Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Hype does not a legacy make

Before seeing Avatar, I had read a quote by director, James Cameron, in an Entertainment Weekly blog:
On the legacy of Titanic: “It’s like nobody admits they went to see Titanic, like it was something you did when you were a kid that you’re not too proud of now, like wearing bell-bottoms.”
I didn’t expect to follow up my last blog post about Avatar, but after I saw the film (and especially now as the movie is set to take over the top all-time box office spot, and in light of the recent announcement of Oscar nominations), I immediately thought back to the above quote, and it made me think that Avatar really is the next Titanic, yes because of the box office records and the awards, but more relevantly, because its eventual irrelevance is assured.

Despite Cameron’s penchant for over-portraying himself as the maligned underdog genius of Hollywood, what he says about his last mega-movie is not really an exaggeration. Think back. You know you saw Titanic, and you probably liked it. Maybe you even remember it fondly. But ask yourself: Who shows Titanic at movie night? Who names their beagles Jack and Rose? Who rocks “My Heart Will Go On” at the karaoke bar (disregarding the fact that you probably know all the words)? Maybe it’s not because you’re ashamed of having liked the movie then, but because you have so little concern for it now.

Until the hype machine started hammering Avatar into the collective consciousness, most people probably hadn’t thought of Titanic in over a decade. Sadly, the release of Avatar triggered as many memories of Dances with Wolves and even Ferngully as it did Titanic. And the interest wasn’t regarding whether Avatar would be as good a movie as Titanic, but whether it would make as much . . . what’s the word . . . cheddar?

Titanic was a whale at the box office, approved by critics, glazed with awards, and yet in the end, it was just a movie, and not even a particularly great one. It certainly didn’t become a cultural reference point, not even by movie standards, and neither will Avatar. And exactly what high horse am I riding, you ask? Well, just off the top of my head:
What does Avatar bring to the cultural lexicon?
  • “So, you find yourself some local tail, and you just completely forget what team you're playin' for?”
Yeah, I’m not sure about that.


As a side note, I’ve railed against the Oscars (and praised James Cameron) in the past, and it’s not worth giving that freak show of upturned noses and meager intellects any more breath than it deserves. I’ll just say that anyone with a hankering for an effects-laden sci-fi spectacle starring Zoe Saldana would do well to reach not for Avatar, but Star Trek, thank you very much!


Deana said...

This is a really sharp post, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. I didn't see many of the other Oscar contenders, but I'll take anything over Avatar. Someone needs to sock it to Cameron. I wish it could be me.

And I never did see Titanic because I have a natural aversion to anything overhyped. It was one phenomenon that I was more than happy to ignore. I only saw Avatar because Yevgeniy wanted to, and I scoffed my way through it.

Czardoz said...

And did Yevgeniy love every minute? A rollicking roller coaster thrill ride?

Deana said...

Napes on those grapes. He did find some enjoyment in it, but it didn't live up to the hype in his mind, either. And I think the 3-D glasses might have been a bit cumbersome considering he already wears glasses. Were they for you?

Czardoz said...

I've seen a lot of 3-D movies in the past two years, so I kind of got used to wearing glasses over glasses. Oh, I also always wear big sunglasses over my glasses when I drive, so it's no big thing for me.

Henry said...

All the way up to release, I actually had serious doubts about Avatar's chances. I thought the marketing started too late and missed the high concepts, spending too much time trying to explain abstruse sci-fi concepts. Shows what I know.

After having seen it, I think Avatar is simply a movie that people have been craving for a long time. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of many of the movies that most left an impression on me as a child. In its blend of grand scope with obvious themes delivered earnestly, it gets closer to the old Disney than have any of today's Pixar or Dreamworks pictures. It is a story of broad appeal, yet Cameron's direction, confident as ever, is imperative rather than pandering toward the audience. It has an ever-present morality, which many special effects pictures do not. In its total lack of wit, its aversion to anything hip or humorous, it is a throwback to pre-LaBeoufian times. And it just so happens to be a good, technically well-made movie.

