Avatar smackdown!

I rarely take direct exception to anything my friend Jonah Lehrer writes, and I fully recognize he's just quick-riffing on a Hollywood movie. But if I understand his Avatar post correctly, my good man Jonah is arguing, at least in a minddump-at-the-bar sort of way, that James Cameron's latest movie is a pretty full neuro-aesthetico-art-critico realization of film's medium. His is a fun post, and worthwhile just to see Cameron crammed onto the same page, with appropriate apologies, with Clement Greenburg, Clint Eastwood, and Jorge Luis Borges. But I must differ. In Avatar, which I saw last night, Cameron has not deftly realized the potential of his medium; he has deftly exploited its crudest powers of visual seduction while leaving its full potential untapped.

Every art [writes Jonah, channeling Clement Greenberg] is defined by its medium. ... And I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

But what's the essence of the filmic medium? (Film geeks, commence to argue. The of you, read on.) The crudest aspect of a medium is not necessarily its most important or elemental. Film gives a rich sense of visual reality; add a bit of story (no one would have sat through a random 150-minute tour of that planet), and you can get people to sit back and unthinkingly go with the story. The visual immersion is unique to film, perhaps, but the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex surely isn't -- you'd surely get the same thing if you scanned people who were listening with eyes closed to a good yarn.

So perhaps Cameron has a) fully immersed us visually and b) seduced us into shutting off our PFCs (as love has been found to do in other studies). But by doing so he has hardly fully realized film's potential. For if he has, how do we explain the far more powerful and profound effects of movies that are every bit as immersive visually while being far more moving emotionally and intellectually -- movies that grip you even more thoroughly than Avatar does while you're watching them, but leave you moved and thinking for days afterwards?

Three such movies jump readily to mind: The Ice Storm; The Incredible Lightness of Being; and The Hours. (Sorry about this last one, Jonah, I know it border on cheating to bring our beloved Woolf into the mix.) Toss in The Godfather too if you'd like. All of these movies are as immersive visually as Avatar is; all three evoke as completely a foreign world (I'd argue Cameron's imagined world is no more original or imaginative than the others); and all three make you utterly forget your own life -- for me, anyway, far more completely than Avatar did. But all three left me far more deeply moved afterwards than Avatar did -- deeply shaken, in some cases, and thinking for days afterward.

Why? Because at some level these movies, even while immersing us so completely, challenge rather than indulge our existing systems and tangles of ideas and emotions. They didn't make us self-conscious or plan or think-consciously-in-a-PFC-sort-of-way; but they do engage in a richer way (much as good books do) the places in our heads where ideas and emotions meet. Their engagement is rich whether or not you're familiar with some of the ideas and history they draw on directly (political history in Lightness, Mrs. Dalloway and the life of V. Woolf in The Hours) -- but even richer to the extent you are familiar with some of that material. I need simply to recall them, even years later, to feel some of the complex, still-dynamic interplay of emotion and ideas they explore and evoke. Avatar will mean very little to me ... oh, by lunchtime.

These movies draw on these various ideas and sources and emotions using the same basic tools that Cameroin uses, a mix of visual, filmic, and storytelling conventions and structures. They are every bit as filmic as his, and rely no more heavily than Cameron does on "extra-filmic" elements (that is, those that Greenberg -- whom I actually think was wrong about painting's limitations, though I'm all with you on Borges and Clint -- would consider out-of-medium). But they are a far more complete realization of the medium. For me, anyway, simply remembering them makes Avatar seem not a deft realization of film, but one that, however beautiful and immersive, is impoverished.

If I had more time I'd find a way to get Borges, Woolf, Eisenstein, and Godard into this. But alas, I must work!

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So perhaps Cameron has a) fully immersed us visually and b) seduced us into shutting off our PFCs (as love has been found to do in other studies).

After taking pleasure in the visual simulation (and stimulation) of a beautiful alien world, my prefrontal cortex said, "I'm bored." I'll happily watch a computer graphics demo for ten or fifteen minutes, but three hours is overdoing it. I yawned and left.

"movies that grip you even more thoroughly than Avatar does while you're watching them, but leave you moved and thinking for days afterwards?"

My family and I saw Avatar last week and for 150 minutes I was completely engrossed. I've never been gripped as thoroughly by a movie. My PFC was definitely dormant, though it did stick its head up a few times.

And we were indeed talking about the movie for days afterwards. Unfortunately the talking we did was all about the movies' flaws which seem more inexcusable as time goes by.

Er, I would have watched a 150-minute tour of the planet. My wife and I agreed on leaving the theatre that instead of all the giant blue Ewoks we would have much preferred a nature documentary about hammerhead rhinos and whirligig bugs, narrated by David Attenborough

You mention some excellent films - The Ice Storm; The Incredible Lightness of Being; The Hours - but when comparing them to Avatar you seem to forget the respective target audiences. You would be better comparing Avatar to Jurassic Park, which mesmerized my 12-year-old mind with scenes of the Na Pali coast draped on the basic storyline scaffold of a genetic engineering project gone awry. In the same way, Avatar visually captivated my 25-year-old mind while telling a story that was compelling to the 12-year-old in me.

This may be trite, but I would say that Avatar is an excellent movie, but really isn't so much of a film. (And, since it was recorded digitally, there really wasn't any "film" involved).

The quality of a movie or film must be weighed against the intended effect (which is related to intended audience). I don't typically go to movies to be "moved", and I don't watch films to be "wowed" (in the non-emotional sense). Avatar showed the latest of what can be done in the art of moviemaking. Insofar as film is an extension of the ancient tradition of dramatic performance, Avatar was utterly execrable, yet I paid to see it twice.

I like museums and football games as entertainment for different reasons, and rarely at the same time.

By automandc (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

I agree with your assessment of Avatar versus the other movies you mentioned, but I disagree with your comparison to Jonah's assessment. The reason is because what I hear from Jonah is basically "you lose yourself in the moment", whereas the movies you mention you point out the lasting effects [i]after the movie has ended[/i]. I felt more "lost in the moment" in Avatar and I know I enjoyed it immensely, but I don't feel I took anything away from it afterward.

By anonymous (not verified) on 05 Jan 2010 #permalink

To me, Avatar wasn't a terribly original or moving story, but neither was it just eye candy. That technical artistry was clearly dedicated TOWARD something, namely depicting a character learning to love a beautiful world, with enchanting and diverse biology and geology. For that love to be credible to us the audience, that world has to be extremely imaginative, yet rendered in a completely believable, disciplined way.

For me, the movie brought me a sense of wonder. That is rare in movies, and it requires more than just immersion. And I bet it involves the PFC too.

So sure, Cameron didn't fully exploit all the tools available to him, but neither do those films you mention.