Friday, January 22, 2010

The Medium is the Message:
A (Semi) Defense of the Politics of Avatar

When we Americans go to the movies, we don't want to be preached to. We just want to fork over a hard-earned ten dollar bill and shut our brains off for a few hours, delighting in high-quality images, digital sound, and maybe even a decent story. The last thing we want is to leave the theater feeling like we just learned some sort of lesson. Movies with morals are passe; the fables of cinema's Golden Age has been left behind for wanton nihilism, backed up by sex and explosions.

Or has it? Strangely enough, the highest-grossing movie in recent memory is also the preachiest. Avatar has amassed over 1.6 billion dollars worldwide, even though it's a movie chock full of messages. The environmentalism and the anti-imperialist angles are fairly obvious, but in recent weeks the film has also been accused of promoting paganism, polytheism, Rousseauian noble savagery, and smoking.

In a world where most of our critically-acclaimed films reek of moral ambiguity and ethical complexity, the simple sincerity of Avatar stands out. But most critics seem to be appreciating Avatar in spite of this sincerity, not because of it. Is there a place for such heavy-handed polemics in cinema anymore? Or is James Cameron's naïve portrayal of good and evil a relic of the past?

When my friends and I went to see Avatar last month, I quite enjoyed the movie. I also thought that the themes were forced onto the viewer in a rather ham-fisted and obvious manner. (I'm pretty sure the entire theater let out a collective groan when the evil colonel used the phrases "shock and awe" and "pre-emptive strike" in rapid succession). A few weeks later, I met someone who summed up the experience as "a load of hippie bullshit", which is perhaps not the most eloquent summary of the film, but also not one I could entirely disagree with.

Bashing the Bush administration was in vogue a few years ago. But such critiques quickly grew lazy and tiresome. We're living in a post-Bush world now, a world where Massachusetts votes Republican and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize defends the use of force. These are morally complex, often contradictory times, and Cameron's vision of the noble environmental peaceniks fighting the violent, greedy soldiers seems both outdated and far too blatant for our modern sensibilities. Isn't it better for a film to suggest a more nuanced message for the audience? I certainly thought so.

And that is when I realized that I had somehow turned into a film snob.

I don't know when or how it happened. It started with a few slight dalliances at the local arthouse theater last year, and somehow it snowballed into wholescale cinematic elitism. Now I'm turning up my nose at the populist far with the best of them. A movie with an direct, unencumbered moral to it? Pah!

But with Avatar, I (and like-minded film snobs) forgot a few crucial points. For one, when your movie costs two hundred million dollars to make, there's no way you're going to be catering to anybody but the lowest common denominator. It's just not profitable.

Secondly, American film audiences are lazy. This is no knock against them. Most of us go to the movies to be entertained and there's nothing wrong with that. And while difficult, thought-provoking films can be interesting, rarely do we classify such intellectual stimulation as "entertainment". Most Americans are going to pick the action flick over the psychological thriller. It may not even be a conscious decision; one study shows that, if given a choice between a "lowbrow" and a "highbrow" movie, consumers will almost always choose to watch the easy movie today, and the difficult movie at some unnamed point in the future.

I'm a nerd. I'm a grad student. I teach film to a bunch of bored college students. I like to watch difficult movies and drop big words to explain them. But film snobs like myself are annoying and, more importantly, in the minority. I enjoy movies, such as The Hurt Locker, that pose questions about the psychological thrill and toll of warfare without offering any easy answers. But, hell, I made more money in 2009 than The Hurt Locker did. Meanwhile Avatar's box office revenues have surpassed the federal budget.

Now I'm not trying to make the case here that the most Americans are too dumb to appreciate "good" cinema. But I do think that the average filmgoer, whether through a lack of good distribution, bad marketing or simple habit, probably won't go out of their way to see the critical darlings playing at the independent theaters. I'm sure most Americans would enjoy The Hurt Locker if they got around to watching it, but, barring a major awards sweep, most of these films languish in critically-acclaimed obscurity.

In this way, Avatar is a trap. Cameron makes you think that you're in for a standard three-hour action film and then, BAM!, he hits you over the head with his leftist values. Of course, with that sort of earnest message, there's an inevitable backlash: articles have been published on the film's "hidden" agenda, conservatives are objecting to its perceived anti-Americanism, and even the Vatican film critic has condemned Avatar (though not for theological reasons so much as the fact that it was "bland").

But I can't help but thinking that this is exactly what Cameron wanted. Box office records aside, he's managed to get a lot of people to go see a very ideological movie - people who might not touch a political arthouse flick with a ten foot pole. Love it or hate it, it's suddenly become the thing to talk about.

The twentieth century cultural theorist Marshall McLuhan once quipped that, "The medium is the message." I think this certainly holds true for Avatar: when the medium is a two hundred million dollar blockbuster (in 3-D, no less), there's no longer a need for a subtle philosophical statement. Instead, Cameron has tossed the equivalent of a big blue ranting grenade into the middle of the holiday season.

Even putting aside my cynicism and accepting the sincerity of the film's message, Avatar isn't perfect by any means. It still contains some of the dullest roles to ever grace the screen - I'd argue that Pandora itself is a far more interesting character than any person who lives there. And I don't think Avatar deserves to win Best Picture, despite what the Golden Globes are prophecizing. Instead, I'm going to keep rooting for the psychological complexity of The Hurt Locker, the existential angst of A Serious Man, even the strange ending of Up in the Air.

But I can accept the good old-fashioned dose of populism that Avatar brings to the table. In an era of world-weary disenchantment, it's certainly a breath of fresh air.