I have been working on a piece about Avatar for about two weeks.
If you've seen the film, you might be inclined to ask how there could possibly be anything to say about it that would take two weeks to get at or even get right. To some degree, you're right. The simple version of my opinion of Avatar is identical to what so many other people have said. It's an audaciously horrid script. The story isn't anything new, and it's definitely been told in better quality, but it's also, more often, been told in much worse quality. Visually, it has set a new standard, and is probably further ahead of the curve in it's advance of 3D technology for film than we're even able to completely conceive right now.
Then, there's everything else. To some of you, there isn't anything else. Maybe the fact that the script isn't very good says everything you need to know. Maybe the fact that it's a new standard in visual effects says everything you need to know. Maybe all you want to know is whether or not it was an enjoyable experience, was it a good movie, fun, or well made. I can tell you all of those things. I still wouldn't be telling you everything.
There's the undercurrent of the story, the film's message or central themes. There's the fact that it's yet another major studio film, telling a story warning of the dangers of corporate corruption. There's the idea that it really seems to be a thinly veiled parable for the war in Iraq. There's the fact that there's even some level of environmental message. There's the fact that politics, any kind of politics in an event film like Avatar, are pretty courageous. And the strange hollowness they end up with in the face of a poor script, a cliche'd story, and the strange hypocrisy which is a film saying all of these things being distributed and financed by Fox, an arm of Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation. There Will Be Blood anyone?
Larger than Avatar alone is the somewhat unsettling continuation of the trend toward spectacle above substance. Though I may agree with the politics of a film like Avatar in some ways, I disagree more thoroughly with those concepts and ideas taking second fiddle to flash and spazz, the cinematic version of shock and awe. Avatar isn't the only film this year or in any year in the last thirty or so to suffer from being visually and sensually spectacular, but basically void of any kind of real substance. This year alone we've also had Transformers: The Revenge Of The Fallen, which I avoided, but apparently the only thing which matched it's visual spectacle was the degree to which it was poorly written, and bigoted. That's a variety of spectacle we haven't seen in some years, and probably could have continued to do without, though, again, I haven't seen the film myself. Micheal Bay seems to be some kind of cinematic idiot savant. His films are immensely successful financially, but at best, are like the full feeling you have after eating too much crappy food on the runway and are about to climb into the carnival Gravitron. The sense of gobbling it up was enjoyable, but what it's going to be when it comes back up is horrifically frightening.
That's the short version of what can be said about Avatar. That's the simple way to approach it. I've been struggling with getting the beast under control now for two weeks, maybe more actually, since I saw it opening weekend and have been working on it since. It's the rest of the story that's difficult to get at.
Then, today, I was listening to one of the podcasts I missed in the midst of the holiday season. The /Filmcast, from the /film website, is usually a pretty good podcast about the weeks events in film, and so forth. It's usually a pretty good meat and potatoes podcast for someone who loves movies and likes being excited about them. This particular episode (episode 77) happened to be even better than usual. Not only did it give me some perspective on the popularity of the Twilight series (it seems Twilight is to teenage girls what Mad Max would have been to my generation of teenage boys, at least, if it had a few hard core porn scenes). There was another discussion though, which also kind of got at the reason I've been having trouble writing this piece about Avatar. Oddly, and somehow appropriately enough, it was a discussion about the new Blu-Ray release of Fight Club.
Fight Club is a personal favorite. It's also a film I've developed a slightly bizarre relationship with. The thing which probably made me become such a rabidly devoted fan of the film was it's degree of complexity. On the one hand, it's an entertaining yarn about a man losing his marbles, with a really well executed surprise ending. On the other hand, it's saying something less than very positive about the society in which this film takes place. But even further under the surface, it could be implicating the audience in all of that. One thing about Fight Club is true, it's popularity only ended up adding to it's complexity in a strange way. I am somehow, 100% certain that I was having a very different viewing experience in seeing it for the first time, than say, you're average frat boy. I had a Fight Cub T-Shirt for a while, with the rules written on the back of it. It's destroyed now, warn to pieces. Yes, I know that in itself is almost at odds with so much of what the film was saying, but that was part of what made it funny to me. Either way, it was the reason for a number of conversations about the film with people I know and complete strangers as well. This may sound arrogant, but the sad truth is that I think more people than not really did not completely get Fight Club. There's a very good possibility that most of the people Fight Club is actually intending to insult, aren't smart enough to understand they're being insulted. They, in fact, are ascribing themselves as part of the club, specifically because in the movie, the club looks cool. They don't get it, but the story is told well enough, in an entertaining enough fashion that they thoroughly enjoy it. So, in conversation after conversation (not all, mind you, but too many all the same), I was left having to decide whether or not to tell someone they were actually being insulted. I was being insulted, in certain ways, and that was fine with me, because I can appreciate an insult of that quality, and it was partly correct. Unlike Micheal Haneke's Funny Games, which was the empty, hypocritical moralizing of someone shaking their big, loud, angry French finger in your face (I will, I swear to all things good and beautiful in this world, punch that pretentious ass hat directly in his face should the chance ever present itself), Fight Club came more from a perspective of identification. It was made by people in exactly the same conundrum as those watching it. The podcast, which I was referring to before is one of the very few places I've heard or seen much of this discussed. I've read a number of articles about Fight Club, and seen a number of interviews about it. Most of them refer to it as "cult favorite", but none of them have ever really gotten into that whole aspect of the film and it's popularity. I thought it was great to hear some other folks talking about it.