That said, I agree that this will not be a cherished film for years to come. It is, like Titanic, ultimately a hollow experience. My complaints with the plot and pacing aside, what really gnaws at me is how, even before factoring in the hype, every frame of this movie seems so calculated, and I don't mean that ironically (because of computers). It is a huge production, giving us all the things it tells us we want, but it is so thoroughly impersonal and devoid of intimate moments. It is a movie for the masses and not the individual. Of course, that is undoubtedly by design, and it is a resounding success at everything it sets out to do, such that I cannot even enjoy pointing out its deficiencies. To criticize the film is really to criticize, not Cameron, but his audience that he has so well taken advantage of. I'd really rather not go there.

Henry said...

Also, have you heard about this "post-Avatar depression" madness? Apparently, some viewers get so caught up in the world of Pandora that they find it hard to come back to reality. Considering the premise of the movie, this is kind of creepily meta. Maybe Cameron was cleverer than anybody ever suspected and Avatar really is a brilliant new form of art--a living fiction where the players in the story are, not Jake Sully and Neytiri, but the viewers themselves.

Czardoz said...

That so-called “depression” is ridiculous, but it is not new. When Conan Doyle killed off Sherlock Holmes in 1893, the death of the icon and the prospect of never again visiting his peculiar world prompted all kinds of public outrage, mourning, and undoubtedly, depression.

For a more “I’d rather live in your world” example, refer to “post-Potter depression.”

Rather than any testament to Cameron’s unusual skill or insight, I think this depression is a damning commentary on the state of the world, or at least people’s perceptions of the world.

Remember when we came back from our week-long trip to Japan, back to what you called “good old America”? Remember what Riyuu said on the car ride home about being back? “Everything is boring!”

Life at home was boring because you had seen something else that resonated with your aesthetic/moral/recreational values, and yet you were taken away from that.

As nice as the movie looked, it really wasn’t all that new. Look here to see where the “floating mountains of Pandora” came from:

I would say that they are also reminiscent of Machu Picchu. Some of the greenery in the movie reminded me of the Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, which I visited in 2000. The movie being “movie gorgeous,” it takes on a kind of heightened reality that maybe real reality can’t match, but as far as fulfillment, anyone who has ever been to a beautiful place would probably feel that, as great as a movie is, it can’t really compare to being somewhere real.

Anyone who is that gonzo about Pandora that they fall into depression probably hasn’t seen much of the world. And while it’s unfair to tell people to fly to China or Peru or Greece to experience the world, I don’t think we’re dealing with reasonable people here, anyway, right? I mean, Pandora seemed like the kind of place where you could easily be ripped apart by all sorts of horrible animals. Do people really want to live like that?

Look. Do I wish lightsabers were real? Of course. Do I contemplate suicide because they’re not? No, because I’m not crazy.

Czardoz said...

How do you do that hyperlinks thing again? I can't find Riyuu's last comment about it.

Henry said...

What that CNN article I linked completely misses is that this post-Avatar depression figures into the plot of the movie itself. That gives this story an extra dimension beyond the Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter cases. Or at least, it would have, had Cameron even remotely considered the real implications of the Avatar concept. (No, I wasn't being serious when I suggested that Cameron might be clever.)

I think you're quite right that these crazies probably haven't seen much of the real world, and I think that too is an important part of this story, which arose out of an online fan forum.

Henry said...

For the links thing, what I do is draft my comments as new posts for my own blog. After I'm done inserting the links there (via the buttons), I click on the "Edit HTML" tab (above "Preview") and copy everything off there. All that is what I then paste into the comment box. It's a pretty ghetto method, but it works for me.

Czardoz said...

Several months out of the year, Harry is forced to live with his fat relatives in dreary old England, and he pines for his magical life in Hogwarts. So I think there is a sense that the plot mirrors the audience's desire to live in Hogwarts and break bread with Hagrid and lie with Dumbledore, though I acknowledge that this is more overt and pivotal in Avatar.