Avatar smackdown!

I rarely take direct exception to anything my friend Jonah Lehrer writes, and I fully recognize he’s just quick-riffing on a Hollywood movie. But if I understand his Avatar post correctly, my good man Jonah is arguing, at least in a minddump-at-the-bar sort of way, that James Cameron’s latest movie is a pretty full neuro-aesthetico-art-critico realization of film’s medium. His is a fun post, and worthwhile just to see Cameron crammed onto the same page, with appropriate apologies, with Clement Greenburg, Clint Eastwood, and Jorge Luis Borges. But I must differ. In Avatar, which I saw last night, Cameron has not deftly realized the potential of his medium; he has deftly exploited its crudest powers of visual seduction while leaving its full potential untapped.

Every art [writes Jonah, channeling Clement Greenberg] is defined by its medium. … And I think Cameron has deftly realized the potential of his medium, which is film.

But what’s the essence of the filmic medium? (Film geeks, commence to argue. The of you, read on.) The crudest aspect of a medium is not necessarily its most important or elemental. Film gives a rich sense of visual reality; add a bit of story (no one would have sat through a random 150-minute tour of that planet), and you can get people to sit back and unthinkingly go with the story. The visual immersion is unique to film, perhaps, but the shutting down of the prefrontal cortex surely isn’t — you’d surely get the same thing if you scanned people who were listening with eyes closed to a good yarn.

So perhaps Cameron has a) fully immersed us visually and b) seduced us into shutting off our PFCs (as love has been found to do in other studies). But by doing so he has hardly fully realized film’s potential. For if he has, how do we explain the far more powerful and profound effects of movies that are every bit as immersive visually while being far more moving emotionally and intellectually — movies that grip you even more thoroughly than Avatar does while you’re watching them, but leave you moved and thinking for days afterwards?
Three such movies jump readily to mind: The Ice Storm; The Incredible Lightness of Being; and The Hours. (Sorry about this last one, Jonah, I know it border on cheating to bring our beloved Woolf into the mix.) Toss in The Godfather too if you’d like. All of these movies are as immersive visually as Avatar is; all three evoke as completely a foreign world (I’d argue Cameron’s imagined world is no more original or imaginative than the others); and all three make you utterly forget your own life — for me, anyway, far more completely than Avatar did. But all three left me far more deeply moved afterwards than Avatar did — deeply shaken, in some cases, and thinking for days afterward.
Why? Because at some level these movies, even while immersing us so completely, challenge rather than indulge our existing systems and tangles of ideas and emotions. They didn’t make us self-conscious or plan or think-consciously-in-a-PFC-sort-of-way; but they do engage in a richer way (much as good books do) the places in our heads where ideas and emotions meet. Their engagement is rich whether or not you’re familiar with some of the ideas and history they draw on directly (political history in Lightness, Mrs. Dalloway and the life of V. Woolf in The Hours) — but even richer to the extent you are familiar with some of that material. I need simply to recall them, even years later, to feel some of the complex, still-dynamic interplay of emotion and ideas they explore and evoke. Avatar will mean very little to me … oh, by lunchtime.
These movies draw on these various ideas and sources and emotions using the same basic tools that Cameroin uses, a mix of visual, filmic, and storytelling conventions and structures. They are every bit as filmic as his, and rely no more heavily than Cameron does on “extra-filmic” elements (that is, those that Greenberg — whom I actually think was wrong about painting’s limitations, though I’m all with you on Borges and Clint — would consider out-of-medium). But they are a far more complete realization of the medium. For me, anyway, simply remembering them makes Avatar seem not a deft realization of film, but one that, however beautiful and immersive, is impoverished.
If I had more time I’d find a way to get Borges, Woolf, Eisenstein, and Godard into this. But alas, I must work!

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