In hearing all of that, and thinking about Fight Club, I realized I was having the same problem with the Avatar piece because of that exact same kind of meta strangeness. The difference being that Fight Club was well written, performed, and well made enough to push itself into that position on it's own, long after it had even left theaters. Avatar has found itself in that position for exactly the opposite reasons. It's a spectacle, an event, lacking the substance which brought Fight Club to prominence without a marketing campaign. Not only that, but this kind of meta-complexity, this meta-strangeness seems to be surrounding us, and in many ways starting to drown out our discussion and our debate. I don't necessarily think it's because we're getting lost in the discussion of these things, because frankly, these aren't the kinds of things I hear the majority of people talking about when they're talking about film, or most other varieties of media or art. They're kind of specifically avoiding them it seems. It's like we're so desperately wanting things to be much more simple than all of that, we're refusing to talk about them, and the only people who are bothering to talk about them or mention them are doing so with a very specific agenda already decided. It's rarely about whether the film at hand is at all successful in what it's attempting to do, saying what it's attempting to say or even expressing why you should care what it has to say.
It's important for us to be able to ask these questions, and it's important for us to have our parables, our fables, our tales of various kinds, specifically because of what they say to us, and what they say about us. Few things are probably a better indicator of a people's real health, the health of a society or a nation than the kind of discussion it's stories are having. I think it's pretty interesting to consider just how excellent a decade it's been for film, and to consider that there's a very good chance the first decade of the twenty-first century could very well be looked back on as being as good as or better than those vaunted seventies I've grown up being indoctrinated to believe were one of the greatest decades in film history. It's also interesting to really look at what the last decade of film has been in light of that fact. It seems we have produced the best film in the periods when we are most confused. Maybe not necessarily unsure, but confused. It's no secret that when we're doing well, film doesn't. Then again, when we're doing too badly, it's not so good for film either. The business end may be good, but on the artistic side we tend to run a little too far toward the escapist and produce little other than the most purely escapist entertainment. It's no accident that musicals were at their peak during The Depression and WWII. It's also no accident that the sixties begot the seventies, and the push for film to be as realistic as it could possibly be made.
This all speaks to the way we view films or story, as a culture. It's interesting to note that the other film in '09 which rivals Avatar for the title of biggest event film, was a film which was literally made for fifteen thousand dollars, Paranormal Activity. Unlike Avatar, it wasn't a popcorn movie dressed up in the grandiosity of half ass scripting and storytelling. It's story was extremely simple and straightforward, as were it's technical aspects. I'd honestly argue that if you were to look at each movie based specifically on story, and what that story is trying to do, the experience it's trying to give the audience, Paranormal Activity was more successful. It was also something technically creative in many ways, which is what made it such an event film. Oren Peli, took basically nothing, and scared the living daylights out of people. James Cameron took somewhere around three hundred million dollars and produced an eye poppingly gorgeous, but lackluster underdog film. I'd also give Paranormal Activity the edge in it being a better audience experience film. If you saw it with a large audience of enthusiastic people, your experience was utterly different than seeing it in your living room. The experience of seeing Avatar in your living room will be significantly different as well, but that will be a technical difference. We aren't yet able to produce RealD in home theater.
On the other hand, there can be an argument made that it's good for film, on a business and artistic level that a film like Avatar, got made and did as well as it is. There's some validity to that. It's good when the studio's and the film makers get rewarded for taking risks. I'm not sure how much of a risk this film really is though. There's been a media campaign going on, to some degree or another, for four years. There are sites I've been reading that have been providing the occasional (sometimes months in between) Avatar story and news tidbit for four years, getting progressively more frequent as the release date closed in. I've known what those blue monkeys were going to look like for almost two years now. Does media coverage necessarily equal ticket sales? No. Avatar was only really a gamble because of it's price tag. A James Cameron sci-fi film, with blue aliens and the equivalent of space marines, is going to sell tickets. You can basically guarantee that. How many tickets is the question. Right now, Avatar is kicking the snot out of everything else that even gets near the box office. It's raking in the cash.
