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February 25, 2010

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bill

This was a very interesting conversation. I still haven't seen AVATAR, so that's all I have to say. But good job, the two of you!

Owain Wilson

I think I'm with Jim on this one.

I've noticed something interesting about the Avatar 'phenomenon'. What's interesting is that there doesn't actually seem to be one. Yes, millions of people around the world went to see it and the box office gross is steadily climbing north of $2-billion, but as far as I can tell the film has not passed into the public conscience to any significant degree.

I have a lot of film-loving pals who have all seen it, but none of us actually talk about it. No one else is talking about it. None of the dialogue has become notably famous, not even "I see you". No one image or scene seems to have stood out or stuck around, endlessly replayed on TV or reprinted elsewhere in the media. The only thing you hear about Avatar is the box office success and the 3D technology.

Maybe no one really loves it. Remember, you have to pay to see a movie before you decide if you like it or not.

Well, at least that's how it seems here in the UK, where Avatar has become our most successful film. It could be argued that it hasn't been around long enough, but then again Titanic embedded itself far deeper into popular culture by this time in 1998 just before it scored big at the Academy Awards, and an awful lot of people really do love that film.

Maybe I'm wrong. Let me have it!

James Keepnews

I haven't seen Avatar, either. And neither has Michael Atkinson, evidently:

http://trueslant.com/michaelatkinson/2010/01/07/why-i-wont-see-avatar/

Sight unseen is a pretty challenging position from which to assess anything, but I'm also largely sympathetic with the overall thrust of this rant.

bill

Owain, I don't think you're wrong. Since I have a negative bias towards AVATAR, sight unseen, and towards Cameron in general, I'll be careful about what I claim here, and I do know people who have seen the film and loved it. But you're still right: this doesn't seem to be latching on to the culture the way that STAR WARS or even THE DARK KNIGHT or, hell, pretty much every other Cameron movie has done, save THE ABYSS and TRUE LIES. I don't claim to know why, but I think you're onto something anyway.

PedroAlcala

Hello Glenn; long-time reader from Mexico (though currently residing in LA), first time comenting, (awesome blog, by the by), just a couple of points that I cant put in coherent form cause its really late (or really early, if you will...incidentally, sorry for the spelling and grammar, which Im sure will be shoddy at best)

- Im not entirely sure if Avatar's box office results and ever-growing fanbase warrant its status as a cultural phenomenon on the same level as Star wars, partially because star wars (regardless of whatever opinions one might have on its aesthetics, which, as you so succintly pointed out, are completely irreconciliable at this point), along with other films that came out at the time, were the beginning of the hollywood blockbuster we now know (and, consequently, the beginning of cinematical postmodernism); Avatar is not really a change or shift from this; if anything, its a sumation of the comercial filmaking values of the times: focus on technology, a return to arquetipical story structures and character types (or genre), the centralization of film as product (or ride), with susequent concentration on merchandising and other such commercial strategies. I dont say that as a bad thing or as some sort of anti-capitalist screed, it is what it is, its just not new.

- I know that this wasn't necesarily touched on explicitly in your discussion with Emerson, but its a common point of critique and it should be adressed: Originality of story (and some might argue, of design) has never been Cameron's strong point; despite all the admiration and respect I have for him, hes still the guy who had to awkwardly shoehorn in an acknowledgement to Harlan Ellison's work at the end of Terminator after it became glaringly obvious just how many things were "borrowed" from it (in his original copyright lawsuit, the admidetly petulant Ellison mentions some episodes he wrote for The Outer Limits, although another obvious instance would have to be the fact that Skynet is actually a version of AM, the protagonist supercomputer of Ellison's 1967 short story "I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream"). Hes still the guy who's two most celebrated works are sequels (well, two of his more celebrated works, anyways). Yes, Avatar is, story-wise, Dances with wolves and pocahontas and the new world and Dune; design-wise, its ferngully and Miyazaki (for those looking for a more nuanced, interesting and even thrilling take on the whole man-nature conflict, try Princess Mononoke or Nausicaa) and aerosol paintings and psychedelic patterns and Yes album covers. The thing is that this is not really a bad thing either; at this point this sort of pastiche is merely a neutral characteritic of any comercial piece, and I personally don't see it as something directly detrimental to Avatar's value. Of course a counterpoint to that would be that an acceptance of unoriginality implies an indiference towards originality; thoughts?

