08 March 2010

Avatar(d) Part II

Okay, let's offer thanks to the maligned Academy and breathe a sigh of relief that it didn't win the Best Picture Oscar after all.

I saw it, and I have to admit I liked it while I was in the theatre. Avatar drowns you in an amazing spectacle, and, as spectacle, it succeeds on its own terms. My jaw dropped.  I haven't seen anything like it, and for the duration of the film, it creates its own world and draws you in. Several sections are exhilirating. It's fun to identify with phosphorescent creatures that are long, lean, and graceful, who can flit effortlessly through the forest and fly on the backs of dinosaurs. My inner eight-year-old squirmed with delight.

The plot hits all the major beats. Much of it reminded me of the movies Disney produced in the 1990s -- films like The Lion King, Pocohantas, and Mulan. Standard stories, coupled with themes about harmony, the cycle of life and set in exotic locations like ancient China or pre-colonial America. Avatar hums with more juice, violence and conflict, but the sensibility is familiar.

And it's fun, after all. You forget yourself and, at the end, you emerge from the theatre like a drunk coming out of a bar at dawn or a woozy teenager getting off the rollercoaster: staggered and a bit disappointed in the bland reality closing back in.

The vaunted 3-D, though, was suprisingly uneven. You see amazing effects -- the water dropping from a leaf got some special effects award or another. At the same time, the 3-D's distracting -- whole sequences of the movie happen when you mentally slap your forehead and say to yourself, wow, that's 3-D happening up there! Which is to say: the 3-d ripped me right out of the story and the movie as much as it immersed me in it. During some shots, it seemed clunky -- certain pans, for example, made me think I was back to looking at some hokey 3-D illustration in a kid's book instead of a supersonic blast of the latest Hollywood technology.

For me, 3-D's problematic, anyway. Two-d works well for conveying what I care about. Artists and cinematographers have been figuring out how to convey depth on a flat plane for several centuries now. Flatness itself can be a useful directorial tool, and you give that up completely. You also loose control over depth-of-field -- the easy way directors and cinematographers have of emphasizing what's important in the scene by focusing on it and leaving the rest of the frame out of focus. (Some great directors, like Ford, Wyler and Welles used extreme deep focus powerfully, but none of that staging or mise en scene was happening in Avatar).

Overall, emphasis on special effects is a sterile and capitalistic approach to filmmaking -- technically difficult, but difficult in an engineering way; the difficulty lies in writing the write code or creating the better motion capture instrument. It aims at the nerves. I prefer movies that deal in the physics of the heart and soul, that capture something about life as it's lived: sweat, tears, blood, that sort of thing. I'm -- not desperate, exactly but -- eager for some kind of insight into the shape-shifting dream around me.

The ingenuity with Avatar is all in the look and the production of the film -- that is to say, the surface. In that, as well as its themes, it's an almost perfect representation of the Boomer aesthetic. Depth in the superficial. Cliched themes. An easy and cheap political correctness that masks a love for power and authortarianism.

Now I don't expect a lot of narrative innovation or character depth in a movie that costs hundreds of millions. Studios used to take those kinds of risks with films like Lawrence of Arabia or even the Godfather, which combines psychological insight along with the action. But the obvious corporate policy is to play it safe with the tropes everyone loves, and that's what Cameron does. You can argue about the bankruptcy of that approach, but not its financial savvy.

Still, one narrative element in particular bothered me, even during the movie and more so after. The Na'vi are strategic idiots. Jake tries to help them out, but he's a moron as well. His strategy? Run away from overwhelming force. Then, attack with all you've got -- even when all you've got is bow and arrows against sci-fi tech.  The plan is to swarm the vastly superior earthlings and hope for the best.
It's oddly dismissive of the indigenes, too. Historically, natives do get slaughtered. Some, however, turn into brilliant military leaders. Chief Joseph, one of the greatest humans who ever lived, and Crazy Horse bedeviled the US Army. They did not draw on the talents of a rogue paleface, either. Not to mention battles like Yellow River or Cannae where outnumbered and technically overmatched armies beat the supposed superiors through guerilla tactics or through brilliant strategy.

I was hoping that Jake would come up with some ingenious lure, some gambit that would satisfyingly rip apart the larger, clumsy musclebound oafs. It's also a common theme in fairy tales as well -- the clever trickster gets the better of the lumbering giant.

Instead you get Na'vi swarming over the machines, and slaughtered mercilessly. In story terms, this creates feelings of rage and helplessness, so you really, really want to see the bad guys' asses kicked. It sets up the Final Confrontation. But it's limited, flat. You have a meathead urging all the Na'vi to commit suicide by swarming.

And then? A literal deus ex machina saves the day.

This merely reinforces the power worship of Avatar -- it can be as pro-science and multicultural as it wants to on the surface, but it's underlying sympathy is with raw power -- the power of 800 pixel slingers in the production room. And by saying that only a divine intervention can help a rebel army, it enforces the futility of struggling against The Man.


A place for spectacle movies -- movies like theme park rides with stock characters confronting big choices -- exists. Spectacle has been around forever; Aristotle talked about it back in the day. It's still around because it's satisfying to be shocked and awed, particularly from a safe seat. But you leave stunned, not enlightened, not thoughtful, with nothing but your nerves buzzing. A form of pornography.

Spectacle is fundamentally stupid. Drama, comedy, tragedy, even melodrama: why throw all that heritage and invention out the window? It would be nice if we could build on Shakespeare and O'Neill, or even Cassavetes and Bergman instead of blubbering like apes in the ruined temples of their works.

The main issue for me is that these spectacles tend to cannibalize other movies and other forms of drama. It's as if you walk in a bookstore, and they only sell Dan Brown or Stephen King. Or that theatres only mounted Broadway spectacles, like Phantom of the Opera or Cats with lame stories but super cool sets (oh. . .wait . . . )

I don't see this toy-like experience as the future of cinema that matters.


  1. Tim,the script (plot?) is bad..After 10 min I was boring,all the time.And now,2 months after,I did not remember about anything precise but some colours..We know that they could not take a risk with such money;but we don't have to apologise them,nothing forced them to shoot.Let's give 5 millions to Cameron,and then we'll see what for a film's maker he is really.Best,Vincent.

  2. Agreed, absolutely. The plot follows the approved formula. And it is utterly forgettable.
    Even though I hate to be in the position of defending Cameron, some of his earlier movies were pretty good as genre exercises. The original Terminator, for example, is lean, kinetic science fiction, with some original ideas in it (and the usual shitty climax at the end). And it didn't have a big budget, either.