There is an idea I keep coming back to concerning Avatar. In the eighties, and early nineties, as I was developing into a cinephile, and honing my obsession for horror films specifically, the men in charge of creating, designing and building all of the special effects (what we now refer to as practical effects) were becoming celebrities, and with good reason. They were progressing in leaps and bounds in years and months in ways their predecessors hadn't been able to in decades. They invented the Oscar category for Rick Baker's work on American Werewolf In London, and I dare any single one of you to watch The Thing and tell me Rob Bottin's work there would have been better done now with C.G. I still count that as one of the most inventive and incredibly horrifying special effects creations we've seen. Too bad the film came out a week after another film about an alien being found by people, E.T. (another film whose practical effects weren't anything to scoff at). Stan Winston was creating some of most awesomely bizarre, intricate and technically sophisticated effects in the history of film (including those for James Cameron's Aliens). KNB were beginning to show up on the radar with some weird little cult movies like Evild Dead.
Along the way, following their celebrity status being cemented, some of these effects wizards and magicians got the opportunity to direct films of their own. By and large, the results were exactly the same. They were decent films, not terrible, with absolutely awesome effects. It was definitely obvious that the films were made with a great deal of enthusiasm, interest and genuine love in some cases, but they almost always lacked too much in the character and story departments. They were good appetizer films, and also good for the burgeoning horror fanatic to satiate an obsession for more horror films, until the next truly great horror film came along to really blow your mind. But they were pretty obviously films made by people who were effects guys, and not really directors or storytellers. Honestly, I think Avatar is very much like that. Is Cameron's love for film, and for the chance to get to play with this new technology palpable? Yes, it is. Do I deeply admire the kind of dedication and time it took to get the facial expressions of the CG characters to be as incredibly realistic as they are? Without a doubt. Do I think that this technology, specifically using 3D in the way the film does is going to be a step forward for film making? Absolutely. But I also think James Cameron is actually a special effects genius, on par with any in film history, possibly surpassing them, and not a film maker in the sense of being a storyteller in the medium of film.
I enjoyed Avatar. Don't get me wrong. It was a lot of fun to see in the theater, and I'd suggest seeing it in RealD if you can, because the way Cameron uses it to create a world is pretty astonishing. But, I wonder, deep down, why all of this, why all of the spectacle, all of the money, all of the time, the effort, the hype, if the story isn't really the foundation. That might sound strange coming from a guy who is obsessed with horror films, a genre alleged to be void of story and character and such. In many cases, I'd agree, but I'd also say that's way to wide a generalization, and when horror is light on story and light on character, it's extremely heavy on ingenuity. The effects wizards I grew up worshiping and whose names I regarded as a stamp of quality, were doing almost all of that with basically nothing. They were breaking the boundaries on shoestring budgets and finding a way to be creative with very little. In the end, I think Avatar is a wonderfully perverse symbol of so much of our media and our interactions with each other. It's vulgar spectacle with pretensions toward principles of some kind. It actually is games in The Coliseum while Rome is burning. It's the cinematic equivalent of promises by political figures.
I don't necessarily say all of this just to review Avatar, because a review is more straight forward. I'm trying to say that things have gotten complicated. The way we relate to media now is different, because all of what I said can be true, and we can know this individually, and whether or not we actually like the film can be something completely separate from just about everything I've listed here. In some ways, it can come down to something as simple as whether or not we enjoyed the actual experience of sitting in the theater and watching the film for two and a half hours. But more often than not, it's not that simple at all. Not anymore, and I wonder how well we're not only dealing with that, but how well we're actually communicating that to each other. It's definite that some of us are on a hell bound march to bring some simplicity back into things, at any cost. I can't say I don't sympathize, just not with the "at any cost" part. So, Avatar as a film is entertaining enough, though low on story and character and kind of dull in the sloped forehead variety of the expression. As a cultural phenomenon, and an indicator of our relationship with media, it's fascinating. It's true that there have been some truly bold and incredible films in the last decade, which do actually have real substance, and probably an unusually high number of them, and that is an indicator of our relationship with media as well. The opening weekend box office receipts for Avatar were $77,025,481. That's opening weekend. The entire world wide gross for There Will Be Blood was $76,181,545. No Country For Old Men's entire world wide gross was $162,113,329. Avatar is currently at $1,372,993,105, in 26 days.More substantial fare is certainly being made, but how many people out there, are actually seeing both, and what does that suggest about our relationship with our media?
It's just not simple.