Wednesday, January 6, 2010

James Cameron is my Master Now

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.[1] 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.


  1. I circled the topic with an older post about story and Avatar:

    So I won't rehash that here.

    One thing I have to say about Avatar is, while it's ultimately a little shallow, it still strives to Talk About Things, even if it does so in a simplistic way. That's more than a lot of Big Budget Cockbusters do.

    Avatar is a film with lots of discussion -- discussion about theme, hype, sexism, racism, Westernism, story, technology. Again, I'm not saying a lot of this is particularly deep, but it's there in a light, "primer" fashion.

    -- c.

  2. @chuck I think that highlights it nicely. A "primer" level of issue exploration would fall short in a novel, but for a movie, it's maybe not such a bad thing. I find myself imagining a sort of chart of all the elements that make up a story, weighted by media. The bar for "real issues" in movies is small, but present, and I feel like Cameron fills it up to the brim. It does not *push* but it might be rightsized.

  3. I think you hit the nail on the head. It's easy to critique the simplistic story, the ludicrous portrayal of the Nav'i (who are basically Americans, culturally speaking) and some of the jarring dialogue. But who cares? The whole thing was a blast and special effects aside, you get caught up in it and care what happens. When they chop down the tree, man that freaked me out both times I saw it.

    I also heard the suggestion that the story and dialogue was kept deliberately broad and simple because they are targetting a world audience now.

  4. Though, I'll add again: if the movie went an extra mile on character and dialogue (maybe not so much story?), then it would've been a classic as opposed to a "great, fun film."

    -- c.

  5. I have to wonder if the story wasn't deliberately stark to help push the audience toward the other side of the uncanny valley. Basically, make the story so familiar that we can't help but sympathize with the characters... Kind of a way of starting to train audiences to accept CG characters more naturally.

  6. Chris --

    Interesting idea. Might be something there.

    I suspect it's more that Cameron had this story in his mind since he was a young boy.

    Young boys have simplistic stories, and I think he held the idea aloft and didn't really change much of the essential flow.

    Just my guess.

    -- c.

  7. Haven't seen Avatar yet.

    I just tend to regard James Cameron as that guy who uses simple story (almost at a story-for-kids level of simple) as the scaffolding on which he makes his point about what movies *can* and *should* be doing technologically for the next ten years.

    I hear that a character in Avatar says "You're not in Kansas any more." Some folks have called that an unoriginal line, but they're missing the point that it coincides with a moment in cinema that so many people remember: when the black and white of Wizard of Oz gave way to color. That's why the line's in the story.

  8. Avatar's "simplicity" made it easy to talk to my 9-year-old son about the core issue... the mighty taking something from the indigenous because "they're savages" and "we can". There weren't layers of complication that muddled the issue.

    The story wasn't new. It was predictable. The characters were stereotypes. The science was implausible. But all of that is okay... it worked.

    Yeah, the visuals carried a lot of weight. But it wasn't all spectacle... it was a meaningful story, and people made meaningful choices, even if they were predictable to those who have heard this story before.

    I think you can take this to the RPG... we're all retelling some story or another. High expectations ("my RPG should be like BSG!") can be detrimental.

  9. I've been struggling with the idea of late of the untellable story in an RPG. There are many great stories out there, and for a long time in games the idea of the GM's ultimate story was held up as this grand ideal, a holy grail if you will. However, the unladen swallow appears when you do this because it really can be a cheap excuse to dominate the session and railroad the game.

    One of my favorite books in William Gibson's Neuromancer. I've read it four times, I wrote a screenplay for it as a college project... I've also tried to create games around it. The book, like so many others, achieves a measure of it's greatness in the characters' interactions with one another, and achieving that result in a game setting is hard as hell (for me anyway).

    By applying Avatar to a game, I say that you as the GM take a simple story with easy themes and use that to let the players explore it to the depth that they are comfortable with. Let the story tell itself.

    It's not about the director's grand vision, but the experience of those participating.

  10. I truly enjoyed Avatar as well. /agree on pretty much everything said above.

    I think RPGs are about group experiences, and less about the audience (or the reader) or the main character, or the GM (director or author).

    More along the lines of experiencing a trip or combat or an event together than more passive media.

    Just my quick thoughts.

  11. Things RPGs do better than other media:

    Thing the First: Worldbuilding. In most other media the world exists simply to tell the story. RPGs require that you fill in the gaps in order to create a workable world. This need not happen initially in a great orgy of gamemaster creation; it is just as effective as a trail of history as the players move through the game world and develop the skeletal premises presented by the gamemaster. Which is why RPGs can be invaluable in developing a franchise's IP (eg Star Wars and Star Trek, where the game materials were used as writer's references).

    Thing the Second: Community. Appreciation of an RPG is a communal thing. Whist a community may be involved in the production of a movie, the interaction with the media is still on an individual basis (although you can discuss it over coffee afterwards), an RPG (ideally) requires a communal participation. It shouldn't be a story that one person tells, even if that person is the gamemaster. [I don't want to hear my own story; I want to hear the player's stories. Usually they are far better than anything I could tell anyway.]

