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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Avatar: The Film That’s Good For Somebody Else

Posted by Joseph Kugelmass on 01/05/10 at 03:57 PM

(x-posted to The Kugelmass Episodes)

A lot has already been written, at the speed of the Internet, about Avatar, and much of it has been great. I was very impressed by Aaron Bady and Gerry Canavan’s posts for the Valve, and you should go there if you want polished, whip-smart criticism of the film’s infantile racism (Bady) and its creeping, well-disguised hopelessness (Canavan).

I would add that Avatar is an excellent example of a strange phenomenon within our culture; namely, the idea of pieces of popular culture that are good for other people, others younger or less enlightened than yourself. This connects both to the silly idea that Avatar is somehow important because it is in 3D, as well as to the ideological paradoxes that keep end-of-history capitalism running smoothly in the United States. We find ourselves back at Slavoj Zizek’s favorite joke, about the physicist with the rabbit’s foot: whether you believe in Avatar or not, it still works. Or, as Shawn Levy put it, writing for the Portland Oregonian: “Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking. Shrug it off if that makes you feel better, but starting today you live in a post-Avatar movie world.”

Is Levy right? Well, taking the movie piece-by-piece, the answer is clearly no. 3D has already been with us for a while, and a lot of movies are coming out in 3D next year, judging from the trailers before Avatar. Avatar leans heavily on the excellent 3D nature films that have been showing in IMAX theaters for years; moreover, it also borrows from modern psychedelia, especially blacklight decorations at nightclubs, raves, and the Burning Man Festival. (Apparently, about half the plant and animal life on Pandora has evolved to glow prettily.) Cameron’s vaunted “performance capture” is just a slightly improved version of the technology that brought Golem to life in Peter Jackson’s film versions of The Lord of the Rings.

Nonetheless, the argument goes that the film is more than the sum of its parts, precisely because they all combine to create an “immersive” experience. Yet this isn’t true, since every conversation about Avatar becomes a conversation about the flaws of the screenplay and the immense vision of James Cameron. On top of that, since the film constantly refers in jarring ways to things happening on Earth (environmental devastation, the Bush Administration), the narrative dream is constantly interrupted by an audience forced to think back to (for example) the “shock and awe” campaign in Iraq. In truth, Titanic was a much more immersive film because it had an involving love story and fewer jabs in the audience’s ribs (yes, we all know the ship is going to sink, but the immediate parallel is gone because we don’t travel on such crafts anymore).

So what you get from Avatar is not an actually immersive or groundbreaking film, but rather a film advertising itself as those things. It is precisely because the film only signifies art’s greatest qualities, without embodying them, that professional and amateur critics alike protest so stridently in its favor. By making us its advocates, Avatar gives us something important to do. Levy again: “But, as I insist, you don’t buy a ticket to Avatar for a good read.  You buy one, rather, to share the sensations that overcome Jake when he ventures out into Pandora inside of his avatar for the first time.” It is easy to detect the implied command: “you buy a ticket” really means “you should buy a ticket.” But the command is presented in the blurry language of inevitability, just like the idea that Avatar‘s historical importance is completely independent of what anybody thinks about it, and therefore they should think it important. Why should critics be insisting that we buy tickets to a Hollywood blockbuster? Shouldn’t they be putting that effort into something like An Education? But they won’t, because it’s depressing to try to bump the ticket sales of a small film. Much better to feel partly responsible for a “cultural phenomenon” that seems to be promoting consensus values, like the worth of the environment and indigenous cultures, and that is guaranteed to do well at the box office.

But all these depersonalized efforts to assess the film’s formal qualities—special effects and the like—have much more serious stakes when it comes to the issue of its content. Here again, the viewer takes himself out of the equation: I can’t think of a single person who did not find the “environmentalism” of the film overly simplistic and obvious, or who actually liked it when the military commander says “we will fight terror with terror.” Yet there seems to be a general assumption that these messages are good for someone, perhaps those large popcorn gluttons sitting to your immediate right, or the little children sitting to your left. In the same way, Harry Potter is good for children who don’t read, and Sherlock Holmes had to be a mediocre action film because otherwise the proles would find it too boring. But none of this really explains why you should see Avatar, only to be told things you already know, or why so many adults should have flocked to the Potter books themselves.

