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.
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