    Things the Third: Freedom and Determinism. Rather than being a passive participant in another's story (which admittedly can be quite fun), you are actively involved in determining the story. You are free to take it in whatever directions you desire (subject to any implied social contracts of course), as long as you are willing to accept the logical consequences for doing so.

    [The true joy of Avatar, especially to those who don't frequently plumb such depths ourselves, is the sense of wonder as they are immersed in an alien world. Story, plot, morality, etc all pale to insignificance against this. It's very much a case of seeing is believing for the typical audience member – something which most analysts of the film have ... forgotten.]

  12. I like what Reverance has to say, and wish to subscribe to the newsletter.

    To the list I'll add another thing -- RPGs excel at making narratives that are more complicated than the traditional positivistic single-narrator story. The average RPG probably has more skeins of semi-entangled, semi-independent masses of narrative all existing in the same place than even the most daringly Avant-garde post-modernist novel. House of Leaves has nothing on the average Unknown Armies game, really.

    Ironically, lots of folks I know try really hard to kill this and reduce the narratives in and around RPGs to the same simplistic constructions that work for movies, but really are the death of everything I find interesting in RPGs.

  13. One thing that gets to me about the criticism of the story is something like this:

    Think back to Terminator, and Terminator 2, and Titanic, and basically any movie Cameron did.

    The movie is very simple and predictable. I mean, Terminator was just a chase scene with robots. The Terminator franchise is rather inconsistent with itself.

    But no one cares about those things. All they remember is the presentation and the feeling invoked by the movie.

  14. Adding on to my last point:

    After all, think of any good, classic, or quintessential Western.

    My bet is that the movie is as simple as can be. There rarely are any twists. They are clean-cut. Damn near very simple.

    So, if for instance a western is so simple, why are they good?

  15. This kind of reminds me of when I challenged Michael Wilson about why he stopped writing about his genius ideas and started putting them in, of all things, a TV show called Burn Notice. His argument was that the message reached more people as a visual entertainment than as a series of whitepapers. I tended to call it a sell-out, because yes, "why not write a book?" like he had been doing, but I have to admit the logic is kind of sound. More people probably watch the show than read his whitepapers now. Maybe it's a matter of illustrating ideas visually in a more popular medium than just talking about them, the same way that, for some reason, expensive Video Conferencing is the hot thing over just picking up a damn phone for a conference call that achieves the exact same thing.

    I'm mixed on it still.

  16. He did the right thing. Seriously. Burn Notice is pretty much the best thing on TV, maybe ever.

    -Rob D.

  17. I really wish the Burn Notice writer would write a book that's merely a collection of all Weston's narrating spy tips/advice.

    That would be a great RPG resource, as well as one for fiction writers.

  18. “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.”

    Hi Rob,

    You've got an interesting point there, though it sets me on edge. You seem to be implying that a movie should deliver spectacle because most people enjoy spectacle, and that success is quantified by cash.

    I believe that the success of the movie does not lie in its ability to do something new, but instead by its ability to do something predictable, with shinier tassels (telling people about "issues" with big special effects).

    It's known that this kind of thing sells well. The people behind Avatar made sure it was exactly the kind of film that people would pay to see. Something light, but topical, something immersive and spectacular, but not something ground breaking or politically controversial. So Avatar is a great film, if you rate the quality of a film by its exposure.

    The problem I have with this line of thought is not its accuracy, but its implication. It implies that great movies must satisfy the bankroll, must appeal to an enormous audience, and must iterate fashionable, digestible issues. While that might be true, I don't think it should be celebrated. Visionary film making, that is, films that play with our understanding of the medium, and stretch its potentials, are the pieces that we should commend. These films set the trends of the Hollywood films of the future*.

    So, somehow completely steering away from your actual question, I'd like to say that I don't believe that spectacle is what films can exclusively do well. Other mediums can deliver the same kind of punch, like theme parks and the circus. At the same time, films can challenge and encourage creative thought in ways that are superior to other mediums, by exposing ideas in new, intimate forms, or by breaking existing forms (such as, off the top of my head, Waking Life or Festen). Film making is an organic art, undergoing speedy metamorphosis as new minds and tropes and ideas sparkle through culture, and this changing landscape offers new ways for people to interpret film with a much wider spectrum for experiment than, say, a book or a play. I agree that films can do what Avatar does, that is, make lots of cash and appeal to lots of different kinds of people by doing something shiny, but I wish that more people would rate the quality of a film in a different way.


    * Now, this might sound very hippie and contrary, but its my perspective, and that's the only perspective I've got. When I see a movie I want to be challenged, but when I see a Hollywood movie I feel like I've been used. It's like meeting a mindless idiot with big tits, taking her home and waking up the next morning with some cash missing from my wallet. I thought I wanted it at the time, but as soon as it's all done, I feel like I've made a mistake.

  19. @seb I totally, totally understand the discomfort. The idea that the success of a story is in how many people want to hear it suggests a lot of really unpleasant thing. Step away from movies and apply it to books and it absolutely makes my skin crawl.


