if ever, presented itself.

In some parts of Queensland, Australia, recurrent pilfering has led police to protect the testicles on the statues of bulls. And I heard a story once of students going beyond the usual theft of traffic cones to removing a whole stuffed elk's head with six-foot antlers from a restaurant. Probably the restaurant watched them take it with relief and gratitude.

We can take it for granted that the dinosaur was stolen for the thief's personal benefit – it would be a difficult thing to dispose of on the black market, after all. What one would like to know is whether the theft was spontaneous, or the product of weeks of bizarre, detailed planning:

"Now, Manuel, when no one's looking, you throw the coat over the velociraptor, and Carmen, you put the sombrero on its head ..."

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