Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Why "Avatar" deserves to win; an argument

The first of a multi-part examination into the different facets of this year's hotly contested Academy Awards.

The below article does not necessarily reflect my opinion. Rather, it is an argument expressing a particular viewpoint. If I do this correctly, it will - over the next few weeks - illustrate why the concept of "Best Picture" is so heated this year.

Will Avatar revolutionize cinema? This is arguably the greatest question mark in the whole race, an exacting and precise statement that James Cameron and Fox are pretending exists in the past instead of future tense. Though he may toss around "game changer" and "revolutionary" dialogue at every step of the game, it is impossible not to at the VERY least admire what James Cameron did.

12 years is a long time to make a movie. It takes a lot of development, a lot of conception. It takes the persistence and the vision to create a world that people can believe would really exist, to embed in it the kind of anxieties and concerns that reverberate off the most populist epics of cinematic history. Indeed, Cameron has made Lawrence of Arabia for a new generation, the most wildly constructed and headlong epic since Lord of the Rings.

But aside from all new CGI technology, film editing practices, cinematographic devices, stages of conception design that allowed Cameron to deliver the movie he WANTED to deliver, it also worth considering, fleetingly, the theory of the film, which explains why it's a global phenomenon.

Avatar is, deep down, about watching movies. It is a deeply reflexive, deeply mechanical film that creates the illusion of representation. In order to become an avatar, Jake Sully must plug himself into a machine, focus his thoughts on seeing and experiencing this world in order to become immersed in it. He never IS a Na'vi, he just convinces himself he is one. In much the same way, the spectator - lodged in place as he/she is with their 3-D glasses - is encouraged to feel the immersive effects of James Cameron's bluntly artificial technology.

Further, the avatar body Jake inhabits lets him break free of his crippling paralysis. The audience, immobilely planted in their seats (albeit voluntarily), explores Pandora through James Cameron's camera, through Sully's eyes as much as their own. It is a PURELY ESCAPIST FILM in the best sense of the word, for it literally lets us transcend onto a different world. If we can readily accept that film is not reality but a representation of some imagined reality, then Avatar approaches the limit from the other way; it acknowledges immediately it is imagined, but strives to make us believe it is real.

Cameron has been criticized as a writer of limited dimensions, grand in concept but shallow in depth. Here, his characters exist in blankest slate to encourage us to identify with them on their most basic terms. His goal, and his success if we are to measure the film's staggering global box office, is in creating a global entertainment - the kind of movie that unites us all not in debate but in enamoration. Pandora, for all its bent on utopia, is a place to unite the world. Whether or not Cameron's deployment of pro-environment, anti-military rhetoric is ethically responsible for a filmmaker with otherworldly preoccupations is another question entirely.

Avatar is, like The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds, a conceptualization of war's effects on individual persons and society as a whole. It transplants the narrative of western history to space western, carrying with it a sense of weight and apology.

But if the Oscars are made to acknowledge innovation, to see film not only at its most pure but its most daring. If they exist to honor success in the industry, then there one film that stands head-and-shoulders above the competition. One film that defines 2009 as not only an event, but an experience - the experience of watching a movie and, for a few fleeting moments, feeling the thrill of cathartic release and sense of limitless possibility they afford us.

For Your Consideration - Avatar.

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