    I'm uncomfortable dismissing it as a meaningless yardstick. Something about this story/film/book resonates with people enough for them to engage it, and that's a really good thing. They've done _something_ right, and while spectacle is part of that, just calling it that makes it easy to overlook that its not as simple as that.

    This is the curse of all media, and the reason critics will always be able to get paid. Popularity is not (nor should it be) the only or best yardstick of quality. But I think it tends to get short shrift, as if popularity is entirely capricious and incidental, far secondary to more critical qualities. And heck, there's some truth to it - the logic of hits is amazingly illogical - but I sometimes think popularity needs a little more respect, if only to ask why this is causing such a strong response in actual people.

    Though coming back to movies, I agree that movies can do more than just spectacle (though they can definitely do spectacle well). Movies allow short, intense investment and have a stronger contract of suspension of disbelief (because they're relatively short) and have a lot of visual power. That last is a big deal since movies have so much control over _perspective_, and that's an insanely potent tool.

    A lot of this revolves around the visual because, to my mind, the big question for film will always be "why film, why not theater?"

    Lord knows that a lot of really fantastic movies have been made from plays, but in many of those cases the strength came from the play - the movie was just a wrapper allowing slightly nicer sets. The big difference was when the movie allowed for greater spectacle than a play could even conceive (compare the relatively staged Glengarry Glen Ross to Ian McKellan's Richard III - both are brilliant, but RIII is shot like a *movie*). All of this is to say nothing of films that explicitly play with the boundaries of film (say, Memento).

    I'm spinning off on a tangent here, so I'll come back to the point: There are things film does better than other media, and while spectacle is _one_ of those things, it's not the only one. But I suspect that most of those things do have a _relationship_ to spectacle in that they tilt towards the visual.

    And more, just because film may not necessarily be the *best* way to tell a particular story, that does not mean that story cannot be told brilliantly and powerfully in film - it just takes more work. Witness the aforementioned plays as movies as an example.


    -Rob D.

  20. Burn Notice is better than The Wire? It can't be, but I think I must sit up and pay attention to this Burn Notice.

  21. Burn Notice is one of the best shows *currently active* on television. :)

  22. Of course movies can't be all spectacle.

    There are movies out there which are all style and little substance. They are a great presentation, but have nothing underneath. Sin City is a good example of this. It oozes style. But aside from one story out of the three, it... didn't really say anything.

    I've also seen the argument made that the Matrix is like this. It was just a rehash of the last 20 years of Science Fiction that had been done and done again. The Matrix was just very well presented.

  23. Yah, Burn Notice is my favorite *current* show, and while it's probably not the single best show ever, it's probably a top 5 contender on my personal list.

  24. @Rob Fair. I might jump in though, and say that the visual aspect of film is not the only part of it that provokes spectacle. On the one hand, the sensational hand, you've got sound, space and time, and on the other hand, the philosophical hand, you've got exposure.

    Sound is fairly straightforward, but you've also got space (being in the theatre, being softened by the velure), and time (planning to go/going to the theatre, and many other temporal aspects). These components often have tickling, surface responses. They wash over you, and you drink them in, but they have no meaningful content.

    Then you've got the philosophical spectacle, that is, the pornography of narrative. That's a tricky one, so forgive me if this sounds trite. It's the difference between showing and telling, you know, the difference between lingerie and nudity, the difference been discovery and didactics. Cinema can deliver either, but it's not essentially better at producing one over the other. The only thing that encourages the spectacle, that is, the explicit, over-written, over told narrative, is money. People often prefer the spectacle. Why? It evokes physical sensations, its fun, visceral, and safe. No important questions are asked of you, and there's less work for you to do.

    I'd say that most of the people who see Avatar won't think it's their favourite movie, but it will likely be in the top ten DVDs to rent when having a few friends around.

    So, film is visual, and more, but, like you say in your next post, that's "kind of dwelling on a unique tool, not a unique result."

  25. Ultimately I saw Avatar as a half-billion dollar demo of Direct 3D. That's what it was. Show off a gorgeous world in full 3D so vivid to make you wet yourself. That's what the goal was. To sell the 3D medium to silence all the naysayers, and that it did.

    To do that they used the most tried and true storytelling techniques designed solely to immerse the viewer in the wonder of the world. They used the "ignorant outsider learning the-ways" trope because that's the way to connect to the viewer. Otherwise it's just a fancy showcase of alien plant-life.

    After you consider that, the campy story out of Ferngully is the only one that fits. The show has worked so hard to form an intimacy between the audience and the beautiful world that the obvious conflict must be to threaten to take all that pretty eye-candy away.

    I see avatar as an engine with a purpose, and to me it accomplished that purpose very well. 3D movies are now seen by all as an extremely viable medium that are immune to piracy for the time being. Will 3D usurp 2D movies? No. 3D will carve out it's niche, and better stories will be told in 3D as I'm certain worse ones will as well.

    That's my opinion. That Avatar was a sales pitch and you can't make a sales pitch too complicated.

    Oh, and Burn Notice makes me gush nerd glee at it's mere mention.


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