The answer is that such works do not engage our conscience, intellect, or imagination; they ease our minds. By pretending that a film such as Avatar is politically or artistically significant for others, we avoid more pressing, inconvenient truths, and we dodge the challenges presented to us by more accomplished works of art. It’s not just that Avatar doesn’t come anywhere close to being Silent Spring or The Jungle (Upton Sinclair’s classic novel of jungle adventure).  It’s that I shudder to think how well The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’s important parable about the Executive Branch, would have done in the post-Avatar world in which, starting today, we are all living.


Comments

Great piece.

I think, to a certain extent, the critical acceptance that Avatar is somehow a landmark piece of cinema is similar to the critical acceptance of economic considerations and PR spin.

It’s like when critics reacted to the idea that their opinions didn’t matter or when they spoke about Batman in terms of hype.  It’s allowing the PR people to set the critical agenda.

Eagleton deals with this in the function of criticism : when the public sphere is entirely controlled by commercial concerns, to raise a voice against those commercial concerns is no longer to service the community but to disrupt it.  These are critics who are inside the tent pissing out.  They’re cowards.  Impotent cowardly fuckpigs.

By Jonathan M on 01/05/10 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

haha yes, i too enjoyed upton sinclair’s classic novel of jungle adventure. when is is *that* going to be optioned for imax 3-d??

By uncomplicatedly on 01/05/10 at 07:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

“Is it a great movie? Maybe not. But it is a great step forward in moviemaking. Shrug it off if that makes you feel better, but starting today you live in a post-Avatar movie world.”

Cue: slow-clapping from the post-Jazz Singer world. Genuine paradigm-shifts announce themselves by being thoroughly, and almost immediately, taken for granted… they needeth no publicists.

By StevenAugustine on 01/05/10 at 07:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I remember when I was told “Sin City” was a revolutionary film, that 20 years from now everybody would be watching it in film school.  I asked, “Have you seen ‘Roger Rabbit’?”

By joe km fischer on 01/05/10 at 07:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But none of this really explains why you should see Avatar.... The answer is that such works do not engage our conscience, intellect, or imagination; they ease our minds.

And the wheeled turned and morality reclaimed its place at the heart of cultural criticism. Leavis — FR and QD — would be proud.

By on 01/06/10 at 12:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I said it was a bad film before having seen it, based on Cameron’s other bad films and the terrible commercials and ads for the film.  I went to see it so that I didn’t feel bad for saying it was bad.  It was bad.  Three hours bad.  Three hours that I could have spent reading Albert Murray or listening to Joe Jackson or playing with my cat. 

Could we finally just all collectively agree that 95% of what comes out of Hollywood sucks?  Could we finally just put aside our fears of “rockism” or elitism or all the other pseudo-isms of liberal guilt and stop giving this shit any attention, even the critical sort? 

If every academic, myself included, had given that ten dollars to a homeless meth addict, we’d be in better moral shape.

By on 01/06/10 at 01:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven: Good point.

Joe: I have seen Roger Rabbit. It was awesome. I can’t believe Jessica Rabbit never got any other good roles.

Rob: This post is dedicated to the memory of FR and QD Leavis. They were taken from us so young.

Luther: But the addict would be in worse shape if he or she spent the money to buy more meth.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/06/10 at 12:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Nice piece, Joseph. Luther, I find that I would agree with you, except that “sucks” conflates a distinction that’s important to me, the difference between bad but interesting and bad and boring. Avatar is bad but boring, while The Jungle, for example, is terribly written, but also terribly interesting. But the jab at money spent on Avatar rather than An Education hit home and am planning on seeing the 7:40 showing of it at Shattuck cinema as a result.

