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Looking for a new formula

Walking home in the middle of a balmy summer night after seeing Avatar the other night, the discussion turned naturally to the merits of the film. The question that occurred to me after, is how much of a pass can you give something because of its merit on one front?

It is undeniable that Avatar, for example, is a technologically impressive. It is also very aesthetically impressive. Or pretty, if you would rather. But beyond that, the film’s merits are entirely questionable. The characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional, as are most of the performances (we’ll give you a pass Sigourney, you were OK). The script is at times very laboured, especially the anachronistic use of Iraq War terminology which just grated at times. There was nothing remotely original in the story, and I don’t think there was anything that happened that surprised me (although I did think for a minute they might save Grace, but let’s call that a minor surprise). There were a number of things which were pretty lacking in credibility (for example: if you had invested billions and billions in a business, would you be trusting its management to an unthinking loser like Parker Selfridge and the scenery chewing colonel? And the politics were heavy handed and, amusingly, enough to set off the right (particularly in the form of Miranda , bemoaning the deprecation of the military and the Iraq War and the left, with (justifiable) concerns about the depiction of disability, race and gendered notions about warriors vs spirituality. Personally, I can’t abide the white-man-rescues-poor-natives trope which is the film’s central conceit (see Sociological Images for a nice discussion of that here). I must admit that amongst that litany of problematic depictions, I actually thought that, Na’Vi earth goddess trope aside, the depictions of human women were not too bad. But this is perhaps beside the point. My other concern with Avatar as a whole though was that it, with is formulaic plot and its poor characterisation, bordered on the boring at times.

What I am particularly interested in, is to what extent can one give an artistic creation a pass because of its superior aesthetic value. Many people I know have said “well…it was pretty.” And pretty seems to count for a lot. But how do you stack pretty up against poor scripts, lack of imagination or, indeed, poor politics. Overall,as a society, when it comes to people we do seem to be willing to let a lot slip when faced with superior aesthetics! But people are different from art. Without engaging in hyperbole, or any implication that James Cameron is a Nazi etc, it should be noted that films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia were supremely aesthetically pleasing, and impressive demonstrations of their current technology. It is true, that these films are still watched and studied and indeed admired for their aesthetic values. But the questions remains as to whether they are “good” films. Can their core of rottenness be overcome by their superior aesthetics?

Is there a formula or an equation that can be reached which says, despite its poor script, its aesthetics bring it up to par, but now you add some dodgy politics, it drops out of contention? It is interesting that we often do this in the other direction – the lighting and the sets were poor and it was ugly, but the script was fantastic – it is a “worthy” story. Are there some things which cannot be forgiven in a film, no matter how beautiful?

Update: with respect to questions of the originality of the script of Avatar see this very amusing take on it.

Further update: A good discussion about the idea of considering these questions, plus the representation of race itself in Avatar is here.

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3 responses to “Looking for a new formula

  1. I’ve been kicking around some similar thoughts, actually! I was thinking about what it means to have an enviro and anti-imperialist message (allegedly; obviously I think it FAILSFAILSFAILS on both fronts) packaged up so sweet and pretty and smooth. In particular, what does it mean to have this gorgeous, bioluminescent forest be what needs saving? Our own world, with its dusty deserts and its bushland in green and – ugh – brown, with its all-too-familiar animals and its gunk and grot and yuck and lacking the techy sophistication of ‘neural networks’… well, would this film deem it worthy of being saved?

    I guess I’m suggesting that the pretty undermines the message, maybe? (I’m not positive about this, mind; I get that filmic messages are entirely premised on metaphor at the best of times. I just wonder how much of this film’s message was contained within the pretty, I suppose?) And add all of that together and yeuch…

    At the same time, this does appeal to that dodgy idea that script and ideas are about ‘depth’ whilst the pretty is ‘superficial’….

    • godardsletterboxes ⋅

      You know, I almost feel sorry for James Cameron in that he obviously tried sooooo hard to be anti-imperial and pro-environment but just totally missed the point, But only almost.

      It is an interesting idea and certainly true that perhaps the pretty does detract from the over all political message. Yes Pandora and the Na’Vi are worth saving just because they are beautiful and mystical and noble – but what does that mean for the rest of humanity. If they had been a bunch of animal slaughtering war-mongers, would the film still believe that their culture should be saved?

      Filmmaking is multi-dimensional – it isn’t painting, nor it is it a political text, not alone anyway. Thus how do we measure up the differences in those dimensions? And should we? Are some more important than others? It is an interesting sort of thought-experiment.

      • Yeah, see, this is why I don’t trust my own RAWR at the film: I tend to be very much in favour of multi-layered understandings of things, where multiple positions can be held by the text, even contradictory ones. BtVS can be problematic for the pretty blonde slender athletic CA cheerleader, and fabulous for making the pretty blonde survive and kick ass. But there’s something about Cameron’s approach that just makes me kinda MAD. And I can’t work out quite why. Perhaps it’s as simple as the message being so unsophisticated, in comparison to something like BtVS: I mean, after all, I think the *message* is kinda, well, self-contradictory, and it just gets worse as the pretty gets added in…. maybe, anyway…

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