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Jan. 7 2010 - 11:05 am | 2,115 views | 0 recommendations | 19 comments

Why I won’t see Avatar

Even if — and it’s a big if — I saw in three dimensions, which I don’t, and Avatar’s celebrated “immersive” design was able to properly envelop me in its splendiforous fluourescence, I still wouldn’t see it. Even if James Cameron wasn’t a complete Napoleon-psycho windbag. Even if it hadn’t been shoved down my throat months before it came out, even in a shamelessly brownnosing profile in The New Yorker. And I’m somebody who feels compelled to see everything that’s Important to the Medium, which, if you believe the critics, Avatar is, important, that is, a Step Forward in Moviemaking.

Please. It’s pretty apparent to everyone from the marketing stampede alone that Avatar is a some kind of substantial uptick in digital F/X. If you care about that sort of thing. Which is to say, if you’re young enough to still have trouble buying beer in New York, or if you’re still masturbating three times a day. If I was 15, I’d see Avatar. But I’m not. And neither, chances are, you.

But even if Cameron got that much right — if he somehow managed to get digital characters to act, and didn’t make the women look cross-eyed, and the 3-D was, like, dude, so very cool — so what? Not only is the story recycled garbage and the script (reportedly, even by fans) idiotic, but the very essence of the film — its visual cataract of fantasy — is infantile. What, am I a forest animal, unthinkingly hypnotized by shiny objects? Oooo, I’m building a nest, I need something bright and pretty. Am I a toddler in the cereal aisle, blindly drawn to the box of Froot Loops because of the bright colors?

Since when is a flush of rainbow hues and sparkly art supposed to engage the adult mind? You read David Denby’s review of the film in The New Yorker (a month or more after Dana Goodyear’s Cameron rimjob), and you hear a grown man — who’s written books — try to explain that the film is stupid but he just loved the shimmering Crayola colors anyway. Maybe he’d like a mobile above his bed.

I’ve seen Avatar already, frankly, because I spent my youth looking at Roger Dean album covers and sci-fi/fantasy paperback covers and the art of Frank Frazetta, Chris Foss, the Brothers Hildebrandt, etc. — and that was a good 30 years ago. But since then, something happened: I grew short hairs and read Hemingway and had sex. There’s no going back.


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  1. collapse expand

    I guess it’s safe to assume you’ve never watched any of Ed Emshwiller’s experimental films.

    Earth to Michael: Film is a =visual= medium.

    You’ve never sat back and soaked up a beautiful sunset or watched a waterfall, or…? In Avatar you can soak up sights you’ll never see in this world. I loved those floating mountains on the Yes covers, but in Avatar, I flew around, over, and under them. I landed on one.

    I leaned back, turned off the brain, and dug the light show. (All the naysayers are right about the plot: a trite bildungsroman devoid of any nuance or even a stab at internal conflict.) And that’s what it is: a richly rendered light show. Film remains a visual medium and Avatar is visual to the Nth.

    You’ll never experience another planet, but at this point, Avatar is the closest we’ve got to putting you there.

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      It’s not safe to say at all, re: Emshwiller, thank you. I’m very familiar (and with Smith, McLaren, Jordan, Brakhage, etc.)– and I hope you’re not suggesting Avatar is some kind of abstract experimental film? Yes, the medium is visual, but not only — it’s also, or can and should be also, narrative and thematic and aural and temporal and human and psychological, and saying Avatar is “just” visual is tantamount to agreeing with my original post. I don’t enjoy turning off my brain, simply put.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
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        On the other hand, David Brooks in the Times today crying about the White Messiah complex, and how Avatar and movies like it slam “technocratic” white people in favor of the robust, pure-hearted natives, stands as the only thing I’ve read so far that makes Avatar
        sound interesting.
        Forget that he gets his facts wrong — the hero in At Play in the Fields of the Lord was a “native,” not white — but of course he’s right about the cliche template Avatar exploits, and he’s even right about getting mad about it. Because it’s establishment whities like Brooks that are getting slammed.
        But this paragraph is flabbergasting: “Cameron’s handling of the White Messiah fable is not the reason “Avatar” is such a huge global hit. As John Podhoretz wrote in The Weekly Standard, ‘Cameron has simply used these familiar bromides as shorthand to give his special-effects spectacular some resonance.’ The plotline gives global audiences a chance to see American troops get killed. It offers useful hooks on which McDonald’s and other corporations can hang their tie-in campaigns.”
        What, and what? Is Brooks misreading Podhoretz, who is dismissing the politics as Cameron’s calculated cooptation? “Gives global audiences a chance”? McDonald’s? Is Brooks suggesting that Avatar, and McDonald’s, support terrorism? Podhoretz was saying the opposite, or at least he wasn’t lending much credence to the film’s politics. But Brooks gave in to a bile burp there, it seems, without actually condemning a popcorn movie for being anti-American. I think.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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          I find it funny that you have so many opinions about a movie you didn’t even see. Didn’t you just spend an entire article explaining why you won’t see Avatar? I find it laughable. I think you should become a book critic. It will be easy for you — just read that back cover of the book before review it.
          Why is everyone dumping all over this story-line? There is a golden nugget inside the mound of crap piled over it by critics such as you. This would be the story of Jake Sully and the contrast between the two worlds that he lives. Not Earth or Pandora, but his world as a paraplegic. There is a richness and tension interwoven between these worlds. One world, Jake is powerless without his legs, the other world in which he can walk again. I found the idea rather genius… I felt powerless along with Jake when he was pulled out of his Avatar…

