Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Skittles & Bore: Just How Ugly Was Avatar?

We put it off for months, for reasons that seemed obvious to both of us, but we finally decided to watch the "most successful film of all time." Why? Well, why not? We have a huge new television for which just this sort of thing would seem to have been made, we are all but caught up on most of our surviving favorites among the television season, and we'd already watched the other two movies we'd rented, so it seemed the right moment. Dear A., having put the title into our "queue," at my request, made no promises about watching it with me, but was not averse, at first, to letting it play while he read the paper. True, when it arrived last week, it sat on top of the DVD player ignored for days, but that's often the way, even with movies we've both been eager to see. So, finally, Avatar. Well, as it turned, it was not something through which dear A. was willing to sit, or even snooze. About five minutes in, he was up off the bed and out the door.

"Don't think so," he said, and went to pay bills at his desk.

I stuck it out to the end. Not sure why, other than an unwillingness to get out from under the comforter on my holiday off, but I did.

I need hardly say again that dear A. knew better, as he so frustratingly seems almost always to do. My husband does not much like film fantasies, and we neither of us like parables, but I do have a grudging respect for the recent advances in film technology and thought I ought at least to see something of what all the multimillion dollar fuss was about. Now I know there will be objections from the enthusiasts for this sort of thing, who will insist that this kind of movie can not be appreciated properly at home, even on our obscenely big new screen, and with an excellent "sound system," and that to really experience Avatar one needed to see it in "3D" and on a IMAX screen, but I wasn't looking to "experience" the movie, just to watch it. Looking at pictures from the Hubble telescope is no doubt less exciting than traveling to the edge of the galaxy, but one needn't, as I suggested earlier, get out from under the comforter on one's day off, so there we are. I had a lovely chicken-salad sandwich, diet soda, and a grotesque bag of M&Ms from the Costco, to say nothing of my cigarettes, right there in bed, so I have to say, I was willing to take the trade off.

It seems safe to assume that I was in fact the last person on earth to see this movie and therefore I needn't waste much time here summarizing the "experience," at this late date. You all saw the thing, didn't you? As I may have already suggested, in my subtle way, I think it a bad movie. Likewise, the inexplicable financial success of the movie has no doubt been explored and explained better elsewhere. I will say I don't begrudge the CGI guys, and anybody else who did the heavy gaffing their paychecks. Obviously, this production represents a hugely laborious undertaking, both in time and craft, and everyone at a computer is to be congratulated on having done what they were evidently hired to do so well, if uncritically. What interested me about Avatar -- to the extent I found the thing interesting at all -- was the relentless vulgarity of it. I just don't understand how and why so much artistry can produce such a huge piece of... bad art. Why do such a thing? And why, if one must, do it using the best technology and talent available? That is, I think, an interesting question. Was their no one in this whole huge production to suggest that the man in charge was a bit of a pig? It is, after all, rather like, having discovered (or rediscovered) the techniques and materials necessary to paint the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel, Michelangelo had decided to depict a nursery scene, replete with bunnies, kitties -- and pickaninnies -- frolicking amidst daisies.

Just as a starting point, I suppose I should confess my past fondness for the films of James Cameron. As a director and producer, he has made some of the most entertaining movies of the past two decades -- none of them great movies, and most of them actually quite bad, but nearly all of them fun. Cameron's is, or at least used to be, an exuberantly, deliberately coarse aesthetic; predicated on a boyish pleasure in speed and blowing things up, beautifully. James Cameron was the Chuck Jones of American SF/action pictures: devilishly brilliant at devising ever-more exciting, and often slyly comic gags in which his relentless variations on Wile E. Coyote failed to capture or kill the bird. From Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981), through his Aliens (1986) -- my favorite in the series -- to his Terminators, Cameron proved himself a master of noise, toys and boys will be boys stunt coordination, and even injected an unexpected note of feminism into the genre by casting, or at least keeping around, female leads. Beat the Hell out of 'em, but still. Even the inevitable, and inevitably spectacular sinking of his Titanic, managed to be genuinely thrilling, though it's there, in that most commercially successful of all his films, that I think Cameron went irretrievably wrong -- or rather decided to let everybody see the Emperor's new clothes. Like many another great technician, and gag-writer, he came to fancy himself a "story-teller," which is evidently Hollywood for writer, despite the fact that, as a director, his stories have never made but the barest sense, and as a screenwriter, he's never been able to write anything beyond the motivation for a chase, or a single line of original, or believable dialogue. This has proved, at least artistically, something of a problem in his later films, at least with the critics, and less significantly, with me. It was in Titanic, for me, that Cameron undid much, if by no means all of the affection I'd always felt for him.

