Why AVATAR Makes Me Feel Like an Old Russian Man

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Back in graduate school I read a short essay , written in 1928, by three Soviet filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, Vsevolod Pudovkin and Grigori Alexandrov. In it, the men worry about the effect that newly developed sound technology would have on the future of the cinema. They fear, for example, that “…misconception of the potentialities within this new technical discovery may not only hinder the development and perfection of the cinema as an art but also threaten to destroy all its present formal achievements.” When I read this I remember thinking that these men probably felt pretty silly by the mid-1930s, when it was clear that sound had not in fact destroyed the artistry of the cinema, but greatly enhanced it. Certainly, early sound films like The Lights of New York (1928, Bryan Foy) did suffer from stilted camera work (since noisy cameras were encased in bulky, sound-proofing boxes) and immobile actors (who crowded around microphones hidden around the film set), but the industry quickly adjusted to the new technology and rebounded. As much as I enjoy a good silent film (Sunrise [1927, FW Murnau], The Crowd [1928, King Vidor], The Playhouse [1921, Buster Keaton]) I greatly prefer sound films (bad film professor!). Technology is good.

However, with the release of James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) I feel a lot like Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov must have felt back in 1928. I am suspicious. I am grumpy. I am a naysayer. Now let me state right off the bat that I have not yet seen Avatar. Part of that has to do with the fact that I just had a baby and part of it has to do with the fact that I am fed up with hearing about this film and its status as an industry “game changer.” In the weeks leading up to its release I couldn’t pick up an entertainment magazine or click on a film blog or turn on the radio without reading or hearing about Cameron’s technological marvel.

James Cameron "directing"

But it wasn’t the overhyping of the film that bothered me  so much as it was the endless stream of reviews that stated that the film was visually stunning but lacking in story.  The New York Daily News writes “‘Avatar’ clears the hurdle in terms of being optical candy. Its story, though, is pure cheese.” And Salon.com‘s Stephanie Zacharek says,

“The movie was made, and is designed to be seen, in 3-D, and no matter what anyone — particularly the movie’s studio, 20th Century Fox — tries to tell you, the technology and not the story is the big selling point here: If a less famous and less nakedly self-promotional director had made the exact same story with a bunch of actors in blue latex, the Fandango ticket sales wouldn’t be going through the roof.”

At the risk of sounding like those grumpy old Russians, I have to agree with Zacharek.  CGI and 3-D technology should enhance a film, not be its primary draw. Avatar may represent the “future” of filmmaking — as so many bloggers, critics and Cameron himself have claimed — but what about the story? The acting? Are these things not important?

Yesterday the Academy Award nominations were announced and Avatar received a whopping nine nominations. I expected nods for Art Direction and Special Effects, but Best Director and Best Picture? What exactly is being rewarded here ? Shouldn’t Best Picture reward the achievement of the film as a whole, rather than its (spectacular) parts?

Of course, even as I write this I realize that I may be the one in the wrong. Even if Avatar‘s story and dialogue are as cheesy and derivative as the film’s detractors claim, does that mean the film should not be recognized for those things it does exceptionally well? After all, I adored Up in the Air (2009, Jason Reitman) for its clever dialogue, subtle acting and emotionally engaging story, but the film’s actors are rendered through simple camerawork, not motion capture technology. And as far as I know, Up in the Air is not playing in 3-D anywhere.

I’m not being facetious here. Perhaps motion capture and 3-D are the future of filmmaking, a technology which, like the invention of sound, will soon enhance, rather than limit the artistic possibilities of the medium. Rather than a novelty these technologies will become integral to the medium.

So while I vowed to never go see Avatar, I’ve decided that it is time to go (just as soon as I pump enough milk to allow for a 3 hour trip to the movies without the newborn). After I see it I will revisit this post and determine if my grumpy, Luddite view of the film is warranted. In the meantime, for those who have seen Avatar: Did it deserve 9 Academy Award nominations? Is it worth the hype? Is it the best picture of 2009? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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32 thoughts on “Why AVATAR Makes Me Feel Like an Old Russian Man

    Kelli Marshall said:
    February 3, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    What a fantastic title! Love it.

