Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A few thoughts on Avatar, entertainment and art

With Avatar we are seeing a strange and disturbing development in filmmaking, one which began with the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster in the mid 70’s and which has reached a kind of zenith in the past few years. This development revolves around the nature of film as an art form and its relationship to the business that makes it possible. Films, to continue to exist, must make money. The question then becomes, what kind of films make the most money? This question, throughout the history of cinema, has always had something to do with aesthetic quality, with a sense of beauty and resonance. Even during the corporate environment of the studio era (especially the late 40’s to mid 50’s) Hollywood created some of the most exquisite works of art of the 20th century. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, the artistic quality and experimentation of a film was the primary factor in determining the success, financial or otherwise, of a film. But in the 70’s, perhaps beginning with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and then solidified with the release of films like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and (of course) George Lucas’ Star Wars Hollywood created the concept of the blockbuster, a film that was a cultural event of some sort, a spectacle the likes of which you had never seen before. Prior to this development films had been released slowly and tentatively and allowed to find their audience, allowed to resonate within the culture. After the success of films such as the ones mentioned above, Hollywood began to rely more and more on ad campaigns and appealing to the broadest audience possible in the shortest amount of time. The lowest common denominator had taken over from aesthetic integrity as that upon which a film’s success depended.

This is not to say that all Hollywood blockbusters have been terrible films. Some of them, or at least moments from them, have been quite wonderful. The scope of a story or the genre within which a film falls does not in any way predetermine its artistic quality. Yet as films developed in the 80’s, it became increasingly clearer that whatever artistic integrity or moments of beauty might appear in Hollywood blockbusters, they were incidental to the film as such. The main purpose was not art, but entertainment. The reason was simple: entertainment sells better than art.

At this point I would like to point out that the relationship between art and entertainment is an interesting one for reasons both philosophical and aesthetics. But let me make this one short statement: art is always entertaining, and much more, if one is patient, sensitive and open-minded. To be challenged, to be amazed, to think deeply about life and death, fear and joy is a great and powerful experience. Yet entertainment, by itself, is rarely ever art. To simply avoid boredom is just as easily accomplished through a video game, masturbation or a rollercoaster as it is through a film or a piece of music.

Avatar, with its enormous (frightening? surprising?) critical acclaim and astounding box-office returns heralds a new era, just as many of its champions have claimed. But it is not an era of exciting new filmmaking or wonderful new ways to create art but rather the absolute victory of entertainment over art within the filmmaking community and our culture at large. Avatar, with its bright colors, inane story and childish sentimentality represents the fact that our culture prefers kitsch to beauty. Even worse than the fact that the film is such absolute failure on all accounts as good filmmaking is the realization that most critics have not even felt the need to review it as art. After having read countless positive reviews of the film and heard many filmgoers speak highly of it I have yet to hear one person even attempt to make the claim that the film is beautiful, sensitive or meaningful nor do they feel the need to do so. Never mind the fact that 3D totally obliterates everything that makes up good cinematography, ruining framing, structure, lighting and composition. Never mind that the visuals look as ugly and pathetic as a Thomas Kincaid painting or that the story and characters are so one dimensional that they make Titanic seem like Tolstoy. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Imagine you’re at Disney Land.

What is frightening, therefore, about Avatar’s success, both critical and commercial, is the fact that it seems that the film heralds in the moment when films are primarily viewed, culturally, critically and popularly, as entertainment rather than art. It is as if fake emotions, pseudo-imagery and Hallmark-card romance have finally become acceptable substitutes for that which is real and meaningful, the subtle and the poetic. The terrible film The Dark Knight came close to achieving this travesty last year with countless critics and filmgoers heaping it with praise while being fully and blissfully aware of the fact that the film is nothing but a mediocre action film at best. This development has now reached its completion with Avatar, a terrible, pathetic film that might very well go on to win the best picture Oscar.

In years past film critics and sensitive filmgoers have railed against the dying of the light, fought to preserve the cultural awareness of film as a medium of art and beauty and not just of spectacle, gimmicky 3D and huge explosions, yet it seems that this fight has now been lost. The death of serious film criticism has obviously much to do with this development as does our continuing cultural decline where the appreciation of beauty is quickly disappearing. Dostoyevsky prophetically claimed that boredom would be one of the most apparent symptoms of the spiritual disease of nihilism in the 20th and 21st centuries, and the growing need for bigger, faster, louder entertainment and spectacle proves him right. Avatar is nothing if not big, fast and loud.

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