By on 01/06/10 at 01:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Why should critics be insisting that we buy tickets to a Hollywood blockbuster? Shouldn’t they be putting that effort into something like An Education? But they won’t, because it’s depressing to try to bump the ticket sales of a small film. Much better to feel partly responsible for a “cultural phenomenon” that seems to be promoting consensus values, like the worth of the environment and indigenous cultures, and that is guaranteed to do well at the box office.

I agree with very much of this piece, but I wonder if you’re not being a bit uncharitable here. I think you’re assuming more bad faith than actually exists--could it not be that the critics who have gotten behind the film genuinely like it, are pleased to see something they liked do so unbelievably well, and are now plumping its importance somewhat unconsciously? A very similar thing happens to many critically acclaimed independent films that perform well commercially--"Sideways" is one example that comes to mind, as does the whole mumblecore movement.

And isn’t it a bit of a non-sequitur to bring “An Education” in here? (And for what it’s worth, I’m not sure why it would be depressing to try to bump a good small film’s numbers--it seems to me that the impact of a favorable review from a critic like Manohla Dargis would be more noticeable for films that necessarily have limited advertising budgets and few markets.) The business side of making and marketing a film like ‘An Education’ is so utterly different from something like ‘Avatar’--it’s not intended for saturation, and it doesn’t need to gross very much to turn a profit. Critics wouldn’t really be doing ‘An Education’ any favors trying to flog their readers into seats because ‘An Education’ isn’t going to be on the screens in front of those seats--its widest release was 317 theaters. Avatar’s number is 3,461--critics aren’t going to make up for that gap, and I’m not sure why we might expect them to.

A better comparison, I think, would be The Hurt Locker, a film which also didn’t have a very big release (535 theaters at its widest) but would, it seems to me, have been a better candidate for (some) expansion had its box office been stronger. And it’s a film you really can’t fault critics for trying to get people to see--it’s the highest rated film of the year on Metacritic, and has gotten plenty of coverage.

Somewhat unrelatedly, why do you doubt that critics truly did experience the film as something qualitatively different--more immersive--than previous deployments of these techniques? Just because they begin their reviews with acknowledgments of things completely external to the film--James Cameron’s genius, the box office numbers or whatever--doesn’t mean that these were the things they were thinking about during the film--composition is obviously a different operation from spectation, unless they’re all writing from their Blackberries in the theater. Noticing the plot flaws may in all likelihood be more about fridge logic than unimmersed critics.

I am not intending to argue that ‘Avatar’ deserves this instant coronation--which has me baffled, frankly--but I do think that the role of critics in it is not so sinister or insincere.

By Andrew Seal on 01/06/10 at 01:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"The answer is that such works do not engage our conscience, intellect, or imagination; they ease our minds.”

Thank you, Friend.

That pretty much sums it up.

Mike

By Mike Shell on 01/06/10 at 05:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

A better comparison, I think, would be The Hurt Locker, a film which also didn’t have a very big release (535 theaters at its widest) but would, it seems to me, have been a better candidate for (some) expansion had its box office been stronger. And it’s a film you really can’t fault critics for trying to get people to see--it’s the highest rated film of the year on Metacritic, and has gotten plenty of coverage.

Watching it alongside HBO’s “Generation Kill” really highlights how inferior “The Hurt Locker” was as a piece of storytelling - Hollywoodised, artificial drama, with even The Cute Kid making an appearance (presumably he had some spare time between Spielbergs). Not to mention the ludicrous plot elements and combat scenes.
It’s depressing that “The Hurt Locker” is still one of the best war movies, or movies generally, to be made in the last few years.

By on 01/07/10 at 07:26 AM | Permanent link to this comment

"Cue: slow-clapping from the post-Jazz Singer world.”

Well, that’s an interesting comparison.  I’ve never heard anyone say that The Jazz Singer has a deeply compelling story or a script that one wants to go back to again and again.  And its racism, even adjusting for era, make that of Avatar seem mild.  But no one says that The Jazz Singer isn’t an extremely important film.  And I’m sure that its audience felt lucky to be where they were.

