Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Avatar: The Best Picture

We just got back from seeing Avatar 3D for the second time in three days.

Each time we had to drive thirty miles of frozen Vermont highway, there and back, to watch the film. We’re staying in Montpelier this week, and the 3D version was only playing in a little theater just outside of Burlington. But the trip was more than worthwhile. It was essential. Twenty four hours after the first viewing Annie and I both realized that all we really wanted to do was see it again. It draws you back. It’s like a drug, and it leaves you feeling stoned – shaky and dazzled and goofy and disoriented. For hours after the first time, I felt like a gong someone had hit with a huge fuzzy mallet, vibrating happily, rocking back and forth on my ropes, barely connected to the world around me. Navigating route 89 south with my hands unsteady and my knees trembling, I was probably as dangerous as a drunk. The thought occurred to both of us – could this be dangerous? Had this movie re-wired our brains? Would we ever be able to watch ordinary movies again? Would we ever be able to enjoy the actual world around us (historically admired for its three dimensions) again? It certainly seemed flat and lifeless as we tottered out of the theater. The distortion wasn’t quite as complete and overwhelming the second time – but it was close.

You watch this movie ecstatically immersed in its world; but as you go deeper and deeper into its field of images, they penetrate you, also. They irradiate you. All you want to do at the end is watch it more. You want to go back to Pandora, maybe buy a small plot of land on one of those floating mountains.

Annie said, “This is what it must have been like at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, when people saw the first talking picture.” Maybe. But I think this was even more revolutionary, even more spectacular. After the first vertiginous moments when you actually fight it, when you finally adjust to, or perhaps submit to or just embrace the pictures opening up in front of you, you experience this story so viscerally that it stays with you like dream, like an acid trip, like some long forgotten, hypnotically resurrected part of your own life or your ancestral past.

So, long story short, it’s worth the extra two bucks.

And I have to add here, it’s not just the technology.

James Cameron has a brute ferocious story telling genius that more subtle minds, telling more nuanced stories, can only envy. You can critique him for the familiar ‘tropes’ of his narrative – the Dances with Wolves moments, the Last Samurai echoes, the Ferngully clich├ęs – but all of that misses the point. The story may be familiar – all stories are familiar, Broken down far enough, there are only, like, seventeen of them, or something. In the end it’s all about the execution, and Cameron tells this familiar story with a rip-roaring high style, an image-drunk cinematic gusto and a heartfelt passion that you can’t deny or debunk. Is it liberal guilt propaganda? Yes! Do we guilty liberals need some great propaganda? Damn right we do. The corporate creeps who want to strip mine paradise for money represent everything I hate and the Nav’i who fight them to a standstill are my heroes. In this Dances with Wolves, the Indians win. The inhabitants of Pandora and the planet itself rally together to kick some serious robber baron capitalist ass, and it feels great.

But don’t get me wrong – Cameron loves his villains, and you can’t help loving them, too, Colonel Mike Qauritch, played by the incomparable Stephen Lang, is so single-minded, so absolutely sure of his mission, so willing to sacrifice everything for what he believes, that you wind up as drunk as he is with that crazy monomania. “It’s not over while I’m alive,” he croaks, launching into his final assault over the scattered corpses of his army and the flaming ruins of his high tech armada … and you sense that Cameron was writing himself in those lines. Only someone with that steely, relentless, demented self-certainty could have pulled this epic masterwork together, creating the technology on the fly, and ram-rodding platoons of dubious studio executives and skeptical technicians and baffled actors through the years of financial, industrial, scientific and aesthetic warfare required to realize this preposterous and unprecedented vision.

The Colonel is Cameron, and Cameron is the Terminator, cruel and unstoppable and if he had been unstoppable, he would have been stopped,

We can only be grateful that he wasn’t.

This movie should win Best Picture at the Academy Awards this year. It was made for that title “Best Picture”, it is quite simply the best picture, the absolutely best pictures … so much the best, so self-evidently the best, that it seems unfair to set this film in competition against its paltry two-dimensional adversaries.

And there’s another dimension I have celebrate here. Unlike most high-tech science fiction fan-boy geek movies – and this may be the ultimate example of that genre – Avatar has heart. It’s a passionate love story, acted with compelling fervor by Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington – both of whom acted in mediocre, now bizzarely dated, science fiction films by lesser directors recently. The directors of Terminator Salvation and Star Trek must be stunned, leveled, reeling right now at this majestic tale of discovery and rebirth. And they should be. They’ve just been rendered obsolete.

Avatar is an emotional tsunami that sweeps away anyone not absolutely barricaded against it, anyone who can sit back, adjust those 3D glasses and let the storm surge take them. This movie stuns hardened cynics to tears and leaves jaded film buffs babbling. This is film history happening right in front of us and all you can do is bow down, get your sea-legs and watch it again.

That’s what we did. And it was even better the second time.

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