Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Separation of Art and Entertainment in Film as a Function of Expense

I'm ashamedI know, I know, everyone has been talking about movies lately. It’s the award season, and Avatar has changed the playing field and set the critics abuzz. But I too have to say my part, even at the risk of overkill.

Last Saturday, I finally landed a seat at the 10:40 pm IMAX showing of Avatar. While the movie has been in theaters for what feels like decades in today’s pop cultural world, seats continue to be sold out and lines at the entrance continue to form for both the IMAX and the “regular” digital 3D.

Upon exiting the theater for the first time, months after every single one of my friends had been there and done that, I was consumed with the thrill of it. Avatar was -- as is already old news -- no less than stunning, and there was simply no denying it. To hell with the actual movie or the plot. The hundreds of millions of dollars that went into the imagery was, for me, a pure joy of raw entertainment. I wanted to give it a thousand Congos.

A strange sense of guilt overtook me as the days went by. I have always turned my nose down at people who praised expensive special effects or used the infuriatingly nerdy and borderline creepy phrase “eye-candy” when referring to movies. I was a firm supporter of the low-budget artistic film that conveyed a moving, complex message without breaking the bank, and then firebombing it on a million-dollar set with real incendiaries. And yet here I was, unflinching at the 500 million dollar price tag that had set the stage for my three hours of wonderment.

I don’t always begrudge special effects in film, especially given their historical evolution. If you go back a mere century in our history, film itself was a “special effect,” and a little flexing of progressive scientific muscle in the field of arts and entertainment has hurt far fewer people than its use in other fields. When making a movie about a representation of the fantastic (i.e. Jurassic Park, The Lord of the Rings), special effects are paramount. Stories that were once limited to the powerful and ancient team of literacy and the human imagination can now be seamlessly created for our external sensory perceptions. However, I have always tried to judge movies based on the quality of the content before I included the quality of the explosions and the monsters, and show-offs always earned negative points in my book.

With Avatar, that all went to hell.

Show off? Please do. I lapped it up and my hypocrisy be damned. The plot could have been a stinking pile of decomposing trash and I would have reacted similarly. The characters could have been even less fleshed out than the speed of the movie allowed for. The nature of the entertainment was in the visuals and little else, which made me feel…wrong. The art of a painting can be primarily visual, but shouldn’t there be something more to a movie?

Sometimes I think that film is splitting along a divide of the “art” and the “entertainment”, and that massive canyon seems to be made of money. The bar for special effects keeps getting higher and higher, and as the audience’s expectations grow, so must naturally the bill. Therefore movie-makers are forced into two camps – spend the big bucks to win over your visual viewers or appeal to the hearts and minds of those seeking a different message. Movies that try to compromise between the budget and the soul tend to offer a lackluster product

As the award season nears, everyone is thinking about reviewing and defining quality, and I’m sure my musings are nothing new. If this perceived divide is in fact real, then most people are unwilling to cross the bridge of which is better: the soul-touching drama or the eye-catching action/adventure. I tend to think that this severance is very real. It’s name is money, and it is the river that carved out the Grand Canyon. Is the film industry doomed to such a two-party system?

When I left the IMAX theater, I rushed home and jumped on my computer to learn more about the 3D technology. I learned that while IMAX cameras offer a larger field of view and impressive resolution, they aren’t the same technology as the digital 3D cameras that the film was shot in for regular theaters. I convinced myself that I would have to watch it again in the digital 3D to compare the two and determine which was better.

Then I kicked myself. Had I become insane with greed? Was the IMAX not good enough for me? I felt like one of those assholes who complains that their 48-inch flat screen is a waste of time compared to a 99-inch high definition projector. How many pixels can the human eye actually resolve anyway?

But it was too late; I was tainted. Just like the other visuo-nuts that technology has nurtured, I wanted the beauty of high-definition 3D running in front of me forever. I never wanted to watch any other movie again. I tried one last effort to tell myself it was the science that had impressed me, but it wasn’t true. It was the 500 million dollar eye-candy that had won me. My sensory perceptions did have a price tag, and I was helpless before them. I refuse to give Avatar a Congo rating until my brain recovers from the shock.

If these two camps – the entertainment and the art –  become the divisive future of movies, I can’t decide whether to be excited or depressed. After all, I have so much 3D to look forward to.