Saturday, January 30, 2010

Avatar: The Lowest Common Denominator

There's been a lot of attention in the media recently about the movie Avatar, especially about the fact that it has broken the U.S. and international box office records (not adjusted for inflation, of course). This being the case, one imagines that it must be pretty good. When talking about it with others who've seen it, I hear the same thing a lot: the story is standard Hollywood formula with so-so writing, while the visuals are beautiful, the best they've ever seen.

But if the story is only so-so, why is it so successful? Basically, I believe the answer is that the great majority of movie-goers don't mind a formulaic story; it's like different frosting on the same cake, one that they like and are comfortable with. They don't think deeply about the structure of the story, like a critic would; they just want to sit down and be entertained for two hours. Stories that are adventurous and different have a hard time getting made, because they don't make much money. Critics sometimes complain that Hollywood films aim for the lowest common denominator.

So, is that a bad thing? Some will say no, that if you like formula movies and I like art-house movies, it's just a matter of taste, nothing anyone should be criticized for. Some say yes, that there is such a thing as artistic merit, and that those who ignore this (and refer to those who value artistic merit as 'pretentious') are only trying to defend their poor taste and lack of discernment. I think I tend to fall in the middle of this. I do think there is such a thing as artistic merit, that many works of art, music, literature, and movies have subtle touches of skill that escape those who lack the knowledge and insight to appreciate them. But I definitely don't want to condemn those whose taste in film runs to action movies with lots of explosions and little story, or comedies that rely heavily on slapstick humor and fart jokes. Maybe that's not my taste, but if it's yours, what's wrong with that?

What's wrong, the sophisticate will sniff, is that our culture will then be overrun with such dreck, which will crowd out the 'good' movies that otherwise would have been made. I would say, maybe so, but that's the world we live in; the taste of the masses is what composes our culture. (I'm a lot less sanguine about this notion when it comes to politics, but with good reason: it affects me not at all if the taste of the masses makes Transformers 2 a huge hit, as I don't have to see it. But when the selfishness and ignorance of the masses causes improvements in health care to run aground, that may affect me, and it definitely affects the poor and uninsured, probably costing lives in the long run.) Especially now that technology is making films easier to make (home filming and computer software) and show (the internet), I think we're never going to run out of good movies.

While recognizing its limitations, I enjoyed Avatar. I had read reviews, and knew what I was getting into. I do tend to avoid formula movies; I dislike watching a movie and knowing what's going to happen. Avatar contained no surprises. But while I experienced twinges of annoyance, for the most part I was able to forget that and lose myself in the movie. It may be a formula movie, but it's a really good formula movie. Just because a person is capable of fully appreciating a meal prepared by a great French chef doesn't mean that he can't also enjoy some well-prepared fried chicken and mashed potatoes. (I don't mean that the diner in this analogy is me; I'm not quite such a high-level movie buff. I'm just speaking generally. And as for me, I'd probably rather have fried chicken and mashed potatoes than the great French meal. I suppose I'm lowbrow when it comes to food.)

What I really dislike in this whole discussion is the literate, intelligent 'lover of fine things' who ostentatiously turns up his nose at things that the masses enjoy, and he turns it up more the more they enjoy it. More than a few times, I've had to listen to snobbish people say things like 'well, I like x and y,' with the clear implication that it's self-evident that they are superior to those dolts who like a and b. 'Everybody's gotta have somebody to look down on,' goes a lyric from Kris Kristofferson's first album, and the simple truth of that is especially apparent at such times. I try, however, not to look down on the people who look down on people. I have mixed success. I am human, after all.

1 comment:

  1. I thought at the start that you were going to poo-poo Avatar but I see that you enjoyed it. I did too.

    But I'm a bit surprised that I did.

    I do think that Hollywood often aims for the 'lowest common denominator'. I despair in particular at how the scripts are so often of such poor quality, with plot holes and flaws abundant (the poor writers just can't seem to handle science fiction in particular). Maybe I'm even more super-analytical of such things these days, having spent 2.5 years critiquing the HP series and counting its many errors. I find myself doing a thumbs-down on many popular movies.

    Take the recent Star Trek film, for example. People on the internet seemed to be raving about it. Myself, I think it was a bad movie; the plot holes and conveniences to advance the story were just too large for me to ignore.

    There are a few such whoppers in Avatar too ... yet to my surprise they didn't stop me at all in enjoying the movie. For some reason I was able to file them under the SUSPENSION OF DISBELIEF category and just sit back and enjoy it.

    Maybe it was just the scale or breadth of the plot gimmicks. Spock just happens to decide to jettison a Star Fleet officer and maroon him on a nearby planet which just happens to have prime!Spock at just the same spot where Kirk arrives to save him from a monster? I couldn't accept that.

    But the much broader, wider sweeping existence of the 'FLUX Storm' (whatever it was called) in Avatar that allowed the natives to get within primitive spear range of the Earthmen's ships? Not a problem.

    The latter was possibly just as flagrant a case of a script writer thinking "well, we need SOMETHING to allow the story to go where we need it to go, uhm, let's throw this in" but it was broad enough - setting the context for the entire picture, rather than a one-on-one fortuitous event too lucky to believe - that I could accept it. And so I was able to enjoy the movie.

    What I really dislike in this whole discussion is the literate, intelligent 'lover of fine things' who ostentatiously turns up his nose at things that the masses enjoy, and he turns it up more the more they enjoy it.

    Part of that possibly applies to me in my ongoing insistence that the Harry Potter series and author are undeserving of much of their fame and commercial success. I'm certainly no 'lover of fine things' but I do know that, in this endeavour, I'm fighting the decision of the masses. The silly billies! :-)