Are there any people out there who haven’t seen James Cameron’s Avatar yet? Well, you five contrarians can skip this post unless you like spoilers. Although really, if you have an internet connection, chances are you’ve already stumbled across tons of people orgasming on their blogs or tweets or columns or what-have-you after watching the movie, so what the hell, you might as well read this one too.
Because Avatar is an event. In fact, it is an Event. It’s as though Cameron watched a Disney movie, one of those old-fashioned hand-drawn pieces of art, and thought to himself, “You know what would make this better? If we upped the violence and the romance and made the animals terrifying and killed and bombed a bunch of people and stuff and were somehow able to drop the audience into the middle of it so that they felt as though they were experiencing it in person. That would kick fucking Bambi’s ass so hard!”
And you know what? It totally does. Avatar is a triumph of the imagination. It throws open a door, illumining a visual corridor that most of us didn’t even know existed or was even possible. As VS Naipaul likes to say:
[A] lot of the novels being written in our own time, how intelligent and amusing, do not have any lasting power. They do not have that tension, that convincingness of what is absolutely new. They are novels written by people who have too many models, and possibly the same thing is true of the cinema, which is a fair comparison. The first 50 years of the cinema were absolutely great years. Original minds were at work establishing the ways to tell a story. And what is happening now is a copying, a pastiche-ing of what was done by great men.
Or to put it more succinctly, the problem facing art forms today is: “None of you can be first. But all of you can be next…”
What Cameron, with the help of Peter Jackson and the folks at Weta Digital, has done is to find a way to be first. Any way you count, that is a remarkable achievement. As Eminem says, “kids nowadays are so used to seeing crazy shit, there’s so much crazy weird shit on the Internet, it’s certainly getting harder to shock people.” Art is not always about shocking people but it is always about prompting a response. And it’s gotten progressively harder to get people to think about cinema.
But no matter how gamed out you are, no matter what you have seen or what you like to watch, Twitter-effect or no, the incredible freshness of the Avatar experience works as a palette cleanser. It’s impossible to walk out of the theater thinking, “Yawn, not this shit again.” And that newness of it is what has gotten people talking. In sharp contrast to the other movies released this year, Avatar and its status as a possible Oscar contender is driving the conversation, even outside of the usual niche awards monitoring sites that spring up around this time every year, with an energy and focus that I haven’t seen since I started paying attention (which admittedly is a mere blip in time compared to most others).
The only glitch in what should have been a moment of surpassing triumph is that Avatar isn’t a very good movie. I suppose you could call it a passable movie, but if you took it out of 3D and put it on celluloid, I can’t help but feel it’d be the kind of thing we’d all be chuckling about for days (not that we aren’t already).
Others have expressed their opinions – where the movie succeeds spectacularly and where it falls flat (that is possibly my favorite Stephanie Zacharek review bar none) with equal intensity – and I really have very little to add to those. But it is the conversations that this movie has provoked among folks at large in the past week or so that have really fascinated me. Or should I say, disturbed me?
Baradwaj Rangan’s mixed review, for instance, prompted this comment that left me with a funny feeling in my tummy:
Give it a rest for once and take in the world you are immersed in….this is NOT a film that requires a solid script with depth…whatever story/script there is is good enough to guide you thorugh the director’s vision…anything more complex will have taken the focus away from it.
(emphasis mine) You’ll find more than one person espousing those views, not just in Rangan’s comment section but across the internet, but it was the last line of that particular comment that really gave me pause. Was that person talking for himself or was he speaking on behalf of a larger majority that is now simply not prepared to handle two things at once?
In a Lincoln Center discussion of Ishtar (the most expensive movie of its day at a princely $30 million – which is less than one-tenth the cost of Avatar in case you’re still calculating numbers that don’t mean squat to you) with Mike Nichols, its director Elaine May said:
[L]ook how quickly we all get used to eating shit… We get used to it very fast. We get used to skim milk very fast. Whole milk tastes like cream. We adapt very quickly to being treated very badly…[Y]ou have to remember most movies are made for 16-year-old boys. Maybe that’s changing, but 16-year-old boys have truly had a poor education. Really the point is that people want to make too much money.
And with Cameron, we’re not even talking about just American 16-year-olds. We’re talking about the 16-year-old’s parents on a date night. Their 15-year-old sisters and their friends. It’s the kind of mega-movie that “better make sense in Kerala as well as Kansas” as Mary HK Choi writes in her love letter to it.
Maybe there really is no intelligent way to do that. Maybe a movie like Avatar is now by definition a movie that you watch for the pretty pictures and awesome sound and leave your brain at home with a babysitter. With the right perspective, even The Lord of the Rings is a just movie about people walking endlessly.
Which is why I find it interesting that the story Cameron chose as universally translatable and instantly relatable is one infused with the white man savior complex. No matter how in tune with their world the Na’avi might be, as Mary Bustillos writes:
It still takes a white man to tame the really BIG dragon, and to outfox the enemy. He will also take the “best” woman, the noblest, the highest born, the smartest, whose token resistance will dwindle its sorry way from faux-contempt to near-drooling adoration in a matter of days. Her former man will die, and her father will, too; her whole civilization will lie in ruins. She will pretty much get down on her knees to thank this white man.
It shocks me that this aspect of Avatar doesn’t trouble more people. Or would it be more correct to say that it shocks me that it doesn’t seem to have occurred at all to a great many people? Is that because this is a trope that has seeped so deep into our subconscious that we don’t even notice it any more or have we gotten so accustomed to our steady diet of tripe that most of us have simply given up on analyzing the meaning of the visuals unspooling in front of us? We’ve been going on a slow march towards the popular view that intelligence is elitist, but has the mere act of thinking at all now become too elitist to indulge in polite company?
Maybe it’s just a simple ignorance of the strong parallels Avatar draws to the genocide of Native Americans. Writing about “the white guilt fantasy“, Annalee Newitz notes:
These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color – their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside…Avatar is a fantasy about ceasing to be white, giving up the old human meatsack to join the blue people, but never losing white privilege. Jake never really knows what it’s like to be a Na’vi because he always has the option to switch back into human mode…When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it’s only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything.
As the chatter builds for Avatar as a possible Best Picture contender or even outright winner come Oscar time, it strikes me as absurd. Yes, Avatar has opened a door for the human imagination and the technical detail is amazing. But as a movie? Really? Avatar is your best movie of the year, dated slang and outdated wheelchairs and all?
And then I read this comment on the slang post: “The movie was well written. I’d rather have a movie with good writing all around than one with a few memorable catch phrases here and there.” I had half a hope that it was Wonkette-style facetiousness until I remembered that Titanic anointed Cameron king of the world.
James Cameron clearly knows what he’s doing, and much as I’m awed by his technical skills that fact alone makes me hope that he won’t get the grand prize for this story. I’m glad I went to watch Avatar. Like I said, it was an Event. Those are fun. I’m even more glad I took my brain with me. I wouldn’t even know what “fun” is without it.
Related: David Poland