- I have to second Emerson on the idea that hand crafted special effects remain more valuable than CGI because the presence of actual physical objects contains a sense of weight and volume that computer graphics still can't reproduce; I dont say that as a cranky reactionary (Im way too young for that), its just my view of the technology at this point. Cgi works great when covering the imperfections and adding a little punch to analog special effects (see: minas tirith in the lord of the rings), but a complete substitute? Not yet; with that being said, I do confess that there were times in Avatar were, in the midst of some "look at this light/that camera angle" distraction, I stopped myself in awe: "Wait a minute, there was never a light shining on that object; moreover, there was never a camera filming it. In fact, that object was never there to begin with!". I suppose this conflict is the very essence of what is know as "uncanny valley", and the fact that Cameron kept me (and most, if not all viewers) there for almost three hours definetly represents a step forward in the technology.

- This literalism that you and Emerson discuss is something that I feel Cameron started doing to such a degree in Titanic, and somehow the positive reinforcement that he got from that made him bring it back in full form in avatar; I personally loathe it, just because I know from his previous films that, although cameron might not be a great literate dialogue writer or an overtly complex and nuanced handler of thematic, he knows he can make things easier and more interesting for us dialogue-and-content-centric viewers. Im sorry, I just see no purpose or design for obvious, cliched and unrealistic dialogue or obvious and overtly simplistic thematics (other than the populist scheme of "we need good guys and bad guys!"); in this case (and in most others), its just lazy scriptwriting; even if you need clear good guys and bad guys in your narrative, you can still make them interesting (I know that this is an extremely general point of view on these things but Im not sure Avatar lends itself to more analysis on this)

- Just to add to your reference to the great train robbery to illustrate the concept of films as "rides", I would say that it goes even further back than that, to Lumiere's the arrival of the train, where audiences famously ran from the screen thinking the train was coming at them; perhaps thats were Avatar's value resides: through technology (which is all film really was back then), it got people running from that train again. With that being said, most close friend whom I consider members of the general film public regard Avatar as a really fun time at the movies with some impressive technology on display that just came out at the right time (january and february being the proverbial hollywood dumping grounds), and not much else, and fail to give it the zeitgeist-humping significance that a lot of critics (Not a reference to you Glenn; you and Emerson remain very reasonable on this most strangely divisive of films) are assigning to it (in a streak of rare and perhaps welcome but also perhaps out-of-place populism). Owain Wilson further developed this point while I was writing the rest of this.

Ill stop writing now. Oh, no, wait-

- Grand Funk Railroad BLOWS (and I dont mean to insult the honorable practice of felatio); that doesn't mean I dont enjoy belching out the locomotion.

Glenn Kenny

Wow, I hadn't seen that Atkinson tantrum, but it's hilarious on several levels. I masturbate fewer than three times a day, and I defended (sort of) "Avatar" in a point-counterpoint with Jim Emerson, so I don't know where that leaves me.

You know that bit in "Pnin" where someone talks about how Dali was Norman Rockwell's twin brother kidnapped by gypsies as a baby? When I read M.A. writing like that, I think maybe that scenario applies to him vis-a-vis Jeffrey Wells.

And the puffing-up-of-the-chest about reading Hemingway. jesus.

bill

What's most interesting to me about the Atkinson piece -- apart from the fact that he doesn't think he can see three dimensions -- is that the first comment below his rant is from F. Paul Wilson. What the??

PedroAlcala

" Superheroes are, essentially by definition, idiotic confections intended for children" Michael Atkinson, on his "The Dark Knight" review.

"Michael Atkinson is a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual douchebag" Umberto Eco

Graig

Oh man! Kenny vs Emerson? Color me excited. This I gotta read.