By tomemos on 01/09/10 at 02:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Tomemos, my comment’s only comparison was between technical innovations; the “Avatar"-lauding quote I cited wasn’t giddy over the script or story of “Avatar”, it was making grand claims for the film as a technical watershed in film-watching (in the B.C. vs A.D. category). (However, I will say that the only reason you haven’t heard anyone say that “The Jazz Singer” has a “deeply compelling story or script” is probably that you don’t hang out with enough 105-year-olds).

By StevenAugustine on 01/09/10 at 05:46 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Steven, I think I was unclear: I was trying to suggest a parallel with Avatar, which I would argue is a technical watershed despite its formulaic story and characters.  Is it as groundbreaking as the first talkie?  Certainly not; a change that momentous occurs only a handful of times in the history of any genre.  I definitely think Levy’s B.C./A.D. quote is overblown, since Avatar probably isn’t even as important as Star Wars.  But I found the film to be beautiful and, yes, immersive despite the flaws of its story, and I imagine its use of technology will indeed be matched by more compelling storytelling before long.  In the meantime, I thought it was a good night out.

(And maybe The Jazz Singer does have an excellent script; certainly I imagine it’s less predictable than Avatar, in which not one surprising thing happens in two hours and forty minutes.  I would think, in the age of Netflix, one of my cinephile friends would have let on if TJS was still a great film, but maybe we’re just the wrong crowd.)

By tomemos on 01/09/10 at 11:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

For “genre,” substitute “medium.”

By tomemos on 01/09/10 at 11:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

tomemos:

No advocate of TJS *here*, just to clear that point up…

By StevenAugustine on 01/09/10 at 11:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew,

Your comment raises a number of important and provocative objections to what I’ve written; I’ll try my best to do justice to the complexity of what you’ve said.

First, there’s no way for us to know whether critical bad faith is happening consciously or unconsciously. My guess is that it’s probably mostly unconscious. In other words, they genuinely like the film, but their reasons for liking it so much are related to its blockbuster status, which ought not to be a consideration. By the same token, they probably do remember the film as an immersive experience, but then we have to ask why they would praise it so much more than other films with great art direction but poor scripts, such as What Dreams May Come. Our memories play tricks on us, and are subject to revision. We have the unfortunate phenomenon here of a lot of critics saying exactly what the Avatar press kits told them to say.

In response to what you write about An Education and The Hurt Locker, I would point to Peter Travers’s review in Rolling Stone:

Oscar can relax. The epic crowd-pleaser the Academy lusted for is here, the one to show that the geezer voters are hip to what the kids want (3-D IMAX) and what the industry needs (the kind of wowser you’ll pay to see on a big screen). James Cameron’s tone-deaf but thunderously exciting Avatar, costing a record $300 million, is just the thing to pump box-office blood into Oscar’s idiotically expanded Best Picture category (10 nominees instead of the usual five). Nevermind my preference for the life-sized likes of Precious, The Hurt Locker, Up in the Air and An Education. They look puny next to the computerized giants at play in the fields of Lord Cameron.

In other words, we should have a good conscience about going to see Avatar, about awarding it a Best Picture Oscar, and about allowing a system to thrive that gives blockbusters ten times as many screens as indie films. Praising Avatar this much essentially grants a pass to a Hollywood distribution formula that keeps people all over the country from even having the chance to see The Hurt Locker or An Education.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/11/10 at 04:31 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, I guess I’m just not certain that it is the critics who should bear the burden of changing the distribution system. (And it should be said that what we’re talking about here is the distribution system only for the cinema; obviously there has been a significant change in the ability of someone in say, Milan, Indiana to know about and to watch An Education once it comes out on DVD. And while I’m a huge proponent of seeing everything you can on a cinema screen, I don’t think Netflix should be ignored as part of this larger system of film production that we’re critiquing.)

