The Fallacy of Minutiae

Avatar

What’s your premise?

That’s the question I present to critics who have not really embraced Avatar, the new film by James Cameron.

First off, I have to say I saw this film in 2D before seeing it in 3D. And whatever flaws the film has in 3D are magnified by 2D. That is one of the ironies of 3D filmmaking. Stephanie Zacharek, a film critic at Salon.com who I just love to hate in a previous blog entry, calls 3D filmmaking “hyperrealistic.” And though this is an incorrect usage of that term, we are indeed invited to experience the virtual world of an alien planet called Pandora.

Having seen the film in 2D first meant that I saw the film without being totally immersed in the 3D world. And I must say under that condition the film felt lacking. It wasn’t a bad movie, but it didn’t soar. It’s probably like hearing an awesome stereo recording in mono or watching a colorful film in black and white. In other words, the medium is the message.

And that’s what truly bothers me with Zacharek’s review. She writes disdainfully, “In ‘Avatar,’ the technology is everything.”

Well, of course, it is. Big budget filmmaking is to my knowledge the most technology-centric form of entertainment ever devised by man. It requires literally hundreds of technicians, huge production companies, huge budgets over years and years at a time to produce 2 hours worth of story. And this is true even of movies that are not filled with special effects. The lie that cinema told was that film was the result of a director’s effort and can be judged therefore as if he was the author of a novel. In the rare instances where films do get made successfully on shoestring budgets that look and feel amazing, it is precisely because those filmmakers took the time to master the limited technology they had to produce something grand.

To suggest that James Cameron’s mastery of filmmaking technology is a detriment to filmmaking is ignorant.

People have already compared Avatar to Star Wars, King Kong, The Wizard of Oz, etc. I want to compare it to The Jazz Singer, which ushered in full-length popular sound films that overtook silent ones. The Jazz Singer wasn’t so much a great movie (it was really kinda clunky) as much as it was a sensation that signaled a new era for filmmaking. It’s the comparison I want to make, because almost regardless of how good the script and dialogue for Avatar is, this movie is making film history.

So what’s your premise? This is Zacharek’s premise in a nutshell:

“You can make dumb dialogue work if you’re serving up a classic Saturday matinee-style entertainment. But if you’re out to change the face of filmmaking, you have to work much harder at a lot of the things Cameron just shrugs off. You need well-rounded characters, and a great story that, even if it follows a familiar template, illuminates some angle of human experience in a fresh way.”

It’s a ridiculous premise that a classic Saturday matinee-style entertainment can’t possibly change the face of filmmaking. I suppose Star Wars or King Kong were not made to appeal to mass audiences? Or what about Raiders of the Lost Ark, a Steven Spielberg masterpiece, which takes as its template the Saturday matinee-style?

And yes, Avatar does illuminate the human experience in a fresh way, in all the ways that a certain type of film critic would not acknowledge.

In other words, Zacharek’s premise suffers from the Fallacy of Minutiae. The Fallacy of Minutiae is the unsupported belief that all beauty in film rests upon tiny nuances in filmmaking art. It is what many critics rely upon to, in a way, outsmart the reader by noticing a trivial or obscure detail that will not have been noticed by anyone else. And it works very well in movies which demand that kind of intense reading, i.e. avant-garde films, arthouse films, films that are made non-commercially.

What’s astonishing is almost how these minutiae-based critics are so appalled that someone could possibly want to make movies for profit. They’re shocked, shocked to find plot cliches and bad nail-on-the-head dialogue. I’m not saying that bad dialogue or plot cliches are ever truly inexcusable, but to use that as the sole basis of judging the quality of a movie is missing the bigger picture.

And when I say bigger picture I mean much bigger. The themes of the film are indeed about the human experience and I did find them fresh. One of the central conflicts I’m particularly drawn to is that of knowledge versus instinct. In almost all big budget movies, we are told the lie that smart people also happen to be amazing martial artists and have an endless resourcesfulness in compromising situations. The prototype here is James Bond/Batman, where almost no one is truly a match for his brains and brawn. Well, most people never get to develop themselves as fully as James Bond or Batman.

In Avatar, we see a true dichotomy between the knowledgeable academics and the instinct of the military folks. The academics are seen as an insular community where their expertise gives them a lofty position to meet with the aliens. However, they don’t have the openness to experiencing wild aboriginal life since their training has been mainly with books and labs. The military folks are seen as muscular extroverts who speak easily and bluntly in shorthand and embrace danger and pushing the limits and openness to the present. However, they are not sensitive to ideas that take time and knowledge to comprehend.

Well, the academic vs. instinct angle may not be fresh, but for a big budget action movie it certainly is not something seen everyday. And despite its trite qualities, I actually enjoyed the parallels to the modern war on terror. It’s very difficult to get people to see “the other side” and to get them to root for the aliens against the humans. Cameron has done that with this story.

And as a critic of minutiae, Zacharek clings to these talking points as her critical safety nets…the color of the funnel-like mushrooms on Pandora, the traces of Zoe Saldana’s gracefulness from the movie Center Stage, the chain-smoking scientist, the name of the Macguffin “unobtanium.” All fine valid points. But in each of these cases, she is looking at the finger pointing at the moon and not the moon itself. If she was seeing the moon, she would have noticed something amazing happening, a 3D movie that truly honors the medium unlike none before.

And with that, have a Happy New Year…even you too Stephanie!

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