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Saturday, December 26, 2009

Back where it all began: The (one-shot) return of the prodigal critic
Posted by Jill | 6:40 AM

Hockey mom this, bitchez!

It hardly seems like twelve years since James Cameron last dropped an multi-thousand-ton movie on the Christmas season. Last time, he had the audacity to not just depart from the science fiction/adventure genre that had been his movie home, but to take a well-known historical event about a sinking ship, practically rebuild the damn vessel from scratch, put a love story in front of it, and create a phenomenon.

Titanic was the first movie I reviewed, which started me on an eight-year path of online movie reviewing, a regular discipline of writing that I'd always wanted to do, but had never found what I wanted to write about until then.

It's perhaps a bit easier to understand the hoopla, and the backlash, that accompanied Titanic back then, now that the pasty-faced, brooding Robert Pattinson in the Twilight franchise is the tween dreamboat of choice. But for years, those of us who were caught up in the story that Cameron, even with all his clunky screenwriting, put on screen, found ourselves thinking, "What the hell was THAT all about?" I can't speak for the screaming teens back then, many of whom are now quite possibly Twilight moms now, but for some of us, appalled by the number of teen girls who decided to take fingers to keyboard and write about how the heroine of Titanic pined for her lost cutie forever (thereby completely missing the obvious point of the patented Cameronian Sledgehammer), it was about telling the story of that woman in the photo montage at the end. And I was fortunate enough to meet up online with an extraordinary group of women, all of whom wanted to tell that story, if for no other reason than to teach something to all those teenage girls. For at least three years, or until jobs,kids, divorces, and other demands at life required our attention, we both separately and together immersed ourself in American social history in order to tell the story of the fictional rich girl who survived the sinking of the Titanic and how she went on to live a perfectly contented life. We were from New Jersey, from Massachusetts, from Michigan, from Chicago, and even from Slovenia, and daily we sent flurries of e-mails around with links to articles online about the bohemian scene in New York City in the mid-nineteen-teens, about the early film industry in Fort Lee, New Jersey, about clothes and money and employment and all the things they don't teach you in school about history because they're too busy teaching you about politics and war.

And then Your Humble Blogger, who had never understood how people can create characters out of whole cloth, found herself coming up with her own characters. They'd come to me while gardening or doing housework. My mind would wander, and it would reach out, and there would be a character, clamoring for his or her story to be told. These characters became so vivid to me that I thought of them as unincarnated souls that came to me and begged me to put their stories on paper. But the result is one unfinished family epic of my own creation and two more that have been in my head for nearly a decade.

So for all its flaws, the biggest one being that James Cameron can't write dialogue for shit, Titanic had a huge influence on my life and my creative processes. Cameron isn't really a genius, but he does have a way of tapping cultural architypes that would make Joseph Campbell proud, and with his ability to innovate technology to serve his moviemaking, there was no way I was going to go see Avatar in any way other than the whole enchilada -- IMAX 3-D.

Avatar is at once the most exhilaratingly original, and the most hackneyed film in recent memory. Cameron may only put out a movie every five to ten years, but when he does, it's always an experience rather than just a movie. He's a director who's clearly in love with his whiz-bang, but also deadly serious about the technology behind the whiz-bang, and in his own clunky, limited way, about the storytelling that accompanies the whiz-bang. He may not be a cinematic innovator, but he's sure an innovator in the tools he used to create his cinema, and if he'd only recognize his limitations in screenwriting, he could be the genius he believes he already is.

Recently I watched a 60 Minutes segment on Bob Ballard, the Woods Hole oceanographer who first discovered the Titanic wreck in 1986. He was showing Lara Logan footage of not just the Titanic wreck, but other wrecks he's found since, and I realized that behind the spectacularly clear footage of a sea world miles below the surface were cameras developed by James Cameron's brother for the movie at which everyone now pokes fun. That the man who discovered the Titanic wreck has found his work helped and made even more impressive by technology created by and for the man who slapped a hokey love story on top of an actual tragedy just shows the kind of -- dare I say it -- focus that Cameron has. This is a director who doesn't screw around, and every innovation, every gewgaw his feverish mind came up with (and every dollar it cost to implement them) is right there on the screen.

There's no reason to go see Avatar for the story, because you've seen it before, in every movie in which a white guy experiences an indigenous culture and decides he likes it better than in his world. Whether it's Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves, Colin Farrell in The New World, Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai or even Dustin Hoffman in Little Big Man, you've seen Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, in the Bill Paxton role) a million times before. What you haven't seen before is a fully-realized indigenous culture on the planet of Pandora that exists nowhere in the world we inhabit.

I'm not even going to go into what the avatar concept is; I'll leave that up to the many fanboys and girls who are writing about this movie, for it requires a level of suspension of disbelief that I'm not sure I have. But whether you buy the idea of existing on two planes of reality at once or not, that's almost incidental to the spectacular and dangerous world occupied by the Na'vi, those ten-foot-tall blue striped ectomorphs who swing through the trees, leap catlike through their gorgeous tropical world, or ride hallucinogenic dragonlike creatures over waterfalls and seemingly bottomless canyons. Who wouldn't want to be Na'vi, with their lithe, slim bodies, their grace, their unfailing marksmanship, their long braids that literally mind-meld with other creatures and the spirits of their ancestors, their abs and buns of steel, their cheekbones so high and prominent you could grate cheese on them? Not to mention that their culture seems to be a matriarchal one, populated with Cameron's trademark kickass chicks and worshipping an obviously female deity. Combine that with their respect for ancestral homelands and their almost literal tree-hugging, and it's no wonder the wingnuts are having fits about this movie. Its too bad they can't see the recurring theme of bonding-for-life in Na'vi culture -- you bond for eternity with your ancestors and descendants. You bond for life with your flying dragon. You bond for life with your mate. Of course it's having sex which makes that mate-bond, not some hocus-pocus said over you by an authority figure, but you can't have everything. The Na'vi are a very family-values culture despite their paganism, and that's perhaps what drives people like the idiotic Ross Douthat to decide that Avatar is Cameron's apologia for pantheism, which he brands "Hollywood's religion of choice."

