By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
The "Avatar As Death Of Storytelling" Fallacy
After I read Monika Bartyzel’s December 27th piece n Cinematical, ‘Avatar’ and the Death of Storytelling, my instinct was to explain in some detail why this was wrongheaded.
Four days and a third view of the film from start to finish later and I am less inclined to do so… because the argument Bartyzel makes is so lame and unsupportable by anything other than the hubristic urge to piss on what’s popular, it is not worth my time or yours. Somehow, we are supposed to just buy the premise that the storytelling is weak… and discuss from there.
To give the author and those who wish to dance naked in the warm drool of the headline their due, the headline is more clear in its argument than the wandering, unfocused article. Bartyzel seems to suffer the child-journalist’s difficulty (and I have no idea how old or experienced Bartyzel is… the name has never registered with me before) of confusing personal disappointment with the objective failure of others. Worse is the rhetorically moronic trope of “if they had only made an effort!” Oy.
To wit: “(How the frak can James Cameron have cooked this story up for a decade, waiting for technology to catch up with his vision, and not want the story to be killer?”
“What could Cameron have done? It seems all too simple — workshop the script, get advice from trusted names, put similar effort into all aspects of the film.”
Or, hey, he could have made Avatar into a blog and just pulled stuff out of his ass instead of making the movie.
Do I think that Cameron should have found someone he trusted who would have told him that some of the clinker lines in the film could have been smoothed down? Yes. But a half-dozen pieces of overly gung-ho dialogue is not “the end of storytelling.”
If you actually look at Avatar clearly, thinking seriously about the storytelling, it is as complex as any film Charlie Kaufman has ever written. What it is not – and I think that this could be be and should be seriously considered by writers who chose to think about film seriously – is particularly oblique, as many of the films that “serious” critics choose to love are. But what’s funny about that is that if you really start to think about what’s been set up in Avatar, nature perhaps being hard-wired in a literal way, Cameron is throwing out as big an idea as any studio film has offered in years.
Avatar is a genre movie. Absolutely. And when it isn’t thrilling the audience, it is usually reaching for emotion, not intellect. But it is also a master class in story structure. The weakest parts of the first act – all the Basil Exposition moments – are all paid off in a big way in the third act.
I defy any of the bashers to come up with a major element of the movie that doesn’t actually make sense in the context of the movie. I’m sure there are a few minor ones… there always seem to be a few, even in the most highly regarded films. But this is not Charlie’s Angels: Full Frontal or Bad Boys II or even Transformers, #1 or #2, randomly inserting action sequences that never quite fit the context of what minor story that is being offered.
What Avatar is not is as dark and mysterious as The Dark Knight. There is no evil character as strong as The Joker. Our hero and heroine are not as brooding and focused as The Batman. And the moral questions of Avatar are not as clearly stated or as yes/no as The Dark Knight. But all that said, the story structure of the movie is more successful than TDK at delivering on what it promises.
Everyone and anyone should be welcome to prefer one kind of discussion of ideas at the movies over another. I am in no way suggesting that Bartyzel or anyone else needs to bow to Avatar, either for commercial or aesthetic reasons. (And the “we are the rebels under attack by big bad money” shtick from the bashers is unrelenting.) But attack what you really don’t like. Please don’t feel compelled to so grossly overreach as to attack a complex and working structure – the columns holding the visuals up – in order to try to bring down the whole thing.
Avatar delivers more, I would argue, than people realize, not because the storytelling is weak, but because audiences – however smart – have a hard time seeing the story for the digital trees.
Let’s just take a part of the third act of the film.
At the start of the act, the humans who have taken the side of the Na’Vi against industry, the military, and indeed, even humans in general, move forward without discussion and without a plan. They have changed sides 100% and behave as a native would instinctively. They need to get out of the enemy’s stronghold and to get back to what is now their home.
What makes this interesting and complex is that just one scene before, this group was still working with the other humans to try to mediate. Without dialogue explaining this, the audience understands what’s happened. And the first thing this band of New Na’Vis does when free, also without explanation, is to take – as best they can – control of their avatars into their own hands and away from the belligerent humans.
Once they make this transition, Cameron flips the entire movie. Jakesully finds a way to become a leader again and brings the military insight that if united, the indigenous population could fight off the intruders. (Ironically, to my argument, the existence of other tribes isn’t introduced until this scene… one loose thread.) Suddenly, the Sky People are on the defensive… suddenly they are rationalizing not that they have a mission and hate those in their way, but that if they don’t attack first, they will be destroyed by those “blue monkeys,” who are organizing only because the Sky People trying to annihilate them.
Cameron then flips the movie again, introducing the concept of a nuclear weapon, with the threat to bomb out the second most important place for the Na’Vi (the white tree).
And Cameron flips the movie one more time with the arrival of nature to defend itself.
This represents four major power shifts in the third act alone. None of it is casual, random, or even confusing. It is clear to the audience without being spelled out. They feel it. And that is a real achievement in story telling.
Again… I am not saying that the film is flawless. I am not saying that box office gross = quality or social importance or anything else. All I am saying is that the movie is hitting people in a real way and to try to take that away by claiming, without a real argument, that it’s “just visuals” is irresponsible and dumb.
Those of us who write fot public consumption about movies always have a choice. We can try to figure out what is going on with audiences when they latch onto a particular film. Or we can judge them as we judge the movie and try to argue why those stupid people have been suckered into thinking they are enjoying themselves. I guess there is a third choice… bowing to whatever is commercial… quote whoring on whatever level. And I often think the “I’m so much smarter than them” arguments are a response to those quote whore types… and completely forget that real people find real enjoyment in these films and there may be a reason that we have not yet considered.
I have no idea how anyone can stand the Twilight movies or the Sex & The City movie… but they don’t only pay to see these films… they LOVE them. I got it a little more on Mamma Mia!. And I still feel fine about saying these films SUCK without having to demean those who love them. Yes, me saying it will anger and/or embarrass some who love them. But that’s just the gig.
What is NOT the gig is arguing that Twilight is the end of cinematography or that Sex & The City was the end of feminism or that Mamma Mia! is the end of singing by male leads or, for that matter, Meryl Streep acting without mugging.
Heck… if you aren’t intellectually curious, that’s okay too. Maybe that’s your niche! If it is, please disregard all I just wrote. So sorry to get in the way of your malevolent fun.6