Jason Reitman

Why AVATAR Makes Me Feel Like an Old Russian Man

Posted on Updated on

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.