And that's even before we get to all the tough-guy cigar-chomping Evil Military and Corporate Guys. Nowhere does Cameron explicitly state that the military-industrial complex that seeks to plunder Pandora is American, but its squirrelly, greedy corporatista (a weaselly Giovanni Ribisi) and its R. Lee Ermey clone Military Guy™ (Stephen Lang, whose scenery-chewing could plunder Pandora all by itself) are right out of the American adventure movie genre. Yes, the bad guys are all white (and presumably Fox News viewers), but part of the archetype of the Noble Savage story, and Avatar doesn't stray from this, is that these beings who have lived here for thousands of years need a white guy who's only just learned their ways to lead them to battle. What could be more wingnutty than that? Afghanistan, anyone? Ex-Marine Cameron is clearly more comfortable writing dialogue for the toughies than he is for the softer Na'vi, and perhaps that's why Jake Sully as a character seems to live and breathe far more when he's making his video diaries than he does in a world that sometimes seems populated by descendants of Tinkerbell. It may in fact be Cameron's fatal flaw as a screenwriter that he has this manly-guy sensibility, but is plagued by also having this soft, gooey center that he's unable to express without making his romantic male leads sound like a HAL 9000 playing Heathcliff.

So much of the pleasure of Avatar is in the element of visual surprise -- the spiral flowers that collapse when touched, the swooping vistas and waterfalls, the cocoon hammocks in which the Na'vi sleep, the hallucinogenic beauty of the flying dragons. The visuals are so spectacular, and so perfectly wrought, that the 3-D almost seems superfluous. Avatar does more with 3-D than any other movie in history, and I may have kept wanting to brush away the little puffballs that so teasingly seem to fly right in front of your face, but the reality is that it's mostly in the "real world" parts of the movie where the 3-D has its biggest effect. The Na'vi world that has sprung from Cameron's imagination is so beautiful and so surprising that it doesn't even need 3-D to take your breath away. And that's why I'm not sure that Avatar is going to become the worldwide phenomenon that Titanic was, for all its female sensibility. That Titanic had an actual historical event as its backdrop and a female character whose real story took place, as Cameron showed us, AFTER the movie ended, helped ground it in reality and make the story relatable in the real world. We may all want to be Neytiri of Pandora, but we also know that she, and the world she inhabits, doesn't really exist, and so we NEED the element of surprise, the whiz-bang, the colors and sounds and the sheer beauty of this world. But like the Eden that Pandora represents, once you leave it, you can never really return.

Update: Other takes from some non-film-critic types (no disrespect to my erstwhile Cinemarati peeps, but I'm not really on your ranks anymore either)...

Dennis Hartley


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Anonymous Richard Blair said...
Excellent, on-point review. The storyline was predictable almost from the first frame. Avatar was visually stunning but intellectually stunting. As Jill sort of notes, though, we don't go to blockbuster movies for a big think.

I was telling someone the other day that I was enthralled while the movie was in progress, but weirdly disappointed as I walked out of the theater.

What I would have changed if I was king of the world (or the script writer or editor or director):

1) The movie was at least 20 minutes too long; there were many minor cuts that could have been made to tighten up the story

2) After I left the theater, I totally rewrote the last five minutes in my head. Cameron took the easy (and completely predictable) way out.

Avatar could have been awesome. It just didn't quite reach that threshold.

Blogger Jill said...
The fact that there isn't a moment in this movie that you don't see coming a mile away didn't bother me at all. One of the problems with this movie (and I'm already starting to see the AVATAR equivalent of "Kate is fat and Leo is gay" crap that we saw when TITANIC came out; how anyone can call this movie "gay" I have no idea, and yet I've seen it in comments on other sites already) is that Cameron's weaknesses have already been dissected to death 12 years ago. Actually, I found his dialogue somewhat less awful than last time, perhaps because there's enough war and battle in this film to make Cameron comfortable.

I agree 100% about the movie being about 20 minutes too long. I found the battle scenes a bit draggy; after all, how many scenes of helicopters blowing up do we need? And I couldn't get the notion out of my head that the helicopters were like those 1980's bicycles...a cool visual, but oddly distracting.

I think that what will keep this from being a MEGA! EVENT!, unlike its predecessor, is that this movie doesn't have characters, it has archetypes. I cared a lot about the Na'vi as a culture, but not much about the individuals, nor did I care much about the human characters. Last time out, Cameron turned the archetype of "woman triumphant" into a real character to whom millions of women could relate to. I know I wasn't the only one who wanted to tell the story of that character's life, but since character development isn't Cameron's strong suit, I suspect last time out was purely an accident.

Blogger Unknown said...

i saw avatar, and i give it a big double a plus for technical achievement, and a generous c for story.

i'm a progressive tree-hugging environmentalist liberal, and i still thought the themes were so sickeningly simplistic that they made dr. seuss's story of the lorax look like rachel carlson's writings.

saw sherlock holmes yesterday, and it's a much better, more entertaining movie (as was 2012 which we saw a few weeks ago).

Blogger Jill said...
Glad to hear that about Sherlock. That's next on my list of movies to see.