James Keepnews

At least Mr. A (shoutout to my Ditko freaks in the hey-ouse) SAW The Dark Knight, and I really enjoyed his contrarian review of same. I'm not at all clear about what you and Signor Eco would deem as pretentious, much less pseudo-intellectual, about that essay, including such assessments as:

"The film is quite literally one violent set-piece followed by a 20-second snatch of exposition, to explain what significance the set-piece is supposed to have, repeated again and again and again, for over 2.5 interminable hours. Stories require character and incidents that happen to those characters and decisions those characters have to make, and us watching them make those decisions, and then the tragic/triumphant/ironic result of those decisions. The Dark Knight runs along literally like a series of disconnected cabaret acts, with what passes for narrative happening off-screen most of the time, and the ample screentime remaining filled up with chases and fights so haphazardly shot and cut you can’t tell where anybody is or what’s going on."

"Continuity!/Über alles!/Continuity/Ü-Ber Al-les!!!"

To be clear, I saw The Dark Knight subsequently and rather enjoy Nolan's deft leveraging of genre and flip dialogue volleys in the film, even if Mr. Bale's hoarse butch-eries as The Batman are pretty risible. Honestly, like other astute critics including Glenn, I get alot from reading MA even when I don't agree with him.

(But...MA + JW -- separated at birth?? Ouch!!)

bill

But that's not what THE DARK KNIGHT is even figuratively like, let alone "literally" (twice!) like.

Glenn Kenny

The operative phrase in my comparison, James, is "When I read M.A. writing like that." "That" being his silly "I won't see 'Avatar'" post. (And his denunciations of D.W. Griffith.) Other stuff he's written I find genuinely provocative and sometimes illuminating. Just so you know. Also, any working critic who announces that he will only deign to view that which he considers"grownup" material is, to my mind, engaging in a routine of acting out that's thoroughly, well, adolescent.

James Keepnews

How about "kinda" like? I think the claim of set-piece disconnect is apt. But best to read the whole piece, lest you judge it in its entirety, sight unseen. Sort of like, that's right...

http://zeroforconduct.com/2008/07/26/throwing-down.aspx

The Siren

Michael Atkinson dissed D.W. Griffith? Why I'll...

No, no I won't. You ain't gonna get me like that twice in one week, Mr. Kenny.

Good debate on Avatar. Needless to say I share your viewpoint more than Jim's but both sets of arguments are cogent and blessedly free from cant.

James Keepnews

And, Glenn, um...I see you?

And don't disagree with what you say here (and I realized you were being conditional in your MA/JW association, and yet, see above in re: "Ouch!!"), though I must admit I have a small, most likely adolescent admiration of the chutzpah it takes to spell out how something you have direct knowledge of sucks. I won't defend it (my small admiration) and am genuinely sorry I'm taking the discussion away from your piece, recognizing that this is the first time a blog comments thread goes in a mostly different direction than the post upon which the thread is ostensibly based... :}

John Keefer

Great discussion Glenn, you guys should have a show...I don't mean a critic type show I mean a sitcom where you play long lost brothers who are on competing rival swim teams in high school. All the other characters would be high school age. It would be called Wet 'n Wild. It would redefine television.

Here's a theory and I wonder what you would make of it. We are incapable of imagining something grander than Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws or what have you. For the people making films now, having grown up with these films, we believe an unmeetable standard was set and now it cannot be topped in anyway. Naturally human beings can't be told what we can't do, even if we're the ones telling ourselves, so we must now invent the event. We do this through marketing that simply states "This is an event." Having gone so long without an actual "event" we are hungry for it so we agree. I remember a coworker of mine went and saw The Dark Knight. I asked her what she thought and she described the packed theater, said it was amazing, and had never once brought it up again. No real impact, no lasting impressions, no discussion afterward, and arguably no iconic imagery. I'm thinking these things can't be manufactured, they happen and they explode and they seep into our collective pop consciousness, but I don't know. To me it seems like we are collectively faking it. What do you think?

