February 28, 2010

on intellectual guilt over watching Avatar

So I was reading through this article recently, with a mixture of cynical agreement and guilt. The sort of person this Avatar-heretic was talking to was probably the sort of person I am. The sort of person who sniffs at movies built entirely out of CG cotton candy and tough talk. The sort of person who tries to grasp the nuances and symbology behind characters and dialogue. The sort of person who believes they can spot an artist of quality when they see an obscure, once-unknown movie. And still, this sort of person bought tickets to Avatar, saw it, enjoyed themselves shamelessly and saved the intellectual guilt for after the entire experience was over. Well, I'm still saving that intellectual guilt for something to feel truly ashamed over. I'm not guilty about Avatar.

It can't be denied that this piece is a nice way to put all the hype about Avatar in perspective. I saw it, and I couldn't say I didn't enjoy it. It was an awesome visual spectacle with little in the way of story to recommend it. I can see how this can be a problem for people who believe movies are 95% about dialogue, characterization, acting, message and narrative. Unfortunately, the box-office reality is that different movies pull different viewers in for different things. Die Hard was not about symbology or complex narrative. The Incredibles was not about meaningful dialogue and questions that explored existential dilemmas (at least, not on its face). Similarly, Moon, which was one of the best-acted movies I've seen recently, was not about visual spectacle. The movie-snob tend to forgive such movies because they usually mix in some scraps from each of these factors to combine visual spectacle with some of the more refined ingredients we've come to expect most movies to contain today. The movie-snob would find it much,  much harder to forgive something like Avatar for a simple reason. Avatar was little more than a glorified rollercoaster ride. But what a ride. It was massive fun, on a purely visual level. It managed to achieve one of the primary objectives of the commercial movie (wish-fulfillment) entirely through the visual spectrum. James Cameron achieved what he promised to achieve. He created a visually incredible world and then placed the viewer within that world through the magic of his revolutionary use of 3D. From a technical perspective, that was an amazing achievement. Story, dialogue, complex characterization be damned. This movie was not made as a showcase for any of these things. James Cameron wanted to be the Lumiere Bros of 3D. And if he gets recognition, he should get recognition for little more than this (nevertheless pretty amazing) achievement.*

I suppose the reaction that most moviegoers have to Avatar is the sort of reaction people must have had on watching a Lumiere brothers production in the 1900s. There would have been tons of open-mouthed fascination over... what exacly? People leaving a factory, gardening, babies eating food, a sea bath. There was no reason to feel intellectual guilt on the enjoyment of such things at the time because there was no such thing as a tradition of storytelling through cinema. It was, at the time, a purely technical achievement. The ideas of using characters as visual symbols, adding nuance to dialogue and acting, hell, even creating a story for the purely visual experience to roll on were slowly perfected over the next century and a half, and have now become de rigeur in even the most blatant market-pandering movie that thrown out of modern cinema factories. This may explain why, when a movie is released as nothing more than a showcase of technical talent and such a movie receives massive critical and popular acclaim and gigantic box-office takings , so much intellectual guilt is thrown into its enjoyment. It really shouldn't happen though. And I'm not wasting mine for what I knew, from the start, would be pure visual spectacle. Hell, that's the only reason I watch a movie in the theatre anymore. If I want to appreciate a movie for its storytelling, dialogue, acting or symbology, I'd have better luck pulling it off the net and watching it in the peace and comfort of my home.

* - Of course, there's the Oscar problem, which asks a completely different question. If I had time to waste on this, I would, but I don't, so I wont, except to say that the Oscars have been bullshit for a long, long time and I cannot fathom how a movie which is such blatant visual eye-candy (albeit tasty eye candy) can be nominated for best picture or best direction. With the other categories I have no beef. Film-editing, Art Direction and Cinematography have always been categories which fall somewhere between technical and artistic excellence, and a nomination in those areas is hardly a surprise. Sound-editing, mixing and visual-effects are not (though music is) and I wish Avatar all the luck in the world for a win in those categories.