          In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    I thought Avatar was a little more sophisticated than your article suggests. Yes, the richly realised world of Pandora, the

    As for the storyline, I personally had no problem with the dialogue in the script, or the remarkably black-and-white perspective of the film. I interpreted this as a parable against imperialism, rather than any attempt at a meaningful commentary on current world events, the zeitgeist etc. It’s a serviceable storyline for a film that is meant to be primarily a sensual experience.

    You say in your article that “Avatar is a some kind of substantial uptick in digital F/X. If you care about that sort of thing.” I think this depends on how you measure “Avatar” as a success. Aesthetically, I think it’s a strong addition to the science-fiction genre — but doesn’t have a patch on other flicks like Blade Runner and Alien. Culturally, though, “Avatar” is a hugely important film. It could well become the biggest movie of all time. People will be writing for years about why that is.

    I really enjoyed Avatar, both times I watched it. Of course Avatar is not the most challenging film of the year, nor is it intended to be. It uses a fairly simplistic narrative as a clotheshorse for an exciting world, seamless effects and action and the big “wow” that we want when we go to the movies. I must say that I actually found the romance between Sully and Neytiri quite moving. If I couldn’t enjoy Avatar on even a basic level because I thought it was too ‘infantile’ for me, I’d have forgotten the reason I started going to the movies in the first place!

  3. collapse expand


    The story is not actually as bad as you’ve heard. It is a familiar story to an extent, but I feel people are being overly harsh. It is the story that worked for the movie and, indeed, I think the story Cameron needed to make the movie work. I posted an essay on it at paulbarrettonline.com, if you’re remotely interested. You might want to give it a shot. There is more to it than pretty colors, but those certainly help :-)

    Keep up the good fight.


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    First of all, what is all this “I’m grown up, I’m better than this” business? No offence to you Michael, but this article had so much pretence even I started to feel the stick that’s wedged up your ass. Passing such blind judgement about a movie you have never seen is a bit ridiculous. This movie was created for one reason, and one reason only: to entertain its audience (and happened to make mentionnable steps in digital filmmaking in the process). To call it’s fans overhyping, Crayola-hypnotized children is unwarrented and unnecessary. Perhaps if you stopped trying so adamantly to contradict what may be popular you could find some joy in life, or at least for the 3 hour running time of this movie, and not feel the need to talk down to those who can watch said movie (whose plot however recycled and cliche) and enjoy themselves. The movie is a lot of fun, and is quite worth your $10.

    • collapse expand

      Why does this need explaining? Animals and little children are fascinated by bright colors and digital swooshes; I’m not particularly, and it doesn’t seem to much of a leap of logic to conclude that it’s because I’m a grown-up. Obviously, plenty of Avatar fans are grown-up and feel differently, in the abstract. And that’s what I clearly don’t understand. Do the grown-ups we’re talking about still ogle unicorn-&-rainbow bedroom posters? Do they buy cereal because of the multicolored box? They don’t, I’ll bet, but they’ll still go to bat for the “just lovely” experience of Avatar, which looks to me, from I’ve seen, to be crass and ugly, actually. But this argument picks on that one movie too precisely — I didn’t seen Transformers 2 or 2012 or the last Star Wars movie, either. I like to be entertained, too, but explosions and digital effects and bright colors bore me. Is it because I’m an adult? I think so, but nobody else has to.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    Great debate…though hard to reason something as taste in books or music or theatre. I did see the film and it is an advance in film making and Cameron, a lousy human being but quite a good craftsman and artist, deserves some admiration.

