Talking Movies

March 11, 2010

Not Adjusted for Avatar

Following on from the last entry on the malign influence of the sensational reporting of box-office returns not adjusted for inflation, we look at Avatar – its slow-burn success, broad brushstrokes approach in the history of cinema, and its possible heralding of the future.

Avatar has done one unquestionably positive thing – it has firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends. It started slow, not breaking any records as is now obligatory, and was about to be dismissed as a failure for that, when its takings didn’t fall off a cliff after the opening weekend but instead remained constant and then kept making money at the same level week after week. It has since made money for longer than nearly any other film in recent memory. However you can rest assured that this will not be enough to change the ways of the media, which have been reporting Shutter Island as the most successful opening weekend of Scorsese’s career, and then also trumpeted Tim Burton’s Alice fiasco as the biggest opening ever for a 3-D film… Deep sigh.

Marketing can generate enough buzz to generate the opening box-office needed for a lazy headline. Conversely Avatar did not make enough money on opening for a lazy headline and so the focus was, pleasingly, thrown on to its craftsmanship – or lack of it. Perhaps because he was painfully aware of how much money he’d been given for his dream project Cameron opted for the broadest brush-strokes possible to generate maximum return, and it worked so he’s a genius to Hollywood, whereas if it hadn’t worked they’d be more exercised about the lazy derivativeness of his story even if his basic skills at manipulating emotions work. But then isn’t emotional manipulation the core of cinema? Graham Greene said that cinema was a series of images arranged in a certain order to generate a particular emotional effect, Stephen King wrote that American cinema was idiotic as far as communicating ideas went but that for sheer emotional impact its use of imagery was masterful, and Hitchcock’s explanation of the power of cross-cutting in ‘pure cinema’ explicitly prioritises using images to manipulate an audience’s response on an emotional level. I think there’s more to be said about Avatar and so, once I finally figure out what my point is, I’ll be returning to it again in coming weeks. But here, let’s note that its broad brushstrokes approach has a precedent in past stellar successes.

Peter Biskind’s grand narrative (mentioned last time) which prioritised the licentious New Hollywood of the 1970s over the Golden Age of Hollywood seems to assume that there is something fundamentally compromising about reaching a large audience. One would think that an artist would want to reach as large an audience as possible but Biskind’s ideology insists that an artist loses their integrity if they make a film suitable for all rather than narrowing the size of their audience, so that, for instance, Christopher Nolan jettisoning sex and language to get a PG-13 for The Dark Knight compared to an R for Insomnia represents self-censorship and a cheapening of his talent. I would argue that helming a blockbuster in such a way as to make it distinctively a Nolan film is more challenging and it is precisely the ingenuity exercised in the over-coming of arbitrarily imposed limitations that makes it a greater artistic success than the rather ordinary thriller for adults with which he paid his studio dues. It could be argued that the same difficulty involved in working with the Hays Code was responsible for the Golden Age, and it ties in with Stravinsky’s dictum that true artistic creativity needs rules and restrictions, which he frequently imposed on himself arbitrarily to replace the lost discipline of classical tonality, not total freedom. There will be another article in the coming weeks about the most successful films of all time (adjusted for inflation) but it is dominated by films everyone could enjoy. It’s easy to make your friends laugh, it’s harder to make strangers laugh, and Biskind’s idols largely fall into the first category of connecting with a small audience – and then sneering at more popular works as being artistically compromised.

Avatar aims at the widest possible audience but its archetypal story-structure is the zenith of a recent trend towards deeply predictable films – even a charmer like Whip It! has audibly whirring plot mechanics in its second act before unexpectedly subverting expectations. That refreshing unpredictability is unnecessary if people can write each scene in a three-act structure with a spark so that you’re too captivated by the content to notice the scaffolding but of late, especially in rom-coms, films seem less to be written than generated by software programs. Arguably cinema attendances are at historic lows because of boredom at this formulaic approach. Hollywood thinks the solution to declining interest in cinema is to trumpet 3-D technology and increase ticket prices but wouldn’t the sensible solution be to make better films? When I saw the trailer for Alice in Wonderland I thought “That looks pretty stupid”, but when I saw the trailer in 3-D I thought “That looks really stupid”. We need to ruthlessly insist that the box-office gross of Avatar be discounted for inflation and its 3-D mark-up because chances are it’s not even dented the All Time Top 10 (adjusted realistically). And if that’s the case then we need to ask hard questions about what Hollywood is doing so wrong at this present moment to have led to such a historic disconnect with audiences, and the answers will not be stories we could write ourselves from seeing the trailers, presented in gimmicky 3-D.

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4 Comments »

  1. I didn’t think avatar was all that predictable. Living in a tree? Floating mountains?

    Comment by Gareth — March 11, 2010 @ 7:31 pm | Reply

    • Sir, I was referring to the fact that the story structure is almost identical to Pocahontas…

      Comment by fergalcasey — March 15, 2010 @ 4:28 pm | Reply

  2. […] of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write […]

    Pingback by On Not Live-blogging the Oscars « Talking Movies — February 25, 2011 @ 6:14 pm | Reply

  3. […] of the Oscars after the fact as a tangent to my sequence of articles on media manipulation, critical misperception and popular reception of cinematic successes. I just forgot to actually write […]

    Pingback by On Not Live-blogging the Oscars | Talking Movies — March 9, 2018 @ 7:08 pm | Reply


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