    You’re braver than I; I can’t renege (at least not yet). Like you, I have told my students, friends, etc. that I will NOT be seeing AVATAR. I have no interest it in,” I tell them. “I don’t like science-fiction or fantasy movies. Special effects (and the hype surrounding them) don’t impress me. Not a fan of gangly, big-eyed blue people.” And on and on.

    You’ll have to write a follow-up post after you see it, letting us know whether is deserves all of those nominations. (A fellow Twitterer said it should be nominated in the animated film section and little else.) =)

    Hope you and the little one are still faring well.

    Devan said:
    February 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    As I walked out of my first time seeing Avatar, I texted a friend, “Avatar is the most important film to see in the theatre since The Matrix”—another film lacking in performance and storyline. (“A *&^&ing kiss revives him?!”)

    The thing is, we’re well past the point where simple “plot and performance” films are going to advance the medium. We had all the technology we needed to make those movies ninety years ago, whatever incremental improvements have been made since then. So to the extent that “advancing the medium” is a worthwhile goal, Avatar is a very important film, however it might be lacking.

    “Best Picture” seems like a reach, for sure, because of how bad (where bad = “anti-best”) this one is in so many ways. But it’s sort of like saying the Eiffel Tower should not have won “Best Structure” award for 1889 (as it surely would have, had such an award existed): It doesn’t stop the wind, after all, nor does it provide ample sleeping space for its occupants. It’s just, man did that tower change the way we build things.

      princesscowboy responded:
      February 4, 2010 at 10:49 am

      Nicely put Devan.

    Brent said:
    February 3, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    “Did it deserve 9 Academy Award nominations? Is it worth the hype? Is it the best picture of 2009?”

    No, no, and no. But I’m still glad I saw it, and especially glad I saw it in 3D. I’ll honestly be stunned if it wins best picture. (I’m preparing myself to be stunned.)

    I wonder: how common is it for a best picture nominee to have NO nominations for either acting (The Blind Side), writing (District 9, A Serious Man, Up), or both (An Education, Hurt Locker, Inglourious Basterds, Precious, Up in the Air)?

      princesscowboy responded:
      February 4, 2010 at 10:50 am

      I don’t have any hard statistics for you, Brent, but yes, this does happen.

        Annie Petersen said:
        February 4, 2010 at 11:14 am

        It’s pretty uncommon — and it’s also lacking a nod for screenplay. Usually the best way to tell if a film will win best picture is whether or not it won the DGA and PGA, plus noms in all the other top spots (and at least *one* in acting) which is why I think (and hope) that Hurt Locker will win.

    Liz said:
    February 3, 2010 at 5:12 pm

    I was like you – no interest in seeing the movie, cynical, sick of the hype — but I’m so glad someone dragged me to it. I wasn’t just pleasantly surprised, the words shock and awe come to mind. It is an important film and I do think it’s a game-changer. Also the story wasn’t so bad as some say. It had some not too subtle political, environmental and religious messages, though nothing so knock you over the head as movies like Crash – anything that gets the Pope upset is ok by me. I liked how I shifted my opinion about who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. And a chain-smoking Sigourney and souless Giovanni Ribisi were also delightful. It deserved to be nominated for best picture but not necessarily to win. I predict it will win though. Go see it! I’m curious what you have to say after. Remember to pee first!

    Nick said:
    February 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm

    I don’t think it should win Best Picture–hell, I don’t think it should even be nominated. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it well enough. I like sci-fi and I like frontier mythology, but this was such a simplistic, uncritical cheese-fest of both that I couldn’t come away feeling satisfied. Yes, it’s somewhat critical of the military-industrial complex and slash-and-burn environmental practices, but it’s still just the same, stale noble savage/white messiah storyline that I’ve seen about a hundred times before, and that takes away any cultural critique credibility (say that three times fast) that it might have had. At least it wasn’t Michael Bay.

