Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Best Picture Race (to the Bottom)

In his recent piece about the new age of 3D, Anthony Lane wrote that the effects are now a seamless given that audiences don’t really have to think about: “People have plunged into Avatar like vacationers lining up for the high board of a pool, and when they emerge nearly three hours later, removing their glasses and rubbing the bridge of their noses, the question that they want to thrash out is whether the pool was a swamp of liberal eco-mush or a trough of hot-blooded American rampage.”

Oh, but it’s both. It is so both. In fact, Avatar is as good an argument as any for why I value moderation. On the one hand, it’s not enough that the Na’vi have a deep respect for nature; no, they have to mystically communicate with horses (and pterodactyls) through their ponytails and be able to hear the voices of their ancestors in a special forest and be biologically connected to trees. The whole set-up makes the silliest school of ’60s New Age Utopians look like the Heritage Foundation.

On the other side, yes, the military is made out to be evil to a degree that should insult the intelligence of Noam Chomsky, but this is not to say Avatar is a peace-loving movie. This is James Cameron we’re talking about. The U.S. soldier who infiltrates the Na’vi only to embrace their way of life and become one of them teaches them that eventually one has to fight back with machine guns blazing. Preferably, machine guns fired from the backs of flying dinosaurs. The whole thing builds to an orgy of violence on both sides. The movie makes it clear who you should be rooting for, but it doesn’t question the methods of competition. It manages to be both soft-headed and iron-fisted.

So, smug liberals and braying conservatives can both love this movie. That doesn’t matter so much to me, because the story is as dumb as the day is long. What did astonish me was just how immersive the experience was. No, I didn’t feel like one of those people who passed out in early screenings because it all seemed “so real” or one of the people who suffered feelings of depression in the days after seeing the movie because they “missed” the Na’vi world. (Yes, that’s really been reported.) But I was amazed by how coherent the environment was, and by the visual depth of it. When Avatar is spending time in the human environment (military airships, etc.) it’s just stunningly bad. But when it’s in the Na’vi world, it’s bad and stunning. Purely as an Epcot ride, I felt I got my money’s worth. And because the movie was most interested in showing off its effects (its only real strength), it was several times more enjoyable than the awful 85%-insufferable-quiet-period-piece Titanic.

I saw Avatar with one of my funniest friends, so I knew post-viewing discussion would be a great time. It was. He liked it more than I did, but he liked the same things about it that I did. As he put it, “It’s like Harry Potter; it’s written at a 5th-grade level, but it affects people, and that counts for something.” That’s true. And as long as we’re defining “affects” a certain way (we didn’t parse it), I agree. He also said of the unfathomably accelerating world of FX, “Remember Terminator 2, when it was a big deal that the guy was silver and he squirmed around and squelched about?”

I also saw The Hurt Locker a few nights ago. It’s a very well made movie with a pretty big identity crisis at its core. Critics have rightly noted that it doesn’t take an overt political stance. But it still, inevitably, takes a stance toward its characters, and the final scene leaves you wondering if you haven’t just finished watching a particularly artful heavy metal video. The movie consists of high-tension suspense scenes strung together. Each one works pretty well. I’m not sure they add up to all that much, though. And for every impressively crafted scene -- I’m thinking particularly of a long stand-off in the desert that includes a cameo by Ralph Fiennes -- there’s a hackneyed element that feels lifted from much more predictable Hollywood fare.

I’ve said it’s been a weak year for movies, and having now seen six of the Best Picture nominees, I stand by that. The Hurt Locker is a professional movie. I liked watching it. But I don’t think it’s worthy of Best Picture. I thought Up in the Air was pretty unremarkable, even disappointing, and that opinion strengthens the more I consider it. District 9 had plenty of fun conventional popcorn pleasures, but it also deeply annoyed me in some ways. The only two movies nominated that I have anything resembling deep and lasting affection for were Up and A Serious Man, but then I’m a Pixar and Coens softy, and I don’t believe I inhabit a planet on which either one will win this time around.

I suppose I'll be rooting for Hurt Locker to win, if only because that means Kathryn Bigelow will beat out the loathsome Cameron. (Though, how great can she be? She once married Cameron. Unlike being James Cameron, that requires a choice.) The fact is, in a down year, I won’t mind so much if Avatar takes it. Sure, it’s bad, but there have been even worse winners. Forrest Gump and Titanic, to name two.

Enjoy the show, everybody.


Blogger Johannes said...

This post made my night.

10:02 PM  
Anonymous Josh said...

You said you saw six of the nominees - does that mean you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds? (My pick if I had to pick)

12:54 PM  

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