I have quite a few weird habits, and one of them is that I love seeing movies by myself. As long as it’s not a comedy, for I like sharing the jokes with my friends, I love going to an early matinee of a film all by my lonesome. I get to have the “movie” experience, with all that visual stimulation, but then I have the rest of the day to work.
So today I went to the first showing of Avatar–IMAX and 3D, cause I’m fancy like that. And the movie? My most powerful impression is this: Avatar is totally manipulative, full of those sorts of emotional tableaux that fill Titanic, and there’s never a second when you don’t know exactly what will happen next.
That said, it’s gorgeous, nearly perfectly paced, and has some wonderful performances. It also has that element of katharsis that so many other James Cameron movies have, especially Titanic. I loathed that film. Or, I tried to. In reality, I refused to watch it for as long as I could, and then I cried my entire way through it. There are old people! Holding each other in bed as the ship goes down! They know they’re going to die, yet there they are holding one another!
Cameron knows what Hallmark learned from Aristotle: show us certain images (such as a little girl dancing with her father, then cut to that girl dancing with her dad at her wedding) and we will cry. Cameron understands the power of communal drama, of those visual cues that are nearly archetypal in their resonance, and he has no compunction about wrenching about our heartstrings. In fact, I would say that his genius is in how he pulls and pulls and pulls. It’s almost a form of chutzpah: he’s like Dylan, repeating “lay, lady, lay,” ad infinitum. Just when we think, “Holy shit, he can’t tell her to lay across his big brass bed one more time,” Dylan does. Eventually, we discover to our surprise that we want to lay across his damned bed.
Cameron does something similar. He finds very good actors and actresses, and he has them do and say the things we know deep in our bones they are going to say. We know because they’re the expected actions of villains, heroes, and heroines everywhere. We know because they’re what we would like to say, or do, or think, but usually we’re too cowardly, or petty, or busy.
Cameron gives us what we want, and–like a skilled lover–he knows that good things can only get better if they’re done with enthusiasm, confidence, and at least three times.
So I was hooked from the first few moments of the film. It doesn’t hurt that I’d sop Sam Worthington up with a biscuit, but Avatar is, quite simply, a really entertaining and worthy film. And I mean worthy in both senses of the word: it’s worthy because it’s obviously had buttloads of talent poured into it, from all sides, but also because its message is eminently worthy.
As most of you know, the point of Avatar, in a nutshell, is that humans are greedy, destructive, corrupt little monsters. You are told that from watching the previews, this is not a spoiler. After all, the point of watching a film by Cameron is not to try to figure out the surprise ending; it’s to plug yourself into the emotional ride he takes you on as he gives you the message you know is coming.
Aristotle thought this sort of emotional manipulation was important. He believed that drama could help purge humanity of emotions (both positive and negative), making them more productive, malleable members of the community. Even today, catharsis is still a concept discussed in dramatic theory, and any member of any audience will attest to the special power of viewing a production as a member of a large crowd. It’s the only reason movie theaters exist in the age of On Demand and Netflix; there’s something special about seeing a film in the company of lots of random strangers.
For me, that’s why I love seeing a film on my own. I love being a member of an audience (part of a crowd) and yet I am alone. I’m not holding anyone’s popcorn while they go to the bathroom, or checking to make sure my husband turned off his cell phone. I come in, I sit down, and before the film starts, I people watch.
Today, at the theater, I got an eyeful. It is only a few days after Christmas, after all, meaning that families who are used to the buffers of school or work have been with each other for a while. And they’re getting stabby. Parents were whining at children not to whine; children were moaning they’d rather be at home playing with their new toys.
One especially delightful gentleman–sensing the real meaning of an American Christmas–shouted from the aisle to a woman sitting in the center of the theater, “Are those seats taken?” When she responded, “Yes, they are,” he peered across the dozen or so children sitting between them and yelled:
It was wicked classy. So much so I gave him my best sarcastic clap, which was picked up by a smattering of people around me. He responded with the finger, so I gave him the British reversed peace sign. The kids next to me loved it, mostly because they appeared to think I just didn’t know how to give the finger. The oldest boy was about to correct me when his mother intervened.
Anyway, yeah, it was a rowdy crowd that went in. But going out? We were all quiet. We’d watched beautiful blue people (if bizarrely nippleless in the case of the women) fight and die for their planet, defending themselves against humans who had already destroyed their own home.
Filing past the overflowing bins full of popcorn and candy boxes, I knew that few of us were going to go home and reduce our carbon footprint. But ya know what? We all waited, patiently, to hand back our 3D glasses, despite the fact the kid kept dropping the bag. Nobody swore, or tried to push through. Then we waited in line for the bathroom, all of the ladies washing their hands reflected pleasant expressions in the mirror. And driving out of our rather stupidly-planned local theater, not a single person honked his or her horn. People even waved through those waiting to cut in, and those who were let in waved their hands in front of their rear-views, in thanks.
For a few moments, it felt almost like Christmas, the way it used to be when I was very young.
Until, on the main road, I was nearly sideswiped by someone who wasn’t looking and tried to pull in my lane. I’m no lip reader, but I could see that her response to the audacity of my existing in her path was to call me a bitch.
She should really go see a good movie.