    Amy said:
    February 4, 2010 at 12:00 am

    I have to second Devan’s post. When I think grumpy ludite, I am the first person I think of, but I went and I was engrossed by the way the frame grew with the use of 3D. While there’s little subtly in the storyline, which felt like a B adventure story that did, frankly, make me smile and root for the players, there is surprising subtly in the restrained use of the special effects. (Please, no snorting.) Not always, but certainly the nighttime walk through the forest was the most viscerally beautiful sequence I’ve seen in a while. It’s nice to watch a mainstream movie and know it’s gotta be in the theatre for the experience (nod to Devan), and it’s nice to be stunned for three hours.

      princesscowboy responded:
      February 4, 2010 at 10:51 am

      Okay if you’re saying this Amy then I definitely need to see the movie. How I’m going to get out of the house for a full 3 hours is another story…

    Annie Petersen said:
    February 4, 2010 at 11:17 am

    The easiest way I can explain the importance of this film — and the way that others react to it — is that it’s an example of pure cinema, as odd as that sounds. Bazin probably would have been disgusted with it, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not (aesthetically) doing one of the most crucial tasks of cinema: absolutely transporting you into another world.

    Even the biggest cynics (like my curmudgeonly brother) can admit that the effects are transcendent.

    Joanna said:
    February 4, 2010 at 1:06 pm

    I hesitated to see it because I knew I’d be rolling my eyes at the TIRED white-guy-saves-the-natives allegorical cheese, BUT I’m glad I did see it in 3-D because is is an event. It’s a movie everyone will see, and it will be worth it to you to see what everyone’s talking about. And the color palatte and rendering of the plant and animal life of Pandora is stunning.

    Randall Martoccia said:
    February 5, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    A movie is not required to be great to be nominated for an Oscar–not with 10 nods to go around–nor does it need to be great to win. (Think of Crash, Dancing with Wolves, Forrest Gump.) Still, for a movie to be considered a game changer, one would think that some standard of excellence would be need to be reached .

    A great and an especially horrible one will linger in your head for days. The day after watching The Anorexic Blue Man Group–or Avatar, as it’s known in the States–I went all day before even remembering that I’d seen it. Such is the effect of lame dialogue, cardboard characters, and a rehashed story line. My guess is that Avatar will be remembered not like the Eiffel Tower, but more like the Jazz Singer: an innovative movie that nobody wants to sit through.

      Kelli Marshall said:
      February 5, 2010 at 12:47 pm

      “My guess is that AVATAR will be remembered not like the Eiffel Tower, but more like THE JAZZ SINGER: an innovative movie that nobody wants to sit through.”
      — What a great comparison, Randall. (May we add to this list THE BIRTH OF A NATION?) =)

    Devan said:
    February 5, 2010 at 12:52 pm

    Weren’t both THE JAZZ SINGER and THE BIRTH OF A NATION huge hits at the times of their release? Nobody may want to sit through them today, but nobody wants to sit through anything from before 1987.

      Kelli Marshall said:
      February 5, 2010 at 1:06 pm

      Yes, both hits. In fact, THE BIRTH OF A NATION = released with its own score that was played by 40-piece orchestra, had a crazy admission price of $2 (equivalent to a Broadway show!), and reviewed in regular newspapers (rather than film press). It had better attract those audiences! =)

      I think that’s what Randall is suggesting though: like THE JAZZ SINGER (and BIRTH), AVATAR is financially successful and “interesting” at its time of release; but in 50 years, who will want to actually sit there and watch all 3 hours of it? Or maybe I’m reading his comment incorrectly?

      PS. I just sent you a Tweet; I think we sat together at a function during the LFA Conference in Carlisle.

        Devan said:
        February 5, 2010 at 2:36 pm

        Hi Kelly! Quite right about Carlisle; nice to be in touch with you here.

