Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reviewing Avatar

[Spoilers for Avatar ahead.]

I'm not sure that this is necessarily a good practice[*], but I've fallen into the habit of reading some pretty detailed reviews of most of the TV programs and movies I watch (if you're interested, Alan Sepinwall's TV review blog is comprehensive and excellent--and, as a bonus, he's a Jersey guy). The crucial difference between reviews for movies and for the type of reviewing most often done for TV shows is that movie reviews generally are written for people who have not yet watched the film, while TV reviews usually are meant for already-watched programs. I go out of my way to not read movie reviews before I see the film in question, because not only would this exacerbate the second question enumerated in the footnote below but it would also cause me to see the movie itself with the perspective of a reviewer. Avatar proved to be a weird movie to me.

Describing a movie through writing that the reader hasn't seen is a somewhat futile exercise even under the most fortuitous circumstances. (This is what is so--intentionally--frustrating/cool about the dozens upon dozens of pages of descriptions of fictional movies in Infinite Jest.) But Avatar is more problematic in this regard than just about any other movie I can think of. As has been well-documented, Avatar's plot is almost completely derivative--the watcher has seen this plot before, and she knows how it ends. And yet the visual beauty of the film is so stunning that watching it becomes a very powerful movie experience. But if the main selling point is the visual aspect, what's there to say about it?

It's the literal job, of course, of a group of reviewers to find something interesting to say about movies that the reader hasn't seen, and you can judge for yourself how well they succeeded (hint--the good ones manage to say something more than "Looks pretty, recommended"). More promising is a detailed analysis meant for people who've already watched the film. But even here, the story-telling flaws are so obvious--Stephen Lang's colonel character is flat, with no believable motivation; the heavy-handed narration is often superfluous and distracting; etc., etc.--that they don't really warrant mentioning. There's still room for more creative excursions, using the film as a starting point. (Personally, I'm waiting for Bethlehem Shoals to elaborate on his theory that Avatar is an allegory for the NBA.) But these types of writings don't really fit in with the classic genre of movie reviews.

So what's left? I managed to hold a ~40 minute conversation centered around Avatar with the three friends I attended the movie with during our subway ride home. In retrospect, the most insightful points we made were hyper-focused analyses of small details. For example, we noticed that the repeated use of the phrase "I see you" really cheapened what could have been a meaningful line. The great lines of movie history--think "I drink your milkshake" in There Will Be Blood--are great because they're meaningful in the context of the moment. In Avatar, Cameron seems to favor the brute-force method: if the line isn't sufficiently expressive, repeat it throughout the movie until the audience realizes that it's supposed to be important. But is this a crucial point to note when discussing the film? Probably not--the movie is still well-worth seeing, and yet this specific story-telling failure pales in comparison with the more obvious deficiencies. In the end, this analysis might still be worthwhile even if it's not crucial, because the insight about "I see you" both deepens in a small way the my understanding of this film and is transferable to other films.

Sometimes I'm glad that I'm not a professional reviewer.

I have second thoughts about this type of habitual review reading because it elicits two main questions: 1. Is each episode of Community, for example, really so crucial that I need to read a review of it (the episode)? (Follow-up to question 1: Shouldn't I spend my time reading things more important and lasting than reviews of a decidedly mediocre sitcom?) 2. Am I becoming reliant on reviewers to think through my TV and movies for me? I think it's probably worthwhile, though, because reading well-written and thoughtful reviews provides a sort of crash-course in reading the movies and TV shows that the reviews review. I'm going to leave for another time the question of whether becoming a better TV watcher is a worthwhile goal.


Adina said...

I like this post.

Avi said...


Thanks. I also do.