Sunday, December 20, 2009
A Brick Wall: Thoughts on the Avatar dialogue
In the 1960 classic chiller Village of the Damned George Sanders is finally able to rid the village of Midwich from the menacing mind-reading children by focusing his mind on a brick wall, the better to conceal that he has carried a bomb into the schoolhouse. "A brick wall," he keeps repeating to himself, "a brick wall." Lately with all the Avatar talk going on around town, and by town I mean the tubes, I've been thinking of that scene again. Why? Because, in a strange phenomenon that has developed, it seems much of the talk isn't just about the movie but about how many people, and who, pre-judged the movie before they saw it, as if they should have blocked their minds from any thoughts on the film and concentrated instead on a brick wall. That they didn't do this is apparently of great ethical concern. Allow me a brief lapse of decorum so that I may say boldly, "Who gives a fuck?!"
I pre-judge movies all the time. And food. And books. And events, parties, gatherings, what have you. No matter what it is or may be I have this annoying habit of actually giving thought to something before I engage in it. Goddamn meddlesome big human brain! And if you're a member of the human species, and I can only conclude definitively that you are if you have the ability to read this, you do too. It's called the cognitive process. Thinking. You, me, everyone - We do it all the time. So why is it such a sin to suddenly do it with Avatar? From what I gather, the sin has been to, gasp, make public one's pre-judgments. Again, who gives a fuck?
The problem with pre-judging something surfaces only if you allow your pre-judgment to trump your actual experience. Outside of stubborn children I have rarely encountered this in real life. And so the pre-judgments simply serve as a jumping off point for talking about the movie and what you think it's going to be like. And what's wrong with that? Going into a movie I always have expectations one way or the other. Always. Examples? Okay, I'll give you some examples:
Return of the Jedi: Oh boy! Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Having seen the first two Star Wars movies upon their respective releases and liking the second, The Empire Strikes Back, even better than the first I was freaking psyched for the third and final installment! It was guaranteed I would love it and I liked the series so much I knew I'd love it no matter what. Ahem. I was underwhelmed. Substantially. For years I was miffed that that was how it ended, until The Phantom Menace came along and made it look like Citizen Kane. Speaking of which...
Citizen Kane: That's right, you read that correctly, Citizen Kane. Like most, my ciniphelia started at an early age and like all the 40-ups out there I had no cable or video stores with which to feed my burgeoning fanaticism and so relied on film books. Well, let me tell you, by the time I finally had the opportunity to see Citizen Kane I was sure - Absolutely sure! - I would be unimpressed. I'd read too much about it, way too much and it couldn't all be true. I was prepared to be underwhelmed and dejected. Boy was I wrong! I immediately fell in love and Orson Welles and all his works, and life, have been a fascination of mine ever since.
Catch-22 and Fail Safe: I think of these movies together because both suffered from being compared to another film released around the same time that was considered vastly superior. In the case of Catch-22 it was M.A.S.H and in the case of Fail Safe it was Dr. Strangelove. I saw both of the "lesser" films years later and was prepared to be slightly bored by both. Not only was I wrong and, in fact, greatly enjoyed both films but in the case of Catch-22 I think it has dated far better than M.A.S.H.
Okay, I've got about a million more examples like those but you get the point. I've never said to myself, "Boy, I'm probably going to hate this," and then saw said film, loved it, and said, "I've got to hide the fact that I loved it to save face. I'll pretend to everyone that I really hated it!" Nor have I ever let a prejudgement affect my considered opinion of a film (or restaurant or party or whatever) for very long. Perhaps for the first few minutes but then the brain takes over and you know if something is good or bad, no matter what you thought going in.
So there you have it. Can we stop knocking folks for pre-judging Avatar please? Anticipation, forming advance opinions, sharing them with other cinephiles - it's all a part of the process, not a shameful sin. Now, don't get me wrong, I understand when things go too far and it's usually around this point: "I hate that movie and I have no intention of seeing it!" Well then you can't hate it can you? I mean, if you're never going to see it how can you hate it? And if you're going to refuse to see it then you probably should refrain from discussing it with others who have. That I understand. But that isn't what's happening. The complaints are about reactions the film received in the months leading up to its release. And there I don't quite get the problem. If you're not into the pre-release gossip (and as anyone who reads Cinema Styles knows, I am not) don't talk about it. If others are, don't worry about it. Let them discuss how bad or good they think it's going to be if that's they're bag of fun. Really. It's okay.
And no, I haven't seen Avatar yet but I will tell you that I did (of course!) pre-judge it. I saw the trailer a couple of months back and thought, "My God, that looks like one of the worst things in the history of the human experience." Now it's out and I've read many good reviews and many bad ones. When I see it I will either love it, like it, be indifferent to it or hate it. And whichever of those it turns out to be it will have nothing to do with my reaction to watching the trailer and everything to do with my actual experience in the theater. And if you don't believe me just go ask Dennis Cozzalio. Read this piece and its paragraphs concerning Speed Racer. He was convinced it would be a dreadful dud going in. A few months later it ended up topping his list for the best of the year. Why? Because he's not a child and no matter what his pre-judgments were going in he went with his actual experience in the end(and even shared his pre-judgments with us). It's only human. The only problem is when the pre-judgment trumps the experience because then we've moved into the area of dishonesty and that's an area into which no cinephile should ever venture.