This intriguing article over at A.V. Club draws attention to the strange fact that James Cameron's 2009 opus Avatar, despite being the highest-grossing film ever made, has failed to leave a lasting mark on popular culture.
That article is itself sourced from a Forbes piece by Scott Mendelson, the self-admitted "only one who still cares" about Avatar.
Mendelson blames Avatar's lack of cultural penetration on Cameron's tardiness in making the sequels and Hollywood's misidentification of the film's 3D visuals as the secret of its box office dominance:
The positive lessons of Avatar’s success, an original story that resonated on a narrative and socially-topical level with truly eye-popping visuals being delivered by an auteur at the top of his game that touched the entire world for a brief period, were forgotten in favor of 'everything must be 3D.'While Mendelson brings up some good points, especially about Hollywood's misguided obsession with 3D gimmickry, I think he's overlooking a more fundamental problem.
Hollywood hates its own audience
One of the key societal functions that storytelling serves is explaining a culture to itself. Greek epics, sacred histories, tall tales, and superhero comics are a primary means of handing down civilizational norms and common understandings shared by members of a particular culture.
If a story told on a colossal scale doesn't produce a lasting impression on the target audience, something more than the lack of a timely follow up or an over-reliance on spectacle is at fault. Overbearing spectacle is the last resort of the creatively bankrupt. It's a symptom; not a cause.
However, as a medical researcher friend once told me, "It's the symptoms that end up killing you."
Western culture has fragmented
The explanation that everyone has missed for why mega-blockbusters can't get cultural traction is that film makers are using storytelling forms and tropes that their audiences find unintelligible, or even hostile.
There is this long, wonderful history of the human race written in blood. We have this tendency to just take what we want. And that's how we treat the natural world as well. There's this sense of we're here, we're big, we've got the guns, we've got the technology, therefore we're entitled to every damn thing on this planet. That's not how it works and we're going to find out the hard way if we don't kind of wise up and start seeking a life that's in balance with the natural life on Earth.
--James Cameron on the themes of AvatarSPOILER ALERT (as if everyone hasn't already seen Avatar): the movie bears Cameron's grim assessment out. There is a literal "The only good human is a dead human" moral to the story.
Is it any wonder that, for all its spectacle, audiences may have been in a hurry to forget Avatar?
Why don't movies made in this Year of Our Lord 2016 in Hollywood, California, USA employ the structures and archetypes that American audiences can relate to? Simple. There is no longer a single American culture. The US--and Western civilization as a whole--has split into a common underclass and a ruling elite, with Hollywood firmly in the latter camp.
So that unsettling sense of alienation you feel when walking out of a movie theater is causally similar to the reaction that someone with little knowledge of Japanese culture has to watching a film made by and for Japanese folks.
|Even for an otaku, some films are just too Japanese.|
And of course, no reference to blatant propaganda can be allowed in this context without making mention of:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Daddy Warpig and I already carefully articulated the new Star Wars movie's flaws. Only a couple of the issues surrounding the film are relevant to the purposes of this post.
We wrote these characters but when we went to cast it, one of the things I had felt, having been to the Emmys a couple times — you look around that room and you see the whitest fucking room in the history of time. Its just unbelievably white. And I just thought, we’re casting this show and we have an opportunity to do anything we want, why not cast the show with actors of color? Like not for sure, and if we can’t find the actors who are great, we shouldn’t, but why don’t we make that effort because it wasn’t written that way and isn't that the cooler version of doing this as opposed to saying ‘this is an urban show’. It fucking kills me when they call something ‘an urban movie’ like its a separate thing, like ‘its that thing over there.’
--Star Wars Episode VII director J.J. AbramsNote to pearl-clutching schoolmarms: the issue isn't that women and minorities were cast in Star Wars. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in particular were superbly chosen. The issue is the director's stated justification for casting them: not to serve the story, but out of Abrams' personal desire to wield the film as a social justice cudgel--which he does rather clumsily, I might add.
In a society that supposedly champions equal protection and abhors racial bias, it's galling that the following exercise is becoming shopworn, but let's try this thought experiment anyway. Cut the term "white" out of the quote above and replace it with any other ethnic description. Like magic, Abrams transforms from a defender of the oppressed to a raging bigot.
There's another, more cynical motive for Abrams' demagoguery: increasing ticket sales by breaking the franchise out of its traditional white male market. The film's stellar box office success indicates that the gambit worked.
In the short term, that is. There's a growing sense that the novelty is wearing off rather quickly, and many who take a closer look are finding the film lacking. This is what happens when general audiences and elitist manufacturers of entertainment speak entirely different narrative languages.
Abrams' Star Wars is a case study in art made in imitation of a culture's artistic traditions by outsiders who don't understand what they're mimicking. The film makers had only a rough idea of the proper framework and proceeded to put the pieces in the wrong position and order, with several parts left over.
Had Abrams put together a story that wasn't lazily derivative of past films in the franchise, had he included an actual protagonist with identifiable, relatable goals; had the writers not forced the audience to do most of their job for them, The Force Awakens might've been more than a moneymaking cultural footnote. As it stands, the movie seems doomed to the same curious fame/obscurity as Avatar.