PedroAlcala

No, youre right James Keepnews, in other films and subjects Atkinson is a great writer, my joke was just refering to that particular remark (and the way its so silly and outdated, Umberto Eco brought it down back in the seventies) in that review, which sort of ecompasses that douchey (sorry, cant think of another word) quality in the way Atkinson sees a lot of pop culture, also demostrated monstrously in the avatar piece

And also, c'mon, judging a film without seeing it? Thats just a very basic no-no; Im pretty sure Im one of those frazzeta-enjoying geeks Atkinson is refering to, and even I know that. I also know that building nests doesn't involving a mindless search for bright and pretty things (dont even know where that came from), its actually a pretty complicated process.

Ryland Walker Knight

I think you're right, GK: the masses (those PLEBES!) wouldn't term the "suck-you-in" visual style a form of "phenomenology" but, well, that's how it worked on these eyes. That can be the only explanation I can think of when somebody tells me they've seen the movie five times and would love to live on Pandora. And I don't think that has something to do with living in San Francisco (this place is nowhere the melting mecca of tripping balls it once was): it's that invitation the flick extends. It's not the 3D that's new--gosh, that's a marketing gimmick from the 70s, right? or, just, you know, a marketing gimmick--no, it's that Cameron's got a way to trick your eyeballs out of their sockets and into that screen; things don't pop out for effect, or that isn't the driving strategy, they float around. And, more important, is that the movie's all geared around scale. But then that takes a hilarious turn when Stephen Lang whips out that "knife" in his big fight scene. That is, i's not a "knife" if it's 8 feet long. And who in their right mind would design an 8 foot long knife for a mech/droid/whatever body? Oh right: goofy James and his big brained ideas of, yes, what's "cool" and "awesome."

James

Can't hear the interview right now but I didn't like Avatar... Like I read a while ago (I dont remember where) Pretty Graphics + Lame Plot= Pretty lame.

lazarus

I have to take issue with John Keefer's claim that The Dark Knight had "no real impact, no lasting impressions, no discussion afterward, and arguably no iconic imagery." For one, many feel that the Academy Awards moving to ten Best Picture nominees was a result of overlooking TDK in said category last year. Perhaps that wasn't the only reason, and it was already in the works, but a lot of people certainly seem to think it was a major factor.

As far as lasting impressions, I imagine it's rather hard to tell so soon, and with the death of Ledger the desire for a follow-up is certainly blunted. But his performance alone is going to stick in the moviegoing consciousness for quite some time. People are going to remember 2008 as the year of The Dark Knight more than the year of Slumdog Millionaire, that's for sure.

Next we go back to Ledger again. If his death hadn't dominated discussion about the film, perhaps more time would have been spent looking at its moral quandaries. It's not something that was ignored anyway; I don't think it was a case of "out of sight, out of mind" like Transformers, and people talked about it more than they're talking about the politics of Avatar.

Lastly, no iconic imagery? The shot of The Joker's head sticking out of the police car is perhaps the greatest one from 2008, and a similar one of him walking away from the exploding hospital in the nurse's uniform ain't too shabby either.

Having said all that, I do agree with the main thrust of your post; I just think TDK was a lot closer to hitting that elusive zeitgeist mark than other event films in recent years.

Craig Kennedy

I think Owain hits it on the head. There hasn't been an iconic cultural "takeaway" from Avatar the way there was with Star Wars or even Cameron's earlier better pictures. Or is it too early to make that judgment?

Also, Emerson touches on his disappointment in the visual aspect in Avatar which is its key selling point (how many times have you heard "Sure, the story and dialogue suck, but it LOOKS amazing"?) For me that was the main failing of Avatar too. Part of it was irritation over the 3-D, I had the same problem with the narrow depth of field. Time and time again my eye wanted to focus on an object prominently in the foreground, but the photography wouldn't let me. I finally learned just to go with it, but it kept me from really getting into the movie. The 3-D was a distancing technique rather than the enveloping one it was meant to be.

On top of that, the design seemed to be cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies, including Cameron's own. I never had the sense I was looking at something I hadn't seen many times before.

And the effects? I would've traded all the bells and whistles for the sheer visceral impact of the relatively lo-fi Aliens.