No one ever sank that ship to better effect and I'll never forget the thrill of watching her go down. On the other hand, no major American director since DeMille, or possibly even D. W. Griffith, has so consistently condescended to an audience by insisting that everything human in his films be so stupidly, flatly childish and inauthentically uncomplicated as to be as immediately understandable, and as piously reassuring, as a Baptist stained glass window. I can't think of another successful living American filmmaker who has exhibited a greater disdain for narrative sophistication, sincere emotion and human complexity. On this score, Cameron makes the emotionally retarded George Lucas look like Bergman, by comparison. So to sit through the hackneyed melodrama of the first seven hours of Titanic, even knowing of the thrills to come at the end, was a hellish thing. (Ever had really good sex after an evening out with an exceptionally stupid person? I have. It was like that.) With the astonishing abundance of documentation available about that tragedy, documentation Cameron had clearly studied down to the pattern of the china service on board, he chose not to tell a true story, from among the hundreds available to him, or to even invent one, really. Instead, he deliberately, and yes, cynically I think, used a plot and set of characters that would have brought a blush to the cheek of the lowest paid serial writer of the silent era: the sassy Irish lad from steerage and his his gal must fight a cad for a diamond as big as yer thumb, etc. Really? Cynical, that, as I said before. Evidently, anything better and we might not notice when the boat sank, I guess. But as I also said, boy-howdy, how he sank that boat! Amazingly, even with me, this was quite nearly enough. Despite the condescension, despite myself, I ultimately enjoyed that movie more than it deserved.

I am however, now that I've seen Avatar, thoroughly ashamed of myself, and of us all, for endorsing by so much as the price of a ticket Cameron's disdain for story, his contentment with hack pastiche, and his general superciliousness, save when it comes to the fireworks. The success of Titanic would seem to have led directly to the extravaganza of kitsch and cliche that is Avatar.

Nothing about this movie, but the way it was made, is anything but crude. I found myself, marveling not so much at the swooping dragons and such -- which were kinda fun, in a rollercoaster way, and no doubt more so in the theater -- but really at the paucity of narrative or visual invention or taste anywhere in the thing. Just to start, there is the black-light poster pallet of Cameron's paradise. (Why, I've always wondered, is the future, at least as seen in American fantasy films, always either sepia, slate-gray, or bright as a box of Skittles? I may have mentioned this before, but as it seems that the visual conventions of science fiction/fantasy on film are by now so well established as to be all but irreversible, and yet it may still be worth noting the same objection, that yet again, the future looks to be either grimy or garish, or both.) Just as a point of comparison, let me mention George Lucas' idea of heaven, which, while it seems to have got no further visually than a Maxfield Parrish fantasy of cerulean blues and fluffy clouds , was at least, well... pretty. Cameron's Eden is all just a hellishly saturated shiny green, bursting at the seams with day-glow flora, ten foot Smurfs with the adult proportions of Barbie & Ken, and all manner of improbable, and ugly pseudozoology. If Lucas, always the sentimentalist, looks back to the Saturday Evening Post, movie serials and childhood marionettes for his inspiration, AV nerd Cameron, never much of a nostalgist, always more interested in the new toys and what they can do than with subtleties of evocation or mood, would seem to have had his designers look no further than the pulp covers painted by Boris Vallejo and the Rainforest Cafe to find the look for this thing. The result is about as sophisticated and about as exhausting as a Vegas light-show.

Even the spiritual center of Cameron's universe turns out to be a huge LED fiber tree!

Which brings us back to Cameron as the cinema's laziest screenwriter -- another title he's taken from Lucas and the backstory boys at Industrial Cliche and Mawkish. I can't bring myself to summarize the racist and irredeemably nonsensical plot. Suffice it to say, it's still The White Man's Burden, the Savior is still a caucasian under the skin, and the savages might be blue instead of red this time, but gosh, they are still awfully noble. And they're really connected to nature, dude. No, seriously, Cap'n Cameron thinks even that's too much of a metaphor for us, so the blue Injuns actually plug-in to their rides, and the trees, and Big LED Mama, everything good and "green," by means of coaxial-cable-hair-braids! No shit.

I know. I couldn't believe it either.

Seriously though, when Cameron had the voice of the great CCH Pounder come out of that (blue) squatting high priestess, and then had her big, wide, anime/minstrel eyes roll back in her head while she chants...

Well, let's just say I could hear ol' D. W. Griffith clapping.

He was a technological innovator too, you know, Mr. Griffith. Check out Birth of a Nation. The man invented the close-up, among other things. Try to just watch it for that.

Has it really then come to this? Are we really so eager to ride a dragon that we're willing to let this kind of lazy hatefulness and artistic boorishness slide?

Avatar turned out to be even uglier than I thought.

1 comment:

  1. I agree wholeheartedly with most of this--Cameron's inept screenwriting, his inability to write truthfully for real characters, the boorishness, the undertone of racism, etc. But there are a couple of minor things. First, no one... but NO ONE... is worse at most of these than George Lucas. Second, the actual experience of viewing the 3-D movie in the theater overcomes so much. It is still bad art, to be sure, but it was an incredibly fun experience. It set a new bar for film in that respect, and that alone is an awesome achivement (and I never use the word "awesome"). So he has my respect for that, at least. I'm always mystified why people with such resources for film-making, like Lucas, Cameron, or even Peter Jackson with Lord of the Rings, can't get a decent screenplay! There are so many examples. Anyway, on a completely different topic, last night here in Rochester the local PBS station aired "Out in the Silence"--about life for a gay boy in Oil City. Have you seen it? Ugh, Oil City.