        I think you’re probably reading Randall correctly, and I think it’s a fair point. I guess my only quibble is that just because nobody wants to sit through THE JAZZ SINGER today, that doesn’t mean it isn’t still, you know, a pretty important film in terms of the development of the medium.

        So, sure, it’s also fair to point out (as Randall does) that my Eiffel Tower analogy breaks down in that people still love to go to the Eiffel Tower. But that seems more to speak to the difference between the paying public’s relative treatments of architecture and of movies than it does to the importance of a single film (be it THE JAZZ SINGER or AVATAR).

    princesscowboy responded:
    February 5, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    yep, Kelli and Devan, I introduced you two at lunch during the LFA conference. And for the record, THE JAZZ SINGER, beyond its problematic use of blackface, isn’t too bad to sit through. Al Jolson is quite charming.

    Devan, what happened in 1987?

      Devan said:
      February 5, 2010 at 2:44 pm

      Ha. Fair question about 1987; it’s not a scientific figure. Just, anecdotally, that seems to be about the cutoff for my students over the last year or two.

      P.S.: Kelli, sorry for the misspelled name.

        Kelli Marshall said:
        February 5, 2010 at 4:16 pm

        Re: the name, no problem! Just glad I was remembering the right person from the LFA Conference… =)

        Devan said:
        February 5, 2010 at 4:18 pm

        Ha. Right—glad you made the connection.

    Randall Martoccia said:
    February 5, 2010 at 2:59 pm

    Devan,
    I agree with you that most people can’t bear to watch older films–though you might be able to move that up to 2007. A friend of mine who worked as a manager at Blockbuster estimated that 95% (maybe 99%) of the rentals were from the new-release wall.

    Still, some people clearly love old movies. I was surprised to see my students enjoying City Lights (a silent, agh!) and Singin’ in the Rain (a musical, oh no!). Of course, what I mean by “my students” is really only 1/5 of them: the portion that laughed at the right parts and talked in class. It’s tempting to assume that the stonily silent (or silently stoned) majority also enjoyed the movies, but that’s probably not the case.

    The telling point for me is this–while every film professor discusses The Jazz Singer, few of them actually show it to students. Picture a film prof in 2050. She looks like us, but her hands are flippers and her head is a big cauliflower looking thing full of brains. Will she even be tempted to show Avatar in its entirety? Or will she telepathically send the following tiny bits of data to her students: Avatar, 2010, emotion capture, Fusion 3d, parodied in Mel Brooks’ 2013 Blue Balls?

    Just as I less telepathically (and more PowerPointly) send the following data to my students: Jazz Singer, 1927, first talkie, series of performances with little dialogue, remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond (not in black-face).

    Kelli, you did read my comment correctly.

      Devan said:
      February 5, 2010 at 3:21 pm

      Hi, Randall — I don’t really disagree with any part of the story you’re telling about how these things work now with THE JAZZ SINGER and how they are likely to work in the future with AVATAR.

      But: Is that kind of thinking a fair way to measure a film’s importance either as a part of film history or as a cultural event? (Those were the parallel concerns I’d hoped to be addressing in my first comment, the former more pointedly than the latter.)

      Kelli Marshall said:
      February 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm

      “Jazz Singer, 1927, first talkie, series of performances with little dialogue, remade in 1980 with Neil Diamond (not in black-face).”

      — LOL, what a summary! It’s just so hard to watch Jolson’s “Mammy” performance, isn’t it?

      — FWIW, my students also usually enjoy SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN. And last week, I was surprised by how much they seemed to like SHERLOCK, JR. (yes, a silent, agh!) =)

    uberVU - social comments said:
    February 5, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by princesscowboy: Both kids sleep at same time, I write a blog post: Why AVATAR Makes Me Feel Like an Old Russian Man: http://wp.me/pBUbf-he

    Randall Martoccia said:
    February 5, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    Devan,
    I’m probably not being fair. Whether something is added to the cannon is dependent on many factors that have nothing to do with the quality of the film. Even deciding what are the flat-out great movies is fraught with political considerations and biases, including both the novelty and the antiquity bias.