The simplistic nature of Avatar is the key point of attack against the film and Glenn makes a great point about that simplicity helmping make it mythic, but the literal minded story, characters and dialogue were the least of the film's problems for me. I expect those things going into a Cameron picture. Even my favorites Terminator and Aliens and more recently Abyss were all pretty comic booky.

Anecdotally from the folks I've talked to about it, if the imagery of Avatar sucked you in (and that's the reaction of most people), the movie worked like crazy. If they didn't (Emerson's reaction) then you're kind of left wondering what all the fuss is about.

Account Deleted

Glenn, you're spot on with your assessment of action directors. One of the (many) thrills of seeing Avatar was watching a director at play who has truly mastered how to stage and edit his action sequences. The Hack Pack of today, Michael Bay, JJ Abrams, McG, Len Wiseman, Stephen Sommers, Bryan Singer, Brett Ratner etc. need to take a long, hard look at Avatar. Cameron is still the master, by a long shot.

steve simels

Well, of course for me the question ultimately boils down to whether Avatar is a crappy movie or a crappy movie that's also the future -- i.e., The Jazz Singer.

I personally think it's just a crappy movie -- c'mon, can anybody take the bad guy seriously? He makes Billy Zane, who did everything but twirl the mustache he didn't have in Titanic look like a model of subtlety and restraint -- but I've been wrong about this stuff before.

Glenn Kenny

This is all very interesting, and proves the last word on "Avatar" is a long time coming. For the sake of clarification and/or amusement let me give a little background on my involvement with the piece. While I am generally loath to turn down work (and am also hardly in a position to do so!), I demured from the piece at first, telling my delightful editor that, yes, I was provisionally in the "pro" camp with "Avatar," with qualifications that got bigger every day. Apparently, thought, that was about as "pro" a perspective as my editor could find within his stable of writers! So I took it. While I don't think I refuted any of Jim's arguments, he did give me arguments I could really hook into; had he taken a different approach, I might have been persuaded to show my ambivalence more forcefully. It was a very fun exchange, finally.

Craig Kennedy

You guys make a solid sparring team. I'd like to hear you go at it when you have a more strongly felt disagreement.

Gareth

I think that the discussion reveals that it's very hard to make a real assessment of the impact of a film, at least in the short term, beyond our own subjective impressions. Even in twenty-five comments, there are very different views of the cultural impact of The Dark Knight, for instance, never mind the recently-released Avatar.

I work on a large college campus, where I hear and overhear constant references to Avatar - jokes, comments about how people would behave in the same circumstances, online apps to make yourself look like a Na'vi, and so forth - so to me it seems as though it has penetrated the collective consciousness rather well, irrespective of its merits as a film.

I do also think that it's useful to remember the idea of the film as spectacle, which not that many movies, seen increasingly as multi-platform properties with near-simultaneous release in other formats. I think that, at least occasionally, that experience still holds an appeal for people and Cameron likes to exploit that "wow" factor or even just the sense of a collective experience with hundreds of other people (something critical to the original experiences of 2001, Star Wars, Jaws and so forth).

My views on Avatar are pretty similar to Glenn's - reservedly pro - and I was struck, at a suburban mall IMAX screening, by the near-reverential silence during the movie followed instantly by an incredible volume of excited chatter the moment the lights came up. It's unusual to hear that kind of intense, very vocal engagement with a film that has just screened: I stood at the back waiting for my wife and listened to an extraordinary range of opinion and commentary that added to the sense of "event," however that may have been influenced by marketing, etc. The only other movie I saw last year that prompted similarly immediate chatter was the rather different Summer Hours.

John Keefer

@ lazarus

Didn't mean to pick on The Dark Knight in that way and I do agree it might be too soon to tell. I just get that sense, and much the same with Avatar, that an audience may be responding as it is because in some way they are being told to. Now of course marketing for any film will purport it to be worth the price of admission but there's something there that I think is in response to an event glut. But like Huey Lewis once said what's most popular is rarely the best, and for those of us who love film we can get over not having an 'event' to latch onto, I'm excited at the prospect of Rahmin Brahini's next film, that's event enough for me.

Mike D

Finally saw it in IMAX. Good gravy, what a bore. "All sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing."

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