In regards to the bad faith, I feel that if the question of whether it’s conscious or unconscious is really so dubious as you say, then it may not be the most productive point of attack or analysis. Noting the similarity of their comments to material in Avatar press kits doesn’t prove either that they are acting in bad faith (the kits are written to be persuasive and, well, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect critics never to be persuaded) or that the critics have been effective in making Avatar a success or more of a success than it otherwise would have been.

Avatar simply didn’t need as much praise to succeed as it has gotten. It needed a few pull-quotes for the ads, but for that it only needed a few very positive comments which could even be embedded in generally negative reviews (cf. ads for all bad movies ever). And it needed buzz, which is no longer the product of newspaper critics but of online fora and of industry mags that pre-date the blockbuster era.

The Travers quote is interesting because it’s really not a critique of critics at all. Critics don’t comprise “Oscar” and “the Academy,” and while their judgments greatly impact which films are selected, it’s not really in their interests to have an Academy Awards show that is watched by everyone and their uncle. It is in the interest of “the Academy” to have high ratings, and to get high ratings, they need to have nominated films that most people have seen and are excited about. But it would be much better for critics if the Academy Awards matched the winners of actual Critics Choice awards pretty closely. This may not happen this year, and that is what Travers is critiquing. He’s not really saying “why can’t critics be better than stooges for the corporations"--he’s saying that critics (like him) are being cut out of the (potential) Oscar parade for Avatar and for purely commercial ends. (I don’t know if the rest of the article differs, but as far as the quote you give goes, I feel like you’re conflating the critical establishment with the Academy.)

Just because the Oscars are the capstone of the “awards season” doesn’t mean that they work according to the same logic as critics do, or that a concurrence between the two indicates an alignment of intentions or interests. Basically, I just don’t see how box office success, an Academy Award, and critical appeal all mean the same thing, which is what I feel you’re saying--that we’ve all been duped together, all the victims of cultural industrial depradations. I’d like to argue that if we’ve been duped, then we’ve been duped separately, and in different ways. Avatar’s success isn’t the result of one large scam, but of many interacting parts and contributing factors, and while critics may be a part of it, I don’t really see how they are as important to or as representative of the problem as you argue.

By Andrew Seal on 01/11/10 at 06:44 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Andrew,

First of all, it is quite reasonable to expect that critics aren’t going to become mouthpieces for the studio. They are, presumably, hired for their ability to remain critical and objective in the face of a deluge of movies.

Second, I agree that Avatar’s success isn’t the result of one large scam. I also agree that the film would have been successful even if it had gotten mostly bad reviews. However, that doesn’t mean that critical overestimation has no significance. Such errors devalue criticism, and we badly need people who can help us cut down our list of “must-watch” films to a manageable size. As things stand, I found myself watching a really bad movie for three hours on Christmas; I wish I had the time back, to watch Up in the Air or something else instead.

By Joseph Kugelmass on 01/12/10 at 12:42 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I rather like this one; apparently, it’s *bad* for Somebody Else, too:

http://www.aolhealth.com/condition-center/depression/avatar-causes-depression?icid=main|htmlws-main-n|dl2|link5|http://www.aolhealth.com/condition-center/depression/avatar-causes-depression

By StevenAugustine on 01/13/10 at 11:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A many splendored, brightly hued, psychodelic even (though not in a bad way), illustriously textured, tucked away under the haunch of a brightly speckled donkey has an Avatar-like object for you to partake of.  Just pay your $10 and go be insulted.  It blanks huge donkey blanks.  To say it’s the future, and now we are in a post-Avatar world is jumping the gun and makes about as much sense as saying we’re in a post “Howard The Duck” age.  Those of us here at one of the lefter capitals of this country--Eugene, Oregon--know about these things.  Avatar insulted me environmentally.  Was it pro-military or anti-military?  I think it insulted both sides.  I saw it a week ago and, as you can see, it still has me in a blue funk.  I just feel dirty. 

However, if tons of 17 year old males, moved by this cartoon, go on to fail to register for the draft, then it’s a success and I take back everything I said.

By on 01/24/10 at 01:18 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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