    I guess my point is that Avatar is mainly impressive due its technological advances (though I do acknowledge that some people found its depiction of another world to be fully and artfully realized). It is weak in the many other ways that have already been pointed out. Movies whose appeal is limited to spectacle tend to be easily forgotten or relegated to footnote.

    Despite the Avatar’s popularity, I don’t think many people love it. In a class of a 100, only one student listed Avatar as his or her favorite movie. Keep in mind that this is in a class of 19-22 year olds, a demographic known for its embracing of the new and shiny.

    I tend to be skeptical of the idea that Avatar will change the playing field. Sure, it will inspire the next several years worth of blockbuster science-fiction movies, but will other genres be effected? Maybe, but it’s hard to see how.

      Devan said:
      February 6, 2010 at 6:58 pm

      I see your point, Randall. Not only does AVATAR have embarrassing flaws, but for sure it’s not “favorite movie” material. You raise an interesting question about exactly how it might or might not “change the playing field,” though.

      I guess I’d want to look back at, for example, THE MATRIX and try to figure out what made it from that film into other genres. I can see how bullet time had a strong effect on how Hollywood conceives of the shot—speed, “camera” movement, and so on. I’d say AVATAR stands the greatest chance of influencing color palettes or something like that, but it is hard to say, I agree.

    Amanda's brother said:
    February 10, 2010 at 1:59 pm

    The best part about Avatar was the 3-D trailer for Alice in Wonderland. Watching the Cheshire Cat’s smiling face form out of a cloud of smoke was like something you would see in a dream. Stunning. As for Avatar, nice effects but an insufferable plot and wooden dialogue.

    Denny Turner said:
    February 20, 2010 at 12:39 am

    AVATAR makes the STAR WARS prequels look like Shakespeare. Sam Worthington makes Keanu Reeves look like Daniel Day Lewis. Those of you who hate the sci-fi/fantasy genre will owe him a great deal of gratitude because between this, Terminator Salvation, and the upcoming Clash of the Titans remake, he will destroy the genre all by himself. That being said, if you see only one movie about blue people this year, make sure it’s this one. Of course, your choices will be narrowed, so it will be this one.

    Joe said:
    February 27, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Everyone seems to have missed the fundamental question: Did it deserve 9 Oscar nominations? From what I’ve read (here and elsewhere), despite its presumed “importance,” the answer is a resounding No. Did Taste of Honey deserve to win over Elvis Costello at the 1979 Grammy Awards for Best New Artist? Do we really still hold credence to these award fetes? Especially if Avatar wins ANYTHING other than special effects nods…

    Devan said:
    March 3, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Belatedly, this from Anthony Lane:

    The greatest compliment that one can pay to “Avatar,” apart from the small matter of two and a half billion dollars and counting, is that almost none of the arguments that have stormed around the movie since its release, in December, have centered on its extra dimension. “The technology should wave its own wand and make itself disappear,” Cameron said in advance, and, as he predicted, the visual depth of the film has become a given. People have plunged into “Avatar” like vacationers lining up for the high board of a pool, and when they emerge nearly three hours later, removing their glasses and rubbing the bridge of their noses, the question that they want to thrash out is whether the pool was a swamp of liberal eco-mush or a trough of hot-blooded American rampage. The one thing they agree on is that 3-D was its most fitting form—and, by implication, that there is no way back. 3-D is good to go.

    I’ll be honest: I’m not sure how or whether it fits in to this discussion. But it seemed like y’all’d want to see it.

    mr arman said:
    July 10, 2010 at 1:50 am

    The best part about Avatar was the 3-D trailer for Alice in Wonderland. Watching the Cheshire Cat’s smiling face form out of a cloud of smoke was like something you would see in a dream. Stunning. As for Avatar, nice effects but an insufferable plot and wooden dialogue.

    Reply

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