    We should keep some things in perspective, such as the wow effect. Mr. Wilson is correct film is a visual medium and sound was a big wow effect, as was the close up, the location film, color, stop motion photography, wide screen, stereo sound, 3-D, panarama cameras, 70mm, Cinerama, Imax, prosthetic make-up, digital effects, Pixar, Blue and Green Screens mixed with CGI, motion capture and on and on. Cameron mostly used and refined previous advancements and invented a few on his own. Advancements in movies usually start as gimmicks before someone come along to show the potential and someone else does the refinement. Avatar is 3-D is an experience, how it plays in 2-D or on DVD or on television is another story. Perhaps this is the start of event movies again, reserved seat extravaganzas out of DeMille.

    Is it a good movie? Story wise, emotionally, it fell short for me, as a wild ride it was worth the money. If I remember it after another five or six such events…time will tell.

    • collapse expand

      A point worth making, but one I can only do trivial justice to here: what you quantify as “advances” — sure, close-ups count, in a way, but the rest of your list (stop motion photography, wide screen, 3-D, Cinerama, Imax, CGIs, et al.) are just showbiz nonsense — have nothing to do with the the reality of film as an art form. That is, none of that crap makes a movie “better,” as opposed to the visual eloquence of a Renoir or Ozu or Godard or Angeloupoulos or Jia, none of whom require techno-advances to make the best movies the medium has to offer. Let’s get our grown-up definitions straight: if a movie intends that you “turn your brain off,” then go ahead, and congratulations, you’re the one in the discussion with your brain turned off.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    You are implying that adults should not watch or enjoy fantasy or science-fiction, and should instead read Hemingway and watch boring crap like “The Hours”, cause that’s what grown-ups do!

    I actually believe that without the people who create or even enjoy these imaginitive stories, we would not have advanced as a civilization at all. We have cell phones cause of Star Trek…mull that over for a bit. It’s called imagination, and it is a good thing.

    Hemingway sucks….so badly.

    That is my contrbution.

    • collapse expand

      That’s just idiotic. We have cell phones because of Star Trek? Just because they look like Kirk’s communicator? No mulling necessary, that’s foolish. Anyway, I snored at The Hours, too, but if that’s your only reference point for any “adult” culture, you have a lot of reading to do, and there’s no arguing that. “Imagination” — my original point was that Cameron has exhibited none. Avatar seems to be (still haven’t seen it!) just recylced, 40-year-old pulp, which entertained me at 15 but bores me now.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  7. collapse expand

    Your heading says it all. Attention grabbing, obvious and expected…
    I understand that criticism is necessary and not a democracy by any means but Avatar 3D is hardly a triumph of mediocrity that needs such rhetoric of opinion. You offer us same on a plate and yet the movie offers us a new experience.
    Go beyond your crushing boredom with mainstream and give us a view that is progressive despite its value of association. Your views were many and complex but missed a basic truth; a simple story often provides an enjoyable journey.
    If you can’t appreciate beautiful than you have no place reviewing a real moment in time let alone a man made experience and so the world is a better place without your flawed opinion.
    No one likes a grumpy old man, but ironically if you were all grown up you wouldn’t care to elaborate so much anyway. Go watch the flashing colors old man and give us a real opinion based on an experience?

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    About Me

    I'm lucky, having spent my youth on the triple itinerant habits of moviewatching, note-taking and opinion-spewing, and now decades later these are more or less the same activities that earn me mortgage and beer money. I've written and sold just about anything you could name that's made of sentences, including obituaries, limericks, memoirs, interviews with starlets one-third my age, dirty-shirt satire, TV pilots, manifestos, confessional poetry, book criticism, travel guides, and straight-on movie reviews, by the thousands. This includes a new novel from St. Martin's Press, HEMINGWAY DEADLIGHTS, the first in a series. I do not expect to be loved by everyone.

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