So, Avatar has made a million zillion bucks (last I heard it’s over a billion now) proving that James Cameron is welcome to go into a cave for years any damn time he likes. It’s no flawless gem, but a lot of people are watching it, and that has lead to a lot of interesting theories about why this is so. Me, I’ve got a theory, and it’s a pretty simple one.
It’s a really, really good movie.
Now, before you jump to your feet and call out your favorite flaw, let me unpack that a little. I was listening to NPR last night as they were talking about the latest foreign film to catch the critical eye, a German film called The White Ribbon. Now, I don’t mean to detract from this film – I’m sure it’s great and I’ll probably try to see it – so take this with a grain of salt. I was hearing about this movie, from the news and from the director, and as he described the things that seemed to grab them (the ending doesn’t resolve the mystery, the narrator is unreliable, information is hidden from the viewer) I was struck by the thought “Why don’t you just write a book?”
My thinking was pretty simple. However cleverly done in a film, these ideas are well used ones in literature, and when they’re done in a book they’re not messing with your audience. Using them in a movie is much more expensive, and is a bit of a slap to the face of the implicit contract. And that got me thinking about what movies really are as compared to other media.
The big ones I zeroed in on are that movies are visual, auditory, and they are of limited scope. There’s also a more subtle fourth in that movies anticipate having all of our attention, as they’re designed for the theatre, and this makes for some subtle differences between made for TV Movies (which include commercial breaks in their pacing) and films.
And within those bounds, Avatar excels. Consider: If Avatar were a TV show, the flatness of the characters would wear things down over time. If it were a novel, the predictability of the story would kill it dead. If it were a comic book the blue chicks boobs would be WAY too small. If it were a play, the weakness of the dialog would be laid bare.
But its none of those things. It’s a movie.
This is a hard thing for me to get my head around as a media saavy guy. I consume a lot of TV, books, comics and anything else I can find. One of the joy sof this is the ability to freely take lessons and ideas from one medium and transfer them over to another, so they’re one great wash. But it makes me want the best of everything: I want the stories of literature and the characters of great TV combined with the visuals of film and the dialog of plays.
Usually, this is a good thing. It raises standards, challenges me and challenges the material I enjoy. Worse, this is complicated further by the fact that some of the bleed is legitimate. A movie should have a good story and good dialog. But are those things as important in a movie as they are in other media?
The money says otherwise. And I’m wondering if maybe the money knows what its talking about.
So even if you think Avatar’s a shitburger served up to a populace of sheep, think about the question this raises: what are RPGs good at?
1 – Don’t get me wrong, there is value in shaking up the contract, and it’s been done well, but it steps outside of the area where film excels, and depends on the genius of the director or cast. To pull it off successfully requires enough brilliance that it guarantees the quality of the finished product, but pulling it off badly is really easy.