First, the good news.
A thousand hours ago, before Avatar won its Golden Globes, when the picture was only a hit-to-be, people had already begun to speak in wild, sweeping terms about the revolutionary effect it was destined to have on the future of Hollywood film making. In those early weeks, we all reveled in the thrilling swell of communal enthusiasm that seemed to come from everywhere. Avatar was necessary viewing.
At first, I was one of the heretics. I didn’t want to see what looked like an action adventure starring the Las Vegas contingent of Blue Man Group. But that was then.
I see now that Avatar represents the next step in a tradition of immersion cinema that began all the way back in 1903, with Edwin S. Porter’s film, The Great Train Robbery. It’s a famous story: some who saw the movie when it first screened in cramped Nickelodeons, were so overcome by the now-famous shot of the outlaw pointing his gun directly into the camera, that they ran screaming from the theater. Despite their rationality, they believed. They were there.
Now a similar phenomenon is in effect. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, Avatar is the closest we have ever come to leaving the planet. Pandora’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear to explain to us the blooming patterns of this flora or that fauna.
Okay, so that’s out of the way. Here comes the “However.”
However magnificent, however deserving of all the accolades that have come (and will continue to come) its way, I can’t help but see the ascension of Avatar as a poignant reminder of how far populist American film has drifted from our reality. As children of the modern age, we know there are all kinds of reality, but the one I’m talking about is the kitchen sink reality, the quotidian reality.
You woke up this morning. You made coffee. You showered. You worried about your job, and about the events of last night. Did you offend him? Did you not reach for the check fast enough? You wonder about the events up ahead. Do I really want to see her tonight? Or would I enjoy a burger on my own? This is your life. It may be dull, but when it’s turned into great cinema, it can be revelatory; Avatar, regardless of its merits, will never be. There is no CGI equivalent for gravitas.
To be fair, there is room enough for both escapist and naturalist cinemas to coexist. But I fear they won’t. With Avatar‘s Golden Globe and likely Oscar wins, whatever shred of verisimilitude was left in mainstream American movies will likely be lost.
I don’t mean to suggest there was ever a time when the Hollywood machine produced a great realism in the manner of the post-war Italians. In fact, far from it: if there is anything about Hollywood that we have loved, perhaps above all else, in the hundred years since its inception, it’s the air of fantasy that has alighted upon its greatest pictures and people. Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Clint Eastwood are in their own way Avatars — projections, that is, of our ideal selves — but as human Avatars, they addressed our human reality in direct, not allegorical terms. With an eye on style and a hand on behavior, they told the story of our lives and dreams, addressing how we live or want to live with keen analytical and behavioral insight. These actors, their directors, and the writers who gave them their material, used the world to show the world.
These Golden Globes have proven that the Na’vi and the Meryls can coexist peacefully in Hollywood, just as The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington did in 1939, seventy years ago. But now that Cameron has come and changed everything, I’ve begun to worry less about the extinction of the Na’vi and more about the extinction of us.